Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Places

The house I grew up in seemed so large to me as a little kid, it now appears rather small as it sits out on a farm. I see it occasionally when I drive by just for nostalgia purposes. Nearly everyone feels that way about some aspect of their childhood that appeared so large in life that takes on a comical remembrance as its true size is now apparent. Another chuckle arises when I think that I could never find my Christmas presents in that small farmhouse. I know they had to hidden somewhere but I could never find them. A few presents were wrapped and placed under the tree like socks and underwear and such. But the really cool ones I wanted were somewhere else. It wasn't for lack of looking, I just could never find my Christmas presents in that house. I could not imagine there being any place not accessible to my stubborn persistence and curiosity.
Evidently there were.

In the fifty or more Christmases since those adventures into the attic, under beds, in dark closets and forbidden drawers, I have learned that the best things in life are like that--they are  not possessed by simply great effort and probing. They are discovered as gifts in places both unexpected and in full view. In fact, in the Incarnation of Christ, His gifts are found in places we would never venture to look. Yet, often the greatest surprise is there waiting. What sort of places could hold a treasure from the Lord Himself?
Believe it or not, darkened places. Isaiah 9 even predicted it: "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." Christmas time is a dark time for many people. Family brokenness, financial fears, stress from trying to please too many and not enough time or money or faith leaves a dark mark on some people's Christmas. And the bible tells us that because of sin, we all walk in darkness. Yet into the darkness Christ came. He brings to our sin darkened, stress filled, question filled lives His light. It is the light of hope. It is found even in darkened places, there it shines bright for all who will open the eyes of their hearts and see.

Another unexpected place to find the gifts Jesus brings are the broken places in our lives. Psalm 147 and Isaiah 61 tell us that the coming Messiah will bind up the brokenhearted and restore and rebuild the broken places. A person can't live too long in life without experiencing some kind of brokenness. It may be an arm or foot or it may be first loves first broken heart. It may be career hopes, family dreams, health or finances. And even if by some small chance none of these are experienced, no one escapes spiritual brokenness. Our own version of holiness just doesn't amount to much, yet here and in other broken places, Jesus enters. Binding, soothing, healing, leading us out or standing with us even in our brokenness is the sovereign Lord. Restoration Hardware, it turns out is not a store for high-end new vintage house parts. Restoration Hardware are the tools of  manger, cross, and a rolled away rock that Jesus uses to promise healing in our broken places.

Jesus shows up in our forgotten places, too.  In living life we forget how to worship God, discover His forgiveness, serve Him sacrificially, enjoy His presence, relax in His grace, luxuriate in His love. In forgetting these essentials we forget how to live. It becomes all about us, our family, our happiness, our schedules, our feelings etc. and so on. Then we awake one day and have forgotten even who we are because we forgot whose we are. In these forgotten places Jesus shows up.  Not sure about that today? Just remember His birth. It had been 400 years since the prophets spoke in the Old Testament (as we know it). Had God forgotten? No more than He had forgotten Joseph in Egypt for 40 more than He forgot Moses for 40 years in the more than He forgot Abraham was 100 years having a kid. God's timing is different from ours but He doesn't forget. Just check out a manger in Bethlehem. Any forgotten places in your life needing a Savior? Keep looking, He will be there.

I'm glad Jesus also shows up in fearsome places. Why? Because I have them and don't know very well what to do with them. Mary, Jesus' mother found herself in a fearsome place in Luke 1: 26-30 when an angel pops in for a visit. His words "fear not, were followed by "you're going to have a baby"  Joseph is in a fearsome place in Matthew 1 when faced with a pregnant fiancee not of his doing and an angel shows up and says, "fear not...." The shepherds in Luke 2:10 get the same message, "fear not..." We hear fearsome words on the news, from the doctor, from the spouse, from children and grandchildren, financial advisors, the president and the news all the time. It's enough to make us want to run off to broken, forgotten places and hide. But the same message finds us today as it did them at the birth of Jesus, "fear not." What fear is speaking to you today? Is there Another voice with more authority  you need to hear?

To sum it all up, Jesus shows up in impossible places to bring His impossibly good news of salvation for all who believe. Bethlehem, not Rome, shepherds not Sanhedrin, old prophecies long forgotten, loud singing angels, wandering stars, a virgin, a stable, a manger, a BABY?....Really? Seriously?  No begging, no searching, no frantic bargaining, no self-effort? No, of all the ways and all the places you would never have expected Him to show up, it is in those places and in those ways He brings Christmas. All that to let us know He desires to spend Christmas in one special place: your heart.

Is there room?

