Waiting for Lent in the Shadow of Christmas

Easter comes crazy early in 2013; March 31. And with an early Easter comes an even earlier lenten season (Ash Wednesday is February 13). Ten days ago I picked up and began reading N.T. Wright’s Lent for Everybody, Luke. Our church is thinking of using it this year as a study. After a few pages I looked up and saw Christmas decorations scattered all over the floor. The Christmas tree was still lit.

I was waiting for Lent in the shadow of Christmas.

Wright’s writing has always challenged me. His ability to draw out deep theological questions while not shying away from a firm conviction is fantastic. I only read bits and pieces of Rob Bell’s Love Wins and only glanced over Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell, but both those guys, while being phenomenal (and sometimes divisive) communicators, seem to be N.T. Wright light (read Surprised by Hope to see what I mean).

This little book is a great. He gets to the point of Lent on the first day.

..come with your hopes and longings, your awareness of the ways in which the world is still out of joint. You might begin, today, by thinking about some situations, whether in your own life or far away, where the world is not yet right. Hold them before God in prayer and patience. And then look for the signs of hope around you, the first stirrings of God’s new life. And give thanks to God for the way in which he is at work in the world today.

  • The world is out of whack – We’re reminded of this daily. We’re all hurt and we all, intentionally or unintentionally, hurt others. (read Romans 3:9-20 for a morning dose of total depravity).
  • But God is still at work – All too often we forget this. Our sinfulness keeps us from seeing what God is up to in the middle of our broken world. God remains perfectly good. And we’re in need of his perfect grace.
  • Prayer and Patience – Ultimately, this is what the season of lent is about. We wait. We pray. We give thanks. How are you doing these things?

I love the season the Church will be entering into in a month. It’s rare that we get to celebrate Jesus’ birth, mourn his death and return to celebrating in the resurrection in such a short amount of time (just over three months). Lent always teaches me something. I’m looking forward to what this year will bring.

Unfiltered Ministry: Give Me Jesus

It’s always refreshing to talk without a filter.

Vasco & Davidson in Dana Point.

Last week two of my friends were in town visiting from Malawi. These two guys, Vasco and Davidson, were instrumental in getting Hailey and me to spend a year in their country. They also both went out of their way to help us to feel comfortable while away from family and all that was familiar. Having them in our home was both an honor and inspiring. In more ways in one, they reminded me to get back to what is important.

Vasco has always challenged me to think about ministry, culture and the church in a new way. While he and Davidson were here, we spent plenty of time talking about how things were in Malawi and how the church is doing here in the U.S. They were on a whirlwind of a tour that started in Michigan, stopped at a conference in Colorado and ended in California. While in Orange County I introduced them to some folks at St. Peter’s, had a few meetings with others who had gone on trips to Malawi and took them to see Saddleback and Mariners. They laughed at the monster church campuses. There isn’t a building in the entire country of Malawi that would fit as many people as the sanctuaries (auditoriums/arenas?) of those two places. They saw plenty of the American Church.

As we visited and shared stories I was reminded of why I enjoyed ministry so much in Malawi… Jesus. I was able to focus on Jesus for an entire year.

Here, I find myself getting caught in all the other parts of the church. There’s programs, politics, finances, denominational stuff, congregational expectations, buildings, growth plans, etc. All filters that all too often sift out what (or who) is important. I am not saying those things are entirely unimportant, but they can’t be the thing. And we, or I, often allow them to be.

Ella meets her Malawian uncles.

As we talked, Vasco and Davidson laughed. All that stuff exists in the Malawian church. And, really, I knew it to be true (I once moderated a 7 hour session meeting on a Saturday morning while only understanding half of what was said…makes meetings here seem like a breeze). But, because of my position and the cultural barrier, it was impossible to be immersed in what, all too often, become gigantic distractions. I could focus on loving God and loving people. Christ was essential and it felt like the rest sat in a blurry background.

One of my favorite hymns is Give Me Jesus. It was made popular by Jeremy Camp and a few other contemporary musicians but it has been around for a long long time. At the end of each verse is this line, “you can have all this world, but give me Jesus.” My personal prayer is that I’d learn to live this song.

