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Sunday, December 21

Some of my parishioners have been asking me to post my sermons (I call them my reflections) on line. In order to meet their request, I’ll now make a habit of posting my reflections under my Sunday postings. Here is the reflection I gave on December 21, 2008.
I’ll never forget one of the first battle wounds I picked up in my practice of ministry. It came during the very first internship I ever did during my seminary years. Let me set the battle scene up for you by giving you a little background.

My first full day on the campus of my seminary, I saw an advertisement for a position at a church in a northern suburb of Denver. The job description said the position’s primary duties involved working with a community meal program. I interviewed for the job a day later and found myself clicking with the pastor. Four days later I was hired, and I began my work at the church immediately.

I spent most of my first two months on the job orienting myself to the church and getting to know the people of the community.

By the time that first quarter of seminary ended, I was convinced that I had already learned everything I needed to know about the practice of ministry. In fact, I was looking for exciting new challenges, so I approached the pastor and asked her if there was anything extra I could do for the church over the holidays.

“Sure,” she said without missing a beat. “We’ve gotten most of the planning done for the kid’s Christmas pageant, but we haven’t done anything with the adult Sunday school class. Why don’t you talk to “Steve” – their leader - and see if they’d be interested in helping out.”

Steve was the long-time leader of the adult Sunday school class. He was the son of a Methodist pastor who had spent his life working as an engineer. He was a brilliant man who was probably one of the best-read people I have ever met. He knew more about biblical studies, Christian history, and theology than most of my professors in seminary!

The only drawback I had in working with Steve was that there was an attitudinal barrier that I would have to overcome. You see Steve looked a little bit like a human version of Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh. And he had even less energy and enthusiasm than Eeyore! In the 10 weeks I had worked there, I had never seen him smile even once. I think there was a time there somewhere in October when I think Steve made eye-contact with me, but I couldn’t swear to it. Steve’s usual habit was to stare at the floor when he talked.

“This’ll be a good chance for me to put on the old Peterson charm and win him over,” I thought to myself.

Little did I know...

“So Steve,” I began, “the pastor asked me to see if I could get the adult Sunday school class involved in the Christmas pageant this year.”

“Oh really,” he mumbled.

“Yep,” I replied.

“That’s odd, because she knows I hate Christmas.”

“Oh…” I said – as my voice cracked a little. “And why do you hate Christmas?”

“Actually, I misspoke a second ago. I don’t hate Christmas. I just hate what people in the church have done with it.”

“Such as…” I said - buying myself a little time to think.

“Such as the way they distort the story in order to create a Hallmark card. Take the time of the year we celebrate Christmas. Every reputable biblical scholar knows that Jesus was probably born in the spring and not in December,” he said – warming up. “But the early church leaders had to co-opt other faith traditions and moved their celebration closer to winter solstice.”

“Oh yeah…”

“And that description of Mary that folks are so fond of. Much of the language about her ‘status’ is the result of a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’. People have messed it all up.”

“Uh, huh,” I said nervously – not sure where he would go next.

“And don’t even get me started on the so-called three wise-men!”

“I won’t” I blurted before he could finish his rant. “Let me see if I can talk to the pastor and get back to you with some ideas that might work for you.”

And with that, I staggered away from my encounter with Steve licking my first battle wounds.

While I could appreciate Steve’s all-consuming passion for truth, I couldn’t help but feel that he was missing out on something in his experience of the Christmas story.

As I was trying to put my finger on what Steve was missing out on this week, I stumbled upon a wonderful sermon titled “Have I Got News for You!” by a colleague of mine named William Self who helped me understand my frustrations with Steve.

In discussing the importance of one’s approach toward telling a story, Rev. Self pointed us toward the events surrounding the construction of a railway bridge in 1943 over the Mae Klong River in Thailand. Most folks know about these events because they were first portrayed in a book written in 1952 which was later turned into a movie. The title of that Oscar-winning film was “The Bridge On the River Kwai”.

Fewer folks, however, are aware of another version of those events as written by Ernest Gordon – a theologian who later served as chaplain at Yale University. Gordon’s book was titled “Through the River of the Kwai”.

So what made Gordon’s account of those events different from its more famous counterpart?
Its emphasis.

