Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Miscellany

BACK TO SCHOOL. I'm so excited about our new partnership with nearby Crittenden Middle School.

Several weeks ago, our Outreach Committee led us to "adopt" the administrators, teachers, and students over there. Since then we've served snacks to the faculty and offered brief backrubs and placed candy bars in each teacher mailbox. We've collected and delivered gently used belts for use in pupil attire. One of our women's Sunday School classes prepared and took over a gift basket to a teacher who is expecting a baby this week. Two of our ladies went there last week and stuffed each faculty mailbox with a bag of popcorn and a note of appreciation from our church. We are donating money to their Angel Tree project for needy students this year.

And we want to brainstorm and dream up dozens of other creative ways that we can be a blessing and a help to that local institution. Possibilities include tutoring, putting on a special dinner for school staff and teachers, helping with flowers and shrubs on school grounds, asssisting with a planned student garden next Spring, volunteering to help in student athletic programs, and sending birthday cards to all the teachers through the year. We have a chance here to put our arms around those folks and lift and encourage and refresh them.

Why do we do this? Why bother?

Because Jesus challenges us to be salt and light in the culture around us(Matthew 5:13-14). Because our good deeds can open doors and make it a little easier for people to listen to us and believe what we say when we talk about Jesus(Matthew 5:16). Because good works are the signature of the Christian(Titus 2:14: 3:8). And because while we're waiting for Christ to return so we can go home, we're to be actively engaged in being a very positive, caring influence in our society(Jeremiah 29:1-7).

I long to see every person in our congregation find some way or niche to plug in to this undertaking. Each church member has skills and talents that could be utilized to contribute to the overall success of the project. Getting involved will energize you! If this campaign ends up just being an activity that a small handful of our folks work on, then we will have missed a golden opportunity to unite around something significant that enables us to break out of these walls and out of our comfort zones to make a difference, even if a small one, in our community. I also hope that throughout the duration of this outreach we'll have numerous chances to actually interact with students and not just the adults who work at the school.

Please don't get tired of hearing about this labor of love. Pray for its success. Ask God's blessings and favor on the employees and kids over there. Step forward with suggestions and ideas and a willingness to actually get involved in some manner. Remember that we're not going there to witness or evangelize or try to get new members for our church. We can't do that. We go out of the grace and love of Christ to give ourselves away in simple, quiet, humble service. Here is a tangible way to minister that has more traction to it than anything we've done in a long time.

MOVING DAY. Once again I want to encourage all of our folks to sit a little closer to the front in Sunday worship. We have a large sanctuary, and when people are so spread out or clinging to seats toward the back we lose a lot of warmth and intimacy. Please consciously, deliberately decide to begin to relocate to a pew, in either section, within the first 12 or 13 rows from the platform. If everybody did this it would have a transforming effect on our worship times. Do this for the good of the church body.

ADVENT. It's hard to believe that this season has rolled around again, but I sure am glad it has! I love the music and the scriptures and the colors and the decorations of this 4-week preparation time for Christmas. My preaching for these Sundays will come out of Luke 1:26-38 which tells of the angel Gabriel's announcing to Mary that she will bring baby Jesus into the world. Read and reflect on these verses to get ready for the sermons on December 11 and 18. And look, enjoy this whole month! Don't let commercialization or overactivity rob you of the simple joys and wonders of this time of year. By the way, please remember that I love you and my job and this great church more than I could ever express!!!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Will you be on the road, traveling this holiday season, away from your residence?

You'll have a lot of company. Millions will crowd the interstates heading home to visit the relatives. So many of our men and women in the military will be scattered around the world, often in distant places, separated from loved ones. That's true, too, for Christian missionaries, who will go on serving the Lord in far off locales at the cost of being unable to be with family at yuletide. Truck drivers will still be hauling freight. Emergency personnel, like police and firemen and hospital and rescue workers, will be on the job and moving about and out of the house.

It's fascinating to me that most of the persons in the stories of the first Christmas in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2 spent time on the road as the epic events of Christ's birth unfolded. A good bit of traveling takes place in these narratives.

