Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Prayer for the Last Day of 2009

As I look back--

teach me to evaluate what is over and done with not with wistfulness but rather with wisdom;

teach me to acknowledge failures not with regret but rather with repentance;

teach me to celebrate accomplishments not with pride but with praise.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Scribe

(Note: I mean for this to be in verse but I can't figure out how to make Blogger format it the way I'd like.)


The Magi came to Jerusalem to worship the King because they figured, naturally, that the capital was where the King would be.

There they found a king, one who called himself “great,” but he was not the one they were looking for because, after all, he wasn’t a baby.

The great one deigned to help them out so he called for the theologians, the learned ones, the holy men, the ones who knew the Scripture.

“Bethlehem,” they said, “is the place to find the one you seek, for it says so right there in the book of the prophet Micah.”

One of them pointed a long, trembling finger at the place in the scroll, the line that he and they had studied so long and knew so well.

The Magi, being polished and refined and polite, thanked the scribes, then collected their things and organized their caravan and set out.

They set out to find the baby, to find the king, so that they could worship him,
because that is what they had set out to do so many months and miles ago.

The scribes—the theologians, the learned ones, the holy men, the ones who knew the Scripture--did not go, and I do not understand why they did not leave everything and run to him.

Were they so content with their knowledge, with their books, with their theories, that they felt no need to go to him?

Did they really think that knowing what the Book said about him was enough, that knowing him was not required?

Could they not come down from their place to kneel, could they not close their books to worship, that they might move from theory to practice?

How might things have been different, how might they have been changed, if they had accompanied the Magi, if they had seen the baby?

If they had gone to the baby and worshiped him, if they had seen his flesh and heard his cries, would they have seen people differently—would they have seen him in them?

And then there is the thing that really troubles me, the dread that weighs on me—

I am a scribe.

© 2009 Michael L. Ruffin

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Growing Up, Growing In, Growing Toward

(A sermon based on Luke 2:40-52 & Colossians 3:12-17 for the First Sunday after Christmas Day)

It feels like a bit of a leap forward, doesn’t it? Just two days ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus and now here we are reading a text about what he did when he was twelve years old. The fact is, though, that we know very little about what Jesus’ life was like from the time he was born until this episode. We have the stories about his birth, we have the note that he was circumcised when he was eight days old, we have the story about his parents taking him to the temple for his dedication when he was forty days old—and then nothing until the trip to Jerusalem when he was twelve (and nothing more after that until he begins his ministry).

The story of the trip to Jerusalem reminds us of something of which we very much need to be reminded: Jesus grew.

We forget sometimes that, while Jesus was the Son of God, he was also a human being who went through the same kinds of growth processes that any other human being goes through. For example, the story shows us how Jesus’ growing sense of his place and purpose and path in life led to some tension with his parents, which is the way that it so often goes between parents and children. The story offers us good role models for parents and for children in that situation, as Jesus’ parents called him to account for his actions but tried, although they could not fully understand their son, to make room for who he was and was becoming, and as the twelve-year-old Jesus, even as his sense of purpose and destiny increased, willingly submitted himself to the guidance and nurture of his parents.

How did Jesus grow? And what do the ways in which Jesus grew teach us about how we are to grow?

Jesus grew up. “The child grew and became strong” (2:40), Luke says about the years between Jesus’ infancy and adolescence; “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature (or years)” (2:52), he says of the years of his adolescence and young adulthood. So Jesus grew physically and he grew chronologically and as he grew he had to make changes and adjustments; as he grew he had to take on more and more of the responsibilities of the life that his Father intended for him to live. The age at which Jesus went to the temple was the age at which, in those times, he was considered ready to begin moving into adulthood.

We also have to grow up—and it is a privilege to do so. God has given us our lives and we have the privilege of taking full advantage of the lives given to us. As we grow, our responsibilities and our obligations and our privileges change and develop and we are to embrace them and to do so as Christians, as disciples of Christ. As we make our choices we need always to keep Christ foremost in our minds so that we do not careen carelessly from one stage of life to another. We have the blessing of God’s presence in our lives and we need to draw on it.

Jesus grew in. Luke also tells us that Jesus “increased in divine and human favor” (2:52), which is a way of saying that as he grew both his heavenly Father who sent him and the people in Nazareth who knew him saw evidence in him of a person growing in grace and they responded to that accordingly; they were pleased with what they saw in him, with the progress that he was making, in other words.

We also can and should grow in grace in a way that will make a difference not only to us but also to the people around us. In what will we grow if we are growing in grace? In what will we grow if we are growing in favor with God and with people? Paul in Colossians names some areas for us.

1. “Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
2. “Forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (3:13).
3. “Clothe yourselves with love” (3:14).
4. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (3:15).
5. “Be thankful” (3:15).
6. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3:16).
7. “With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (3:16).
8. “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17).

How pleased would God be with us and how might the people around us notice if we are consistently growing in those ways?

Jesus grew toward. By that I mean that Jesus through his whole life grew toward being the person that his Father meant for him to be which involved living the kind of life that his Father meant for him to live. From its beginning Jesus’ life—all of his living, learning, and loving—was moving him toward the Cross of Calvary and toward the empty garden tomb.

