A Christmas Eve Diary

Christmas Eve at Park City Community Church is a study in both joy and chaos. Here’s my diary of the day:

10AM – Service of Lessons and Carols. What a great, simple service. I got to sit with my family and hear the Christmas story as it unfolds from Genesis to the Gospels. Nicely done by our laity and a great way to start the day.

11AM – Began prep for afternoon and evening services. Amazing how many candles and bulletins it takes to get us through an evening.

Noon – Home for lunch and a quick nap like the kind I used to take in the infantry…20 minutes and I’m back on track. I watch a little football (Saints and Giants) and see that the Steelers’ season has finally been ended by the Ravens. Bummer, but no time to grieve. Got to gird up for the rest of the day.

2PM – Back to the church. A little more prep for the 3PM service for children and families. We call this the calm before the storm.

3PM – Children’s service–it’s fun to see so many young kids with their parents. I cut down my sermon to their level and time constraints and it seemed to track. Kids are usually the best gauge of how well you’ve done your preparation!

4PM – Reset the sanctuary and people began arriving for the 5PM service. Yikes, this is going to be huge. By 4:30, people were already finding extra chairs in the classrooms and bringing them into the Fellowship Hall. SRO in the loft.

5PM – Biggest service of the night. Fortunately, we had no (big) hitches and everyone seemed to go with the flow of the Spirit. Two thirds of those in attendance were from out of town. Count was 710 people. It was 506 at this service last year. They just kept coming. I hope that they leave with a new sense of God’s grace

6:20PM – Joined the choir in the kitchen for a bite to eat…a big hunk of a giant sub. Ate standing up and wolfed it down, remembering to take off my robe first so as not to be besmirched by mayo.

7PM – Good sized crowd (378) but much more manageable space-wise. Tweaked the sermon a little on the fly, which usually happens on Sundays during the second service, too. The lightbulb idea seems to connect.

8PM – Greeted people after the service and it seemed that every other person was from Texas. I think most of the state has come here skiing this year! Met a lot of Texas Methodists. It’s always fun to see people who return here year after year for Christmas vacation. It’s one of the more interesting parts of being a church in a resort town.

8:30PM – Everything transitions from the Fellowship Hall to the sanctuary. Choir was a huge help in getting things moved. It’d be great if we could do it all in one place. Anyone got about $7 million they’re not using?

9PM – Nice service. Comfortably full (about 325). Great music by Ruth and the Johnson family. There was one person who kept laughing out loud even before I got to the joke in the sermon. Must be a Holy Spirit thing…

10:15PM – Am now really getting tired. Voice is still holding out, though, even without Ricola. I usually burn out at 10:30AM on Sundays but tonight God is good and is helping me hold it together. Chatted with Bill and Donn who have hung out all evening helping where they can, doing sound, spreading salt, moving chairs, etc. Guys like these are a real gift on a night like this.

11PM – In the middle of the sermon I realize that I am really tired of hearing my own voice. But, I manage to stay focused enough on the comparatively small crowd (about 115) who have come out to ring in Christmas Day. In many ways this is my favorite service of the night–serving communion, having things a little more quiet. Some have urged me to give it up because the service doesn’t draw big numbers, but I really like it. There’s just something about being at church as the day transitions that makes it a very special time.

12:05AM Christmas Day – We wrap it all up with the benediction and "Joy to the World." The church empties quickly. We tally the day’s numbers: we saw 1,878 people over the course of 6 services. We saw people from all over the US and probably from a few other countries, too. Most everyone left smiling, which is a very good thing.

12:30AM – I walk the quarter mile home from the church, which has become my Christmas tradition. The quiet stillness of the night, the lack of traffic, the stars…all give me a chance to wind down after a long but rewarding day. This is what Christmas is about to me…not about the crowds but about the Silent Night. Granted, it is a special privilege to share the good news with so many people, but that walk home is just between me and God.

12:45AM – I walk through the front door of a dimly lighted house. Everyone’s in bed. I have one more present to wrap and can’t find the clear tape (not that it would help…I stink at wrapping packages). I turn on the TV and catch a little of the movie "A Christmas Story" with Ralphie and the Red Ryder B-B gun. It’s my favorite Christmas movie and a great way to wind down. I finally hit the rack at 1:30AM .

7AM – Children invade. It’s Christmas!

Christmas Wishes

I’ve been burning the proverbial candle at both ends this week getting ready for Super Bowl Sunday, er, Christmas Eve. We’re ready to welcome the crowds (about 1800 people over six services). If you are planning to join us, services are at 10AM, then 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11PM. I’ll be the one drinking the warm milk left out for Santa at about 1AM Christmas morning.