Zechariah, for example, was fulfilling priestly duties, away from home, at Jerusalem's temple when he learned that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a baby in their old age who would grow up to be John the Baptist. He journeys homeward with the amazing news. Young Mary, upon receiving the angelic announcement that she, though a virgin, has been chosen to give birth to the Christ-child, leaves her house in Nazareth and travels southward to a Judean town to visit Elizabeth, her relative, and she both gives and receives encouragement at their joint and unusual pregnancies.

Then, of course, there is the long, arduous trip that Joseph and Mary take from Nazareth to Bethlehem during the most difficult time of her child-bearing when she is about to deliver. She's a long way from home and her "maternity ward" ends up being in a smelly stable or cave. Later, after the birth, shepherds leave where they are and go to see the new baby. Eventually wise men from hundreds of miles away set out on a road trip to find and pay homage to this small child who they sense is someone of great significance. Ultimately, Mary and Joseph will have to embark on yet another not-completely-pleasant pilgrimage when they hurriedly whisk young Jesus away from their dwelling and to safety incognito in Egypt out of range of king Herod's evil intentions. And don't forget the intriguing story of the family trip to a religious feast in Jerusalem when the now adolescent Jesus is missing for awhile, causing great distress for his parents.

Surely the incarnation itself was the most extensive journey. God stepped out of eternity and Heaven, entered time and space, and took on human flesh in Jesus, all for the purpose of reconciling sinful humanity to Himself. What an incredible distance was spanned. What an awesome love was demonstrated.

Some lessons emerge.

For starters, we probably ought to shed our naive, warm, cuddly,sentimental notions of what that first Christmas was like. It was not a Hallmark, comfortable, cozy, "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" kind of experience for the cast of characters living through it, even though they were tremendously blessed. There was fear, uncertainty, loneliness, hardship, and separation involved in history's most momentous event. Let that be of some comfort to you this holiday season when you're stuck in traffic or just can't find that perfect gift or have to put up with cranky or obnoxious family members around the Christmas dinner table or are haunted by dark, hurtful memories of past holidays that were very painful or when you have to be far, far away from the people you love most. Let's face it--Christmas is not always "the most wonderful time of the year." Remember, too, that there will be other Christmases. More than likely this is not your last one!

Let the journey motif in the Christmas stories remind you that the Christian life itself is a pilgrimage. Spiritually speaking, we are to be on the move. We're to be growing and stretching and advancing. We're in a maturing process, progressing toward the goal of becoming like Christ. The Bible describes our relationship with Jesus as a walk and a race. Sometimes that's hard and sometimes it's easy, but we're not just to sit and wait until we go to Heaven! There are lessons to learn, sins and bad habits to give up, virtues to acquire, and service to render.

In your literal moving about this Christmas, whether it's crosstown or across the nation, take some cues from the personalities you meet in the birth stories of Jesus. Like Mary, for example, find someone(an Elizabeth) that you can lift and refresh and affirm. Nursing home, maybe? A lonely homebound individual, perhaps, or a scared little child? You might find, as Mary did, that encouragement and inspiration flow right back to you. Like the shepherds and the wise men, make ample time for worship. How tragic to spend so much money on self and others and schedule so many holiday activities for ourselves that we forget about Christ and his amazing entry into this world and ignore opportunities to give him praise. He can be adored, incidentally, just as much in a family car trip on I-64 or I-81 as in a magnificent Christmas Eve candlelight service in a church if you are genuinely focused.

We can learn from Joseph that sometimes you may have to change your plans in order to serve the Lord. I'm sure that he would have preferred to assist his wife in her childbirth at home rather than on a long trip. I feel certain that a sudden, unexpected trek to Egypt to protect his new, young son wasn't on his calendar for the upcoming year. He wanted to please God, though, and so he was flexible and pliable. See your interruptions this season as perhaps divine appointments. Think about making maybe one major sacrifice to help someone in dire need. Like Zechariah, realize that there is great value in simply being silent sometimes, too. Carve out some down time as he and Elizabeth did to be alone and quiet and reflective, to let your soul be renewed in the midst of a hectic few weeks. That'll be tough on the highway when the kids are quarreling in the backseat. It'll be hard, too, if you think you absolutely have to go to every Christmas party. Personal times for solitude and retreat work wonders for our spirits, though.

Even if you're not going anywhere this holiday, travel back in your mind's-eye at least once to the rich happenings of that first Christmas centuries ago. It may completely change your perspective.