Sunday, December 30, 2007

Pallbearers and cell phones

So I was officiating at a funeral earlier this afternoon--my second this weekend. I think it was during the invocation that the cell phone started ringing. The owner of the loudly ringing phone seemed to be in no hurry to get his hands on the thing.

It turns out that the phone belonged to a young man on the front row serving as a pallbearer. The ringing continued through the prayer and just as Terri, my wife and the Music Minister, stepped up to the microphone to sing "How Great Thou Art" the young man with the phone could be heard saying, "Hello."

That's right, he took the call.

This is a first for me. Oh, I have heard cell phones ring and pagers go off during worship services more times than I can count --even during funeral services. On numerous occasions I have seen worshippers take a call during a service. But never before have I been leading a funeral service when a pallbearer not only gets a call, but takes it.

What's your most shocking or maddening or embarrassing cell phone moment?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Family gifts I like buying

Terri and I do not buy our children Christmas presents anymore. Instead we give each of them cash that is enclosed in a card containing a particular message. The card encourages the recipients to enjoy the money as they see fit. It further reminds them that the true Christmas message is about sacrificial giving to benefit those in need and so it would be appropriate to use some portion of the gift for that purpose.

I like this approach because it at least causes our children to think about helping someone in need in this season in which we ostensibly remember the coming of Jesus who gave up everything to save a world in need. Furthermore giving cash relieves Terri and me of the daunting task of hunting down sometimes elusive gifts for our children. Besides, by receiving cash on Christmas day our kids can go and take advantage of those after Christmas markdowns for whatever portion of the cash they keep for themselves.

Terri and I do not exchange gifts on Christmas, nor do we give each other cash. Instead we make donations in honor of one another to organizations that assist those in need. On our birthdays we give one another more traditional presents, but not on Christmas.

There are a couple of exceptions to the Christmas gift-giving pattern noted above. We buy inexpensive stocking-stuffers for our children and Terri and I exchange Christmas tree ornaments. Furthermore, I always include a Christmas tree ornament in the stocking of each of my daughters.

I always look forward to picking out the tree ornaments and I choose carefully. This year I went to five stores in an attempt to find the right ornaments for my daughters. Normally each of them is given a different style, but this year I found one that I liked so much that I got the same one for each of them. It is a large glass ball with a painting of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a stable. On the opposite "side" is the year, 2007, written in gold glitter-glue. I had Terri personalize each ornament to each daughter with glitter-glue and she did a great job--it looks like it was professionally done.

Terri likes glass ball ornaments from a particular gift shop near her hometown. This year I got her one from that shop on which I had engraved on one side "Terri 2007." On the other side I had engraved the scripture reference, Song of Solomon 7:6, and I prefer the rendering of the TNIV. Actually, there was not room for the entire book title much less the entire verse, so the inscription reads "S of S 7:6."

I'm pretty sure Christmas ornament buying is my most enthusiastic embrace of Christmas consumerism. I suppose, in the case of my daughters, I could try to make ornaments by hand which would stop me from shelling out cash after scouring five stores. In Terri's case, I don't see how I can make her preferred ornaments by hand unless I take up glass blowing and glass engraving.

For the time being, however, I am content to help a few ornament manufacturers and retailers to make a little money at Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Melissa's missions metamorphosis

Melissa didn't want to go. She griped and complained and whined and begged. Her parents made her go anyway.

Last weekend the youth group of our church went to an ocean front house on Holden Beach on Friday evening. Late into the night they baked Christmas goodies, many made with "no sugar added" recipes. After the cookies and other treats were prepared they were packed away into decorative holiday tins.

On Saturday and again on Sunday, after church services, the youth with their leaders, went out in the church van and delivered the goodies to area shut-ins. The recipients of these gifts were most appreciative--a couple of them were moved to tears.

All of the youth had a great time with this project, including Melissa who desperately did not want to participate beforehand. After it was over she gushed to her parents about what a wonderful time she had and how the youth had decided to extend to operation next Christmas--a plan that Melissa supports. Melissa's father looked at her quizzically and asked if this was the same Melissa that pleaded with him not to go in the days leading up to the event.

I wonder how often we grown-ups do not wish to invest the time and effort into hands-on mission activities. We don't have time. We have other things that we must (read "want to") do. Sorry, just can't right now.

Too bad our parents can't make us go anymore. If we were to get involved and get exposed to the joy of helping others we may undergo the same missions metamorphosis that Melissa did.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

One of the best Christmas stories

One of my favorite Christmas stories did not begin as a Christmas story but as a tale written by the Brothers Grimm, "The Fisherman and His Wife."

The poor couple lived in a filthy shack. One day, the fisherman caught only one fish, but it was a special flounder. The flounder explained it really was an enchanted prince and asked to be placed back in the ocean. The fisherman complied. He returned home and told his wife about the fish, initiating a cycle of unbridled greed.

The wife told the fisherman he should have asked for something and she sent him back to ask for a cottage. The fisherman did not want to go, but his wife was insistent, so he did her bidding.

