Thursday, December 29, 2005

the real holy week

I began jokingly referring to the time between Christmas and New Year's as the real holy week, but it is true. This year Christmas fell on a Sunday. We had one worship service, which centered around two baptisms, and the singing of familiar carols, and brief meditations on the scriptures for Christmas. Twice as many people came as we had prepared bulletins for that day. It was a liturgically satisfying, casual service.

We then went home, and since we had opened gifts that morning, I crashed and took a nap and then went for a walk. In our home, gathered for Christmas, were:

my wife's mother and her eight-week old labrador retriever
my wife's brother and two of his sons, one coming in from Berkeley
my older daughter's best friend and our honorary daughter from Chapel Hill, Uzma, originally from Pakistan
a gentleman we have come to know from New Orleans, now living in Charlotte, named Mr. Wingate
and our family of four, plus our cat (his name is Panda; I call him Cujo)

The days following have been spent resting, returning gifts, exercising, reading, finishing a book (due Monday actually!), visiting friends in the mountains who have just moved into a new home, and sitting with my daughter through his wisdom teeth extraction experience. In the next few days there will be a wedding, a renewal of vows service, two communion services on Sunday, and, I am sure, a few bowl games to enjoy and football commercials to memorize in the process. Tonight my younger daughter and I plan to go to the Dell Curry basketball classic, which is a big-time high school tournament held in Charlotte. Among the players are future Duke and UNC stars, including Wayne Ellington (UNC) and Gerald Henderson, both of Episcopal Academy in Pennsylvania.

I have found out that I will be profiled on Locusts and Honey, which is one of my favorite blogs. I will let you know when that materializes.

Have a happy new year, and to my friends in the clergy, enjoy the real holy week!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

christmas or holidays?

We inhabit a pluralistic society, and the question of whether we wish people a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is the presenting issue that tests who we are and how we live together. I have listened to the predictable arguments on each side---some Christians who nostalgically remember a time when this was not an issue, and some others who speak loudly and urgently (and at times abrasively) for tolerance, and I have found the arguments on each side unsatisfying. I have wondered about what might be there, just beneath the surface, and a couple of thoughts have emerged. I have concluded that there is something to be gained by continuing to call this the Christmas season, at least in the heartland of the Carolinas.

Even in Charlotte, where church-going is an accepted and even an encouraged practice, the first signs of a post-Christian culture have surfaced. This will become more obvious on December 24, when the Panthers suit up to play the Cowboys at 1:00 p.m. Prayers prior to NBA games have gone by the wayside. And yet I know that our local culture depends on a residual Christian practice of generosity in gathering toys for children, housing for evacuees, and funding for service agencies. We can reflect on spirituality as a replacement for institutional religion, but when the social heavy-lifting is needed, congregations and the people who gather in them and disperse from them are rounded up as the usual suspects.

If this is a season of giving, it strikes me as appropriate to remember the reason for the season, and the gift of Jesus Christ, which is, at least in our historic memory, at the heart of the activity. If this seems arrogant or particularist, remember that many of the followers of Jesus intentionally give beyond themselves, to people outside their comfort zones, at this time of year. If there is no Christianity, there is no Christmas. And if there is no Christmas, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the holiday experience is pushed to the edges of our conciousness. This becomes instead the entry into winter, nothing more than the onset of twenty or so bowl games. Many of us enjoy at least a few of the bowls, but can you imagine being given time away from work to watch them? Can you envision a gift exchange set in the context of the Insight Bowl?

If we lose Christmas, can the loss of the spirit of giving be far behind?

There is another reason to keep Christmas, and this is more subversive. I am convinced that Christmas does not really belong, exclusively, to Christians. I have listened for years to criticisms of folks who only attend services once a year, at Christmas, or maybe twice (including Easter). And then I realized that perhaps I was missing the point. Christmas is about grace, gift, the desire to come home, the miracle of birth, the wonder of a child. The music, the poinsettias, the candles engage all of the senses. Maybe this is the time of the year when we get our message right, and share it with the most passion and clarity.