Holy Week & The Easter Prayer

Prayer at Chamatao C.C.A.P.

I have to be honest. When Hailey and I agreed to go to Malawi last year I prayed a prayer that my mind knew was wrong but my heart rationalized as okay. You know the type—one of those childish conditional prayers. They’re what we pray when we’re in trouble, in need of something in a hurry or (as it was in our case) about to make a big life decision; Lord if I do this for you, then you’ll do something for me.  Or maybe it’s, God if you do this for me, than I promise I’ll…

I prayed, “Lord. If Hailey and I go to Malawi for a year, you’ll need to give me a job and my wife needs to be pregnant soon after we get home. That’s my price. Deal?” It was as if going to Malawi was a giant sacrifice, a price I’d pay to get what I wanted.

It’s a prayer that our consumerist society teaches as valid. But it’s terrible theology. God honoring the cravings of my heart today [I have a job and Hailey is pregnant] is not some sort of reward for an “offering” I made last year. It has more to do with surrendering my will to His.

The idea that God’s providence can and should be changed because of something we do or a demand we make shrinks faith down to a controllable bargaining tool. Scripture tells us that, while showing an abundance of grace, God punishes those who fall away from his will and changes the understanding of success for those who learn to live under it. We don’t teach it enough, but consequences for actions are rampant in the Bible—just because the punishment doesn’t completely fit the crime [grace] doesn’t mean there isn’t significant damage and pain when we fall away from God’s plan.

I had a professor in college that messed up my understanding of prayer. He believed that the only valid prayer was for the revelation of God’s will. Praying anything else would belittle God’s role as God and our role as humans.  In praying thy will be done, we seek to align with what God’s desires are for our individual and corporate lives. God’s heart for the world remains primary and our own longings secondary. It helps to give us a “big picture” prayer mentality.

Jesus’ words in the Garden of Gethsemane are the perfect example of this prayer.

My father, if there is any other way. Get me out of this. But please, not what I want. What you want.

This prayer is extremely difficult when we long for something or someone, and God doesn’t answer the prayer the way we would have hoped.

In many ways, Dr. McCant was a crazy old man—the most unorthodox Nazarene I’ve met (he also made bold statements like, “if my Rabbi isn’t going to heaven then neither am I!”). He had one of those brilliant minds that didn’t always equate to brilliant teaching. I often walked out of his class confused, with less understanding than I had when I arrived (then again, maybe that was his whole point?). At the very least, a year in his class taught me to think before I pray.

Thanking God for providing is different than boasting to Him about what we have earned, praying for victory is completely different than praying for our enemies, and saying “God is good” has little to do with our current life circumstance (it’s a statement of God’s Sovereignty, His good and perfect plan. One we often can’t see or explain). My “Malawian sacrifice” taught me these things. God didn’t need me there; I needed to be there. I needed the lesson in obedience.

It’s Holy Week. Followers of Christ should be in deep prayer. As you reflect on what happened during this week years ago, I’d hope you’d do so focused on a will that’s not your own. Sometime, before easter egg hunts and caserole consumption ask yourself these questions. What’s on your agenda that needs to be set aside in order to get inline with what God is doing in the world? How does your story need to be altered so you can play a bigger part in His? And, are you trying to pray your will into God’s plan or are you praying His will would become yours?

 

Who’s your mentor? Meet two of mine.

I shouldn’t be up this early. My body is confused. My head is spinning and my stomach is reeling from a bug I picked up on our last day in Malawi. Jetlag wears on one’s ability to turn back the clock to “normal.” Yet, my soul is at ease. Moyowo Ngwabwino, Moyo wanga ulitu bwino.

There is something peaceful about early mornings, even here in America. The internal alarm that has gone off at 4 a.m. the last two mornings has given me ample time to pray and reflect. Oddly, I am thankful to be awake (ask me if I feel the same way this afternoon and you might get a different answer…).