You see instead of focusing exclusively on the interaction between the British and the Japanese antagonists, Gordon’s focused on something else: how the British prisoners interacted with one another during their time of imprisonment. The prisoners’ faith was a huge piece of Gordon’s story.

When the British prisoners first realized they weren’t going home anytime soon, Gordon remembered, they began to develop a more active devotional and prayer life. The depth of their spiritual lives, however, was limited. “We knew that the thrust of our praying was to be delivered from this prison camp and that was it.”

Over time, however, things began to change.

“We began to pray,” Gordon noted, “about how we could relate to one another in those bad situations. No longer was our prayer, ‘Why God?’ but it was, ‘How should we act God?’”

The most defining moment in their spiritual growth came on Christmas Day 1944. That day the British prisoners had unexpectedly been given the day off from their forced labor and a little extra food for their meal that afternoon. As the prisoners milled around the work yard, the men sensed something was different. From one of the barracks, the most unexpected of sounds arose: a soldier started singing a Christmas carol.

The sound of that carol cut across first the infirmary and then across the entire the camp. Those who heard it and were able to walk dragged themselves to the parade field where they sat in a circle and continued to sing some of the beloved carols of their faith.

That day – that Christmas Day – Gordon wrote three words that have come to define the Christmas experience for me this holiday season: God touched us…

As I put Gordon’s words down, I finally figured out what was missing from Steve’s assessment of the Christmas story in our encounter nine years ago.

You see Steve had experienced the Christmas story on one – and only one – level. He had engaged it as if were simply a journalistic piece of writing whose sole purpose was to communicate – to borrow words from the lips of Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet – “the facts, just the facts ma’am.”

But is that really the purpose of the Christmas story? Or could its purpose have been something more.

As I re-read the Christmas story this week with Ernest Gordon’s words in mind, I realized that the story was filled to the brim with ways that God touched us.

I thought, for instance, of Elizabeth and her husband Zachariah and the way that God touched the barren couple through the birth of their precious son John – the Baptist.

I thought too of the young woman named Mary and the way that God touched her through the unexpected arrival of her beloved son – Jesus.

Everywhere I turned in the Christmas story I saw God’s fingerprints evident in the lives of those who had been touched.

Even now – as I look around the sanctuary this morning – I see those whose lives have been touched by God and who themselves have been drawn into the Christmas story.

Friends, over the next four days we have the chance to celebrate a story that had the power to reach across 1,944 years and touch the hearts of beleaguered war prisoners and transform their lives. The only work we have left to do then this holiday season is to answer one simple question: will we open ourselves to the power of the Christmas story and let God touch us as well?


Saturday, December 20

Today’s Readings: Psalm 27; Exodus 15:11-18; Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Corinthians 2:7-13; Psalm 74

One of the words that is most difficult for people in progressive churches to use is the word “evangelism”. There are many reasons for this. One reason is that many progressives have come to equate evangelism with pushing your beliefs down another person’s throat. Another reason is that progressive people think of evangelism as a memorized spiel that one person recites to another that’s laden with scriptural quotes and creedal assertions. Needless to say, none of these things elicit warm, fuzzy responses from most progressives. I don’t think those are the only ways to do evangelism, however. In fact, I would go so far as to say that those two ways represent perhaps the least effective ways of doing evangelism. So what’s a more effective way for us to think about evangelism? In speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul noted: “God offers a full report on the gifts of life and salvation that [God] is giving us. We don’t have to rely on the world’s guesses and opinions. We didn’t learn this by reading books or going to school; we learned it from God, who taught us person-to-person through Jesus, and we’re passing it on to you in the same firsthand, personal way” (1 Corinthians 2:11-13 from The Message). The passage gives us what I feel are two of the best ways to think about evangelism. First, evangelism should come from an experiential place predicated on sharing one’s experience of God - not a cognitive place predicated on sharing one’s beliefs about God. Second, evangelism should come from a personal place based on sharing one’s story - not an impersonal place based on sharing the creedal assertions of others. If you think about evangelism in those terms, then evangelism becomes very, very easy. In this Advent season when many of us will stand up during our worship services and sing the old spiritual “Go Tell It On the Mountain”, I would remind you to think about the act of telling it on the mountain in terms of the way Paul taught us. If you do that, you just might surprise yourself by going out and actually doing some of that tellin’! Til next time…