That said, here are a few random Christmas wishes:

  • I wish for my beloved Pittsburgh Penguins a long life in the ‘Burgh, though things look bleak right now. I love the team, but my stomach turns to see my home state caving into slot machines as the answer to their financial woes. Slots were supposed to fund the new arena, which would leave me in a quandry–is it morally repugnant to root for a team in a building built on the backs of the mathematically challenged, since gambling is essentially a tax on people who can’t do math and calculate odds? Yeah, it probably is…
  • I wish our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan a Christmas Day without any incoming. I pray for these men and women and the really untenable position into which they have been sent.
  • I wish that people wouldn’t wait until two days before Christmas Eve to do all their shopping at Costco because the parking lots are a mess and there’s no place to sit while eating your $1.50 hot dog and drink special. How would I know this? Well…
  • I wish my friends and family on the Front Range of Colorado a decent melt-off by Christmas Eve. My foster brother sent me pictures of his house, which looks like a World War I battlefield with 4 ft. trenches running everywhere.
  • I wish that I could magically consume all the chocolate that I’ve been given in the last two weeks without gaining a pound.
  • I wish you and yours a blessed Christmas, and that you’ll remember that the real gift is Jesus.

$2,200 Makes You Rich

Money A global survey has revealed some startling statistics about the distribution of wealth in our world. The upshot of it is that if you have $2,200 in assets right now, you are in the top half of the world’s wealthiest people. To be in the top 10% you need just $61,000. And if you have $500,000 you are in the 1% bracket.

Half the world, on the other hand, lives on just $2.00 a day–less than a latte at Starbucks. Our country, with 6% of the world’s population, has 34% of the world’s wealth.

The question I’d like to pose this morning concerns whether those are facts of which we should be proud or ashamed. In this "season of giving," we’ll spend more on Christmas crud than the rest of the world has to live on. Something is seriously out of whack.

Given that Jesus was born in a barn to a family so poor they couldn’t rub two drachmas together, it says something about our faith, too. How willing are we to share our abundance with those who need help just to survive? How willing are we to identify with the poor? How much concern do we have for those living in third world countries whose standard of living is less than what people lavish on their pets in this country?

It’s something to think about and pray about this Christmas…

“All in the Family” Part VI: Joseph and 50:20 Vision (12/17/06 Sermon)

We wrap up our Advent series today with the last of the Genesis ancestors of Jesus—the story of Joseph. In many ways I think Joseph’s story is the quintessential biblical story: a prototype, if you will, for the Gospel—the good news that God overcomes the evil of humanity in surprising and powerful ways. \

We have seen this at work—from God’s saving Noah in the Ark and deciding to stick with rebellious humanity rather than destroy it, to God’s covenant with Abraham, to God sticking with Jacob despite his deception and manipulation. We have seen the human family with all of its foibles. When we read these pages, we see ourselves…but moreover, we see a God who works with us and heals us.

In a sense we’ve seen the human family take its lumps and lick its self-inflicted wounds with God’s help. These biblical characters are scarred, and scars touch our memories.

We all have them. Some are on the surface and some, scars of the emotional kind, run deeper. Some are the result of accidents, and some are the result of a deep woundedness of the soul. Scars remind us that life isn’t always fair and that it can be very painful – physically, spiritually, emotionally. Every time we see them, feel them, we remember…

When I read the story of Joseph in Genesis, I think of it as a scar story – the story of a young man’s woundedness and recovery, but even more so a story of hope.

The book of Genesis takes 13 chapters to tell his story. We read for you the beginning and the end of it this morning, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version:

You’ll recall from last week that Jacob had 12 sons with 4 different wives – where we get the 12 tribes of Israel. Joseph was the first son born to Rachel, Jacob’s favorite – the one for whom he had labored for 14 years to receive her hand in marriage. Consequently, Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son among all the sons. So pleased is Jacob that he makes Joseph a many-colored coat with long sleeves (indicates that he wasn’t really expected to work!).

Joseph’s brothers are jealous, of course. Add to that the fact that Joseph has dreams about his brothers bowing down to him and you can see the sibling rivalry really get going. When Joseph goes out to check up on his brothers at his father’s request, they finally decide to get rid of him – they strip him of his garment, throw him in a cistern, and eventually sell him into slavery. They tell their father that he was eaten by a predator, presenting him the coat smeared with goat’s blood (this was the time before CSI and DNA, of course).