On my trip I spent time with two pastors that I will forever look to as mentors. Their ministry contexts could not be any more different, yet they exude many of the same qualities—a rare mix of humility, strength and creativity. The first was Eugene Peterson. I’ve never met him, but many of his books have fed me over the years (Under The Unpredictable Plant was especially helpful while Hailey and I were living in Malawi last year). I had started his memoir, The Pastor, a few weeks ago but set it aside when my grandma passed away. Hours of flying provided plenty of time to finish it. The second was Vasco Kachipapa, the moderator of the Nkhoma Synod. I’ve mentioned him a few times before (here, here and here).

It’s funny. If you talk about Eugene Peterson with Christians in the U.S. they will all mention The Message. In Malawi, very few know of his work and ministry. Maybe a hundred Americans know Vasco, but in Malawi he is the figurehead for the Presbyterian Church in the central region. Because of the lack of seperation between church and state, he has influence over many non-Presbyterians as well. Millions look to him as their leader. But if you sat down with him in his living room, you’d never know.

Vasco came to greet Brandt and I on our first day in the country. And later during the trip we had dinner with he and his wife Madda. [on a side note; we got lost getting to their house. There is nothing quite as terrifying as being in a questionable African neighborhood in the dark alone. Two mzungu’s driving slowly down dirt “roads” are a perfect target. The next day we found out that two people were taken from their car, beaten and robbed the night before in the exact location…] There is something refreshing about being with him.

Vasco talked of the travesty of the political situation in Malawi and told the story of sitting next to the president during dinner and asking him to pass the salt. People often recognize his voice from radio interviews and are shocked by his stature (he is 5’9” and as skinny as a rail). They expect more; he just laughs. He speaks his mind and people listen, but he never holds his role as anything but a gift from God…maybe even a gift he didn’t want.

He serves with an ethic unlike any other pastor I know, unabashedly seeking to serve and worship God while ignoring the pressure to please the people of his congregation and denomination. Yet, this is the very reason people follow him. His church had over 200 people become members last week and over a thousand are going through the year long catechism class that focuses on what it means to be a Christian. It’s not a program that attracts people to his church, it’s his clear sense of “follow me, while I follow Jesus.”

Peterson gives great words that describe Vasco’s approach to his vocation and role in life.

Most pastoral work consists in pointing away from yourself to something other than you…you are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed. To keep this vocation healthy requires constant self-negation, getting out of the way. A certain blessed anonymity is inherent in pastoral work. For pastors, being noticed easily develops into wanting to be noticed…pastoral ego ‘has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self.’

Thank you for your words Eugene. And thank you Vasco for giving me a living example to follow.

Malawi Driving

This is my first time posting from my phone, so forgive me if the format is off.

Yesterday we took on a bit of an bit ambitious goal. I was told it could be done, and deep down I knew it was true, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t terrify me. We were going to start off early , drive to visit my friend Sydney at his home in Chamatao (last year it took all day to get there by public transit), then head east through the Nkhotakota game reserve and back south to Salima where we’ be staying the night at a church member’s lake house. I figured I’d be behind the steering wheel for about six hours, half of which would be on dirt “roads.”

Needless to say the day was stressful.

But we made it. It was great to see Sydney and his family and deliver a gift to my niece Rebecca Grace. Brandt got to see what a remote village was like and how different some people live. And though the drive was indeed painful (my neck still hurts from a pot hole I hit), we were able to see a lot of the central region of the country.

Now we’re enjoying the lake. We got here at sunset, ate dinner and went to bed. We woke at 5 and watched the sunrise. I’m now sitting on a flipped over fishing boat and enjoying another majestic Malawi morning. Word can’t do justice to the beauty of this place. Here are a few snaps from our journey:

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The Malawi Morning Calm

I forgot how quiet the morning could be in Malawi. For most people the day starts well before 6:00. I hear at least six different species of birds from the front porch of Manse #2. It won’t be long before the cool crisp air will be taken over by the musty heavy heat of a humid day. The colors of Mr. Masina’s yard are as vibrant as I remember. Yeah, it’s good to be back.

