Saturday, December 23, 2006

Celebrate His Birth!

Christmas is almost here! It is time to think about and celebrate the birth of Jesus. Before anything was created that has been created, God had a plan. The plan included you, me and every person who would ever live. Part of that plan included a stable in Nazareth. Part of that plan included a cross outside of Jerusalem. Part of that plan included an empty tomb on that first Easter morning. That plan is salvation—the best present ever given.

Friends and readers, I hope that you have a wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Christmas Eve will be filled with worship opportunities (morning, evening and late night). Let’s make sure that we don’t get busy leading worship and miss out on worshipping the King of kings. Let’s make sure that Christ is an important part of our Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas! The King is Alive!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Something Horrible Happened—Something Wonderful Happened

Something horrible happened the other day. I was in the back yard putting the generator away (we were without power) and all at once it happened. No, a tree did not fall on our house. No, a water pipe didn’t freeze and break. It was horrible… I stepped in some dog do-do! Without being too gross, it was hard to get it off of the shoes. I have a sensitive nose. I thought about throwing the shoes away but I couldn’t do that since they were my second favorite footwear (my favorite are my sailing sandals for Caribbean sailing). Days have gone by and I can still detect the faint odor.

Believe it or not, that experience makes me think of Christmas. The stain and stench of sin must be overpowering for a holy, righteous God. People try everything to hide the stain and mask the odor. Try as we might we cannot get rid of either of them. I was speaking with an older gentleman in our congregation recently. He was recounting his conversation with grown son. His son was concerned about going to heaven. The gentleman does not know scripture very well. He is reading his Bible most every day. There are still some parts of the Christian faith that he has a hard time articulating. He told his son, “Just live a good life and you won’t have to worry about hell.” I was shocked. Unfortunately, too many Christians (and Presbyterians) believe this to be true. We had a good talk and, yes, he believes that a relationship with Jesus is necessary for eternal life. We have a problem--the problem is sin! The stain and the stench do not go away and they cannot be hidden!

The good news of Christmas is that God took the initiative and provided a way for us to be forgiven and to have sin removed from our lives. When God sees us there is no longer a sin-stain. Sin’s foul odor is no longer there for God to smell. Because of Christ’s redeeming work God sees us through the lens of the cross as righteous children of God! All of this is possible because of the birth that took place in a Bethlehem sheep-birthing stable. Something wonderful happened—the Son of God made his dwelling among us. He lived a sinless life as he showed us how to live. He gave us a new covenant. He paid the price for our sins in his death on a cross. He conquered sin and death with his resurrection on Easter morning. “Something wonderful” trumps “something horrible” every time!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas Basket Update

At Thanksgiving I mentioned the six families we were assisting with Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas presents and Christmas dinner. The family doing our Christmas deliveries just left the church. I am sure the each of your churches has touching stories about similar situations. Here is our story.

Background information: Our church is located in rural Pierce County (south and east of Tacoma) in Washington State. There are MANY very poor families within a five mile radius of the church. The elementary school closest to the church has a high percentage of its students receiving free or reduced breakfasts and lunches. The school counselor made it known that there was help available for any family needing assistance for Thanksgiving or Christmas. We have six families we are assisted. Additionally, every family we are assisting has lost electrical power for many days due to the recent storms (one family still does not have power.).

We realize that while the families are only expecting Christmas dinner and a present or two. They are genuinely overwhelmed when they see what is being given to them. They have received the normal stuff for Christmas dinner: a ham, a smaller turkey and all of the fixings for a Christmas dinner. We also provide enough other food to feed the entire family for almost two weeks (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Tears openly flowed (bad English) as the food and presents were delivered. The parents were genuinely overwhelmed by the generosity of the folks at Evergreen.

A lot of churches provide a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner for the homeless. That’s great. I hope that churches continue to have that kind of ministry. What we do is a little different. The food we deliver will have a SIGNIFICANT impact on the health and well being of each family for almost two weeks. When school is back in session the kids will again be provided with good breakfasts and lunches by the State of Washington.

This is something your church may want to try. It has a powerful impact on the families that we assist (and on our delivery crews!).

Christmas at the Stable

Christmas Eve is a “biggy” for most Presbyterian Churches. Many, if not most, PCUSA churches will have a Christmas Eve candle light service. Individuals and families will be in church to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The services will be beautiful.

