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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Discombobulation of Mary and Joseph


How are your plans for Christmas going?  Those of you who might be newly divorced or separated may find that the plans are very difficult as emotions swirl, schedules become awkward and times of loneliness and loss come to the fore.  

Perhaps you can relate to the notion of a “discombobulated” Christmas.  Though almost 20 years out of divorce myself, Christmas remains one of those holidays regularly impacted by the fallout of divorce as even grown children have to make choices regarding their schedule and plans that would have not been an issue apart from divorce.  Yet life goes on, and there develops a new normalcy.

But life gets discombobulated for other reasons, as well.

For me, this year, Christmas will be very different. 

I very recently took on a new pastorate in another state, which will result in making a move of our entire household.  Our situation is such that the move will be in stages, and include some time with my wife and I not always in the same place.  I am celebrating Christmas and Christmas Eve with a new congregation, and we are sharing with one another our traditions and celebrations, some the same, some different.  Most of our Christmas decorations were moved to a new house, but mainly in time for a chilly reception as the polar winds dipped down and dropped temperatures throughout the Midwest and announced that the decorations may be best inside their storage containers this year. 

With some things here, some things there, and other things yet to be located, we are experiencing some discombobulation ourselves.  In addition, as we celebrate Christmas in  a new location, our participation in family Christmas is going to be in one of the kid’s home this year located halfway between our new and old homes, while we are in transit from one to the other.  Discombobulated. 

But you know what?  I was reading through the Christmas story again in preparation for our worship services, and somehow, I think that was a fairly discombobulated time for Mary and Joseph as well!  My discombobulation may be more akin to Joseph and Mary’s experience of Christmas than the best laid plans and celebrations that are normally the makeup of our traditions.  

At least our move was because of choices we made, they had to leave because of an imperial order!  It seems likely to me that they had family and possessions scattered in Nazareth, Bethlehem and who knows where else that first Christmas.  They didn’t even celebrate  Jesus’ birth in a home at all.  In fact, as I was reading G. Campbell Morgan the other day, he pointed out that even the word “inn” from the story doesn’t refer to an inn as we might think of it, but was more of a walled enclosure in a field where people could bring their cattle for protection at night.  No host, no restaurant, no cozy bedroom, just some open space with perhaps a few spaces of shelter for people inside.  Mary and Joseph couldn’t even get a place there!  And then, later on, after the wise men came, they had to abandon home again and escape to Egypt in fear for the life of the new baby.  


And yet, in what may have been the most discombobulated time of Mary and Joseph’s lives, God was working the most incredible plan of history, working in ways they would never have imagined.  This Christmas, what in your life, feels discombobulated to you.  What things just don’t seem on track, or where do you just feel out of sorts?   I invite you to consider that it might be a Mary and Joseph moment for you, that God has a plan he is working through your time of discombobulation, even if it doesn’t feel like there is much of a plan.  Just as in the moment of creation, God brought order out of chaos, so God will bring meaning and purpose out of the most discombobulated times of our lives when we submit our will and our ways to him.  

And you know what?  Christmas is the perfect time to do just  that!  Offer God the discombobulated areas of your life, and invite him to use them for something wonderful.  It just might be the best Christmas present of all!.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sowing Seeds of KIndness


It was a sad day for me.  I recently had to have some trees cut down in my yard.  A big old elm and two big maples, because they have died.  The elm probably died of old age…it hasn’t looked very well for several years.  The maples seem to have not survived some recent drought summers.  None of them looked very good, and they were all probably more dangerous than I care to admit, but still, I hate to cut down trees.  It probably goes back to my love of my childhood tree house.  In most places where I have lived, I have planted trees, bushes, flowers, and more.  To cut down a tree is just not something I relish, necessary though it may have been.

However, there was a surprise in the cutting.  One of the elm branches was hollow, and the home of a honey bee hive.  The tree trimmer showed me where the branch had fallen, described the stings he had suffered, then asked whether I wanted him to load that piece up with the rest the fallen branches to the tree dump.  I asked him to leave it.

Over the years, I have seen articles here and there about how the honey bee population has been declining in recent years, and the concern some have that the downturn could be dangerous if it persists, since fruit trees and other important vegetation are dependent upon the bees for fertilization.  I decided we needed to see if we could locate a local beekeeper who might rescue the hive, although I also thought it might be fun to set up a hive myself, but the timing isn’t good for that for lots of reasons.