This is the time I love here. Soon enough something will frustrate me. The mini-buses will honk annoyingly; the realities of a crushed economy, corrupt government and people in great poverty will be painfully visible; and I will have to focus intently during conversations so I don’t miss what a friend may be trying to communicate. But not now.  Not yet.

I know in an hour or so it will all change.

Living in Malawi taught me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Yesterday, while driving to the Malungunde market to get some drinks to go with lunch, a madwoman stood in the middle of the dirt road pointing a stick at our truck. I couldn’t steer around her. She was mumbling something under her breath, maybe a spell of some sort. I said something to Brandt like, “welcome to Malawi.” The four of us in the car joked that the topless stick-touting woman had taken a fancy with one of us. When we pulled over she stood next to Brandt’s window smiling awkwardly. He rolled up his window and locked the door. Yup, she was in love with him…at least that’s how I saw it.

When we returned to drop off our glass bottles, she was at it again. This time she didn’t have a stick, but was getting down to the song in her head that no one else could hear. I tried to convince Brandt to go dance with her.

It’s been fun to see Malawi through new eyes. To taste nsima for the first time, to wrestle with being azungu in a muntu world and to be exhausted at the end of a day just because the culture is that different.

Every day is a new adventure. And there is something attractive about living life in this way, but there is also something that is absolutely draining. But I’ll let that part come later, for now I’ll enjoy the peace and quiet.

Here’s a few photo’s…

Our room looked the same as it did when we left...
Abi & Chester (a new addition to the Masina Family)
Brandt on a run in Area in 12

 

 

Malawi, My Remedy

When Hailey and I left Malawi in July 2011, I vowed I’d return within a year. I wasn’t sure what it would look like or how I would get there, but I knew that if God willed, it would happen. At the same time I was ready to leave. Our funds had run out, we were tired, we longed for our families and (to be brutally honest) we really missed the comforts of Southern California. It was time to come home.

As I was called to St. Peter’s, I made it clear that I still had a passion for what God was doing in Malawi. I still had much to learn from my brothers and sisters. I’d like to think that part of the reason I was called by St. Peter’s was because of God’s call on my life for missional living. Regardless of the cultural context, I have a deep desire to see God move in new and different ways. Staying connected to Malawi reminds me of my calling.

A generous tax return for 2010 (that’ll happen when you’re married and only one of you has a consistent job for half the year) provided the funds. Talks with my wife and boss provided the timeframe. And a call to my good fire-fighting friend Brandt, presented a travel partner (I would have come alone, but part of being passionate about what God is doing in the world is sharing it with others—that, and 36 hours of solo travel sounds miserable…). I’m thankful for his sacrifice and adventurous spirit.

We’re on the familiar leg between England and Kenya. I despise this part of the flight. I can never sleep on these things. The cabin is dark. A few screens flicker. And even though the guy across the aisle has the entire center row to himself, he is sprawled out uncomfortably close to me. I smell his socks and something’s up with his leg. He keeps itching it on the armrest as if it were a tree and he were a dog with fleas. No wonder I can’t get any sermon writing done…

I’m tired. Emotionally, spiritually and physically—I am beat up. And, I’m going to a place where I’ll preach a ton, be in constant conversation and live in a house where I always have to be “on.” I’m not even there yet and I’m uncomfortable. But, there is something tells me I am flying to the remedy of my fatigue.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t I think I will come home completely rejuvenated, full of energy and ready to figure out all of the cultural issues and challenges of growing a church in Huntington Beach.  I won’t have the solution for dying denominations, stale approaches to community development or apathetic families.

The problems of the country are complex, but, somehow, life itself remains fluid. Maybe that’s just it. What attracts me to ministry in Malawi is its simplicity. The Gospel matters. Everything else is secondary. I don’t think I always see life through those eyes when I’m in Southern California. My second home, the warm heart of Africa, reminds me of what my priorities should be.

Life in the Middle: Grandma’s Memorial Service

old photo of g-ma used in memorial service bulletin

I was honored when my dad asked me to preach at his mom’s memorial service. Then it hit me…I’d actually have to keep it together long enough to get through a sermon. I couldn’t be the somewhat level-headed support to the grieving family that I have normally been during memorials and funerals. I was the grieving family.

