Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Day Before the Day Before

For me, the day before Christmas Eve feels more like an “eve” than the 24th does. The 24th of December is a work day, but the 23rd always has a sense of preparation and anticipation.

We will be having three worship services tomorrow, at 4:00, 7:00, and 11:00. Each one is a little bit different; different special music, different anticipated audience, different liturgical pieces. So I have one sermon, but in three different forms, one for each service.

However, today I have made a point to not do too much. The staff went to lunch for a birthday, I did some calendar, answered some mail, read a bit, practiced my sermon(s) for tomorrow. But really not too much. I’m only up to 3,570 steps on my pedometer, for goodness sake!

It feels kind of weird, to tell you the truth. I have to force myself to operate in this mode, if that makes sense. I talk so much about people needing to slow down, take time for themselves, and have relaxing days, but it is hard to take that advice myself. I need to remember that today has been a gift.

Today is “the day before;” it is an oddly placed pseudo-Saturday in the middle of the week. Only the “Sunday” that follows is not really Sunday, it is Christmas Eve – that holiest of holy celebrations. All day tomorrow I will be an excited, jumbled up ball of nervous energy as I wait for worship. Most Sundays, my nervous energy is expended from 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, then it’s over and I come crashing down. But tomorrow I’ll have to find a way to pace it, to channel it, to keep it contained until the evening.

It is a wonderful season, and nearing its fulfillment. The wait is almost over! The miracle is about to begin.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Foster Care Christmas

Last night my family went to see Santa Claus. The six of us piled into the mini-van and headed out for the offices of Missouri Baptist Children's Home, where the jolly old elf waited. MBCH is the agency through which we are licensed as a foster family, and coincidentally is also the agency that is handling our foster boys' case.

It was quite a party! Santa and Mrs. Claus were indeed there, and each kid got a gift. (Our own kids, too! Plus, there was a gift for foster parents - a Casting Crowns CD!) There were pictures with the boys, and snacks, punch, and music. Our kids had a great time.

The entire staff of MBCH was there, dressed in festive costumes, happy, laughing, playing with all the kids. And there were a BUNCH of kids there, with their foster families. It was wild and chaotic, just like a Christmas party should be.

In the midst of the wildness, there was a moment that I found myself standing off to the side with a cup of punch and a cookie, watching the people. Watching the children. Every one of them has a story, you know, and most of the stories are not happy. Every one of those kids was away from home, taken into foster care because of some catastophic reason.

How many had been abused? Which ones had been neglected? Were there kids who had come from drug houses? Which little one had been born addicted to meth? Whose parents may have been just unable to function at a high enough level to care for children?

There was no way to know the answers to the questions that arose unbidden in my mind. And then I realized that, for tonight at least, there was no need to answer them.

Last night, with smiles and music and laughter and Santa and all those people loving all those children, it was enough to just let it be Christmas.

btw - If you are interested in becoming a foster family, or know of someone who is, please contact me and I will make sure you get connected to the right people.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Selfless Moment, or The Church Being the Church

Last week, a family’s home burned and they lost everything. We learned about it through our congregation’s contact in the “Adopt-a-Caseworker” program, a part of “Ambassadors for Children” here in Springfield. The family was receiving services in hopes that the children would be able to stay with their parents and avoid being taken into foster care.

So we put the word out on the congregation’s Facebook page and announced it in worship, and the response was overwhelming. Many, many people brought clothing, furniture, and other assorted household items to contribute. Erin toted a bunch of the stuff down to the AFC office yesterday afternoon, and there may be more to come.

Late yesterday afternoon, a woman stopped by my office with an envelope in her hand. She wanted to contribute to the family. I thanked her and took the envelope. Before she left, she paused. I sensed that she had something else to say.

She referred to her husband and said, “Yeah, we talked about it and decided to give the amount we were going to spend on Christmas presents for each other. We’ve got enough stuff, and it just feels right to do this.”

What a powerful moment! Two people decided to give up their own Christmas gifts for the sake of a family that they do not even know. I had to swallow the lump in my throat as I again thanked her deeply for their generosity.

Last night I reflected on the gift, and I realized that what I had witnessed was no less than the church in its very best expression – people coming together around a common purpose, thinking not of themselves but of others, and sharing the love of God with strangers.

There is no way to know exactly what the gifts will mean for the family, or if the kids will be able to stay at home thanks, in part, to the selflessness of those who gave. There will be no way to assess if our ministry is "successful" in that sense. This family might yet fall to pieces.

But the moment of selflessness was truly was a beautiful sight to see. Maybe every now and then that's all there is to being the church ... doing what we can without thought for ourselves for the sake of someone else.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pray for Peace

A quick search on turns up 247 occurrences of the word “peace” in the New International Version of the Bible. The first one is in Genesis and the last one is in Revelation. “Peace” is in Torah, the historical books, the psalms, the prophets, the gospels, and Paul’s letters. It’s all over the place!

One of the numerous places the word appears is in this week’s Advent prophecy from Micah 5. The one who is promised, the shepherd/king who will come from Bethlehem, will be one of peace, says Micah.

Each week of this season, Campbell UMC’s prayer focus during worship has expanded outward. We began with prayers for our local community, then prayed across Missouri, and last week were in prayer for our nation. This week our focus extends to the entire world.

And it is a world where peace is very hard to come by. Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Northern Ireland – the list of places infected with violence seems to be endless. It is staggering to consider, and we might be tempted into apathy: “What good will our prayers do, after all?”

Well, what if our prayers for peace also submitting ourselves to be agents on behalf of God’s peace? What if our prayers also included offering ourselves to God on behalf of true shalom in this world? What if, rather than wring our hands, we offered them into God’s service?