Friday, December 19

Today’s Readings: Psalm 43; Malachi 4:1-5; Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Corinthians 2:1-6; Psalm 44

There is definitely a shift in people’s consciousness when it comes to living out their faith these days. This shift seems to have caught individuals who live their faith lives on each of the extremes a bit off guard. Folks on the far right, for instance, were used to presenting their faith as something contained primarily in their mind – a set of doctrines to believe in and a set of rules to profess. “That’s all you needed in order to live a life of faith,” they would say. Folks on the far left were also use to presenting their faith as something contained primarily in their mind - a willingness to question authority and a willingness to profess the sacred worth of all of God’s creatures. “That’s all you needed in order to live a life of faith,” they would say. Over the course of the twentieth century, folks from each of the extremes started to increase their bickering with each other about whose approach to living out their faith was right. Much of the bickering involving everything from abortion to homosexuality to the role of Scripture was the result of people living out their commitment to what I would call “conceptualized” faith: faith tailor made for one’s head. Folks outside these two camps started longing for a different way of engaging one’s faith: a way of translating one’s faith from thoughts into actions - a way that involved both head and heart. I am one of these folks who developed such a longing. Folks like myself who long for this different way of engaging one’s faith would draw much encouragement from Paul’s words to the Corinthians in today’s reading for here Paul wrote: “You’ll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to let you in on God’s master stroke, I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple” (1 Corinthians 2:2 from The Message). My question for your consideration today is this: if folks who knew you were asked to characterize your faith, what words would they use: words like plain and simple or some other words? Til next time…

Thursday, December 18

Today’s Readings: Psalm 56; Malachi 3:13-18; Matthew 24:45-51; Romans 11:33-36; Psalm 73

While I have never had a child of my own, I have had the opportunity to walk with friends, family members, and parishioners as they went through the process. I noticed that many of the days during the pregnancy had a variety of stresses associated with them. Those stressful days were full of things like enduring morning sickness, anxiously waiting for doctor’s appointments to make sure everything was okay, filling out the family medical leave request forms to get time off, buying furniture to fill the baby’s room, etc. There were moments when the soon-to-be-parents wondered if they would survive the pregnancy. All of those doubts fade away, however, the moment things culminate in the delivery room and they can see the baby for the first time. In that single moment, everything finally makes sense in ways that they never did before. The psalmist notes that we people of faith can have a similar moment when everything finally clicks for us as well. In talking about facing the rhythms of life, the psalmist observed, “… when I tried to figure it out, all I got was a splitting headache … until I entered the sanctuary of God. Then I saw the whole picture” (Psalm 73:16 from The Message). In essence, for the psalmist the sanctuary provide moments like those in the delivery room where everything finally came together and made sense. Those moments when one loses oneself in the awe and wonder of God help us make sense of things in ways that our head never will. In these final days before Christmas I would ask you, “When was the last time you lost yourself in moments of awe and wonder of God?” If it’s been awhile, take some of the time and energy you might otherwise be tempted to pour into shopping for material goods for yourself or others and put some of it into pursuing opportunities to experience that sense of awe and wonder. Til next time…

Wednesday, December 17

Today’s Readings: Psalm 103; Malachi 3:6-12; Matthew 24:32-44; James 5:7-10; Psalm 46

