Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I never got to be a wiseman, until now

Christmas growing up always centered on church with the big event being the Christmas pageant.

In those days, we just called it the Christmas “program.” We were simple folk and “pageant” sounded a tad too uptown.

I always wanted to be a wiseman, but never made the cut. It was very disappointing and I'm not sure I've ever gotten completely over it.

By the time I was grown enough to fit the part, our little church had moved into the “modern day” by discarding the traditional reenactment of the Nativity.

Instead of the brilliant simplicity of the Christmas story read from the Bible and enacted by kids and teens costumed in bathrobes, towels, ingeniously pinned sheets, and a silent toy baby in a manger playing the part of Jesus, we moved to “skits” and “cantatas” that were supposed to make the Bible story more relevant.

These were miniaturized dramas and musicals cast in some contemporary setting that modernized the story of Jesus' birth. It wasn't so much about Him any longer as about the season and good feelings. Or so it seemed.

My attitude toward this was not progressive. I preferred the traditional retelling of the events. Still do.

Getting to the big day

On Christmas Sunday, which was whatever Sunday fell just prior to December 25th, that's when it all happened.

In the morning service, it was always the little kids reciting lines from pieces of paper the size of fortune cookie fortunes.

All ages from the little to the small to the tiny participated. But no big kids, adults, or teens; they were on in the evening service.

Always there were a couple of little ones who couldn't remember the four or seven words they were tasked to memorize, and so had to be coached by their teacher or parents mouthing the words, s-l-o-w-l-y, one at a time, exaggeratedly.

And, of course, there were the precocious kids that recited perfectly every word with the diction of an experienced Thespian.

Show offs.

But it was all adorable. And touching.

Parents ran to the front and jockeyed for position to capture the precious moment featuring their child sharing some tidbit about the coming of the Child.

In between the shuttling off stage and on stage the various age groups, we all sang Christmas carols.

Silent Night. O Come All Ye Faithful. Joy To The World. All the traditional greats.

We knew the tunes. We knew the words. And we sang our hearts out.

In fact, the carols during worship service (or what we called “the song service”) began on the first Sunday of December. The typical hymns, songs, and choruses were all sidelined. The month of December was all about singing the Christmas carols – the songs of the season sung only this one time of the year – and nothing else. Period.
Sidebar: Editorial comment 
I find it infinitely ironic that, today, there are worship leaders who refuse to sing more than a smattering of carols, claiming that people are tired of the them because they hear them over and over again in stores and on the radio throughout the month. Yet, these same worship leaders will put up the same choruses and songs week after week all year every year! Their arguments are baseless and they are nothing more than Christmas carol Scrooges and Grinches.
Back to the pageant prep

We began preparations right after Thanksgiving for the pageant. The casting calls went out, adult assistants were recruited, and the rehearsals began.

But really, we all knew the different parts by heart. The only questions were who would be cast as whom based on age and growth spurts. Whoever had the better looking bathrobes also factored in.

I moved up dutifully through the ranks.

I did the morning service several times as a small child, saying my part, and, later, participating in the song flute choir.

Everyone knew that every fourth grader was given a song flute at school so there was no dodging this duty.

And now the big show!

After my years of morning service appearances, it was onto the big stage of the evening service, our stage being nothing more than the raised front of the sanctuary. A wire was strung across the front and hung with sheets that acted as curtains. We kept it simple.

Over my years of Sunday performances I was an angel and a shepherd.

For boys, the progression went more or less like this: angel, shepherd, wiseman, and then, if you were lucky, Joseph, or maybe the innkeeper.

Every once in awhile a Roman soldier or miscellaneous bystander was tossed into the mix.

Do you see the problem here?

The same number of kids moved through the ranks, but while there was always a need for a “host” of angels and any number of shepherds, there were only three wisemen, one Joseph, and one innkeeper.

The competition for these roles heated up as we aged. It was all a matter of numbers. Although I’m guessing some backroom politicking went on among the mothers.

For girls, it was worse since they had to jump directly from angels to Mary and that was pretty much it.

Again, on occasion there would be a need for a female bystander or the innkeeper would get a wife. Sometimes girls even got to play shepherds. But these were all hit and miss.

Don’t forget the candy!

The pageant wasn’t the only thing we looked forward to on Christmas Sunday. Besides dreaming of the sweet part in the pageant we also longed for the special bag of candy.

Every year on Christmas Sunday every person in attendance got a small white paper bag of candy. There was also an orange or an apple included, but the candy was the real prize.

We all prayed that the bag we got would have one or two extra of those little caramel candies with the white sugary filling. Those were gold.

The handing out of the candy happened after the morning service and was executed decently and in order. No one took more than one bag unless a family member was home sick. After all, it was the season of colds and flus.

But the men who handed out the bags knew who was there and who wasn't and we didn't even have to ask for the extra bag; they knew.