The flounder asked what the wife wanted, and the fisherman described her desire for a cottage. The flounder told the fisherman to go home; his wife already had the cottage she requested. The fisherman returned to a new cottage and suggested his wife should be happy now, but she was not.

Soon, she sent her husband back to ask for a stone mansion. Next, she wanted to be king. After this, she insisted on becoming emperor, then pope. The flounder kept granting the wife's greedy wishes, and her power and prestige multiplied.

Then she sent her husband to tell the flounder to make her like God. Quaking with fear, the fisherman did as he was told. After he made the request, the flounder told the fisherman to go back home, where he would find his wife in the filthy shack, just as she began. The story ends by stating the couple dwells in that shack to this very day.

Many interpret the step back to the shack as a punishment upon the wife's greed. I disagree. The flounder merely gave the wife what she sought.The willful wife wanted to be like God. So the fish took her from a position of glory to a dirty shack--sort of like how Jesus left the glory of heaven for a dirty stable in Bethlehem.

The fisherman's wife was closer to God's revelation of himself in this world when she was in the shack than when she held positions of power and glory. The story of the fisherman and his wife and the story of Jesus show us that becoming like God in this world has nothing to do with worldly notions of glory.

In this Christmas season, let us ponder what it really means to become more godly. Let us ponder what it means to become like God in this world by pondering the lowly way God became flesh.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A different kind of Christmas movie

Perennially watched Christmas movies tend to be light stories with happy endings like It’s a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street. One of my favorites is a 1951 movie version of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol entitled Scrooge starring Alastair Sim. Then there are the Christmas TV specials that aren’t movies: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, etc.

Last year there was a popular movie that came out depicting the birth of Jesus entitled The Nativity. There are several parts of this movie that I would prefer had been done differently, but overall The Nativity is a movie that would do well to join the list of Christmas movies worth watching year after year.

There was another Christmas movie released last year that was not popular. Actually this movie did not come out at Christmas around here, but it was scheduled for release on Christmas day. It was entitled Children of Men and it was based on a novel written by P. D. James. However, as at least one reviewer said, it would be more accurate to say that the movie was inspired by the novel, because there are significant changes in the movie version of the story versus the printed version of the story.

Children of Men is nothing like James' other books. Best known for her murder mystery novels, she wrote this story as an allegory of the birth of Christ.

I read the book and I saw the movie and I liked them both, but the book is better. However, if you are unwilling or unable to invest time in reading in this busy holiday season, then you may be able to pick up a copy of the movie cheap. It did not do well at the box office which may explain why, as of earlier this week, there were about a half-dozen previously viewed copies of the DVD available at a movie rental place here at the discounted of price of $2.50. I should warn you, however, that Children of Men is rated R for some very strong language and also for violence.

That's right, this depiction of the birth of Christ is violent. This allegory seeks to show the other side of Christmas—the side that we don’t like to talk about. The side that Simeon spoke of as he held the baby Jesus in his arms (Luke 2:22-35). The side about the baby born in Bethlehem being destined to cause upheaval and opposition (Luke 2:34-35). The side about Jesus' family being forced to become refugees in Egypt in order to escape a king's murderous intent (Mat. 2:13-15). The side about the birth of Jesus being the cause of the slaughter of boy babies in Bethlehem (Mat. 2:16-18). The side about the birth of Jesus causing considerable disruption in our world.

If you watch Children of Men then remember that it is an allegory. Elements of the story symbolize something else. The despair of humanity is symbolized by worldwide infertility. No babies had been born in the whole world for over 18 years.

The main character in the movie is named Theo and Theo means God. As the story progresses the viewer is introduced to a young woman, an outcast, who miraculously turns out to be pregnant. Those who know about the pregnancy agree that this woman and this pregnancy are the key to the future of humanity. The woman’s name is Kee. Everything hinges on getting Kee to a mysterious group called the Human Project and that requires a rendezvous with a ship called the Tomorrow. When Kee shows Theo her belly, revealing to him that she is pregnant, Theo says, “Jesus Christ!” When the child is born later in the movie, the first person to see it outside of the one who delivered it says, “Jesus Christ!”

From these few details it is probably clear that the symbolism in Children of Men is thinly veiled. Nonetheless you are going to have to think a little bit to follow the story behind the story. I wish I could explain more, but I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Actually my guess is that most of you would not like this movie--it bombed at the box office for a reason. It is dark and violent and the language is rough. The world is depicted as a chaotic place full of despair. There are terrorist bombings and there is an uprising. Surrounding the birth of this miracle child is treachery, deception, intrigue, and death. Most of you wouldn’t like it in my opinion and you surely would not think of it as a Christmas movie.

Yet for all its darkness, Children of Men sounds a definite note of hope through the miraculous birth of a child. And the reason I think it deserves some recognition as a Christmas movie is that, more than any other depiction of the birth of Christ that I remember seeing, it seeks to expose a truth about the Christ child that our culture largely ignores.

