Baby Jesus is gone!

“Baby Jesus is gone!” That is the gist of a text I received last week from a member of the congregation I serve. You see, our congregation sets up a life-sized nativity scene in front of the church every year. And, until this year, everything has been cool. But last week, some whooligans knocked over the shepherd and the donkey, the sheep and the cow and the wise men. Strangely, they left Mary and Joseph standing. But they stole baby Jesus. Baby Jesus was gone.

At least for a little while. I drove to the church to check out the carnage for myself, and on the way back, I discovered baby Jesus, standing on the side of the road. The whooligans had carefully set fiberglass baby Jesus against a fence, so he was standing there, with his little baby Jesus hand raised, as if he was blessing the passing traffic. So, of course, I picked him up and put him back where he belonged, in the manger at the church.

The next day, I got another text. Baby Jesus was once again gone. This time, someone else had found him. This time he was a little farther from the church. But just like the last time, baby Jesus was standing, carefully leaning against a fencepost, once again blessing the passing traffic. Thankfully, the person who found him put him back where he belonged, in the manger at the church.

The day before yesterday I got another text. Baby Jesus had again gone missing. This time, the whooligans knocked over all the figures, caved in the head of the poor, defenseless lamb and threw it over a fence, into a pasture. And we still haven’t recovered the missing baby Jesus. We haven’t been able to return him to the place he belongs, in the manger at the church.

Now, I’m fairly certain the whooligans were probably just letting off the tension of the season in a totally unproductive and antisocial way, something I never did when I was their age (cough, cough). But I have been struck by that image of the baby Jesus, leaning up against the fence, moving progressively further away from the church, and blessing the passing traffic. I can’t get it out of my head.

Probably unintentionally, the whooligans have made an important point. Ever since baby Jesus first went missing, I have become semi-obsessed (OK, unhealthily obsessed) with catching the perpetrators. I’ve set up a game camera. We even had a “stakeout” operation set up with the next door neighbor last night. I’ve been so preoccupied with getting baby Jesus back where he belongs—in the manger at the church—that I may, possibly, have been missing a larger point. Maybe Jesus would just as soon not lie around in a manger at the church. Maybe he’d just as soon be out there blessing the passing traffic.

If we’re not careful, we in the church can make our faith ABOUT the church. We can start thinking that the church is where Jesus lives. We can make our faith about coming to church, the place where Jesus is, on Sunday mornings, and spending the rest of our week out in the world, where Jesus isn’t. And that’s just wrong.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. John 1:1-3. Jesus doesn’t just live at the church. He doesn’t just belong in that manger at the church. Through Christ, the world came into being. Through Christ, WE came into being. And through Christ, we are enabled to live new and beautiful lives not just after we die, but right here and right now.

And when we live that sort of born-anew life, Christ lives through us. He lives in our words, in our actions, in our lives. Jesus doesn’t want us to just leave him at the church. Jesus wants us to take him with us out into the world of our friends, families, and communities. And maybe, just maybe, he wants us to stand by the side of the road, blessing the passing traffic.

Perspective

Tomorrow is my birthday. I’ll be 57. It’s funny how over time my perspective on age has changed. I remember when I was in elementary school. It seemed like I would never, ever get to be one of the “big kids.” Then it seemed like forever before I’d be able to drive, or go to college. I remember when I was in college, I seriously didn’t think I would live past 35. It seemed so far off and at the speed with which I was living, I figured my body just wouldn’t hold out.

I remember my grandmother’s 75th birthday. We were in Washington at the time, so I wasn’t actually there, but I’ve heard all about it. It was a big deal. Someone baked a cake and they put 75 candles on it. After they’d lit a few candles, the rest just spontaneously combusted and they all went up in a mini-firestorm that almost burned the house down. She seemed so old. And then she lived another 27 years.

My dad passed away about a month ago. He was 89. From my perspective in Elementary school, that’s not something I could even imagine. Now, it doesn’t seem all that far off. Perspective changes.

It’s the same with my life in faith. I grew up in the Roman Catholic church, even going to Catholic school the first 8 years. I never got it. I tell everyone it was because of the mean nuns (and there were a few) and because I never got all the ritual and kneeling and standing and sitting (and there was that). But in thinking about it more deeply, I was just too self-absorbed. I didn’t see the point of looking for meaning outside of myself.

So when I left home, I left the church. And I didn’t come back for a long time. It wasn’t till somewhere in my 40s that Kirsten and my oldest daughter Caitlin tricked me into coming back. And when I came back, I started out with a very particular understanding of faith. Jesus was a good guy with some good advice for the world. That was it. Every time the preacher started talking about Jesus’ divinity, I tuned out.

