Sunday, December 25, 2011

Uncle Roy

I cannot go through a Christmas season without thinking of Uncle Roy.  Though only brothers-in-law, he and my Dad were best buddies. Roy was part preacher and part gypsy.  He loved to buy, sell and trade and his favorite item was the thing he just bought.

He gave the appearance of tending to love "trading" churches too, since Roy didn't tend to stay very long at most places he pastored.  However, that was the "appearance" - in fact, he was quite a hand at step into troubled situations and turning them around. When the operations were running smoothly again - Roy would move on. 

He and Dad were always the hub of the commotion that was our family holiday gatherings.  They loved to discuss and debate and "carry on" as we would say; those two had a tremendous effect on the volume and hilarity of any celebration.

Roy had grown up in a rough environment and when he came to Christ, the change was overwhelming!  He used to joke that he knew so little about the Bible that some of his early sermons came from the book of "PALMS" (instead of Psalms).

At some point Roy completed the Dale Carnegie Course and that, too had a huge effect on his future.

Roy was also an accomplished speaker, addressing banquets and other dinner gatherings.  So he always had a ready supply of amusing stories and didn't mind repeating them.  Many of those stories still come up every Christmas when my family gets together.

Speaking of Christmas, my memories of Roy have a special attachment to this season.  Our families regularly spent a few days together at my grandparents' home during Christmas.

Roy was always a little mischievous and would sometimes sneak outside late on Christmas eve to pretend to be Santa Claus.  Dad would work the inside expressing alarm that the noises we heard could very well be Santa, Roy on the outside would be going "bump in the night".

I probably owe two of my prominent character traits to Uncle Roy:  I always thought it was cool that he drank coffee all the time.  Today, I am probably most comfortable when I have a cup of the dark brew in my hand.
Roy also got excited about old television shows and old movies... he loved a "cowboy-shoot-'em-up-picture".  He introduced me to Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance".  I owe much of my devotion to the wonderful world of black and white - to Uncle Roy.

Roy passed away a few years ago and Christmas - and the world for that matter - just hasn't been the same.

But he still shows up in our family gatherings- through the influence of the life he lived and the memories he made.

I don't really think that heaven is much like things around here . .  . but if it were, I suspect that about now he and Dad are leaning back in some cushy LAZY-Boy. It is likely they are discussing politics - national, state and church, or football or people in general.  If they get too loud, the other saints have but to wait around awhile; sometime after dinner, they will find the both with feet up, eyes closed and mouths open - enjoying a nap.

It's Here!

It is that special time - Christmas Eve!
Everyone - even R. - is bedded down and I am listening to Christmas music and basking in the afterglow of this evening.

We attended a very special Christmas Eve service at church. A fresh, simple, no nonsense look at the old, old story. There was singing, reading ( I got a little over zealous with the responsive reading and "helped" the leader out by continuing to read after the "ALL" portion was completed), Advent candles and a brief challenge to recognize Christ, the light of the world - and then to be light ourselves as we go out into the world.

Our Christmas eve dinner with some of R.'s family was again warm - yet simple.

We topped the evening off with our own family's Advent Candle - lighting the Christ Candle.

Everyone seemed to be on their best behavior - maybe it's like the old poem from one of the Childcraft books that said -"jist for Christmas - I'm as good as I can be".  Ab and Mom read the Christmas story from Luke's gospel (it's okay that we heard it earlier tonight).  And AA regaled us with what has become the annual reading of Ogden Nash's Christmas poem, "Jabez Dawes".

Christmas tends to leave me sort of wistful as I realize that our children are growing up; but there are some definite advantages.  I see Christmas holding a deeper meaning with them and it makes me so proud; they are excited but not that wild kind of uncontrollable excited.

I've really been moved by the entire evening. 

What a wonderful thing God did, when He came down to be with us. ..
...came down to be like us.
...came down to show us the way...
... came down to die - for us ...
and rise again ... because He could!

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Empty Season 3

I have submitted a couple of posts relating to the "emptiness" of the season; here is another:

Because the focus of our Christmas Celebrations seem to be so centered on people: get-togethers, Caroling choirs, mobs of shoppers and the like - those who are lonely may find their loneliness compounded by the season.
In this post, let's look at an article that may be present in many homes this year reflecting that poignant thought . . .  an empty chair.