It took several days and numerous phone calls to find someone who could come to take the bees.  A local beekeeper did, but not until after a good number of them had died due to the cold and the trauma of the fall.  While I wasn’t here when he took the combs, my wife was, and she said he was concerned whether they might survive or not, but would give it his best shot.  The man sent me a text stating that he wasn’t sure how good their chances were, and I replied that they had a better chance if he took them and tried than if they were simply left to die on the ground. 

My tenderheartedness toward bees even applies when I’m mowing and working on the lawn.  I have seen some taking pollen off the clover in the yard, and as a result have gone around the section to let them finish before going back to mow that area.  I even chose not to put the kind of weed killer down that would kill the clover, just because I knew the bees liked it, even though I had no idea the bees lived in that old elm tree.  I know, kind of dumb, but it is just one of many ways that I am a sap!

You know, sometimes in life we have opportunities to do little things that might make a small difference in the world.  It may not be a big thing that would be considered newsworthy.  My wife’s is to rescue critters that other people have dumped, and then find a good home for them.  I guess mine this week was honeybees.  Sometimes little things can make a big difference in the lives of spouses, children, friends, and even strangers we meet day by day, as well as the impact we have on nature around us.  This week, how about sowing some seeds of kindness or joy in the lives of people you meet.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Small Town Christmas


I just returned home from Memory Lane!  Tonight was the Christmas parade in our community of small town Americana.  Forgive me for overtelling the story, but I invite you to join me in watching that parade before you mind’s eye. 

I was standing across the street from the building in which my father had his photography studio for some 40 years or so, proudly crowned with a stone proclaiming 1895 as the year it was built.  The upstairs was lit where someone now lives, as had been the case before I was born, and the main floor stood empty.  On either side stood the buildings that once were shoe stores, but now house a women’s gym and offices (or former offices—hard to tell) of an attorney.  Further down the block are several vacant lots, created nearly two decades ago by a tornado, where once stood the greasy spoon restaurant and the smoke shop that housed really great pinball machines.  I was standing near the Mexican restaurant and local radio station, where once had been several very nice clothing stores. 

The parade began, as many do, with the police vehicle sounding sirens to announce the start of the parade, followed by the sheriff’s vehicle, the color guard from the local VFW, and several assorted fire trucks, emergency vehicles and other important “Christmas” type(?) rescue trucks.  But in small town America, that is how parades start.  Always.  Then came the politicians:  mayor (I forgot we have a mayor), city commissioners, then a state representative and his wife who are actually one of the most down to earth political families I’ve ever met.  After these preliminaries, the next phase starts, as we get down to the business of a real Christmas parade, with lots of business sponsoring the entrants, logos proudly displayed, and sometimes OVER-displayed.

I stand and watch, chatting with those nearby, as before me passes candy canes, reindeer, Christmas lights, a ginger bread house, cute little children elected royalty for the parade, and candy flying left and right into the hands of eager children.  Well, actually the candy was flying onto the street where the eager children reached their hands down to scoop up the candy.  And sometimes had to move several feet in either direction because the old folks like me weren’t picking up the candy that fell in front of us.  I started helping, pointing out candy the kids had missed, and picking up some nearby to hand to the starving little ones.  (I think the dentists should give me a commission, don’t you?)

Lots of different folks passed by.  There were Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, little girls representing tumbling and dance clubs by cartwheeling and high kicking their way down the street, following behind the giant guitar playing Alvin, Theodore and Simon chipmunks on a float (you know, somehow the concept of “giant” chipmunks just seems wrong) .  There were four marching bands, and as they passed I was close enough to thank their directors…one of whom shook my hand.  I found myself remembering how cold a trombone mouthpiece becomes when it sits idle on the instrument as you march down the street.  Many a time I did as these young people were doing tonight, in my hometown and other places as part of the local school’s marching band.  A marching band which was significantly bigger than the struggling music program can produce at this time.  Nonetheless, I was proud of every marching band member, and clapped so they knew they were appreciated….even if they weren’t quite as picky about straight lines as we were forced to be.  

I have lots of fond memories of the marching band, although a friend of mine recently commented that whoever thought giving kids instruments and telling them to walk and play at the same time was a good idea had to have been drunk at the time.  He may be right.  But all the same, though the music may not have been as perfect as the professionally played digital renditions, the presence of live marching bands added a lot to the celebration atmosphere of the parade.  I didn’t see any baton twirlers, though.  Flag girls waving flags, and pom pom dance teams or cheerleaders were in the group, but that’s okay, I wasn’t all that thrilled with them marching with our band anyway.