However, before too long, my understanding changed. I came to understand Jesus as God’s son who came for my salvation. But I still wasn’t quite sure how the whole salvation thing worked. I sort of vacillated between the idea that because I had accepted Jesus as my Lord, I was saved, and the idea that I had to be a good, moral, honest, hardworking person to earn God’s love and thereby deserve salvation.

But over time, through lots of prayer and study and mentorship, my perspective has changed some more. Now, I’m convinced that God loves me. God loves you. God loves everybody more than any of us can imagine. In fact, the only reason any of us exists is to share that love, to live in that love, to be a part of that love. God’s love cannot be contained, and so we exist as a manifestation of that love in order to share in it with one another and God.

So, there’s nothing I can do to make God love me more, or less. God loves me. But BECAUSE God loves me, God doesn’t want to leave me where I was when I was in elementary school, or High School, or College, or last week. God wants me to embrace the love that is God, which I am enabled to do through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And when I do, I am slowly transformed into the image of Christ. And this is an ongoing, life-long process that involves me reaching out and seeking to love not just God, but also everyone around me, who were also created in God’s image.

I realize that as I’ve gotten older, my perspective has changed. And that change has changed me, which causes my perspective to change even more. And, as much as I tend to resist change, that seems to me to be a good thing.

Heatstroke ….

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a concert (ok, a CD release party) and I heard a song that I just can’t get out of my head. It’s by a band called Jomo and the Possum Posse. The reason I was there is because the bass player, Brian, works with Kirsten, and the name of the song I can’t get out of my head is “Brian’s Song (Not That One)”. You can find it here (4th song of latest album). It’s called “Brian’s Song (Not That One),” but I think of it as “Heatstroke.” Do not proceed further until you have listened to it (it just might change your life). Now, I know some of you might disagree, and at the (slight) risk of overstatement, I think this song probably represents the pinnacle of human musical achievement for all time, past and future.

The song is about a guy who has a heatstroke (because it’s August in Texas after all, and he’s wearing a felt hat), which I think we can all agree is a bad thing (it’s not so great for your health). But, something good comes out of it (or does it?). The person who takes care of him becomes his sweetheart (or does she?). Something good comes out of something bad.

Now, I’m not saying this is a song about God, but it could be, because God is always taking bad stuff and turning it to good. God did it for Joseph. He suffered his heatstroke when his brothers put him in a well. But God brought him through, and he eventually rose to save Egypt (and his family) from famine. Jacob’s heatstroke was when he stole his brother’s blessing and had to run away. But God eventually brought him back home as Israel to found an entire nation. You might even say humanity’s heatstroke was when we decided to trust our own understanding rather than God’s (as we see in the story of Adam and Eve)

I’ve had my heatstroke, and its name is alcohol. I’ve been in recovery from addiction to alcohol for the last 32 years. But in looking back at my life, I can see how God used that heatstroke to get me to where I’m at now. If not for that heatstroke, Kirsten and I would never have met. If not for that heatstroke, I probably never would have gone to law school. If not for that heatstroke, I might not have ever walked back into a church, or mentored youth, or gone on an Emmaus walk, or met Amy, who said out loud what I and a lot of others had been thinking: “You’re gonna be a pastor.” Without that heatstroke, I very well might not have had the opportunity to share God’s unbelievable love with the people around me.

We’ve all had heatstroke. Some of us are going thru it right now. It may be the loss of a family member, or a job, or it may be addiction, or any number of other things. It may seem unbearable and it may seem as if there’s no way through it. But even though God didn’t cause it, God can use it, if you’ll allow, as a way to expose you and those around you to God’s amazing love. On the other hand, some of us may be able to look in the rear-view mirror and clearly see our heatstrokes, and also see how God has used those times to make us who we are and to create or deepen our relationship with the divine.

I’ve never actually had a real heatstroke, but I hear they’re not good for your health. I wouldn’t voluntarily have one, just as I never signed up to be an alcoholic. But I am constantly amazed at the way God can use those bad times for good. And so I think many of us can say to God, in one way or another, “without the heatstroke, we’d have never met.”

Catching deer

I went deer hunting yesterday. A friend took me out to his place and although we didn’t “catch” any deer (as my aunt says), we had a great time.

It was a weird hunt. Not only did we not get any deer, we hardly saw any. They just weren’t moving. At least until the very end of the day. That’s when things got interesting.

I was sitting in a short tripod stand in a tree as it slowly got dark. I had been sitting there for a couple of hours. My friend and I figured since the deer hadn’t been moving in the morning, SURELY they would be moving a bunch in the afternoon. So, the entire time on that stand, I kept expecting a massive herd of deer to inundate my position. But they didn’t.