Our lives are to be growing toward our being the kind of people that God means for us to be, too, and our lives are to be lives of the cross and of the empty tomb. We who are the saved, we who are the baptized, have been crucified with Christ and raised to new life in him. Every step we take is to be a step farther down the path of living the Christ-like life.

In an episode of the Dick van Dyke Show, comedy writer Buddy Sorrell, played by Morey Amsterdam, kept making excuses to leave work early or at odd times. Somehow Rob finds out that Buddy has been visiting his rabbi’s apartment at these odd times. He concludes that Buddy is misbehaving with the rabbi’s wife. As it turns out, he has been secretly taking instruction from his rabbi. It seems that Buddy had to start working as a child and never completed his bar mitzvah. That’s what he has been preparing to do, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. In the final segment of the episode, Buddy repeats the words, “Today I am a man.”

It’s never too late to grow. It’s never too late to start arriving.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Swaddled Grace

(A meditation for Christmas Eve 2009)

“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes,” the Bible says, and “laid him in a manger.” Such wrapping was a common practice in the ancient world; the newborn baby would be wrapped tightly in strips of cloth so that he could not move. We do a similar thing in modern times; the nurse will wrap the newborn so snugly in a blanket that she appears to be in a welded-on cocoon.

It’s a comforting thing for the child, of course; it causes him to feel warm and secure and safe as he transitions from the tight closeness of the womb to the wide openness of the world. Let’s face it, though—it’s a comforting thing for us parents and other adults, too, because it creates the illusion that, at least in that moment, the baby cannot and will not demand or require anything of us.

There is a silly scene in the silly movie Talladega Nights in which Will Ferrell’s star NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby is saying grace over his family’s fast food feast and he offers his prayer up to “tiny baby Jesus,” repeatedly addressing the Lord in that way until finally his wife interrupts to remind him that Jesus did in fact grow up to which Ricky responds that he’s the one saying grace and that he prefers the little baby Jesus and that when other people say grace they can pray to the teenage Jesus or the grown-up Jesus if they want to do so.

Like I said, the scene is silly—but in its silliness it can cause us to ponder a serious question: don’t we sometimes—often, maybe—prefer to cling to our image of the baby Jesus rather than to the truth of the grown-up Jesus? Don’t we sometimes—often, maybe—want to leave the baby wrapped tightly in those swaddling clothes where we can ooh and ah over him and then walk away, having experienced no challenge, having accepted no demand, and having suppressed the power and pain and wonder of the fact that the one who was born became the one who was crucified and the one who was crucified became the one who was resurrected and the one who was resurrected became the one who comes to us every day and who will come again someday?

Make no mistake about it—the baby who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger could not be suppressed or managed or contained; no, he had to be unleashed and unwrapped and turned loose on the world. That baby was grace personified, love enfleshed, God incarnate; his birth was the inbreaking of God into this old world in a way that was powerful in its simplicity and marvelous in its humility and magnificent in its grace and love. As he grew up he became more and more what his Father had sent him to be and as he went about doing good and preaching the good news and healing the sick and inviting the broken and lost and cast aside into the kingdom of God he stirred up something the ripples—the waves—the tsunamis—of which are still being felt today and will be felt until the fulfillment of all things.

But here is the thing of which we need to get hold—we dare not try to keep the baby Jesus wrapped in those swaddling clothes, which is to say that we dare not try to keep his love, his grace, his mercy, his forgiveness, and his challenge under wraps, which is to say that we dare not keep the love, grace, forgiveness, and challenge that he has place in the Church which is, after all, the Body of Christ in the world—in our case, the Body of Christ in Fitzgerald, Georgia—under wraps. We need to unwrap it and unleash it and watch it do its marvelous work in our midst and in the lives of those around us.

It was another day—a far different day but a day that was intricately connected to Christmas day—when Jesus, now a grown man, now the man who had so obediently done his Father’s will, now the man who had been betrayed, tried and arrested, now the man who had died on the cross, was again wrapped in bands of cloth, this time not as response to his birth but rather as preparation for his burial. They wrapped his body tightly and securely and they then laid his swaddled body in the tomb.

That is why we observe the Lord’s Supper tonight—to remember the Lord’s death until he comes, to remember so as never to forget that the swaddled baby in the manger became the swaddled body in the tomb.

But let us also remember that, like that baby, the crucified Jesus could not and did not stay wrapped in those cloths; again, the grace, mercy, and love that they tried to wrap up and put away could not stay that way. He is risen! The baby who was born, the man who was crucified, is now the Lord who was raised from the dead and who will come again one day to make all things as God intends for them to be.

He is risen! Thanks be to God! And Merry Christmas—a most Merry Christmas—indeed!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Pastoral Letter for Christmas 2009

(Note: I plan to write an occasional Pastoral Letter to the members of the church that I serve as pastor. When appropriate, I will post it here; I think this one is appropriate.)

To the saints in Christ who are the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia—grace and peace to you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

We have almost completed the journey through the season of Advent. Christmas, that day that along with Good Friday and Easter Sunday make up the trilogy of the greatest days of the year for Christians, is almost upon us.

The feelings that we most associate with Christmas when we think about Christmas are peace and joy; the group that we most associate with Christmas when we think about Christmas is family. I am concerned this year as I am every year about those of us for whom peace and joy might seem to be an unattainable goal and even a false promise because someone who was with our family last Christmas is not with our family this Christmas. I am concerned for those of us who have experienced the death of a loved one since last Christmas.