Joseph is brought as a slave to Egypt, sold to a man named Potiphar. After a while, though, Potiphar saw what a good servant Joseph had become and eventually put him in charge of the household. Genesis makes it clear that Joseph is successful—even getting a new robe. By now, Joseph was growing into a handsome man and attracted the attention of Potiphar’s wife, who secretly propositions Joseph to engage in an affair with her. When he refuses on moral grounds, however, she become furious and falsely accuses him of raping her, and has him thrown into prison.

There he languishes for years in incarceration, but even in the deep, dark dungeon he makes a favorable impression on the prison warden, who puts him in charge of the other prisoners, interpreting their dreams and then, after a long time, is called to interpret the dreams of the Pharoah, the ruler of all of Egypt. When Joseph interprets Pharoah’s dreams, preparing the land for a great famine to come, Pharoah makes him prime minister in charge of social and economic affairs, managing the resources of the empire. Once again, he is given a tunic with long sleeves…

When the famine strikes it hits hard in Joseph’s homeland of Canaan, where his father and brothers still reside. They hear that there is grain stored up in Egypt, so they decide to go down and buy some grain, not knowing who it was they would be buying it from!

Imagine Joseph now standing over his brothers – scarred for life by what they had done to him. He has every right to play the victim – he is one, after all and we’d expect him to want some payback. And we’d expect that because we live in a culture of victimhood. (Reminds me of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon: First panel Calvin says, “Nothing I do is my fault. My family is dysfunctional and my parents won’t empower me. Consequently, I’m not self-actualized. My behavior is addictive, functioning in a disease process of codependency. I need holistic healing and wellness before I’ll accept any responsibility for my actions. I love the culture of victimhood!” To which Hobbes replies: “One of us needs to stick his head in a bucket of ice water!)

But Joseph refuses to give in to victimhood. He does not view his physical and emotional scars as reason for despair or revenge. He sees them, incredibly, as signs of God’s providence.

Look at how Joseph points to his scars in Genesis 45:1-8, the account of the reunion with his brothers:

“Joseph couldn’t hold himself in any longer, keeping up a front before all his attendants. He cried out, “Leave! Clear out—everyone leave!” So there was no one with Joseph when he identified himself to his brothers. But his sobbing was so violent that the Egyptians couldn’t help but hear him. The news was soon reported to Pharaoh’s palace.

Joseph spoke to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Is my father really still alive?” But his brothers couldn’t say a word. They were terrified – speechless—they couldn’t believe what they were hearing and seeing.
“Come closer to me,” Joseph said to his brothers. They came closer. “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. But don’t feel badly, don’t blame yourselves for selling me. God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the land now for two years; the famine will continue for five more years—neither plowing nor harvesting. God sent me on ahead to pave the way and make sure there was a remnant in the land, to save your lives in an amazing act of deliverance. So you see, it wasn’t you who sent me here but God.”

Wow. Here is Joseph, looking back at the events of his life with a new vision – the scars of pain, rejection, and separation are, for him, only part of the story. In Genesis 50:20, he sums it up: “You intended to harm, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” David Seamands, one of my professors at Asbury, called this 50:20 vision…Genesis 50:20 vision. What the world, the human plan, the human scheme planned as an evil, self-serving act – God took and used for good, preserving life!

One of the persistent puzzles of the human experience is how we deal with the evil in our world. As humans in a fallen world, we seem to live lives of constant jeopardy – vulnerable to a wide range of evil – sickness, crime, destruction of families, oppression – you know them all because you live them every day. It’s quite a legitimate question to ask or even cry out, “Where is God in all this?”
Joseph’s 50:20 vision tells us that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is at work. God is making things good despite the evil.

Does this mean that every tragedy we experience has a silver lining? That all evil is really good, and that all our suffering is somehow being orchestrated by God?

Not at all.

The world is full of senseless violence, horrifying hatred and a whole range of actions and attitudes that attempt to thwart the will of God.

It would be bad theology to assert that the Lord is orchestrating all this evil, as the tension of life builds toward some grand and glorious ending. But one thing that both the Old and the New Testaments teach us is that God has the power to transform human evil into divine good.

Notice that the end of Genesis has the same message as the beginning. In Genesis 1, God creates the universe, the earth, and us and calls it all “good”. By chapter 3, humans have rejected God’s goodness – but despite all human efforts to the contrary, God’s intention for good overcomes. He used the slavery of Joseph to save a family, and he transformed the death of Jesus into the salvation of the world. Even the apostle Paul, languishing in prison, writes to the Romans “For we know that all things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:20)

Never should we ask for a scar to be removed. Joseph didn’t, Jesus didn’t, and neither should we. But God can create a life in which our wound is transformed into something good, and we are propelled toward new and abundant life.

That’s 50:20 vision. How do we get it?