And, to make it worse, for the last 30 minutes or so before the sun went down, I could see intermittently through the tree into which I was wedged, far away and to my left, several deer feeding and gamboling about, practically taunting me.

However, just as it started to get dark, the deer headed my way. Due to management of the deer on this property, I was limited in what I could shoot. I could shoot a spike buck, a mature eight-point buck, or a doe. And sure enough, as I sit there, I can see through the tree that a spike is heading straight for my shooting lane. Until he isn’t. He suddenly changes direction towards the far end of the oat patch, chased away by what looks to be a nice, big, mature, eight-pointer, who also appears to be heading straight for my lane. Until he isn’t. As I look through my binoculars, I can see he’s got a fork at the end of one beam. He’s got 9 points. And, to make it worse, he decides to just camp out in the oat patch right in front of me, scaring away all the other deer. But then, just as it’s almost too dark to tell deer from deer, a brave doe shows up, practically right under my stand. It’s just light enough and she’s just close enough that I can confirm she’s a doe. And she’s so close even I can’t miss. So I start to raise my bow and … the bow gets caught in a twig. Only the faintest noise, but it was enough to make her move several yards away and put a few branches between me and her. And that was it.

Now, there were a couple of ways I could have reacted to this scenario. I could have gotten bitter. I mean, really! It’s as if God or nature or the deer themselves had it in for me. First, no deer. Then, all the deer I could want, and even the kind I could shoot, but it’s like the universe conspired to leave me deerless at the end of the day. I could have complained. I could have raged. I mean, it was SO UNFAIR!

Instead, I chose to revel in the day. I had the opportunity to spend a day in God’s creation. I had an opportunity to connect slowly and deeply with that creation in a way that my regular days don’t afford. I experienced the dawning of the day, the descent into night, and everything in-between. I saw deer and cardinals and dove. I heard an owl and some turkeys.

I wish I could say this is the way I always respond in this sort of situation. Let’s just say I’m hopefully getting better at it and leave it at that.

Anyway, thinking about yesterday brings to mind a poem I wrote several years ago. I can’t believe I’m doing this, but here it is:

Morning Hunt in Fog

sitting, waiting
gazing into the flowing darkness
impatient for light
impatient for an end to night

past perception’s edge
outlines form
floating ghosts
feebly emerging
from rope-thick mist

tall grass flat as window-glass
depth impossible to gauge

delicate fan of green mesquite
flat, damp and gray
but beautiful
in the deepening day

numberless dew-diamonds
desperately cling
to brown-spotted oak leaves
quivering in the breeze
steadily drip, drip, dripping
to the brittle carpet below

distant treetops
taken for a cloudbank
gently resolve
into root-branch, naked trees

as the haze thins, depth returns
the mirror-thin world of watery gloom
gently dissolves
and the reluctant breeze reveals
flowing across the narrow valley
a gold-brown river of trees.

I didn’t “catch” any deer that hunt either; didn’t even see any. But in a small yet significant way, that experience changed my heart; it changed who I am. But only because I let it.

Jesus came to bring us life, and life in abundance (John 10:10). And one aspect of that new, abundant life, is the ability—the increasing inclination—to find (and live) peace, joy, hope, love, and beauty in and into the world around us; in and into the people around us; in and into the stuff that happens to us.

Advent begins next week. It’s the season of hope, of anticipation, of welcoming new life into the world. And each one of us is presented each day with the opportunity to grab ahold of a little bit of that life, a little bit of that beauty. It’s a choice. We get to choose how we respond to the stuff that happens to us; the stuff that’s going on around us. We can choose to be bitter, or we can turn it into a poem.

 

The buzzard and the plane

I was walking the other day and heard an airplane. That’s not so unusual. We live pretty close to the Georgetown airport and near the flight path for planes flying into Austin. In fact, I’ve almost gotten to where I don’t even notice the noise anymore. But this time, I looked up.

You know how sometimes you hear a plane and look up to where you heard it and it’s not there? Then, you look a little ahead of the noise and there it is. The sound is traveling slower than the image.

So, I looked up and didn’t see the plane. Instead, I saw a buzzard. Right where the plane should have been, flying just as if it was the plane. And for just a moment, I had the surreal sensation that it was the buzzard making the high, whining, annoying engine noise. Of course, the sensation lasted just a second. I looked ahead a little and saw the plane, and looked back to see that buzzard was once again just a buzzard.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last several months about the Church. Not just my congregation in Jarrell, or the United Methodist denomination, or any particular denomination, but about the big “C” Church. And I see some parallels between the state of the Church and that weird, surreal experience with the plane and the buzzard.