The Empty Chair

Our Christmas will be a little different this year.  For the first time in a long time, we will have an empty chair at our family gathering.
For the first time, my Dad will not be there.  Now Mom has always truly been the hub of our family gatherings - she has been the memory-maker.  Always making certain that folks were fed good, felt welcomed and always supportive of anything that anyone did to contribute to the special nature of the event. 
Dad was more of a catalyst - he could make or break the event.  Most years Dad could be counted on to develop a case of the "Christmas Spirit" and do something wildly impractical.  In recent years around Christmas you would find there were talking doormats, a singing trout and a parrot that repeated everything you said. 

Dad was the leader of our family's "anything for a laugh" mentality. Sometimes he went too far - sometimes he sacrificed himself and became the butt of the joke. 

Dad made Christmas noisy and Dad made it fun.

At some point there went out a decree from Dad that every Christmas gathering would contain a reading of the Biblical Christmas account.  Sometimes Dad would read it, sometimes a grandchild - we all took our turn I think - it is always a solemn and moving time.

So Dad's presence meant that there would be some deep-seated respect and devotion for Christmas. Along with some irreverence and revelry.

We will all be very conscious of his empty chair this Christmas.

Other families will have similar voids; but death is not the only culprit.

For some divorce or separation has seeped in and left its black and icy mark on the family.

For others, duty has called away a military son or daughter, and for those families there is a sadness mixed with deep pride for their noble devotion.

Others still, are separated for reasons not so plain and clear cut:  an unforgotten wound, failures unforgiven ... for those the empty chair sits as a cold and silent reminder.

It is pure conjecture - but go with me on this:  God, the Father, understands an empty chair.

While it may be assigning Him too many human limitations -I would like to suggest that perhaps the Father once felt the sting of an empty chair when His own Son left heaven for a time.

Leaving to encounter weakness, humiliation, scarcity and a cruel and hideous death - that first Christmas must have been a sad one.  All of heaven perhaps missed His presence.

The ironic fact is that His "empty chair" would mean that His presence would soon be available to provide healing for all the empty places that filled the world:

For the wounded - His wounds would provide healing.
For the embattled - He would become the "Captain of their Salvation".
For those the unloved, He would come to bind up their broken hearts. 
For those who mourn - He would crush the power of death.

When the angel proclaimed His Christmas birth announcement, they reminded the shepherds - and today they remind us - that "good news" of "great joy", "peace" and "good will" accompany Him. 

This Christmas, if you allow Him, He will fill the empty seat at your table.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Empty Season 2

In my previous post, I related what I saw as the empty nature of our society's celebration of Christmas these days.
The good thing about emptiness is that it reflects an insatiable hunger that is built into the species. . . a hunger for God.  Emptiness can be a wonderful thing; if that hunger drives us to the Bread of Life.

This post will explore the "Emptiness" of the Christmas season from another perspective:

The Empty Manger
I am amazed at how God's immense sovereignty is revealed in so many small and detailed ways in the Christmas Story.  The tome is filled with instances of people doing common stuff that they do every day, because they have to or because it is what their family does or because they want to - and God weaves their work into His story.

No better is this illustrated in the manger.

Some time ago, I was allowed to explore something of a fantasy I had to become a farmer.  So we bought two goats.  I did not realize what tremendous eating machines these animals can be, so I had to devise some way of keeping hay available at all times.  I constructed a kind of "hay rack"of wire fencing and scrap wood and attached it to the side of their pen.  It was not pretty and it didn't work very efficiently, but it did provide some service.

I wonder if the "hay rack" in which the Savior was nestled, came about in a similar fashion. Whether it came about as an after thought or was designed with great care -someone constructed it or took part in getting it into place.
What an amazing thing, that God would fill the empty work of man's hands - and make it meaningful.
Meaningful work is a gift from God.

The Empty Manger also reminds us of a phrase familiar in the Christmas story - "it came to pass..." ; things change and we need go no further than the Christmas account in The Gospel of Matthew to see that by the time the Wise Men came to visit - Jesus was no longer occupying that manger.  He was now a "young Child" and living in a "house".