Let us affirm up front that the first Christmas following the death of a loved one is very difficult. It is difficult, to put it too simply, because that person is not there to celebrate Christmas with us. The absence of that one person changes the dynamics of our holiday celebration; every relationship and every situation is different because that person is absent and so nothing is as it formerly was.

Besides, we simply miss our loved one; we wish that she or he was still here with us. This Christmas it might seem that every tradition, every meal, and every gift exchange reminds us of how those experiences were when our loved one was still with us.

Be assured, my friends, that such a reaction is normal; after all, your loved one was with you just last Christmas and was with you for many Christmases before that and so it is to be expected that, in a very powerful emotional sense, he or she is still with you during this Christmas’s celebrations. While it is tempting to try to suppress your strong sense of your loved one’s continued presence with you, I encourage you not to do so but rather to celebrate the strong love and deep longing that cause you to miss your loved one.

Indeed, be willing to talk freely and openly about your loved one with your family members and friends. Since our words help to shape our thoughts, I would encourage you to frame your speech in certain ways rather than in others. For example, rather than saying things like “I miss him” or “I wish she was still here” say things like “I remember how she loved to do this” or “Do you recall that time when he said this when he opened that present?” Perhaps you detect the difference: one way of talking states the obvious or desires the impossible while the other way of talking celebrates the memories and affirms the legacies.

As memories are celebrated and legacies are affirmed, be willing to laugh—be willing to laugh even when your laughter must at times be mingled with tears. After all, laughter and tears come mingled together in this life and they will come mingled together this Christmas.

Peace and joy can still be yours this Christmas and in all the days to come but it is important to remind ourselves of the nature and of the source of real peace and joy.

The peace and joy that our Lord intends for us to have are not contingent on our circumstances or on events or on our feelings; they rather spring from the relationship that we have with the Lord. In Christ we have peace with God and if we have peace with God we can then grow in peace with ourselves and with others. In Christ we know true joy, a joy that has its source in God and that resides in the deepest places in our souls, places that circumstances and feelings cannot touch. It is a bit of a mystery how this can be, I admit, but I have found it to be so in my own life, although I must also admit that it took much time and much struggle for me to come to a place where I could recognize and rest in the peace and joy that are mine in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You will struggle, too—but I want you to know that God is with you in the struggle and that in Christ you do have peace and joy; it is there and you will find it.

Christmas means many things, but the main thing that Christmas means is that in the baby Jesus, God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, broke into this world—into its history, into its time, into its problems, into its struggles, into its sin, into its pains, into its anxieties, into its humanity—and thereby began the process of overcoming all those things that threaten to overcome us, including death and grief. We cannot help but grieve when our loved one has died, but we have the blessed opportunity to grieve as those who have hope, which is the assurance that God keeps God’s promises, an assurance that is ours by virtue of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This Christmas comes as a great challenge to those of us who have lost loved ones since last Christmas but it is a challenge that can be met by the people of God through the grace of God.

Please know that I am praying with you and for you this Christmas. My prayer is that the grace and peace and joy that are yours in the Lord Jesus Christ will be evident and obvious to you as you celebrate the Lord’s birth and as you and your family celebrate each other and celebrate the memory of your loved one who, in God’s grace, gets to celebrate this Christmas in the presence of the Lord whose birth we celebrate.

Your Pastor,

Michael L. Ruffin

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

28 Years & Holding

It was 63 years ago today, on December 22, 1946, that Champ Ruffin and Sara Abbott stood in their pastor’s living room in front of the Christmas tree and became husband and wife.

An intimate affair, the wedding was attended by only three or four witnesses; I am aware of the existence of no items that commemorate the day--not even a photograph of the happy couple. The few details that I know of the event I know only because I heard the parties speak of them.

As is characteristic of strong marriages, Champ and Sara brought different but complementary strengths to their union: he was smarter while she was wiser; he was tougher while she was stronger; he was complex while she was simple; he was more worldly while she was more spiritual—but they were both very attractive.

Their son took after his father in being smart rather than wise and complex rather than simple; he took after his mother in being strong rather than tough and spiritual rather than worldly—but he took after both of them when it came to looks.

They were laborers—textile mill workers—who did honest and good work and who made enough money to pay their bills and to buy an occasional used car and to take a once-a-decade trip to Florida.

They were church-goers—they went to Midway Baptist Church—who were there every time the doors were opened and sometimes when they were not.

They were children—he to Asa Lee and Mardelle Ruffin and she to Sandy and Nora Belle Abbott—who were good and faithful to their parents in every way imaginable.

They were siblings—he to nine brothers and sisters and she to one sister and one brother—who were esteemed highly and loved dearly by their family members.

They were parents—he a largely silent but always steady witness and she a firm but kind nurturer—who loved and cherished the only child for whom they were ultimately assigned responsibility.

They were sufferers—the other child who died before really getting started, the accident that split his head and broke his neck, the cancer that maimed and sickened and saddened and ultimately killed her and that broke his heart—who praised God anyhow and who remained faithful anyway.

They were lovers—they hugged and kissed each other even in front of their impressionable young son—who in openly sharing the joy of their love with each other taught that son of the joy of married love with its commitment, its fidelity—and its fun.