Preparing for my grandma’s service was difficult. I put it off for a week and then fought through two days of tears before writing anything at all. I don’t always manuscript my entire sermon, but figured that if I got choked up and couldn’t get through the whole service someone would be able to step in and finish.

Writing is always thereputic for me. It helped me to grieve. It allowed me to miss grandma. But it also gave me perspective. Here is the script:

Pastoral Words of Hope

I have many memories of grandma. We all do. And I hope, as we mourn our loss, we’re able to continue to share them with one another. The pastor in me knows to say that the best way we can celebrate Ella’s life is by telling and re-telling these stories. The grandson in me wants to shutdown, close my eyes and move on to what’s next. Deep down, I know the reason that the pastor tells families to share memories is for their own healing.

And I guess…that is what today is all about. As a family, we need to mourn. We need to hurt. We need to cry. But we also need to laugh. We need to smile. We need to know that, as the earth melts and moves away—as our lives shake and look different, and as we figure out how to function without grandma—that there is a God calling us to His side; to wipe away our tears, to not simply get us through the mourning, but to help us grow closer to Him and to one another in the middle of it all… But that doesn’t mean it should be easy.

There are a few images of grandma that will be forever burned into the place in my brain where memories rest, occasionally coming to life when a person, place or story is remembered. I don’t know the scientific name for this place, but I know it exists. It was in her old age and illness that Grandma taught me that this place never deteriorates.

Even in the end of her memory loss and struggle—she knew that Elizabeth was her granddaughter—even if she got her confused with great grand-daughter Lindsay. She knew that my mom was “that girl” that my dad brought around. She even had memories of “Jimmy,” her own father-in-law. And I have to believe, even if she didn’t always express it, she also knew that she was loved and cherished by her son Brian.

The last time I saw grandma, Hailey and I went with my dad to help her finish moving out of one of her rooms and into a new one. We hadn’t been back from Malawi for more than a month. She was eating lunch. I walked in and said, “Hi grandma. I’m David your grandson, and this is my wife Hailey.” I didn’t expect her to remember me at all. She was happy that day. And she looked up and said, “Oh, I know. And you just got back from a trip.” I couldn’t believe it.

I felt horrible for not saying bye to grandma before we left a year earlier. Dad told me that she wouldn’t know me anyway, so I shouldn’t have worried about it.

But Dad, you were wrong. I’m sure she didn’t always remember who each of us was, but deep down…somewhere…she knew.

I’m grateful to have that last memory of her. But there are many more in that bank of frozen images as well.

I see the family sitting around grandma and grandpa’s dinner table learning the card game “hand and foot.” And I see the art that she had painted hanging on the wall and sitting on an easel in the laundry room. I taste the soup and sandwiches that she served Liz and me for dinner at 4 pm when we’d spend the night. I hear her scolding her favorite golfer on tv for missing a putt. And I hear the old electric organ that she let us pound on when we were bored at their house.

I actually have many vivid memories of grandma and grandpa’s mobile home. They had this corkboard on their wall when you’d walk in. It had pictures of all of us from different stages in our lives, from Indiana to Florida to California. They loved their family.

Their house had the feeling that a grandparent’s house should. As a young boy, I remember it feeling a bit foreign because it was full of “old people things.” It smelled kinda funny too. It wasn’t quite home, nor—if I’m completely honest—was it all the way comfortable. But I knew that every time I arrived I was safe and in a place where my childhood mind could wander into one mystery or another. I also knew it was a place where I was loved, no matter what I had done at home.

As I let my adult mind reflect on grandma, and as I try to grapple with what it means to be grandson, son, soon to be Father, friend and pastor, the passage that was read earlier brings both great hope and great comfort.

The Gospel of John puts Jesus’ words very simply. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, and believe in me.” Jesus had been sitting, having an intimate experience with those who were closest to him—the people he claimed were his family.  And right before this passage we read that he knew the hour had come for him to depart from the world and go to the Father. His disciples were afraid and didn’t know how to go on without their leader and friend. They may have even expected something else.