Although most people I know think of the church as a place they go to (or not) on Sunday mornings, the apostle Paul describes it quite differently. For him, the Church isn’t a structure, it’s not a place. For him, it’s the body of Christ (see 1Cor. 12:12-26). For a long time, I thought of this image as a particularly beautiful and deep metaphor. But recently I’ve come to the realization that it’s not a metaphor at all. Paul doesn’t just mean the Church is LIKE a body. He means the Church IS the body of Christ. The Church IS Christ. It is Christ’s tangible, visible, audible, incarnated presence in the world. On Good Friday, Jesus left the world. And then he came back, not just to the disciples for a few weeks after his resurrection, but also in the form of the Holy Spirit, who organizes and directs the flesh-and-blood human beings who constitute the Church. The Church is Christ himself to the world around it.

All of which is interesting and all, but … what’s the point? Well, St. Paul gives us the point. He says the reason the Church comes together as a body is to sing: “Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus!” Romans 15:6 (Message translation). The point of the Church is for all different kinds of experiences and skills and abilities and backgrounds and voices to come together in beautiful harmony, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the world around it. To sing through its very existence and example, of the new life that is available to ALL of us through trust in Jesus Christ.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But a lot of us seem to have lost this understanding, if we ever had it in the first place. We look at ourselves as individual, autonomous salvation-consuming units, not as a body that must work together to accomplish its calling. To the extent we think of ourselves as a body at all, we might think of the pastor as a giant disembodied mouth. To the extent we think of singing at all, we might think of those folks who sit at the front of the sanctuary wearing matching robes. A lot of us have lost sight of the fact that the whole point of this Church thing isn’t for me to feel better about my life and where I’m going after I die, but our coordinated, harmonious, diverse transformation of the people and the world around us; as C.S. Lewis put it, to be a vector of the “good infection” of new life. So, too often, instead of singing in beautiful, multi-part harmony, we’re either a discordant cacophony of individuals or splinter groups insisting on our own way, or we are silent, individual consumers of salvation.

Which brings me back to the plane and the buzzard. I don’t know what made me look up at that plane. I’ve heard the same, whining, droning noise so often that I usually just tune it out. Kind of like I (and most non-Christians) are learning to tune out the increasingly harsh and brittle declarations of “culture war,” not to mention the culture wars within our own denominations and congregations. And then, when we do look, what do we see? Well, when I saw that buzzard, I saw blackness, silence, death.

Now, don’t get me wrong. As a Christian, I am a person of hope; the hope of new, amazing, bountiful life that has been made available to us through Jesus Christ; the hope of a life lived together under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit in which all of us, regardless of our abilities or disabilities can sing together in beautiful harmony to the world around us. I just wish that when I looked up at what we call the Church, that’s what I saw.

Last Wednesday …

A lot happened last Wednesday. For one thing, it was Finnish Swedish Heritage Day. It was also the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Nine family members were killed by cartel gunmen in Mexico and 11,000 scientists warned of “untold suffering” as a result of the climate crisis. It was International Stress Awareness Day. And my dad died.

That last one is the only one I remember. He was an amazing man. If you don’t believe me, here and here and here are what some of the people close to him had to say. I have spent most of the last week with members of my immediate and extended family, sharing stories about his life. And there ARE stories. Like the time when my brother-in-law asked for my sister’s hand in marriage and my dad said, “Well, I guess so. But you know, you can’t give her back.” He was the funniest, kindest, most genuine and authentic person I ever met.

Several of us were gathered together in his room when it happened, and for us, that moment completely changed our worlds. I know it changed mine. For the last few years I didn’t visit my folks as often as I probably should have. And when I did, it wasn’t the same as it used to be. Dad wasn’t the same as he used to be. Age and illness had taken their toll. But up until last Wednesday, I knew that whenever I wanted, I could just go by and visit.

Now I can’t. Last Wednesday changed that. Last Wednesday, the world fundamentally changed. For anyone who ever came into any sort of meaningful contact with my dad, the world became a much darker, less fun, and less interesting place. My world was fundamentally shaken. My siblings’ worlds were shaken. I can’t even imagine how my mother’s world has been shaken. And then there are my children, nieces, nephews, cousins, uncles and aunts, friends. The world changed last Wednesday.

But you want to know the weird thing? Despite the fact that the world shifted on its axis last Wednesday, 99.99999999% of the world’s population didn’t even notice. As far as they’re concerned, celebration of Finnish Swedish Heritage Day was the big news.