As times changed and inflation grew as steadily as we did, the bags held less and less and the selection of candies became more limited.

Finally, before they were abandoned altogether, the fruit was eliminated and all that remained were a few pieces of the cheaper hard candies. The anti-sugar movement was the final stake. Bah! Humbug!

Being a real-life wise guy

I miss the bags of candy and the pageants. And I’ll most likely never get the chance to take on the role of one of the three wisemen in one.

But, for all of us, there are opportunities to be wise men and wise women every day. The Bible offers a lot of guidance on how to be wise. Here are four key tips:
  • Shun Evil: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil” (Proverbs 3:7, NIV).
  • Embrace God: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise” (Psalm 111:10, NIV)
  • Seek Wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5, NIV).
  • Bank Knowledge: “Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin” (Proverbs 10:14, NIV).
Being wise in life is a lot tougher than donning a bathrobe and a cardboard crown and standing silently next to a makeshift manger as the narrator intones the Word.

Real-life wisdom requires doing the Word.

There have been days that wisdom ruled. Others where, well, I played the fool way too well. Fortunately, God’s grace can redeem even the dumbest episodes.

His grace was made flesh in a manger in a cave a couple thousand years ago. About two years later, the original wisemen, the Magi, found him, were overjoyed, and worshipped him.

Those wise men had to travel from afar to find the Child, the King of kings. Today, we only have to travel to our knees and this King will take up residence in our hearts and be near to us day in and day out.

How to be a wise man or wise woman today? "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight" (Proverbs 3:5-6, NIV).

So, I guess I made it after all!

But I still miss those bags of candy.

Merry Christmas! What are some of your Christmas memories? Feel free to share...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Early to Christ, late to faith, on time in the process

I’m not a sports fan so was not that familiar with Joe Gibbs. I know, there are some readers who are at this moment aghast. Others, still, are not surprised.

But I did read an article about Gibbs posted, oddly it seemed, in the Belief section of CNN.com.

I guess Gibbs has coached and now owns a NASCAR racing team. The article described him as an “NFL legend.”

Okay. That’s cool.

His sports accomplishments were not particularly intriguing to me. What was interesting, however, was his description of coming to Christ.

You see, Gibbs is a Christian. Like me.

With Christ sidelined

He’s apparently experienced some rough times in his life and hasn’t always been faithful to his faith.

But now, he’s renewed his relationship with God and is taking his faith much more seriously.

The article puts it like this:
“Gibbs says he found comfort amid the turmoil in a renewal of his faith. A life-long Baptist, Gibbs says he’s not fond of denominational distinctions and says he and his wife have always gravitated toward, ‘Bible-believing churches.’”

“He became a Christian at a young age, ‘I made that decision when I was 9 but I spent a part of my life drifting, you know, I was on God’s team but I wasn’t playing for him.’”

“He says spiritual mentors like a Sunday school teacher in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and some of his Redskins players helped him get back on track with a deeper, more meaningful Christian faith even while the struggles were at their worst.”

“‘Part of playing the game of life is you’re going to have some losses,’ he is fond of saying.”
I can’t recall where, but I also recently read another article about someone else who had a similar childhood conversion experience.

They grew up in a Christian home, were always at church, accepted Christ, and then went on their merry way, more or less ignoring the responsibilities of their commitment.

I can relate.

Playing for real in the game of life

This was akin to my experience growing up in church. On one hand, growing up in a godly home had real positive benefits. But, accepting Christ as a kid in such a situation can be problematic.

I know many of my friends and relatives who grew up in similar situations will agree.

The issue is that it is widely accepted in evangelical churches, particularly those that lean more conservative, that one who comes to Christ has a clearly defined before/after reality.

Before Christ, whatever sinning you did, at conversion, becomes washed in the blood and that’s that. It’s done and it’s not generally counted against you.

Even in situations where divorce is a huge no-no and can exclude you from many church offices and ministries, if the divorce occurred before, then no harm, no foul.

However, if after you have accepted Christ you go through a divorce – even if it wasn’t your idea – you are marked as anathema. No exceptions.

Divorce is only one issue. There are many “sin situations” that can be thrown into this before/after conundrum.

It’s a tad disheartening.

From shifting sand to solid ground

The thing is, when a person accepts Christ as a young kid, or even a teenager, how the heck can you really understand what you’ve gotten yourself into? Especially if “the decision” was all anyone was after and no real discipleship followed?

For me, I felt pretty much on my own. But I was determined to understand the implications of my faith and did the best I could to learn. I read my Bible, usually. Read lots of books. Listened to the sermon every Sunday. And so forth.

But taking all of that and figuring out how to apply it within the demands of real life didn’t come naturally. After all, our natural inclination is away from God, not toward him.

Needless to say, there was trial and error – a lot of error – before I really began to get a handle on what living in faith meant and how to walk it out. I’m still working out a lot of the details.