We often read the passages about Jesus telling his disciples about his death with glazed over eyes. We know the whole story. Or at least we often treat Scripture this way. We flip from Genesis to Revelation and think we’ve seen—or read of—the beginning and the end…. But we do so without realizing we are living in the middle.

God created the earth, humanity sinned, Jesus was born to take on that sin, He was crucified and then he rose from the grave. We live—in the same way as the disciples would eventually—between the time of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of our own.

Jesus knew that his disciples were uncomfortable with the unknown—with living in the middle. It was scary. And it was painful. It hurt so much that Jesus could see that their hearts were troubled. And what were His words of encouragement?

Believe in God. And Believe in Me.

Those are words that I’d pray we’d hear today.

Jesus went on to tell the disciples that there was a house with rooms prepared for each of them. I wonder what images popped into their head as Jesus spoke?

I hear these words and can’t help but think of a house kinda like grandma’s. One where a little boy’s mind can wander and dream. One that is different from where I now live, but oddly familiar. One that is completely safe. A place where you’d walk in and know you were loved even though you had done nothing to deserve it.

I just hope it smells a bit better than grandma’s house did.

I love Jesus’ next words. “I am the way, and the truth and life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He doesn’t say, “I point to the way” or “I point to the truth and the life.” He says HE is the way.

I spent a few moments last week going through grandma’s bible. I never had any deep or long talks with her about faith, but looking at how she had underlined certain passages made me smile.

She had highlighted the Doubting Thomas story. I don’t know how she resonated with it, or what it was about it that made her bracket it in her Bible—but I’d like to think it had something to do with wrestling with being in the middle of the story.

Being in the middle is difficult. Thomas new this as well as anyone. And it’s only natural to doubt all that you know when the foundations of what you believe are shaken. The middle hurts. It even hurts when we know the final outcome.

We all knew this day was coming for Grandma. The honest truth was, it was just a matter of time before she got tired of fighting. But if we are completely honest with ourselves, we’d realize that it is the same for us.

I don’t mean to sound morbid, but we will all get tired of the earthly race. And, whether or not we like it, it will finish for each of us at some point.

Scripture is littered with stories about people dying and passing on a legacy to their children. Much of what was recorded in the Bible was done so in order that future generations would remember who God was and what God had done.

My hope is—when I finish this race—that I’d be able to say that I passed on something that was not only honoring to God but was a visible sign of His love for a broken world. I look around this room and am confident that this is exactly the type of legacy that Ella has left for us. Will you pray with me?

My sister and I playing with grandpa in the house I described in my sermon

Lent Lesson from Grandma

Grandma & Niece Lindsay

Today you may see people walking around with a black smudge on their forehead. Do me a favor when you see them—even if you think they just look ridiculous and there is no significance to the day—stop and reflect on the frailty and enormity of life itself.

Traditionally, Ash Wednesday is connected to the times in Scripture where individuals expressed their sorrow for sin. In most services today, as people come forward, the pastor/minister/priest says something along the lines of “from dust you have come and from dust you will return, go and turn from sin. Hear the good news.” We’re called to reflect on our sinful nature, the gift of the cross and our life here and now.

But those two concepts-frailty and enormity-stick out. They seem to not fit together. At times, they even contradict one another; but that isn’t always the case. Not for those who have spent any amount of time with the sick and dying.

This is one of the many lessons I learned while in Malawi, but if I really think about it, it’s something I have been taught here as well. I just haven’t always been paying attention.

Children’s Hospital—Some of the children had lived in the hospital for months. Others, only for days. They just happened to be there today, on this day—three years ago. I was a chaplain in the Clinical Pastoral Education program and was asked to administer ashes to those who wanted them. There is nothing quite as humbling as placing ashes on a smiling sick child’s face and telling him or her that they will return to dust. It makes death a reality, a painful—seemingly unfair—reality.