I began taking piano lessons when I was 10 years old from a wonderful piano teacher back in my home town of Deer Park, WA. She taught me many things including how to read music, how to develop the technical skills necessary to play the piano, and some basic music theory that helped me broaden my ability to create music. There was one aspect of music, however, that she could not teach me. That aspect was how to incorporate my life experiences into my music. For instance, she would often say things like, “Technically, your interpretation is good - but when it comes to the rests, you probably won’t understand long to hold those rests until you turn 40.” I hated it when she said things like that, for I wanted to think that I could master each and every aspect of playing the piano immediately - at the tender age of 10. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to wait 30 more years to get something right! Now that I’m 41, however, I understand what she meant by her statement. Over the course of one’s lifetime, you acquire insights into life that instinctively help you know just how long to hold a rest in order for the music to really come alive. There was no way I could have acquired that knowledge when I was 10. Today’s passage from James makes a similar point when it comes to leading our spiritual lives. The author wrote: “Meanwhile, friends, wait patiently for the Master’s Arrival. You see farmers do this all the time, waiting for their valuable crops to mature, patiently letting the rain do its slow but sure work. Be patient like that. Stay steady and strong” (James 5:7-8 from The Message). I had to learn this lesson to be patient over and over in the early days of my ministry. So often I expected to issues to resolve themselves immediately. When I was counseling those in broken relationships, for instance, I expected them to reconcile immediately. When I was investigating opportunities for mission, I wanted to implement the options immediately. And when I was pursuing new visions of what worship could be, I wanted to implement those visions immediately. Over time, however, I learned that I couldn’t force things. Things worked best when I let “the rain do its slow but sure work”. Perhaps there are areas in your life where you have been tempted to try to force things. If so, I would urge you to ground yourself in the awareness of today’s words from James so that you can pull back and let things unfold: not in your time, but in God’s. Til next time…

Tuesday, December 16

Today’s Readings: Psalm 99; Malachi 3:1-5; Matthew 24:15-31; Jude 1:17-25; Psalm 112

As a child in the late 1970’s, I remember being fascinated by the work of Hal Lindsey. I was fascinated with his work because the leaders of our youth group at the time were obsessed with him. As I look back on that phase of my childhood, I’ve realized that I wasn’t so much fascinated with Lindsey’s work as I was freaked out by it. In case you aren’t familiar with Lindsey’s work, he was an individual that was totally preoccupied with predicting the end times. He took isolated pieces of Scripture and pieced them together in an attempt to do so. No one ever bothered to explained to me why someone who would consider him/herself a biblical literalist would ever waste his or her time trying to predict the exact date of the end times and Jesus' return when Jesus himself was quoted in the Gospels as saying, “But of that day and hour no one knows” (Matthew 24:36 from the New American Standard Bible). I wish now that my youth leaders would have put their energies in a different direction. Instead of putting their energies into trying to scare us into being ready for the Son of Man's unannounced return as spelled out in today’s reading from Matthew, I wish they would have invested their energies into encouraging us to regularly live in ways that would be pleasing to God so we would be ready whenever the Son of Man reappeared. The difference between the two approaches might sound subtle to some people; but to someone like me, that difference would have helped tremendously. As I think about that difference in approaches, I realize we could take the same principle and apply it in to the way we approach Christmas. We could ask ourselves this Advent season, "Am I living my life by trying to frantically prepare for the arrival of the Christ-child on a specific date (i.e. December 25), or am I living my life in such a manner that I would be ready to receive the Christ-child each and every day of the year? Til next time…

Monday, December 15

Today’s Readings: Psalm 37; Hosea 14:1-9; Matthew 23:1-14; Jude 1-16; Psalm 91

If I were to ask you, “Which invention of the 20th Century has proven most invaluable to you”; I wonder how would you answer? I’ve got an answer that would pop to mind pretty quickly – and it’s probably one you wouldn’t expect. My answer would be Mapquest. You see as a pastor, I spend a whole lot of time in a car traveling from one place to another. In any given day I might go from our church to a denominational meeting to a home visit to a hospital to another home visit to a care center. In order for me to stay on schedule, it’s absolutely essential that I know where I’m going. Mapquest usually gets me there. Over the years, however, I’ve learned about Mapquest is not perfect all the time. I nearly missed a church service once because Mapquest told me to take a right after taking a highway exit when I really should have taken a left. Nevertheless, in this day and age it’s vital to have something that can get you where you need to go. The psalmist knew the important of this truth as well. That’s why he culminated today’s first psalm – Psalm 37 – with these words: “If you want to live well, make sure you understand all of this. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll learn this inside and out. God’s paths get you where you want to go. Right-living people walk them easily; wrong-living people are always tripping and stumbling” (Psalm 37:9 from The Message). The power and simplicity of the psalmist’s statement is that it reminds us God isn’t just another version of Mapquest – for unlike Mapquest, the ways in which God points us are always on the mark. And this season, that’s particularly true as God points us toward that manger in Bethlehem. Today, I give thanks for the One who provides the paths which help us get to where we need to go. I also pray that each of us might have the wisdom and strength to get on those paths. Til next time…