In his classic book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen reflects on what it means to minister in a hurting and alienated society. He recommends prayer, not as a “decoration of life,” but as the breath of human existence. A Christian community is a healing community, says Nouwen, not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision – 50:20 vision.

How about you? What’s your vision? Take a look at your scars: physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual. How can they be openings or occasions for new visions? Joseph looked at the scar of his sale into slavery, and saw that God had a saving plan for his life. Perhaps some abuse you have suffered will enable you to serve people who have been abused; maybe some hurt you have endured will equip you to ease the pain of another; it could be that some loss you have experienced will put you in a powerful position to assist those who are grieving.

We can find meaning in our scars. As we gather here the week before Christmas, we celebrate the coming of the baby in the manger, but we look ahead, too, to the reality of the Cross and the Resurrection. We remember that when Jesus came out of the tomb, he still had scars. Phillip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew explains:

“Presumably [Jesus] could have had any resurrected body he wanted, and yet he chose one identifiable mainly by scars that could be seen and touched. Why?

I believe the story of Easter would be incomplete without those scars on the hands, the feet, and the side of Jesus. When human beings fantasize, we dream of pearly straight teeth and wrinkle-free skin and sexy ideal shapes. We dream of an unnatural state: the perfect body. But for Jesus, being confined in a skeleton and human skin WAS the unnatural state. The scars are, to him, an emblem of life on our planet, a permanent reminder of those days of confinement and suffering.

I take hope in Jesus’ scars. From the perspective of heaven, they represent the most horrible event that has ever happened in the history of the universe – the crucifixion – Easter turned into a memory. Because of Easter, I can hope that the tears we shed, the blows we receive, the emotional pain, the heartache over lost friends and loved ones, all these will become memories, like Jesus’ scars. Scars never completely go away, but neither do they hurt any longer.”

The story of Genesis is that God is always working for good despite human efforts to the contrary. God has stuck with us, and seeks to work in and through us. No matter what we are facing, we can be sure that somehow, someway, God is still working for good.
That’s 50:20 vision!

A Grinch-y Rant

Well, we finally finished all our Christmas shopping. Everything has been clicked, wrapped (well, sort of), mailed and hidden. We’ve bought gifts, sent cards, touched all the holiday bases.

On one level, it’s really nice to be able to connect with family and friends far away by offering a gift to say you’re thinking of them. At the same time, however, it seems that our gift lists just get longer and longer. School classes do white elephant exchanges with $10 gifts, there are the parties you have to bring one to as well, and you have to have your emergency back-up gifts for those who give you one unexpectedly. Can’t wait to see the Amex bill next month.

OK, maybe it’s my Scots-Irish heritage talking here (at least that’s what I’m calling it–since I’m adopted and may be Lithuanian for all I know), but all this gift giving can smack of obligation rather than inspiration. Racking your brain to buy the "right" present for an uncle you see once every decade is always a head-scratcher for me.

Why do we spend so much energy on gift giving at Christmas, anyway? Whenever I ask this question, people always tell me that, well, it’s because the wise men gave gifts to baby Jesus. OK…except the wise men came at epiphany and the gifts (particularly the frankincense and myrrh) were expensive ointments used in embalming, which some scholars believe were put in the story by Matthew as a way of foreshadowing Jesus’ death. You can almost see Mary and Joseph, saying, "Gee, thanks for the gold and, um, the other stuff…" Really, these are some creepy birthday gifts.

Then, think about this: they gave the gifts to Jesus, not to each other in his honor. Every year, people in our country engage in an orgy of spending on others and, when it comes to Jesus, the sum total may be a buck in the plate on Christmas Eve. Nationally, people will increase their Christmas spending by 9.1% this year, while the average charitable giving for a family in the U.S. is just 1.7% of net income. We’re spending more on stuff and less on the stuff that matters. Not that it’s just about giving to the church…I mean there are lot of ways that we could be giving gifts to Jesus–donating food, time, and energy with the poor. Giving generously pf your time, talent, and treasure to churches and agencies that serve others is really more in line with the spirit of Christ. When you really think about it, there probably shouldn’t be any "getting" of presents at all if it’s all about giving gifts to Jesus.

Now, I realize that I sound like someone who has recently painted himself green and moved to a cave in the hills only to come down once a year to raid Whoville of all its holiday booty. But that’s not it, really. I know that reversing embedded traditions is pretty impossible, particularly when it comes to things like Christmas and holly and kids and tinsel and all that. But allow me to be a voice crying in the wilderness for us to take a hard look at what we say and what we do as people who claim to follow the baby in the manger–the one who is most worthy of our gifts. He did, after all, come to give himself for us. That’s one gift we should always be grateful to receive.