Could we change the world … on earth as it is in heaven? That’s our prayer, isn’t it? “On earth as it is in heaven.” Pray for peace – then live the prayer.

After all, What ARE we waiting for?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Significance of the Nativity: The Preschool Perspective

There’s not much in this world better than telling the Christmas story to a group of preschoolers. They are so eager and excited by the mysteries and the simple strangeness of the Nativity. Hearing it as they do always refreshes my own love for the story, and I always hear it in a new way.

They are always appalled that there wasn’t any place for Mary and Joseph to stay, and someone often asks why they didn’t just go to the hops-pistal, and you have to explain about Bethlehem being so crowded and that there weren’t really any hops-pistals, anyway, so they just had to try the best they could, and they understand about that.

Then there’s the part about putting the newborn baby Jesus in a manger, and then you’ve got to explain to the kids that it was a box that animals ate out of, and then you reassure them that no, the animals did not eat the baby, but they were probably close by, wondering what was going on.

And when you get to the part about the angels appearing like magic in the shepherds’ field, you can see in their faces the way they are imagining it, because their eyes kind of twinkle and they get a small, vague smile on their lips, and you are suddenly sure that the choir of angels must have looked very much like the group right in front of you right at this moment.

And then the shepherds go and visit the barn and if you forget to include the sheep they will always ask about them, so you have got to be ready with a satisfactory answer or the next several minutes will be spent debating the question, since for some it is an issue of basic sanitation for the baby and for others it is a matter of justice for the sheep, who after all, would want to go visit baby Jesus, too.

When the magi arrive they get to say the word “magi” out loud which is always giggly, but then when you get to “frankincense” and “myrrh” it escalates a bit until someone raises their hand and very sincerely challenges, “But I tought dey were de tree kings,” and so you assure her that they were very, very important people, whether they are kings or magi or wise men, and they came to worship Jesus.

And this year, when we got to that part in the story, one of my little angels raised her hand to say, “Even if they were kings, Jesus was the boss of them, too,” which is a very significant statement for a preschooler who spends a great deal of time worrying about who is and isn’t the boss of them, and at that moment I knew that the story was over because that was pretty much the point, wasn’t it. Because there it is, in the most eloquent 4-year-old-ese, “Jesus was the boss of them, too.”

And so, this time, the story ends that way. Mary, Joseph - angels, children - shepherds, sheep - magi, kings - you, and me - Jesus is the boss of us, too.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Right Way Through a Horrible Place?

Heads up – this post will contain a political opinion! It may differ from your own, in part or perhaps entirely, and that’s okay. I say this, first of all because I believe that grace-filled, respectful dialogue can happen in matters political, too. Secondly, there are those who think a pastor should have no opinions about political issues, or at least shouldn’t express them. So if you are moved to comment, please do so with respect and grace, and realize this is just my opinion, it’s neither my congregation’s nor my denomination’s official position or anything like that.

I do not think that any reasonable person enjoys war. I think it would be a nearly universal belief that, if the right social/political/economic conditions were present such that there would be no need for war, we’d all be happy with that state of affairs. It seems to me that the biggest conflicting opinions we have are about what exactly those social/political/economic conditions would be. However, currently our nation is at war, and has been for years and years, so the question of the moment is not really “do you like war?” but rather “what should we do about it?”

President Obama sketched out a new approach to the war in Afghanistan last night, and here’s my take on what he said. We are going to send more troops for a limited time period, we are going to hold the Afghani government accountable to create stability, and we are going to work with Pakistan to accomplish the goal.

Consider two groups listening – group A wants the soldiers brought home immediately; group B wants a strategy that does not include a timetable at all. Sending more troops is going to get a thumbs-down from group A, but thumbs-up from group B. Giving the date of July 2011 to begin bringing them home will get a tentative thumbs-up from group A, and an emphatic thumbs-down from group B.

Of course there are people in between and all around those two groups, but I'm defining them for the sake of conversation.

The ambiguity here is that the war is against an ideology, not a nation. I do not think that military strength is the right means to eradicate the extremism that emerges in terrorist attacks. But I’m also not in “group A” – to bring soldiers home immediately would undoubtedly cause more harm than good. It is crucial to consider the innocents whose lives would be destroyed by the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. military forces from the region.

And this is precisely where I agree with the new approach the President spoke about last night. Because things are where they are, sending more soldiers is necessary, for the sake of the innocents. And at the same time, the legitimate governments in the region will know that there is urgency to create the kind of social/political/economic conditions that generate stability and allow for peace. There needs to be a goal to work toward, which is why I am not in “group B.”

The way to confront a destructive ideology is not with military might alone. The president said, “Right makes might.” That line caught me by surprise, and I wasn’t sure what it meant at first. I think it means that our strength comes from doing the right thing, not our ability to destroy an enemy. But at the same time, the expression of the ideology we are confronting violently kills innocent people, and that just cannot continue happening.

Stopping the expression of the ideology with the military, and simultaneously confronting the ideology itself by eliminating its root causes, seems to me to be the way to go, and what the president outlined last night. We can’t just kill the people doing the violence, and think that’s going to solve the problem. The ideology will still be there, and it will foster more people to express it.

I hate the idea of sending even more soldiers into harms way. I also hate the idea of innocent people caught up in the middle of violence. I am in awe of U.S. soldiers who are serving, so far from home, for the sake of other people. What an amazing testimony of sacrifice and selflessness. I am deeply grateful for every one of them, and pray for them and for their families, who long for their safety every single moment they are away.

Look, I’m not an expert on any of this stuff, and I’m sure that many who read this will find points of disagreement. That’s fine. I’m just saying, it is my opinion that the basics of the strategy that President Obama gave last night represent the right way to deal with a horrible, complicated, and painful situation.