A float moved by with friends on it, sporting the International Lion’s Club emblem and a big, gold lion, and I found myself remembering sitting on floats in “Santa’s workshop” on behalf of the local Lion’s Club many years ago, as we drifted past the no longer existent J. C. Penney’s, Montgomery Wards, soda fountains and dime stores.  The buildings now are filled with other businesses, which is actually a significant achievement in a small town such as mine that has struggled with the WalMarts, mega-malls and online shopping of the world.

Of course, there were a number of things that have changed somewhat.  There were some entries that seemed a little challenging for Christmas, such as Minions on a float.  There was also a Frosty Snowman walking along who seemed to have gone to Weight Watchers a little too often, a float with a “Grinch” who gave a good representation of what a Christmas sequel to “Planet of the Apes” might have been like, and a group of guys in what looked like kilts swinging clubs at each other as they walked (the ladies next to me started to explain, but I asked them not to…I didn’t want to know). 

There were other entries I didn’t quite understand.  For instance, I never really thought about giving someone a yard of cement for Christmas…nonetheless the local cement mix company participated in support with a full size and several miniature mixer trucks, horns blaring and echoing off the walls.  I also don’t remember blue and green “light sabers” being sold by street vendors as part of a traditional Christmas parade.  I told the man next to me that they could have at least gone for blue and white for Hannukah, or red and green for Christmas.  They yelled loud offering their wares for sale, with nary a Merry Christmas out of their mouths.

Included in the procession were also a number of vehicles from the local army reserve…whom I appreciate, though I’m not sure I get the Christmas connection…and yet, they are clearly an important part of our small community.  Further in the parade was a long line of “classic” cars from the local cruise club…the same models that my friends drove in high school, which means I am now "classic."  That’s a polite way of telling somebody they have become old…calling their cars “classic”!  They were nice cars, but I thought they could have at least hung a little Santa from the mirror, or a bobble head Rudolph in the back window. 

Missing from the parade were the miniature motorbikes and motorcars of the Shriners making their fast and noisy circles, and there were no horses decked out in their finery, except the ones pulling Santa’s sleigh at the end of the procession.  I suspect the marching bands and those walking along to hand out candy did not miss the horses, though.  And I’m guessing the reindeer had the night off, or maybe they need snow to operate in.  Even Santa has to make do sometimes!

One of the most fun entries was a group of kids from the local high school, walking down the parade route with a mascot and emblems showing.  Some of them were singing “Jingle Bells,” most of them were just walking and talking and saying, “hi” to folks along the way.  I’m not sure if they were actually officially in the parade, or just needed something to do on Thursday night, but they were very friendly, and their songs fit the occasion, and they seemed to be having fun.

When the nursing home bus drove by, decorated with lights and staff walking nearby handing out candy, I recalled another year watching the parade, and finding that my own mother was riding one of those buses and waving at people.  One never knows what to expect when watching a parade in small town America!

As the evening progressed, I was struck by the fact that the parade was about three fourths over before the first presentation of anything related to the origin of “Christ-mas.”   That first appearance was on a float presented by, interestingly enough, a couple of local pharmacies who dared to have images of a Nativity and similar scenes.  The earlier church bus was merely decked out in Christmas lights and handing out tracts.   Not that I am saying that the parade should be exclusively Christian, but at least Jesus should be represented!  I was very appreciative when the pharmacies came along, and decided I would tell my pharmacist friend as much the next day.  Toward the end of the procession was a nicely done live Nativity presented by another local church, and then the parade ended with Santa and his lovely wife.

But most of all, there were streets lined by friendly people, talking together with strangers, waving at people on floats and laughing as they took pictures of one another or caught candy.  Nobody seemed terribly concerned about a terrorist attack, or the mess that the political world is in.  Nobody worried what color someone’s skin was, or saw the police as enemies of the young people walking along the sidewalks. 

The parade created a delightful blend of the past, present and future, as generations blended together for the night, and I enjoyed memories of years gone by, while recognizing that things have changed and it is a different world.  

And yet, through the changes the years have brought, and even that the centuries have brought, there remains one constant:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”—John 3:16.

That is the Christmas message proclaimed to shepherds on a hillside and wise men who studied stars.  As you enter into the wide variety of celebration styles for the year, I hope you will also not leave out the core, the most important message of the season.  

Don’t save it for the end of your life’s procession, either; keep it central.  After all, it isn’t really CHRISTmas, if you leave Christ out of it.