They pledged to be true and loyal to one another as long as they both lived, and they were until the day she died—June 22, 1975, exactly twenty eight years and six months from the day they married.

I lived with them for the last sixteen years and nine months of their union and I am deeply and humbly grateful to have been their son and to have been raised by them and blessed by them.

The way I look at it, while today would have been their 63rd anniversary, they are really at 28 years and holding.

Champ died four years after Sara did.

I think sometimes about the answer Jesus gave to those clever Sadducees who offered him the scenario about the woman who married seven brothers in succession as each of them in turn died and then asked, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be?” to which Jesus replied, “They are neither married nor given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.”

I know that the resurrection to which the Sadducees referred has not yet occurred and I know that there is finally no way for me to know, until I join them, what the present state of my parents is and whether or not they know each other and just how different that state will be on the other side of the resurrection. I also think I know that in eternity the time strictures to which we are captive here won’t be applicable.

I say all that to say that I don’t know if this 63rd “anniversary” has any meaning to them—but I imagine not.

But I’ll tell you what has meaning to me, 35 years on the other side of their last wedding anniversary and 31 years into my own marriage: the witness that they bore and the lessons that they taught about how two people, when they love God and love each other and when they follow Jesus and are faithful to one another, can, in very simple and profound ways, leave a lasting mark.

I have spent 51 years now trying to be my own man, or, better put, trying to be the man that God means for me to be.

Still, in so many ways, I am and will always be Champ and Sara Ruffin’s son.

So consider me marked.

So consider me grateful.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Advent People are Remembering People

(A sermon based on Psalm 80 & Luke 1:54-55 for the Fourth Sunday in Advent)

I finished writing my Ph.D. dissertation in early 1986; before I could present the oral defense of my work I was required to secure an “outside reader,” a scholar in my field from a school other than mine, who would read and render his opinion on those 250 or so pages of blood, sweat, and tears. I was also required to pay that person $500; the problem was that we did not have $500 and had to figure out how to come up with it. My grandfather had recently died and I knew that I would receive some amount of money from his estate but I also knew that the estate was many months away from being settled. So I called one of my uncles who knew the terms of the will and asked if I could borrow the $500 from him and pay it back to him out of my share of the estate; he graciously agreed and I received a compounding of that grace when the estate was settled and my share was reduced by the $500 that I owed him—but no interest had been charged to me!

I have and will always have gratitude for my uncle; I admit also to having felt a little pride in my ingenuity in securing the $500—until, many years later, I was telling that story to a dear friend of many years’ standing who said to me, “Why didn’t you call us? We would have given you the money!”

The answer to the question “Why didn’t you call us?” was at least partly pride, of course; I did not want to ask someone for the money who did not have the sure knowledge that I would soon have the resources to repay it. But the other answer to the question was that I did not think of it; it never occurred to me to ask them for help—this despite the fact that they had always given me much help and many resources over the years even though I had not asked for them.

In other words, I failed to remember that they always remembered me, that they always had remembered me and that they always would remember me. In my forgetting I failed to trust in their remembering.

Advent people—people who not only celebrate the coming of Jesus to Bethlehem’s manger in the past but who also anticipate his coming to us in the present and to our world in the future—are remembering people, which means that we remember that God always has and always will remember God’s people, that God always has and always will remember God’s promises, and that God always has and always will remember God’s purposes.

Indeed, God’s remembering of God’s people, promises, and purposes always go together. God is working his purposes out and as God works his purpose out he is keeping his promises and as God works his purposes out and keeps his promises he does so through and with his people.

God’s remembering is not at issue—God remembers; but our remembering is an issue—we forget.

Sometimes—all too often, in fact—we forget to remember who God is, what God has done, and what God will do, although our forgetfulness has its roots in what would usually be regarded as understandable circumstances.

One circumstance that affects our remembering is the passing by of time.

Mary’s song, in which she celebrated the mysterious and wonderful thing that the Lord was doing through her, understood that thing as being a remembrance of God’s mercy (v. 54) that was a part of the “promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (v. 55). God had made that promise to Abraham some eighteen centuries before Mary sang her song and so, someone might say, God had taken his time in keeping that promise and the truth is that as we reckon time it had been quite a while.

It behooves us to remind ourselves from time to time, though, that God does not reckon time as we do; indeed, one of the many miracles of Christmas is that God, who is eternal and is thus beyond and outside of time, entered this time-bound world in the person of Jesus Christ. For something to be a long or short time to us means little or nothing to God and yet, because he entered our world as one of us, he certainly understands how time is to us and he chooses in his grace to work within the frame of time as we experience it.

It may seem to us sometimes that it is taking a long time for Jesus to intervene in some crisis through which we are going here and now and it may seem to us that it is taking an awfully long time for his Second Advent to occur. We need to remember, though, that Jesus did not come 2000 years ago and never come again; we need to remember that it is not only his Second Coming that counts as an arrival of Jesus in this world. Indeed, Jesus arrives in our world many times over every day—he arrives, just to give one example, when his Body, the Church, exhibits his love and grace and mercy and forgiveness in any real and substantial—in any Christ-like—way.