We tend to want to keep Christ in the manger, meek, mild ... tiny.  However, there came a time for Him to abandon it.  That doesn't diminish the qualities of the role the manger played; it only reminds us that "to every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven".

The Empty Season 1

Once again I have been impressed with the vacuum that has evolved from our society's celebration of the Christmas Season.  As many will note - I like my Christmas celebrations with a walloping helping of sentimentality along with a generous portion of corn. Color me schmaltzy.

But even one who lacks my passion for all things sappy, couldn't help but notice that something is missing.

Having exhausted our family supply of classic Christmas Movies and shows on DVD, along with the pittance of truly good Holiday movies offered on Netflix Instant, we resorted to a program of half-hour holiday offerings from PIXAR studios last night.

The two we watched tried to drum up some kind of holiday sentiment - but it was without heart (practically without Christmas) lacked anything compelling. They trotted out the same tired "we're all different but we're a family" line that has become the constant fallback for any "family" movie these days.

 Early this season, my Bible reading for the Bethel Bible Series in which R. and I are involved, took me to 1 Samuel 12: 20b-21; the aged Samuel - the last Judge of Israel was being replaced by a King.  Samuel didn't like the idea but God told him to do as the people desired.  So at the end of the coronation ceremony for King Saul (which Samuel led) he reminded the people of their penchant for choosing evil over good.  He also reminded them of God's love and patience with them.  Then he said this: not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. And do not turn aside; for then you would go after empty things which cannot profit or deliver, for they are nothing. (NKJV underlining mine)
It is that simple:  People will always following something or someone; when people turn aside from following God, the only other options are empty things.

A Christmas celebration - or anything for that matter- that ignores God and His story and influence becomes void and empty.

You can see it in the one-dimensional entertainment options that are out there this season.  You can hear it in the "Holiday" music that is often catchy or cute to begin with, but certainly has no staying power.  Finally, if you can get anyone to make eye contact these days in a Walmart - you can see it in the weary emptiness of their countenances.

I suspect that same crestfallen visage of emptiness would have been commonly reflected on the faces of most people in Bethlehem that  first Christmas night.  The entire village was full - the whole world was full ... full of empty; there was no room.

Then He came ...
Filling first a small manger ...
In a small corner ...
In a small stable ...
In the little town ...

Monday, December 12, 2011

Status Report

Change is difficult at any age, but more so when one reaches one's fifties. 

That being said, I have found myself in a process of change for the last three years or so.  I haven't written much about it because part of the flux of the situation has resulted in my being less certain about a lot of things.

About three years ago, our family moved from a denomination steeped in the pentecostal and Arminian tradition in which R. and I both grew up, to a Reformed tradition, Presbyterian church.

Big change. 

I think both of us have spent the past three years mostly listening; and that's been good.
I have had my thinking challenged almost constantly; and though that has not been fun - it has been good as well.

I like a "big-tent" mentality and find myself always searching for ways to join what I have held dear in the past with the truths I am presented with presently. I am discovering that it may just be impossible for Calvin and Arminius to exist in the same room; my attempts at wedding the two belief structures are mostly futile.

Awhile back I lunched with one of our pastors.  As we talked about how we each got to where we were at the time, he used a phrase that seemed to fit:  he said that at some point he "discovered that he was Reformed theology....".  It was as if the belief structure had been their all along - even when he was not in a Reformed church.  

In some sense, that has been the case with me:  many of the tenants of Reformed theology and many of the attributes of Presbyterian worship have been things that I have longed for for many years.

Because we are no longer a part of a group among whom we shared such a long history - and have joined a congregation with whom we share almost no history, it is sometimes difficult.  However, the discomfort that this situation may impart often has contributed to my ability to listen more.

I am very pleased with many things in this place God has led us: 
  • I have a deep appreciation for the adherence to the traditions of church history this congregation embraces. 
  • For a number of years we observed Advent in our home - now we also observe the lighting of Advent Candles in church as well.
  • I have come to see worship more as a deliberate display of the gospel of Christ; and more about what we offer up, than about what we received.
  • I appreciate the fact that most everything is done with intentionality - everything is for a stated purpose related to the gospel.
  • Our children have been immersed into a culture of disciplined study and reflection on the Word of God and its application to their lives.
 I think it is good to have our thinking - and our faith challenged.  The result is that those things grounded in truth will remain and those things that can be shaken should be abandoned anyway.