Grandpa’s Inurnment—I was still in seminary, not even sure if I could “officiate” something like a committal to a final resting place. Through tears I got through the liturgy. I reflected on what my grandpa had told me before he died-that he was ready, had lived a good life and was tired. Placing the urn in the wall I said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” Time crawled to a halt as I lifted the urn into the wall. As far as I know, I was the last one to touch my grandpa’s remains.

Next week, I’ll return to a re-opened wall to place Grandma next to Grandpa.

Grandma’s Death—President’s Day 2012. I got to the hospital a half hour after she had breathed her last breath. The door of her room closed. Dad alone by her side. Grandma still; her body frozen in a position that whispered I’ve finished this race. The truth is, Grandma’s dementia and Alzheimer’s had changed her in her last few years. She’d forgotten names and how to function as she once had. But that’s not the grandma I will remember, not the strong woman who helped my dad become the man he is today or the loving Grandma who spoiled my sister and me. The woman lying in bed, the one who was done fighting, was one who had triumphantly battled for 94 years. Before we left her side, my dad brushed her hair back and whispered, “you did good mom, you did real good” (forgive his poor grammar). She had, and so had he. We walked out and it was finished.

When I place her remains next to grandpa’s urn, the Scripture I quote will be the same that many of us will hear today as the Lenten season begins. In the middle of reflecting on Christ’s sufferings, the frailty of earthly life screams in agony. But once I step back and see the magnitude of the big picture—the enormity of creation and our relationship with the Creator, the ashes and dust, death itself— I’m reminded that there is a God who cares for each of us deeply, who redeems and loves us enough to take care of all our pain and suffering.

Thank you grandma, for one more lesson.

Christmas and Church Culture

For many, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. But for some Christmas is miserable. Think about how hectic it would be to work in retail right now…You can only hear the same song over and over again so many times or squeeze out a fake smile to the over-the-top rude customer who has to get the perfect gift for their kid.

And then there are the awkward family moments (you’re either 7 or are lying if
you’re thinking, “nah, not in my family.”) or the painful memories. I don’t mean to be Scrooge or the Grinch, but for some, January can’t come fast enough.

Working at a church during the Christmas season can be equal parts mesmerizing and horrifying. On one hand, it’s the time we thrive. Generally, as we approach the 25th of December, talking about Jesus is accepted by most in American popular culture. And more people come to church than any other time of the year. On the other hand, it is when the church is at it’s worst. More often than not, we fall into the trap of over-programmed services and under-whelming theology. How do we balance the proclamation of the birth of our Lord and the commercialization of Him? When do the popular (and generally accepted) views of Christ water down the significance of the Kingdom come?

This dichotomy is even more noticeable when Christmas falls on a Sunday (every six or so years, give or take a leap-year).

A week ago I had a conversation with my sister and she wasn’t happy. Her pastor had cancelled services on Sunday morning. A few days later, enough people complained so Sunday morning church was back on (which got me thinking, when does the act of people pleasing get in the way of the health and direction of the Church?—a blog for another day…).

While having an internal debate about this cultural conundrum, I came across this blog where Jon Acuff talks about Christmas, being a pastor’s kid and the positives of canceling Sunday morning services this year.

Over the years I’ve mentioned this a few times—one of my greatest fears in being a pastor is the affect my profession will have on my family. What will they have to give up? Who will they be with on Christmas morning when I have to work? What traditions am I missing out on because duty calls.

But how much of this is cultural? In Malawi, no matter the day on which Christmas falls, there is a morning church service. But on Christmas Eve, I wasn’t even close to church because there was an expectation that I’d be elsewhere. The priorities were different. Three years ago I was in Norway over Christmas. Days before Christmas it was IMPOSSIBLE to find a shop that was open (outside of 7/11), yet everywhere you looked there was smoke coming from chimneys and families in the living room (a living Thomas Kinkade painting).

Yet, in the U.S. we say, “shop like crazy, Church happens Christmas Eve and Christmas day is for family.” And often our church holds it as Gospel. Christmas falling on a Sunday is a good thing. Even if it is just subconsciously, it forces us to ask questions about who we are, what we believe and where the Church fits into the mix.