We need to remember also that, even though Jesus came into our lives when we received him as Savior, his coming to us in whatever crisis we are experiencing now, while it is the next time that we will experience him, is not the only other time that we have experienced him. When we stop and think about it, we will realize that he has come to us many times over as we have needed him, even if we have failed to acknowledge that he was the one who helped. When we stop and think about it, we will realize that he has always been with us and has never forsaken us.

So stop and think about it—how many times did God come to the people of Israel between the promise to Abraham and the coming of Jesus? Psalm 80 talks about God’s bringing Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus and the establishment of the nation in the Promised Land, but that’s just one occurrence. God’s other acts of intervention in the meantime are too numerous to name.

Another circumstance that affects our remembering is the piling on of problems. For the Israelites during the time that Psalm 80 was composed and in most of the times during which it was employed in worship, the people were experiencing problems and crises aplenty. Whether it was occupation, famine, war, or exile, the problems did pile up. Mary praised God for his remembering of his promises and of his mercy during a time when the Romans occupied the land and when she and many like her would have known tremendous struggles in the living of daily life. It would have been easy for Mary and for all of those around her to believe that God had forgotten them.

Sometimes the problems pile up on us, too. We have struggles at work or we have struggles getting work; we have tensions at home; we have sickness in ourselves or in our loved ones; we have grief over the loss of someone or something significant; we have disappointments because someone has let us down or because we have let someone down. The pile of problems is usually partly of our own making and partly of someone else’s making and partly of—well, who knows from where some of it comes.

And we get to thinking that God has forgotten. But God does not forget.

God did not forget Israel. God did not forget Mary and her neighbors. And God has not forgotten—and never will forget—us, because God does not forget God’s purposes and promises.

The testimony of Mary—the testimony of Advent—the testimony of Christmas—is that God does remember. God does remember God’s people, promises, and purposes. Therefore, we can believe, we can trust, we can persevere—we can wait expectantly and actively and creatively.

We can if we will refuse to forget—if we will practice remembering.

So let us remember—let us remember that God remembers; let us remember that the coming of Jesus all those years ago shows just how far God will go to remember his promises so as to fulfill them.

Do you remember? Will you remember?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christian Christmas Chronic Lyricosis

I am at times afflicted with chronic lyricosis, which is, on the off chance you have not heard of it, a malady characterized by the habitual misunderstanding of song lyrics.

When I was a child, I thought the church song that affirmed “Whosoever surely meaneth me” instead said “Whosoever Shirley meaneth me” which caused me to wonder who Shirley was and just what she had to do with getting saved, anyway. Chronic lyricosis has often afflicted those who listen to rock music; for instance, many people misunderstood Jimi Hendrix’s lyric “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky” as “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” and, for longer than I care to admit, I heard Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “stuck in Lodi again” as “sucking an old tire again.”

The folks on the John Boy & Billy radio program coined the phrase “chronic lyricosis” and they have made it famous with several skits featuring John Boy singing songs as he (mis)understands them. One skit is an “advertisement” for a “television special” called John Boy’s Chronic Lyricosis Christmas, which includes his (mis)interpretations of several well-known songs.

Another bit features John Boy’s rendition of Mel Torme’s standard The Christmas Song—you know, the one that begins “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” John Boy’s version includes such lines as: “Chipmunks roasting on an open fire; jet frogs ripping at your clothes”; “You know that Santa’s gonna change; he’s loaded lots of poison goodies on his train” and “So I’m ordering this simple face to kiss someone who might be you.”

(You can hear such genius for yourself on the album John Boy & Billy’s Nerve-Wrackin’ Christmas Part 2. Seriously.)

There are Christmas songs in the New Testament, too, and sometimes I think that we Christians are afflicted with chronic lyricosis when we hear them.

For example, the angels who appeared to the shepherds sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14 KJV).

While “brokenness” sounds nothing like (and is nothing like) “peace,” it sure seems that we must hear “on earth, brokenness…toward men,” given that so often we are willing to settle for less than a whole, sound, maturing relationship with God and less than a growing, improving, maturing relationship with each other. Sadly, while such relationships are the essence of what the Bible means by “peace,” we too seldom seem interested in accepting and pursuing that kind of peace in our lives, in our churches, in our communities, and in our world. In that case, we seem afflicted with Christian Christmas Chronic Lyricosis.

Then there is that wonderful song of the expectant Mary, the Magnificat, in which she proclaims of God,

He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
(Luke 1:51-53 NRSV)

But the ways that we so often think and act toward others and the priorities that we so often set make me wonder if we don’t hear “He has scattered the humble” and “he has brought down the meek” and “lifted up the proud” and “filled the full with more good things” and “sent the poor away empty”—if we are not, in other words, afflicted with Christian Christmas Chronic Lyricosis.

I suppose that we are all limited in our ability to hear; we are limited by our circumstances, by our upbringing, by our experiences, by our biases, by our preferences, by our assumptions, and by our sins. Sometimes, for whatever reason or reasons, we just mishear the great songs of Christmas.

It might be easier to hear them our own way, to internalize our initial misunderstanding, and never to stand corrected, but we will more fully and effectively live out the Christmas spirit—indeed, the Christian spirit—if we will hear the great songs of the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ as they are written—and if we will believe them so as to do them!