The Christmas season is a reflective season for me (which is why I am so repelled by the distraction and busy-ness of it all), and I thought I would record some of these thoughts just in case you were wondering.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Glorious Inconvience

I don't think I have left much to the imagination regarding my political allegiences and my strong beliefs regarding American Exceptionalism, capitalism, America's Christian Foundation and the need for a smaller government.

Like many of you, I have felt oppressed and somewhat alienated in recent years because of these beliefs and our society's apparent turn from them.

From that perspective, I took a different view of the Christmas story this year.

"And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city. . . "

Laying aside the idea that this "taxing" may have actually been a census - it was still a great inconvenience that was imposed upon the Christmas Couple. They, recently married, pregnant, and dealing with the whispers and finger-pointing that accompanied a couple in their state, would now also endure the hardship of complying with the demands of an oppressive despot.

Yet they went; apparently without complaint.

The inconveniences increased as they arrived in the crowded little town of their heritage.

No room.

No support.

Labor pains.

Surprisingly, all these things that the "government" and "life" in general had piled onto them were planned for in advance by a loving, yet sovereign God.

His plan was fulfilled immaculately amid their inconveniences.

What oppressive inconveniences have been handed to you this season?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Mismatch at Michmash

I sat down in a friend's home last night and listened to the final points of a boy's bible study going on in the next room, as I arrived early to pick up AA.

They were talking about relationships and "sticking up for your buddies" - also about being able to rejoice when your friend gets a boost and you didn't.

The dad leading the discussion brought up Jonathan and David; and how Jonathan gave up his shot at the throne in preference to his friend, David.

This morning my reading in preparation for our Bethel Bible series at church took me to 1 Samuel 13 & 14.  I think this may be the first place Jonathan - the son of King Saul and heir-apparent to the throne of Israel is mentioned.

Saul, it seems, put together 3 platoons (?) of troops, one-thousand each.  He took charge of two-thirds and appointed Jonathan over the other thousand.  Relations were "chilly" (to say the least) with their vastly equipped enemy - the Philistines.  These troops would try to keep the peace.

Be it wise or no - I can't say - but Jonathan went on the offensive and attacked the garrison of Philistines.  I just like that he did something; it is one of the things I admire and long to see among leaders in a rightful cause.

This attack angered the Philistines, which resulted in calamity among the Israelites, who were subservient to the Philistines and possessed little or no weaponry. So they scattered.  Some hid, some defected, many went home. 

Saul tried to muster the people to take a stand should the Philistines attack - he could now only put together 600. 

I love "against the odds" stories.  I have probably blogged about this very one before; but this story just appeals to my affinity for the underdog.

It seems that among this army of 600, only Jonathan and his father were properly armed - the rest were not even allowed to have sharp farming instruments without the permission of the Philistines. So Jonathan, again, decided that he could no longer just sit around; he must do something.

He and his armour-bearer contrived a plan and even included God in the plan, by laying out a "sign" without which the plan would be aborted.

They would give themselves up.  If the enemy troopers told them to be still and wait until they sent soldiers to take them into custody - then God was NOT going to grant a victory to Jonathan that day.  However, if the soldiers beckoned them to come into the camp... well that would be the "sign" that this tandem would be empowered to fight like poet-warriors... to borrow from  Braveheart.

God allowed Jonathan and this nameless armour-bearer to join Him in the fray that day as they took on and emaciated a squad of about twenty.  That's when God's partnership in the plan really became apparent!

Verse 15 of Chapter 14 says something I don't remember noticing before:  one translation says the Philistine army "trembled" and there was an earthquake ; another says "panic struck" the enemy and the "ground shook".  The enemy began to "melt away" before Jonathan and his armour-bearer.  God was showing up.

Impossible odds.

Simply put, Jonathan was a man of great heart (not unlike that of his friend, David); he saw that something needed to be done; he willingly joined God in what He had already planned to do.  In so doing, Jonathan got to be God's linchpin.

God exploded on the scene.

What unlikely odds lay before you this Christmas season?