Further, I began to perceive that the marketplace’s fascination with Christmas was not all bad either. I began to have fun with the terrible music that emerges this time of year--everyone from the Brady Bunch to Barry Manilow to Neil Diamond seems to have recorded Christmas music---but I have treasured Ray Charles’ version of “Little Drummer Boy” and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s “O Come All Ye Faithful”. Television offerings are relentless. I wonder if Nick and Jessica will share Christmas with us this year (my hunch is not), but I look for Charlie Brown and the Grinch, and I usually find them.

When the marketplace grasped Christmas, to be sure for its own purposes, the Christian faith had an entry into the culture. We were not always able to control how the market communicated out story, but make no mistake, it was our story; think of Linus reading the second chapter of Luke, from the King James Version of the Bible.

It’s true that Christians have complained about the commercialization of Christmas, and now that the commercialization seems to be more generic, we are complaining about that too. We Christians are not at our best when we are continuously whining and complaining. My small argument for staying with Christmas benefits both people inside the church and beyond it. We are at our best when we are giving beyond ourselves. And we are surely at our most joyful when we don’t take ourselves so seriously.

So, let the muzak play! Let the bells ring! Joy to the world!

Friday, December 23, 2005


People within our congregation, and across our country are deeply divided about the war in Iraq. I have tried to reflect on where our common ground might be, as Christians. We pray for the young men and women of our nation who are making tremendous sacrifices. We honor their sacrifices. We pray for the people of Iraq, who have endured great suffering prior to the war, and who experience devastation now, many of them as refugees. We pray for the Christian church in Iraq.We pray for the peacemakers of the world (Matthew 5.9). They are the children of God. We pray for victims of terrorism and torture. We pray for those who inflict terror and for those who approve and administer torture. We humbly acknowledge that God will bring judgment upon every nation. We pray for those with military expertise, who know the traditions of just war. We pray for the conversion of those who see this as a holy war or crusade. We ask that God would intervene in ways that we cannot imagine. We pray for families separated at Christmas because of the service of their loved ones. We pray for those who mourn this Christmas (Matthew 5. 4). They will be comforted. We pray that God's will might be done on earth, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6. 10).

We pray for peace.


His name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor
Mighty God
Everlasting Father
Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9. 6

Thursday, December 15, 2005

a spiritual exercise for advent

Instructions: Read the seven questions below slowly, without trying to answer them. Then read and memorize Isaiah 9. 2: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light". Spend five minutes in silence--if you begin to become distracted, come back to Isaiah 9. 2. Answer the seven questions, personally and honestly. Where there are successes, give thanks. Where there are failures, ask for forgiveness. Don't dwell on the failures. Read John 1. 5: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it". Conclude by saying the Lord's Prayer.


1. Do I sense a need in my own life for spiritual growth? Am I receptive to an emerging and enlarged conviction that God wants to enter my own life?

2. Do I locate myself in continuity with those who have awaited the coming of God's kingdom and have looked toward the fulfillment of God's promises?

3. Do I sense an emptiness during the season preceding Christmas?

4. Have I tried to fill a spiritual vacuum with material desires?

5. How does God seem more real to me in this season, more like

an in-the-flesh reality and less like an idea or a concept?

6. What specific gift do I need to receive from God?

7. How can I prepare myself spiritually to receive a gift from God?

Sunday, December 11, 2005


When I was a child, one of my favorite programs was Hee Haw. Some of you may remember that show. It had a lot of bluegrass and country music. Folks were laying around in the hay, thinking about going down to the corner of town to watch the stop light turn green. It had other characters that must have made an impression on me, but I won’t get into that.

Hee Haw also had Grady Nutt. Grady was a baptist preacher, a comedian, and he came to be known as the “prime minister of humor”. I met Grady Nutt as a seminary student. Tragically, he died in the early 1980s, in an airplane crash. Grady Nutt had a saying, Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world”.

That’s where I want to start this morning, as we focus on God’s gift of joy, on this third Sunday of Advent. Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world. Laughter is a gift of God, a gift that we need in these days, in these holidays, when, in a world of terrorism and road rage and face transplants and outsourcing, all is not calm and all is not bright. The writer of the Proverbs knew about this gift and our need for it: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones (Proverbs 17. 22).

There is something about humor that brings us to life, and that’s the thrust of the scriptures for this morning:

The prophet Isaiah: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord.

The psalmist: Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Paul, writing to the Thessalonians: Rejoice always.

We all need something that brings us to life, like a desert rejoicing and blossoming, like water in the desert.