Then we might move much more closely to the “peace on earth” and to the “lifting up of the lowly” that the birth of Jesus Christ was intended—so the songs say—to inaugurate.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent People are Rejoicing People

(A sermon based on Zephaniah 3:14-20 & Philippians 4:4-7 for the Third Sunday of Advent)

It was in the Children’s Sunday School Department weekly assembly at Midway Baptist Church that I learned to sing it:

I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart, down in my heart.
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart to stay.

I learned it according to what I heard, though, and what I heard was:
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart, down in my heart.
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart Tuesday.

I couldn’t help but wonder—what about the other six days of the week? Why couldn’t I have joy on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday?

At some point, of course, I figured out what the song was really saying but that didn’t eliminate my question; in fact, my comprehension of the actual words of the song added a question to the one I already had: I now wondered why (1) I couldn’t seem to have joy every day of the week—why I didn’t have it all the time and (2) why the joy that I did experience didn’t seem to have staying power—why it seemed to be fleeting.

I wonder how many of you are wondering those same things. Why can’t you have joy all the time? Why can’t your joy be the kind of joy that endures?

One truth, of course, is that stuff gets in the way—that life gets in the way.

When the prophet Zephaniah was delivering his message in the second half of the seventh century BCE, the nation of Judah was trying, under the leadership of a good king named Josiah, to find its way out of the moral and spiritual hole into which it had fallen during the long reign of the evil kind Manasseh. Josiah’s reign was a time of hope that the people would return to the Lord but the fact was, the prophets knew and said, things would get worse before they got better.

Sometimes we look around us and we wonder how the culture of our nation and, for that matter, of the world, got into the shape it is in. We wonder how human life has become so devalued that we accept such things as war, abortion on demand, and sexual promiscuity with nary a second thought. Sometimes we are tempted to put our hope in leaders or in armies or in treaties—and we certainly should hope and pray that such might be of help—but we can’t shake the nagging feeling that things will get worse before they get better.

The way that things are in the world gets in the way of a pervasive and permanent joy.

So does the way that things are in our own lives.

Paul encouraged his Philippian sisters and brothers not to worry, which of course means that they were worrying. While he did not say so, his readers knew that Paul had as much or more reason to worry as they did, since he was writing his letter to them from prison. Now, they were worried about things that we have no cause to worry about, given that they were being persecuted for their faith while we are not, but we have things that we can worry about, be it our health, the health of our loved ones, finances, children, parents, grandchildren, vocation—and the list can go on and on.

The point is that things in life can make us worry and worry is an impediment to joy.

Neither the things in the world nor the things in our lives that cause us anxiety and that rob us of joy are going to go away; how, then, can we be people who rejoice?

The key is to have our lives get caught up in what God is up to, to have them get caught up in God’s actions in the world and in God’s attitude toward this world and toward the lives we live in it. God is, as those with eyes to see and ears to hear and faith to believe know, working God’s purposes out— and everything really is going to be all right one day.

It is not the case that what is going on the world and in our lives is unimportant and insignificant—indeed, God cares very much about all of that and is going to act in judgment and in grace to deal with it all someday; but it is the case that God has greater purposes that will be fulfilled and goals that will be met through and beyond all of that.

In the words of Karl Barth, “In other words, in all that I am, I am only a party to that which God thinks and does. In all that I do, it is not I, but rather God who is important.” [Karl Barth, “To Believe,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), p. 137]

And so Zephaniah, after spending many words to make it clear to his listeners that judgment on sin was coming and that it would be so thorough as to seem utter and complete, turned at the end of his message to assure them that on the other side of judgment was salvation, that on the other side of defeat was victory, and that on the other side of devastation was restoration. The prophet proclaimed,

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you;
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
(vv. 14-15)

The people could rejoice because of what the Lord was doing and was about to do; we too can rejoice because of what the Lord is doing and is about to do—but we can also rejoice because of what the Lord has already done. Indeed, we can affirm what Zephaniah said—“The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst”—in ways that go beyond what the great prophet knew, because we live on this side of the birth of the baby Jesus who came into this world and into our lives to be the certain presence of the Lord in our midst.

As a part of his message Zephaniah said a very remarkable thing:

The LORD, your God, is in your midst…;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
(vv. 17-18b)

God rejoiced! God rejoiced, Zephaniah said, over what God was doing to bring about reconciliation, over what God was doing to bring his people back into relationship with him.

Perhaps a joy that can be pervasive and permanent in our lives, a joy that is not contingent on what gains we enjoy or what losses we suffer, a joy that is not dependent on today’s circumstances or this moment’s emotions, is a joy that is the overflow of what God has done, is doing, and will do through his Son Jesus Christ.

Zephaniah said that it was a remnant of Israel that would know such joy (3:12-13) but you will remember what the angel said to the shepherds on that night so long ago: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10; emphasis added). Yes, it was just a remnant—those few shepherds—who received the good news of great joy that night, but the joy they caught was contagious—it could be caught by all people. Yes, it was just a remnant—those few Wise Men—who were “overwhelmed with joy” when they saw the star over the house where the infant Jesus was (Matthew 2:10), but the joy they caught was contagious—it could be caught by all people.

You see, we can catch God’s joy over what God has done, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ, and others can catch it from us if we will catch it.

It is true that the world can spread despair, but it is more true that God is spreading joy. Which are you catching?