One truth I’ve learned is that it is not about a single moment of magical transformation; rather, it is about a lifetime long process.

Holiness doesn’t happen in an instant. It takes time to get imparted holiness ingrained into one’s being.

Frankly, I’ve been around a lot of Christians and I’ve never met one yet who has managed to life a perfect “after” life.

Seeds, soil, and seeing things differently

Jesus tells a parable that’s recorded in Matthew 13:3-13:
"Then he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop--a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.’ The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.'"
As explained in most sermons, the seed is supposed to be the Word of God. The landing place of the seed is supposed to represent us. In these sermons our lives are characterized as either receptive “good soil” or resistant “rocky places.”

I’m not sure such a simplistic interpretation hits the true heart of the story.

I don’t think that our lives are always one kind of soil or another, but varies over time.

There have been days where I’ve been so dazed and wounded by life that, as much as I love God’s Word, I wanted nothing to do with it or him.

And there are others when I gladly wanted to be over-planted!

And then there was me as kid who didn’t always get it but kept at it as I’ve aged.

Rejuvenating fallow ground

Soil often starts as stone that gets worn and broken down over time. Sod that has been packed down from being a path can be tilled and broken up. Thorny ground can be cleared of weeds that choke good growth. Shallow patches can become deep, fertile areas as leaves and other natural debris accumulates and decomposes into rich soil.

In such a living process, there is no clear demarcation between “before” and “after,” but rather a long timeline of change and growth marked by periods of drought, storms, and other temporary setbacks.

Even ground devastated by a raging fire recovers over time. The more care it receives, the faster it is restored.

Given the rich grace of God and his persistence in conforming us to his image, we who have lives besotted with sin that happened “after” our initial commitment are able to recover all the more quickly with each sincere repentance.

If this is your experience, don’t give up on yourself even if others have. They are like the legalistic Pharisees that Jesus rebuked.

To you and me, after each screw-up coupled with repentance, Christ always says, “I forgive you. Let’s keep walking together.”

God doesn’t discard the wounded; he restores us, re-seeds us, and allows us to produce “a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Hang in there. And let me know about your experience as "soil."

Friday, December 7, 2012

Basically and simply bold

It’s always fun to get free books, right?

I signed up to be a reviewer for a group called Handlebar* and the first book I was sent is “Bold as Love: What can happen when we see people the way God does” by Bob Roberts, Jr.

It must be a really good book since it’s endorsed by the likes of Jimmy Carter, Dale Hanson Bourke, Bob Buford, and others.
Makes it a tad intimidating to review the book in any way but glowingly positive! But I’ll do my best.

The thrust of the book is a call to Christians to truly love their neighbors – all neighbors or all faiths and all “tribes” – as the Bible intends. A daunting task, to be sure.

Through his personal experiences and the efforts of the church he pastors, Roberts “shows [us] what it looks like to live our faith daily in the global public square among people of other faiths – Jews, Muslims, atheists, Hindus, Buddhists.”

However, in this book, Roberts recounts primarily his dealings with Muslims as the basis for his examples and prescriptions. He clearly knows and rubs elbows with many Muslims, apparently around the world.

In a very simple writing style, Roberts addresses five fears he says we need to overcome as we reach out. These are the fear of physical harm, the fear of hostility from those we may perceive to be our enemies, the fear of hostility from our friends for mixing with those outside our own camp, the fear of having one’s own faith challenged to the point of possibly going over to the other side, and the fear of fear itself.

Whether these are legitimate concerns in your own efforts to reach out to your neighbors, you will have to decide on your own. Roberts does give examples of how he experienced and dealt with each.

He does caution against labeling outreach initiatives as inter-faith, preferring the term multi-faith instead. Inter-faith implies setting aside disagreeable elements of every faith and finding common ground on beliefs that can be shared. This tends to compromise and water down each. However, multi-faith implies each group working alongside each other respectfully with all beliefs fully intact, cooperatively seeking the common good.

Roberts did make an excellent point early on in the book. He states, “When we fight a mosque being built [in the U.S.], we are just making it harder for Christian churches to be built in other lands where people may be fearful of Christians.”

If we believe in and support Christian missionary efforts around the globe, then we must be tolerant of the same kind of efforts by those of other faiths, and be a loving witness of the Gospel that God plants right next to us. If we show tolerance and love to them here, they are more likely to respond in kind there.

This is not so much a handbook on how to do multi-faith outreach ministry as a recounting of experiences and thoughts from one who is doing it. Roberts provides some insight into what an individual or congregation can expect as well as good things to do and not so good things to avoid.

To learn more about Bob Roberts, click here: http://northwoodchurch.org/staff_bio.php?id=15
To visit Bob's blog, click here:  http://www.glocal.net/
* As part of the deal I was asked to post an honest review to my blog as well as on the book's Amazon page.