Christmas 2014

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Pastor Hayward Skips Church

Pastor Hayward didn't plan it that way, it just sorta happened. He had to skip church last Sunday. Death is never convenient and he had to officiate a funeral on Saturday, the day he and his lovely wife Jan originally had planned to leave. It was really okay. He was happy to help the family during their loss. Besides, leaving early Sunday would get them to the ski lodge in fine time, just not in time to go to church on Sunday morning at the ski resort chapel. So he and Jan got up early and left Sunday morning, skipping church with his guilt packed with his boxers.

About three hours in and through one thermos of coffee, they needed to stop. One, for the obvious reason, and two, well heck, they never got to eat breakfast out on Sunday and both were hungry. So guilt aside Pastor Hayward pulls off the interstate and into the County Line Diner. It was 9 AM and packed. Instead of waiting on ushers and choirs to do their part in the service they waited on a table for about seven minutes before their buzzer went off. Their table was right in the middle of the restaurant, right in front of the fireplace. Pastor Hayward had a good view of everyone.  Jan ordered  first: one egg, over medium with a side order of wheat toast. She noticed the Pastor's raised eyebrow. She knew he wasn't exactly thrilled with her choice. Hayward took advantage of being sprung from church and diet for a few days and ordered the County Line-backer: 2 strips bacon, 2 sausage patties, 2 eggs, 2 biscuits, and 2 buttermilk pancakes. Both of Jan's eyebrows went up.

Pastor Hayward sat back and sipped his coffee. He knew his breakfast might take a while since the County Line was really busy. He surveyed the scene. "So this is where people go who aren't in church," he thought to himself.  His eyes caught  a nice large family over in the corner. Must 13 or 14 of them....the little boy looks like Ralphy in A Christmas Story. 'Be careful kid, you'll put your eye out....'  They were happy in each other's company. A few tables in front of them was an old couple getting up to leave. He rocked, once, twice, and on the third rock forward the old guy was able to push\pull himself up. He shuffled by on the way to pay. Pastor Hayward thought about having to be on the highway with him and hoped he was a local. A very tall, graceful, black man came in with his wife and were seated to the right of the Haywards.  They were dressed like they had just come from church. Pastor wondered if he played basketball and chided himself for such stereotyping thoughts.   Just because a man is tall and black and moves so gracefully doesn't mean he played basketball. Still, Pastor Hayward figured he did and was very good at it.

There was a twenty-something couple over in the corner. They were cute. He was kind of a cowboy with an Aggie cap. She was tiny, blond and liked to twirl her fork between bites. Here comes a couple in their 60's and a man in his 70's with them. They had obviously been to church. They handed the waiter their church bulletin for a 10% discount. Pastor couldn't help but wonder if the single man was widowed or an old bachelor, single just for the day, or was related to the couple. He looked out of place, alone even, in a room with a hundred people. Pastor felt sorry for him. Then the large table right next to him and Jan began to fill in with a young family with three boys under six years of age. One looked 6, one just under him, maybe 4 or 5, and a little guy less than 2. This was a gorgeous young family. But about the time Pastor Hayward quit thinking about how pretty those boys were, how sweet the wife looked and movie star qualities the dad had, in fear he figured he was about to lose his one chance for a quiet breakfast on a Sunday morning. He needn't worry. Those boys were better behaved than 90% of the kids he saw at church. There were kind, loving eyes all around. Polite, sweet words were spoken in English and Spanish. It was great to see.

Pastor's and Jan's food arrived. Jan looked a little like Cinderella stuck in the corner with a little plate of one egg and some toast. Pastor's plates took up the rest of the entire table. He went to work on it, but he couldn't quite finish it off. Part of one biscuit and most of one pancake would have to go home to the cook's dogs. The family next table over received their food. Mom and Dad had regular breakfast plates that they shared back and forth. But the boys, with all that big menu before them had ordered Fruit Loops. Red, green, yellow, and orange Fruit Loops. The boys seemed to love them. They smiled at their dad, their mom winked at them and they dug in for more Loops.

It was time to go. Pastor started to get up but didn't make it. He rocked back and pushed up again but not quite. On the third time he was up but staggering. Jan mentioned she better drive a while. Pastor waddled to the car, fell into the front seat and was ready for a nap. He felt a little guilty he had skipped church this morning. But he knew something else, too. All these people he saw this morning had something in common. God wasn't mad at these people, in fact, He deeply loved them. From tall, graceful black men to a fork twirling 20 year olds to Aggie cap wearing cowboys, to dressed up church goers to Ralphy-look-a-likes to a family of five or a couple about 85-God loves them all.

Jan started the car and looked at her husband. ''You know, Hay, I almost feel like I've been to church this morning. You don't feel too bad about skipping do you?"  "No, in fact, I think the Lord preached me a good sermon without words. Drive careful."  Pastor Hayward popped a couple of tums. As he drifted off he reminded himself the next time he skipped church and went to breakfast, order Fruit Loops.