Prayer for the Third Sunday in Advent 2009

O God,

We praise you because of your power, because of your grace, and because of your love; we praise you because you are in your power, grace, and love through the saving activity of your Son Jesus Christ working your purposes out in your people and in all of your creation.

We confess that we fall short of your will for us when we try to find our joy in anything that is less than you; we confess that we fall short of your ideal for us when we attempt to find our joy through what we can accomplish; we confess that we fall short of your plan for us when we try to find our joy through what others can do for us.

We affirm that it is in our acknowledgment of and submission to what you have done, what you are doing, and what you will do through Jesus in us and in your creation that real joy can and will be found. We furthermore affirm that all the events and aspects of our lives—that all of our accomplishments, that all of our failures, that all of our gains, that all of our losses, that all of our pleasures, that all of our pains—find their appropriate place in our lives and make their appropriate contribution to our joy when we are caught up in what you are doing through Jesus Christ, who is your Son and our Savior.

We rejoice today over the great salvation that you are accomplishing through Jesus Christ in our lives and in your creation. Help us, with great trust, to give ourselves over to what you are doing, that we might be caught up in your great joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior,


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent People are Preparing People

(A sermon based on Luke 3:1-6 for the Second Sunday of Advent)

The Advent season, during which we move inexorably and excitedly and apprehensively toward Christmas, is a season of preparation, a time to get ready.

We prepare—we get ready—for Christmas to come by decorating our homes and, if we have company coming, by cleaning them. We prepare—we get ready—for Christmas by making shopping lists of gifts and groceries. We prepare—get ready—for Christmas at church by hanging the green and by lighting the candles.

While we naturally and appropriately think of Advent as leading up to Christmas, it is of course the coming of Jesus for which we are preparing—and we are getting ready for that coming in all of its aspects: his coming in his birth, his coming in the future, and his coming to us here and now. I want us to think today about getting ready—about being prepared—for Jesus to come to us. What should we do—what will we do—to prepare our hearts, our lives, and our church for the arrival of Jesus?

Calling people to prepare for the coming of Jesus was the life work of that wild preacher called John the Baptist. Related to Jesus as kinsman, John’s more important relationship to him was as his forerunner, his herald. John went around “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and his message was, Luke says, a fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah 40 which said that there would be one “crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (3:4b-6). The prophet, who was speaking to Jews in Exile in the 6th century B.C.E., used the image of the way being cleared through the desert for a highway on which God would go to Babylon and take his people home; the prophet also talked about the people getting their lives ready for God’s arrival—and that’s what John preached about, too.

In a sense, John was making room for Jesus and he was challenging his listeners to make room for Jesus. John’s message, as paraphrased by Frederick Buechner, was “Your only hope…was to clean up your life as if your life depended on it, which it did, and get baptized in a hurry as a sign that you had” [Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: a Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1979), p. 78]. And so I say to us today what John said to his listeners: “Get ready because Jesus is coming.” “How do we get ready?” you may well ask. John’s answer is today’s answer: “Repent!”

To prepare for Jesus and to make room for Jesus means to repent and to repent means to change the direction of your life, to turn around and go the other way from the way you have been going. While such turning is finally made possible only by the work of God in our lives, it is nonetheless the case that we must do our part—we must exercise our wills to do those things that make room for Jesus in our hearts and in our midst.

“What things?” you might ask. “How do we need to turn, to change, to repent?” John’s listeners asked him the same thing and his answer to them is the answer for us:

“Whoever had two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:11-14)

Maybe we cannot be truly open to the coming of Jesus into our individual lives and into the life of the church until we are truly open to the coming of other people into our lives and into the life of the church.

This much is clear from the words of John the Baptist: to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to turn from our unthinking self-centeredness to an intentional focus on the needs of others; to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to turn from our unthinking use and misuse of others for our own benefit to an intentional commitment to do no harm and to do much good; to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to be honest and open and generous and fair and just and righteous and loving in the way we think of ourselves and in the ways we treat others; to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to think of love others like we love ourselves and to act like it.

In his poem “Advent Stanzas,” Robert Cording wrote,

Each year you are born again. It is no remedy

For what we go on doing to each other,
For history’s blind repetitions of hate and reprisal.

[Robert Cording, “Advent Stanzas,” The Southern Review, Spring 2004; reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005, ed. Philip Zaleski (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), pp. 18-22]

His coming really is the remedy for such things, of course—the problem is not with him but with us, and the truth is that we have the ability to turn our hearts and lives in the right direction ourselves and then, with his arrival, we will experience the full turning that will make all the difference to those and to those around us.

The hard truth is that all those people who are out there who need so desperately for Jesus to come to them too often cannot see around the curve that we allow—and even cause—to remain in the road rather than straightening it out—by which I mean that we don’t straighten our selfishness into selflessness, our greed into generosity, and our cynicism into grace. Once we straighten the way, the prophet said, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (v. 6).