Have you heard any good jokes lately? Just that comment is enough to bring us out of the doldrums, to lift our spirits, to fill us with anticipation. One of my favorites came from my friend Danny Morris, who spent most of his life with the Upper Room, and is one of the most spiritual, and funniest, people I have been blessed to know. Here it is:

There was a cantankerous, crabby old man. His neighbors avoided him. His four boys moved away from home as soon as they could. You get the picture. His poor wife was long suffering in her presence.

One night he went to bed and just slipped away.

His four boys were called in. What should they do? “He was hard to live around, and no one could get along with him, but he was our pa. We owe him a decent burial, out in the meadow beyond the field.”

So they went out to the barn and found some boards and made a casket. They put the box on their shoulders and carried it out past the barn. As they passed through the gate, one of the boys bumped into the post and this caused them to drop the box. The casket broke open and the cantankerous, crabby old man sat straight up.

He had only been in a very deep…. sleep!

Well life got back to normal. He lived two more years, just as ornery and mean, cantankerous and crabby as ever. The boys could go back to their homes, but his poor wife had to stay with him.

Then one night he went to bed and just slipped away.

His four boys were called in. What should they do now? “He was hard to live around, and no one could get along with him, but he was our pa. We owe him a decent burial, out in the meadow beyond the field.”

So they went out to the barn and found some boards and made a casket, and put the old man in it. They put the box on their shoulders and started out of the house. And as they did their mother, the old man’s wife said, “Boys, when you get out by the barn…be careful going through that gate.”

We need humor in our lives. It ‘s like the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world. It’s like the desert rejoicing and blossoming. In the midst of the laughter it is as if the sorrow and sighing flees away. The message of the prophet Isaiah is so relevant for us because it acknowledges the pain and the loss and the devastation the people had been through, and at the same time it points to something beyond the present.

The creation will be renewed.
The ruined cities will be rebuilt.
The exiles will come home.
The oppressed will hear the good news.
Those who mourn will be comforted.

Near the end of his life Jesus gathered his disciples and said to them, “you will weep and mourn, you will have pain, but your pain will be turned to joy. No one will take your joy from you…In the world you will have persecution”. And then, he says, in the King James version, “But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world”. (John 16. 20, 33)

I like the words of Jim Harnish, a Methodist pastor friend in Tampa, Florida:

The resonant laughter echoing from heaven is not cheap, shallow, watery frivolity; it is rich, deep, vivid joy. It is gladness that comes from the same place as suffering; joy that comes from the same place as tears. It is the joy of men and women who face the suffering, injustice and pain of the world in all its fury, but have taken hold of something stronger, deeper and more powerful. They have grasped the assurance of the ultimate triumph of the goodness of God. They are of good cheer because they know that the power of God in Jesus Christ has overcome the world”.

Now I know that I am pushing a little here, because we’ve all heard the message, haven’t we, that says “Christians are supposed to be serious”. It is as if some little voice is saying, “wipe that smile off of your face, don’t you know you are in church!”

I love the insight of the novelist Peter DeVries, who wrote wonderfully comic and engaging books: Do not assume, he said, that because I write in comic ways, I am being trivial, and I will not assume, because you write in serious ways, that you are being profound”!

When we are most pressed, when we are most stressed, what is needed is not the serious and the somber, but something else:

the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world.

We need to laugh. Rejoice, Paul writes the Thessalonians…do not quench the spirit! And what is the fruit of the spirit? Joy. Sometimes, even in the toughest times, we need an experience of joy.

A family story. My wife’s father died last year, the day before Palm Sunday. The arrangements were made, and a part of the ritual was an evening in the town’s funeral home just on the edge of Kernersville, where we were greeted by hundreds of people who had known Mr. Barrow. He had been their football coach, neighbor, Sunday School teacher, friend, golfing buddy.

Well, Pam, Liz, Abby and I are standing in the line, being greeted, and hundreds of folks are coming through. Some recurring comments and questions come our way, in the midst of the evening.

For me, people would look ask, “so you are a minister in Charlotte?”, as if Charlotte were located on some other planet, and we had been abducted by aliens. This question came again and again. “Yes”, I replied, “we live in Charlotte. It’s a great place.”