The Prince of Peace often disrupts lives and societies in order to bring peace. Because of his revolutionary values he continues to be a sign that is spoken against (Luke 2:24-35). The road to the glorious peace of Jesus is frequently and ironically paved with upheaval.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

I am Santa Claus

Hello, I am Santa Claus. I appreciate David giving me some blog space to communicate with you. My real name is Nicholas and I lived from A.D. 280-343 in the country now known as Turkey. I became a priest at a very young age and later I became a bishop. My parents were rich and, when they died, I became a very wealthy member of the clergy upon receiving my inheritance.

I gave away my fortune to the poor and needy. I tell you this reluctantly, because I am aware that Jesus said that we should help the needy secretly (Mat. 6:1-4). However, there is a character named after me in your culture whose story bears little resemblance to mine so I feel a bit of a need to set the record straight. Besides, I have been dead for more than 16 1/2 centuries, so what can it hurt to tell you now?

I took seriously Jesus' command in passages like Luke 12:33-34 where he told his followers to sell their possessions and give to the poor. Secretly I used my riches to assist the less fortunate in an effort to be obedient to this Christian calling. When my actions were later revealed, my story was told and re-told and some fantastic legends about me began to be circulated far and wide.

In the United States many of the popular tales about me appear to spring from some imaginative stories and a poem written about me in the early 1800's. I am known as a chubby guy in a red suit because of an artist's depiction of me in the U.S. in the 1800's. That image was picked up by other artists and it was made popular especially through Coca Cola ads that ran for many years beginning in the early 1900's.

I became connected with Christmas because I died on December 6. Many Christians from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions hold a feast in my honor on this date. In some areas the Feast of Saint Nicholas is held at the same time as the Feast of Christmas. So you can see how some traditions about me became mingled with Christmas.

I hear that many in this culture think this season is more about my coming than Jesus' coming. As a follower of Jesus I would much prefer that the Advent season be observed as the coming of Jesus rather than the coming of Santa Claus. However, if you are going to connect this season with me to your children or your grandchildren or yourself, then do me a favor and get my story right.

There are several children's books containing my real story that you can pick up and read to young people. There is a brief article about me that came out a few years ago in the Biblical Recorder that you can read here. I would really appreciate it if you might use such resources to recover the true story about me.

According to a traditional Christmas reading from the epistles, Jesus gave himself for us "to purify for himself a people zealous for good deeds" (Titus 2:14, NRSV). I hope my testimony of good deeds in some small way honors this purpose for which Jesus gave himself for us.

What about your Santa Claus traditions? Do they line up well with my real story? Are they true to the purpose for which Christ gave himself--to create a people zealous for good deeds? Do you sell your possessions and give to the poor as Jesus commanded?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Who is a scrooge?

Sometimes those called "scrooges" in our culture are not really like the Scrooge from Charles Dickens' classic story entitled "A Christmas Carol." Dickens described Ebenezer Scrooge as "tight-fisted" and the story emphasizes his steadfast refusal to help the poor. Scrooge was filthy rich and he was proud of the fact that he would not share the tiniest portion of his wealth with those in need.

According to a "scrooge" is "any miserly person," which is a definition in keeping with the conduct of Ebenezer Scrooge. However, the label "scrooge" in our culture often has an entirely different sense. At least it does in my personal experience.

I suppose I am a bit sensitive about this matter because, from time to time, I have been accused of being a scrooge at Christmas time. However, I have never been labelled in this way for being tight-fisted toward the poor. Rather, I have been called a scrooge for expressing dislike for a couple of the most popular features of a traditional Christmas in our society.

We celebrate the coming of Jesus who came to "proclaim good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18), and who said that we should see his face in the faces of the poor and needy and help them accordingly (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus' birth is the ultimate in giving away everything to help those in need (2 Corinthians 8:9). Mary said that, in the coming of Jesus, God "filled the hungry with good things but . . . sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:53, TNIV).

So it would make sense that we would mark the coming of one who gave everything to help the needy by making assistance of the needy the top priority, but we generally don't. Most of the Christmas time, energy and money in this society are devoted to buying gifts that will be soon forgotten for people who didn't need them in the first place. Our children tend to get more excited about the coming of a mythical character who I will not name instead of the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords. We, with our main Christmas tradition, nurture consumerism rather than sacrifice for the needy.

From time to time, from the pulpit and at home, I have pointed out my dislike of our standard Christmas gift giving and receiving priorities. I have mentioned that I do not think it is good to encourage among our children the veneration of that mythical character. I make a point not to be a grump in so doing. Nonetheless I have been called a scrooge because I do not embrace our Christmas consumerism and the trickery associated with a certain Christmas myth.

It is true that Scrooge despised the standard Christmas traditions of his day and I don't care for some of our modern Christmas practices. Yet this is where the comparison stops as far as I can tell. It seems to me that those who embrace the Christmas consumerism of our culture share more of a kinship with Scrooge.

Scrooge withheld his money from the needy at Christmas time and, for the most part, we do too. Many will give a little to help the poor, but that figure tends to pale in comparison to the amount that most spend on unneeded gifts for those who are not poor. Such a lack of generosity toward the poor is pretty doggone Scrooge-like.

So who are the scrooges among us?