Archive - December, 2012

The Miracle

I cannot help but share the following cartoon which was passed on to me.

It is too funny, and yet I am reminded of the claim made by Martin Luther that Christmas is the greatest miracle of all.  If we can come to the belief that God lies in the manger in the person of a helpless baby named Jesus, all others fade into insignificance.  As the New Year approaches, I invite us to go with those who are wise to stable to kneel before our king.  There really are twelve days of Christmas, and the season probably comes to an end with us kneeling before the Lord on Epiphany Day, January 6th.  The light of the gospel of Christ has come to all people!  May this new year be a true year of our Lord 2013!

Saint Nicholas Takes a Knee

A reprint of a treasured work of art hangs just inside my office entrance.  It is Paolo Veronese’s painting of The Consecration of Saint Nicholas.  I beheld the original in The National Gallery, London, England, while on renewal leave last quadrenniaum.

According to the British National Gallery the story behind the painting goes something like this:  “On the eve of the election of the archbishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor) in the 4th century AD, it was revealed to one of the bishops that a young man called Nicholas had been divinely chosen. When Saint Nicholas presented himself at the cathedral the following day he was elected and immediately installed as archbishop. The story is told in The Golden Legend. Veronese has shown the moment of Nicholas’s recognition – or subsequent consecration – with an angel above bringing his bishop’s stole, crozier and mitre. The saint humbly obeys.”

This great Saint took care of the poor.  In fact the backstory behind stockings hung over the fire involves Bishop qua Saint Nicholas putting gold balls in the stockings hung over the fire to dry at night by poor young women.  The gold provided money for a dowry.  If there was no dowry, they (the young women) would be sold into slavery.  Thus the gifts protects the impoverished from slavery.  There are a variety of other tales about St. Nicholas giving gifts to care for the poor and needy.  His whole ministry was about helping the hungry, homeless, and hurting all in the name of and at the behest of Christ.

The picture hangs by my office door as a personal reminder to me to kneel in obedience to Christ and rise in service to Christ living the great commandment (love God and love neighbor) and the great commission (go and make disciples).  I gaze upon it and am remind to kneel before the Lord; to render the ultimate in obedience and obeisance.

This is what the wise men did.  They took a knee before Christ in paying homage.  This is what a great bishop named Nicholas did.  It is what we must do.  Christmas calls us to take a knee before the wonder and glory of God on earth in the person of a baby named Jesus.  At home, we have a simple plaster sculpture of St. Nicholas kneeing before the baby Jesus in the cradle.  At my best this is how I approach Christmas.  Will you join me in taking a knee for the newborn Savior?

“O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.  Come and behold him, born the King of angels; O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord”  (“O Come, All ye Faithful” Hymn No. 234, The United Methodist Hymnal).

Savior of a Broken World – Connecticut, Afghanistan and Beyond

Friday evening we gathered as a Cabinet for our annual Christmas party.  It is a time of festive, joyous relaxation.  Yet for us, as for you, our mood was chastened.  The news of the shootings in Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School hung over us.  We paused for a time of prayer.

Still struggling to process what had taken place, Sunday morning found me in my wife’s Sunday School class at Arborlawn UMC.  The class president, Rick Price, led us in a moving prayer not only for the children and family involved in Connecticut but also for those children around the world in places like Afghanistan who suffer from senseless violence.  The teacher followed with reflections and readings from Psalm 49 and Mark 1.

As I listen and learned, it struck me forcibly that the Christmas carols we so easily sing have potency and power I often miss.  I find the temptation to lash out in anguish great.  And yet the words drift over me.  “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today” (O Little Town of Bethlehem, verse 4).  My need (our need?) is to be less reactive.  Prayer is among our best responses (but not our only response).

The gospel of Mark reports, “After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, ‘Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15).  It was and is to a world like this that the Savior comes – to a broken world.  Matthew records the “slaughter of the innocent” in response to the Savior’s birth (see Matthew 2:16-18).  Grief, anguish, lament, even anger are appropriate.  So too is confession and supplication.  Our Savior is born to and for this broken world in Central Texas, Connecticut, Afghanistan and beyond.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:5).

For those of you who wish to follow up further, the United Methodist Publishing House (Cokesbury) has provided resources (especially for children) in the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut.  Here are a few links:

The United Methodist Witness and the Christmas Imperative

One of the more perceptive thinkers on the United Methodist Church in our time is Dr. Lovett Weems.  He is a former President of St. Paul’s School of Theology and currently serves as Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. In September Dr. Weems was the featured presenter of a leadership retreat for the Cabinets of the Texas Conferences (Central Texas, North Texas, Northwest Texas/New Mexico, Rio Grande, Southwest Texas, and Texas).