Once or twice a year I participate in an event called “Walk to Emmaus.” It’s a three-day retreat-but-so-much-more-than-a-retreat where we learn about and experience God’s amazing grace. Very few people go away from the experience unchanged and for many—like myself—it’s life-changing. But at the end of every Walk, there’s a warning: you may have changed, but the world hasn’t. Your world may have been turned upside down and inside out, you may be completely and fundamentally and foundationally changed, but the world out there is still the same as it was. It’s still full of small, petty, vindictive people pursuing small, petty, vindictive ends. And it’s still full of good-hearted, well-meaning people who don’t have a clue what you’ve just been through, people who have their own problems, people who can’t possibly relate.

I imagine that’s how James, John, and Peter felt heading down the mountain after seeing Jesus transfigured, and it’s kind of how I feel today. The world lost an amazing, magnificent soul. I lost an amazing dad. I want to world to recognize what it has lost. I want it to mourn his passing as I do. But it won’t. In fact, it can’t.

People are doing what they can. Some don’t know what to say and so don’t say anything. Other’s say “I’m praying,” or “condolences, or “peace,” and I appreciate and understand all of it. But there is a part of me that wants to reach out and shake those people and say, “Do you realize what has happened? Do you realize what the world has lost? Because if you did, you wouldn’t just be saying, “I’m sorry,” you would be weeping along with me.”

But I guess it’s just as well we can’t get inside one another’s heads; that there is some separation between us; that we can’t really feel exactly what others are feeling. Otherwise, it would all be too much.

Nevertheless, I am reminded this Wednesday, as I reflect on last Wednesday, that the effort to do so is worth it. We may never be able to fully understand what someone else is going through. We may never be able to fully understand how someone else’s world may have been blown open. But that shouldn’t stop us from being willing to get out of our own heads long enough to open our hearts to those around us; to seek to understand their suffering and maybe even stay there in it with them for a little while. After all, that’s what God did for us in Christ.

Those loose-lidders . . .

This morning I tried to pick up the Aleve bottle, but it fell to the floor. Stuff like this happens all the time. You see, my wife Kirsten is a loose-lidder. She’s one of those people who never fully closes the lid on something she’s used (and I never over-generalize), whether it’s the ketchup or the milk or the pickles or the Aleve. And, unfortunately, I’m a top-picker: I usually pick things up from the top, not the side. As you might imagine, this can sometimes get interesting. I can just see God when we first got together laughing to Himself, “This is going to be awesome!”

Now, you would think after all this time I might have adapted, but some habits die hard. I still occasionally find myself cleaning up broken salsa jars, spilled milk, or still-perfectly-edible-even-though-they-were-all-over-the-kitchen-floor Aleve because I picked up from the top. This used to drive me crazy and as crazy as it sounds, I used to be resentful. I used to actually think Kirsten did it on purpose. But as I have gotten to know and love Kirsten more and more, I’ve learned to just deal with it.

If you’ve been together with someone for any length of time, you can probably identify with this scenario. There are probably things that person does that don’t make any sense or that drive you totally crazy. It is even hypothetically possible that I might do one or two things that drive Kirsten crazy. It’s at least a hypothesis. But when you love someone, you overlook that stuff. You look beyond it to the true core of the person.

And the fact is that when you get beyond the trivial stuff like lid tightening, our close relationships change us. We change ourselves, who we hang out with, how we spend our free time, as a natural part of deepening our relationships with those we really love.

I think God’s love for us is the same way. I can’t even imagine how many of the things I do every day that God just looks at and says, “Really?” As far as God is concerned, I’ve probably got more than just a few “quirks;” more than a few really annoying things that I do. But God looks beyond that stuff to see me, the me that was created as a result of the outpouring of God’s love, the me that was created to exist within the context of that love, the me that was created in God’s own image as a bearer and a recipient of God’s love.

Despite my quirks, God loves me. Despite your quirks, God loves you. That’s it. Now, would God want us to maybe modify some of those quirks and possibly even get rid of them? Sure. God loves us where we are, but God never wants to just leave us there. There’s always room for improvement.

But here’s the thing. The point of “improvement” (or as we Methodists call it, sanctification) isn’t to change something about ourselves so God will love us more. If we look at it that way, it becomes a job, a chore. And anyway, it’s impossible. God already loves us to infinity and beyond.

The point of “improvement,” is so that WE can enter more deeply into the love that God is. It’s not a cause and effect thing where we do something to trigger a loving response in God. It’s just us growing into the people we were created to be—people who live in hope rather than despair, peace rather than chaos, joy rather than sadness, and lover rather than hate. God wants that for us because God loves us and wants what’s best for us.