Things at Evergreen are a little different. Traditionally, our fourth Sunday of Advent has a larger attendance than our Christmas Eve candle light service. Families (and those who only attend at Christmas and Easter) come to this service. We do have a Christmas Eve candle light service. The choir will sing—all the usual stuff. It will be a great time.

The biggest difference for Evergreen is our “Christmas at the stable.” People gather at the church at 10:45 pm on Christmas Eve. They will be bundled up in heavy coats, stocking hats and gloves. At approximately 11:00 pm we get into our cars and travel about half a mile to a barn. Years ago it was a “working” barn. The people who currently own the barn do not have any livestock. We cover the floor with straw and bring in hay bales for people to sit on. We have almost as many people go to the barn worship service as we do for our candle light service.

The service at the barn is cold, dark and simple. We sing Christmas carols while accompanied by the guitar. We know that there is no way to duplicate that night when Jesus was born—yet, this experience is closer to the real thing than our warm, sanitized Christmas Eve service. About 40% of those who attend the “barn” service do not attend Evergreen. Some of the people grew up at Evergreen and have returned to spend Christmas with parents and grandparents. Still, many of the people at that service do not attend Evergreen or any other church.

Next year, it may be time for your church to think “outside the box” for Christmas Eve. We can keep doing the traditional things we always do. And, we can add some new elements to our Christmas Eve worship.

Note: One special twist that we have added is a candle light (sort of) time. We cannot light candles in the barn—we would end up with a HUGE bonfire. We use the Snaplight Lightsticks. We pass them out just prior to singing Silent Night. With the lights out we crack the light sticks and in a matter of moments the greenish glow of the light sticks lights up the barn. The kids love it!

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Storm, the Wrapping Party and the Family of God.

Thursday night there was a “slight breeze” here in the Puget Sound region of Washington State. I got home from work at about 5 pm and we had no electricity. The power came back on for a few hours before the main part of the breeze came through. The next morning 1,000,000 western Washington residents had no power (I know of one person at the church who didn’t lose power). One couple from the church had a tree fall through their house. Another couple lay in bed and listened as shingles tore off their roof. Everyone has a story to tell; however, all of the stories end up at the same place—in the dark with no electrical power.

Fast forward to tonight (Sunday night). We had a gathering at the church to wrap the presents for the families we have adopted for Christmas (they are the same ones we adopted for Thanksgiving). People of all ages gathered with the joy of Christmas in their hearts. Some of our present wrappers still didn’t have electricity in the homes. But there they were, thinking of other families this Christmas.

Something else happened at the party. A young lady at our church has just learned that she has less than thirty days to live (she is the same person who has been battling two types of cancer). Such horrible news at any time, let alone Christmas. Our gift wrappers have volunteered to provide meals for the family through the end of December (more meals will be provided as needed.).

These events show the good side of the church. It has nothing to do with being Presbyterian—it has to do with being the body of Christ. It just so happens that we attend a Presbyterian Church called Evergreen. Your church probably has similar stories. And whether we like it or not the stories have NOTHING to do with being Presbyterian! The stories are based on a group of believers who are linked together with shared beliefs and a common focus. These events cannot be manufactured by a national organization or denomination. The PCUSA is SO diverse that we do not share common beliefs. We do not share a common purpose or purposes. We are like a couple that lives together in the same house and but their marriage is a sham. They have nothing in common but a little piece of paper that says they are “married.” Some of these marriages can be saved—others cannot be saved.

I have tremendous hope for our local churches that are bound together with shared theology, goals and dreams. It is difficult to have much hope for a denomination that does not have a shared theology, goals and dreams. Our liberal/progressive churches have more in common with Methodist, UCC, Episcopal and American Baptist liberal/progressive churches than with the conservative/evangelical churches in our the PCUSA. The conservative/evangelical churches in the PCUSA have more in common with similar churches in other denominations or non-denominational churches. We just have a little of piece of paper that says we are married.

Every day God reminds me that “denominations” are never mentioned in scripture. A denomination is manufactured by people for people. No one can manufacture the body of Christ.

So… what am I going to do? I am going to celebrate the birth of our Lord with a group of people who are my church family! Are we totally the same? No way! Are we linked with common theology, goals and dreams? You bet!! We worship God together. We laugh together. We cry together. We are there for each other when we live. We are there for each other when we die.