By now most of us know and have bought into the core mission statement of the United Methodist Church (and the Central Texas Conference):  “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  We have taken this mission statement a step further in regards to the Central Texas Conference.  Our emphasis is on local churches as the place where disciples are made.  Properly understood, the Conference exists to “energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Dr. Weems posited a slightly different and intriguing mission for any given annual conference:  “To enhance and extend the witness of the United Methodist Church within their geographical boundary.”  His vision was not an enhancement of the institutional vitality but rather built on a deep conviction that God in Christ through Holy Spirit has called into mission a people called Methodist to witness to our broken world the grace of Jesus Christ.  Put in my language, there are people who will be reached for Christ and His gospel by us or not at all.  Furthermore, the great Wesleyan union of personal and social holiness as a part of the larger Christian witness is needed now more than ever.

The concern about local churches being the conference’s focus lies in the danger of thinking that conferences exist as mere service providers for local congregations. Providing services is a needed first step but not complete.  Left out of the equation are often the hungry, homeless and hopeless (physically and spiritually speaking)!  Our mission must be larger.  We must extend the witness of Christ and in so doing share the Methodist union of knowledge and vital piety, social and personal holiness.

All of which brings me back again to the Christmas imperative.  Christmas Eve is a time, literally a God-given time, to extend the saving witness of life in Christ!  Do whatever you can to get the word out and invite people in to share in the singing, praise and offering of adoration to the newborn king!  “O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!”  — enhance and extend the witness!

Great Gifts

The words are nestled in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story.  No doubt you recall them well.  “They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). Bob Weathers assures me that there was a fourth wise man who brought fruitcake and hasn’t been heard from since.  Bob aside, it is well worth your time to read (or re-read) the great classic The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke.

Behind all the panoply of our gift giving (which I am in favor of; in general we do not gift each other enough)  lies the deep biblical truth that gifts are a way we honor the Lord, the new born King, the Savior.  Even deeper lies the conviction of Jesus’ own teaching from Matthew 25.

          31“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
          34“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
          37“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
          40“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’”

It is from this vantage point that I invite us to remember, as Pastor Mike Slaughter famously put it, “Christmas is not your birthday.”  Great gifts come in the giving.

All across the Central Texas Conference congregations and individuals are reaching out in love to offer their gifts in the name of the newborn King.  For many this is yoked to Thanksgiving as well as to Advent/Christmas.  Recently I learned of one example.  Four congregations in the South District did something amazing.  It was and is a true act of honoring the Lord.  From The Gatesville Messenger, November 21st we find this line:  “The United Methodist Churches of Pidcoke, Oglesby, Mosheim and Purmela pooled their resources to donate 10,358 pounds [of food].”  This “small church cluster” honored the newborn Savior with a great gift.  How about you and your church? 

Our Homecoming

Sunday I had the joy and privilege of preaching at Watts Chapel UMC in celebration of their 120 anniversary.  Using the Jeremiah 33:14-16 text from the Lectionary (yes, I do on rare occasions use the Lectionary!), I shared the thesis – “His (meaning Christ’s) coming is our homecoming”.  You may recall that Jeremiah offers one of the great advent text’s for our edification.  “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 33:14-16).

Monday, with no intention on my part, the theme of homecoming continued.  I traveled to Graham for the Service of Death and Resurrection in honor and memory of Rev. Jay Darnell, Jr. Settling in my pew, after pausing for prayer, I read the following words that Jay himself had written some 5 years ago:

“Since I went to the altar,
I’ve buried my father and mother three weeks apart…
…4 of the most beautiful girls you’ve ever met – my sisters …
… 4 brother-in-laws…
… 1 son, Gary…
…A wife of 61 years…

And I’ve been through all that,
And I’ve gone to Him and gone to Him and gone to Him…
And He’s always said, “Jay, leave it here with me.”
That’s all I know to tell you. That’s the only things I know.
But I’ll stand ‘til my dying day and say to the world, ‘You’ll find the peace that passes all understanding and the joy that Jesus Christ wants us to have when you make that connection with Jesus Christ.’
There’s no other way. The way of the cross leads home. There’s no other way.”  (Rev. Jay Darnell, in a message preached at FUMC Graham, July 2007)

November 26 at about 7 pm, this great saint of the church went home.

This theme of Advent/Christmas homecoming runs still deeper.  I think the Christmas season, the time of preparation the church calls Advent, invokes a spiritual homesickness within us.  In fact that spiritual homesickness is a general part of the moral malaise of our
culture.  St. Augustine put it so well when he prayed, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  Somehow we instinctively know that apart from God, we are far from home.

The incarnation is about God making a home with us.  Think of the language which Holy Scripture uses.  “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14).  “I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3).

The author, poet and Christian theologian G. K. Chesterton caught this truth in his classic poem “The House of Christmas.”

“To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town thanRome;
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.”

Christ’s coming really is our homecoming!