John C. Morris tells of

a highway in southern Vermont where many serious accidents happen because cars and trucks build up their speed descending a mountain, only to come upon a sharp curve in the road. The people living in the house near that curve keep a pile of blankets on their porch because they know there will be accidents regularly, and the victims will need to be covered while waiting for the rescue squad. Residents of the area have been petitioning the state for years to straighten the road out in order to prevent accidents and save lives. John the Baptist seems to be saying something similar -- the curves of injustice, immorality and inhumanity need to be changed into smooth paths so that everyone will see God’s salvation. [John C. Morris, “Smoothing the Path (Mal. 3:1-4; Lk. 1:68-79; Phil. 1:3-11; Lk. 3:1-6)”, Christian Century, November 22-29, 2000, retrieved from]

I know, I know—we do a lot of things as individuals and through the church to provide blankets to those who need them.

But I wonder: how many people out there can’t see Jesus around the curves in the road—around the crooked ways of our hearts, around the distorted ways of our relating, around the graceless ways of our actions—that we refuse to straighten out?

I wonder.

A Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent 2009

We praise you, our God, for you are the One who has come, who comes, and who is coming.

Make us ready, o Lord; prepare our hearts and lives for your coming.

Cause us to take time to rest and wait before you so that we will have the spiritual, mental, and emotional capacity to perceive your coming.

Convict us to repent of those attitudes and actions that hinder us from openness to you so that we will have room in our hearts and lives to receive your coming.

Empower us to be vulnerable and gracious toward each other and toward those who seem truly other to us so that we will in them grasp your coming.

Enable us to have such grace and faith that, whether the circumstances and situations we face are good or bad, we will in them experience your coming.

In the name of the One who has come, who comes, and who is coming,


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I Believe in Santa Claus

(Another Christmas rerun from 2007--so add two years to the age references!)

I am a forty-nine year old Baptist minister who has been married for almost thirty years and who has two grown children--and I believe in Santa Claus.

I believe in Santa Claus because of what the Bible teaches. The Bible says, “Honor your father and mother.” My father always told me, even when I was a teenager and he was in his fifties, that he believed in Santa Claus and that I should, too. “Without Santa Claus,” he said, “we would lose the spirit of Christmas.” I am bound to follow the teachings of the Bible. Therefore, I continue to honor my father and believe in Santa Claus.

Visiting Santa Claus was one of the most exciting and anxiety-producing aspects of my childhood Christmas experience. I would plan ahead, polishing and perfecting my list. It had to be just right. You shouldn’t ask for too much and appear greedy, I figured; that might land you on the naughty list. But you also shouldn’t leave anything off that you really wanted. If you did, you might not get it! And if I didn’t get the exact G.I. Joe accessories that I needed, then what kind of Christmas would that be?

I have so many memories of visiting Santa Claus.

In my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, Wisebram’s Department Store was Santa Headquarters. Our Santa was a down-to-earth accessible Santa. There would be none of that fancy Santa throne stuff for him. No, he just sat himself down in the shoe department, right there on one of the seats where we sat to try on our shoes. Well, I didn’t sit there because I wore prescription shoes and had to go to Griffin to get them, but he sat where most Barnesvillians sat.

I confess that I had my first doubts about Santa right there in the Wisebram’s Shoe Department. One year, as I was sitting on his knee, I noticed that a staple was stuck in his beard. I puzzled over that until my puzzler was sore (credit: Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas). I was concerned that maybe, just maybe, that beard had been stored in a box somewhere and there it had acquired that staple. I puzzled my way out of it, though. Who could say from where the staple came? The mystery was only enhanced! Besides, doubt is necessary as a complement to real faith.

Some years my parents and I would go to the Greenbrier Mall in Atlanta to do some Christmas shopping. In the 1960s that mall was the most magical place I had ever seen. Every department store there had a Santa Claus! That did not trouble me, for my father had long ago explained to me that Santa had to have many stand-ins while he was working at the North Pole.

One particular year I was in a quandary. I wanted a toy electric guitar. There were two models of it and I could not make up my mind which one I wanted. When I thought I had my mind made up, I went to one of the Santas and told him. He said that sounded fine to him. But then I got to thinking that I would really rather have the other model. So I went to the Santa in one of the other stores and told him that I had changed my mind. He looked at me a little funny but said that it sounded all right to him. Then I changed my mind again but I got concerned that I might confuse Santa so much that I would get a harp rather than a guitar so I decided to just leave it up to him.

Once during my childhood I entered an agnostic phase in my attitude toward Santa. I felt that there was plenty of evidence that there was no Santa but I was not willing to say for sure. I mean, what if there was, you know? This much I knew, though: the stand-in for Santa Claus that came to our church was Dock Knight, who was married to my mother’s cousin and who I had been raised to call “Uncle Dock.” I was convinced of it. And I told my father that I was convinced of it, over and over and over. That year, as Santa was prowling around the sanctuary, my father said to me, “Look back there.” There in the back of the church, standing with his arms folded across his chest, was Uncle Dock. Someone might as well have scattered magic Christmas dust all over my brain. Hope was rekindled! I had found a reason to believe again.

Such memories!

One of my friends was told by his mother from the very beginnings of his Christmas consciousness that there was no Santa Claus. I noticed that he always got just as much good stuff as I did. But I also noticed that he never had much joy about the Christmas experience.

I still have joy. There are much more important reasons that I have Christmas joy, of course, than that Santa Claus is coming to town.

But he is coming.

I may be a forty-nine year old Baptist preacher who has been married for almost thirty years and who has two grown children, but I’m all tingly just thinking about it. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for all the rationality and maturity in the world.