For Pam, the question asked over and over again was a little unfair. I was standing next to her, so I overheard some of this. Someone would grasp her hand, and look into her eyes, and, ask this question: You don’t remember who I am, do you?”

How do you respond to that one?

For Abby, the question asked over and over and over again, to the point where I think she began to count the number of times, the number approached one hundred, was: Do you play basketball?”

It was a difficult time, for many reasons. But there were moments, like these, when it was as if the hand of God was on our shoulder, touching us. In hindsight, it was God’s gift of joy in a difficult time.

It is acceptable to laugh, to smile, to have fun in church. We take the faith seriously, but we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously. Chesterton was right.

Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly”.

And so we gather in the house of the Lord, on this third Sunday of Advent, and we light the candle of joy. Ultimately, our joy is all about who Jesus is. After his time of testing in the desert, which paralleled Israel’s exile, Jesus is worshipping in the synagogue in Nazareth, and he is reading the scripture for the people, and he opens Isaiah to this passage:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

(Luke 4)

Then Jesus closes the book and sits down. And everyone is looking at him. And then he says, to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”.

And in that moment we get it. It’s like the ending to a wonderful story, and we get it, we sense that “this is where it was leading to all along”. We rejoice, we laugh, even in the midst of pain and loss and devastation, because in Jesus we hear the deep resonant laughter of God.

So, people of God: be joyful!

Discover some occasion for laughter.

Do not quench the spirit.

Let the waters flow in the desert.

Let the weeping turn to laughter.

Let the desert become a garden.

Rejoice! You are not alone.

That embrace may be the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world.


Sources: Danny Morris, Spirits Laughing; James Harnish, Men at Mid-Life: Steering Through The Detours.

Monday, December 05, 2005


In anticipation of his birth, there was a word from the prophet, Isaiah:

He will be called wonderful counselor, mighty God,
everlasting Father, prince of peace. ISAIAH 9

The father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, spoke of the birth of his own son:

He will give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,to guide our feet into the way of peace. LUKE 1

A heavenly choir sang praise to God on the occasion of the birth of Jesus:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace. LUKE 2

The teaching ministry of Jesus began with a word spoken on the mountain of the Beatitudes in the Galilee:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. MATTHEW 5

In the midst of the storm, as the disciples faced persecution and uncertainty and fear, Jesus spoke to the winds and the waves, and to the disciples:

Peace, be still! MARK 4

When he was about to leave this earth, Jesus’ last words were ones of comfort:

Peace I leave with you My peace I give to you

I do not give as the world gives to you.

Let not your hearts be troubled neither let them be afraid. JOHN 14

Each year we hear these same words. This year, as last year, we are in the midst of wars and rumors of wars. This year, as last year, we see violence and destruction and oppression. This year, as last year, we can look within and see uncertainty and fear, and, if we are honest, the absence of peace.

Most of us want peace. Not everyone wants peace, but most of us want peace. The dissonance comes because there seems to be so little of it. Our time could be described in the words of the eighth century prophet, who critiqued those who would go around announcing, “peace, peace, when there is no peace”.

Today we light the candle of peace and we read the scriptures about peace and we await the coming of the promised prince of peace. And I come to you again, this year, with the same word, the same gift, the same prescription: the peace of the Lord.

It was the dream of the prophets.
It was the hope of his parents.
It was the message of his preaching.
It was the legacy of his passover.

Peace. We want peace. But we know so little peace in our world, in our community, in our lives.

So, what do we do with the dissonance? How do we resolve it? One response is to say that we are not peaceable people, we don’t really care enough about peace to make it happen. That’s the problem. It’s as if we have not figured out a way to construct peace or make it a reality.

But that is not quite right. Because peace is not something we can create or invent. And, to go deeper into all of this, we don’t always really know what peace is, do we? Some people sentimentalize peace. Peace is like a warm blanket or a hot bath or a sedative. Some people compartmentalize peace. I think of the homes in Latin America, in neighborhoods I have walked through, the walls lined with cut glass bottles, the jagged edges exposed, to separate those inside from those outside, to keep the peace.

Could we have peace if we just built a gigantic wall? In the land where the prince of peace was born, his ancestors, on both sides, have little desire for peace, although the multitudes of Palestinians and Israelis want peace. Could we have peace if we just separated the people we like from the people we don’t like?

Is that peace? It turns out that peace is something different.

· Here is my definition. Peace is a right relationship with God. And a right relationship with God always puts us into a right relationship with each other. And here is a conviction. We do not make it a right relationship. God has already done that. God has already made peace with the world.

The early Christians could look back at Jesus, in the same way the prophets looked forward, and they could see the peace that he had made possible on this earth:

In Christ Jesus you who were once far off
have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made
both groups into one
and has broken down the dividing wall,
that is, the hostility between us. EPHESIANS 2

He is our peace. Peace is not a human achievement. Peace is a gift from God. And here we find ourselves much closer to the prophets, much nearer to the people we meet in the gospels. We are praying for this gift, eagerly awaiting this gift of peace. Like driving home for that Christmas family feast, we are not there, but we can almost taste it!

Advent is a time of transition.

In the 40th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of a transition. The season of punishment has ended, now is the time of restoration and renewal. “Comfort the people with this good news”, the prophet says. Go to the top of a mountain and shout it for all to hear. Those who have been wounded are now the very ones who will comfort others.

In the third chapter of II Peter, there is a further reflection on the transition. A thousand years is like a day with God. The transition seems slow in coming. We wait for this gift but it does not appear. We want this promised peace, but where is it? God is not slow, the scripture reminds us, but God is patient, patient because of our stubbornness and sinfulness. God wants us to repent. God is interested in our readiness to receive the gift. God is not slow, but God is patient.

Patience is surely a part of what is needed in this season of Advent, in a culture that begins to sing Christmas carols on November 1, in a marketplace where people are trampled on their way to the X-Box aisle. Patience requires our waiting. I confess. I am in the grocery store line, it’s this time of year, the bell is ringing outside, I have my nine or ten items, my card out, I am behind someone, all of their items are scanned, the total appears, they look at the total on the register for a moment, maybe longer, its as if they are frozen in time, and then they reach into a purse, and inside the purse there is another purse, and they take that out and unsnap it, and slowly they begin to remove a credit card and I am almost willing to say to the cashier, just put those items on my account, okay.

I am not always patient, especially this time of year. But Advent is all about patience and waiting, whether you are a five year old boy obsessed with a special gift or a grandmother counting the days until a reunion with family. Patience and waiting. I love the comment by Henri Nouwen:

"Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of promise. "Zechariah...your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son". "Mary...Listen!" You are to conceive and bear a son"(Luke 1. 13, 31). People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun in us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more. (Watch For The Light).

Peace is the gift of God, and we wait for it, but the waiting is not passive. “While you are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, and regard the patience of the Lord as salvation”.

The very absence of peace in our world, the making all things right, has to do with the patience of God, allowing us to use our freedom in his service, allowing us to use our abundance as agents of his blessing, allowing us to use our woundedness as instruments of his healing.

We are able to wait for peace because we have glimpsed it here and there, now and then, and for the follower of Jesus, the prince of peace, something is already growing in us, a hunger and a thirst for a new world. We “wait with a sense of promise”.

The dream of the prophets
the hope of his parents
the message of his preaching
the legacy of his Passover
the longing of his people
the fulfillment of his promise.

Ruth and Billy Graham were traveling through the mountains of western North Carolina and they encountered several miles of road construction. There was one-lane traffic, there were detours, it was a little frustrating. Finally they came to the end and they saw a road sign. Ruth Graham turned to her husband and said, “those words, on that road sign, that is what I would like to have printed on my tombstone”. The words on the road sign read:

End of construction. Thanks for your patience.

We are in a time of transition.
We wait with a sense of promise.
Do not be discouraged if the world does not seem to be a very peaceful place. Do not be discouraged if anxiety rules within your heart and confusion pervades your mind.

Those who walked with God before us knew this same dissonance,
and yet they listened for a harmony at the heart of the universe,
they took this bread and cup into their hands as grace,
they discerned a truth that was the joy of human desiring,
they dreamed about a peace the world could neither give nor take away,
a gift, about to be revealed to us: peace, in the year of our Lord, 2005.

Are you willing to pray for peace?
Are you willing to pray for a new world?

Brothers and sisters, God is not slow, but God is patient.

Still the vision awaits its time,
wrote the prophet Habbakuk,
It hastens to the end, it will not delay.
If it seems slow, wait for it.
It will surely come.