Word of the Week

photoWe have a tree up in our house (see proof to the left!) but no Christmas presents underneath.

It's not that I haven't had time to go shopping . . . I guess I could have made some time if I really wanted to go to the mall (somehow going straight home after work has been more appealing). It's not that I don't like giving gifts or even shopping (when it is has a time limit).

In actuality love giving gifts. I enjoy coming up with creative gift ideas for people I love, and the time shopping to get them doesn't bug me at all. In my house growing up, I was always the designated Christimas wrapper. I'm pretty good at making bows for packages, in fact.

But, I can't seem to get my head into it all this year.  Yet, no matter how I feel, Christmas is coming soon. I've got to get motivated!

I think my resistance stems from this: I don't need anything. The people I am going to give something to don't need anything either.

We live in a country of plenty. Over the travels of this year, I know this fully well.

In America, we "want" is usually incorrectly mixed up with the word "need." Most people I know usually are able to buy something for themself if they really need it or at least save up over a period of time for an item. Sadly, most of us use Christmas to further our dependency on consumerism, in an effort to say we've celebrated the holiday.

Katharine Whitehorn is attributed to saying about our world's obsession with Christmas by saying, " From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it." I read this quote and immediately said, "Oh gee."

What's the larger point, when we know as Christians that we are celebrating a spiritual holiday? Is the act of gift-giving really that bad? Of course you sound super spiritual this time of year if you say, "I'm not buying my kids or spouse more than one present." Or, "I'm only giving gifts from alternative Christmas markets" But as we all know, I am not that spiritual and I bet you aren't either.  Maybe there is a balance.

Those three kings did bring Jesus gifts in adoration of his Lordship after all. . . .

I believe what all of us need more of is not piles of presents under the tree with our names on them, but love expressed. Author Harlan Miller said: "Probably theChristmas Presents reason we all go so haywire at Christmas time with the endless unrestrained and often silly buying of gifts is that we don't quite know how to put our love into words."

What we all really need is the gift of each other. People in our lives who risk the vulnerability of telling us what we mean to them. Our risking doing the same. Taking time to make those we love feel special and appreciated. Helping each other remember how much God loves us all.

A congregation member of mine once told me about a new tradition she created in her family. Instead of giving gifts to each other, when they gathered, they all wrote letters. Each member of the family took the time to write a reflective letter about something they'd given/ participated in that was an act of service. And then perched the letters physically on the tree at the family gathering.  After dinner, when everyone sat down in the living room, the small children still got a few presents, but the adults then shared their letters with one another. This ritual became a way to teach the children (and remind each other as adult too) what giving is really all about. And remember that Christmas' emphasis on service is indeed for the entire year, not just December.

I know several churches and families like this one have or are thinking of creative ways to participate in Advent in non-traditional ways. I say bring it on! Share any good ideas you or your family have come up with for alternative giving here in the comment section. I want to learn from you.

In the meantime, I am going to keep staring at my Christmas tree, hoping to get inspired.

Promises in the Night Lent Series:

There's More!

Genesis 17:1-17, 15-16 with Mark 14:22-26

Ever finish a meal and find yourself asking, "There's got to be more; I'm still hungry." Or, ever come to the end of a vacation and say to whoever you are traveling with, "There's got to be more; I'm not ready to come home yet?" Or, ever find yourself watching the credits of a movie and say, "There's got to be more; that can't be the ending!"

Several weeks ago on the morning of my birthday, I experienced one of these, "there's got to be more" moments as Kevin gave me my gift. After parading in the house the night before my birthday with lots of "You can't ask me where I've been" and "You can't look in this big bag I just brought in" my expectation level was raised higher than normal. I woke up even wondering what could be in the huge bag that sat in the middle of the living room floor. Certainly, I thought, Kevin had out done himself and I would be receiving a really great gift this year!

After finishing breakfast quickly, Kevin asked, "Ready for your gift?"

I said: "Of course!" I and sat on the couch waiting to be presented with the bag I'd seen the night before. As I began to tear into the  tissue paper that sat on top, I discovered two wrapped items. The first was a metal stand for firewood. And, the second box contained fire poking set, also for the fireplace in our living room. Nothing else seemed to appear in the bag.

Fearing we'd had one of those "husband buys a wife a gift that the husband really wants" moments, I soon objected, even though I'm sure I sounded completely unappreciative of the gesture of his remembering my birthday. I have to admit, I was quite blunt:"You got me a fire poker and a wood holder for my birthday? What were you thinking??"

Kevin just smiled and said, "You've been talking how much we need tools for fire building, I'd thought you’d like it." But he smiled with the grin that he didn't fear going to the marriage dog house soon . . . which I thought was weird. Didn't my tone of voice convey that I was disappointed?

I complained too soon! Thank goodness Kevin didn't follow the wisdom of what James Allan once said: "The very fact that you are a complainer, shows that you deserve your lot."

"Quick" he added, "look at the bottom of the bag under the extra layer of paper. There's more!"  And to my surprise at the bottom of the bag was in fact my real present-- an IPad, an amazing gift, better than I could have ever imagined.  It turns out that the fire set was all a joke and I fell for the trap almost line by line as Kevin imagined.

In our Old Testament promise text for this morning, we read of another encounter of similar laughable proportions where two characters were asked to think differently about their expectations, realizing that God longed to give them more.

When we meet Abram and Sarai in Genesis 17 as God begins to speak to this couple saying in verse  one of our text, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous" it's not the first time that we read of language of promise directed toward this family. In fact, when Abram first enters the Bible in Genesis chapter twelve, we hear God asking him to set out on this unknown journey of leaving his home and journeying to a place that God would show him. And, at this moment, Abram was also told about ancestors of his being numerous.  "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you."

But other than protection and guidance for the journey, this "I will bless you" plan of the Lord's did not seem to be working out. Abram and Sarai had no children. And, without children it was going to be hard for their descendants to be great and numerous because they didn't have any!

So, we read in Genesis 16 that Sarai took matters into her own hands, figuring that because of her advanced age God didn't really want to use her in the plan after all. I can't imagine the pain, the rejection and disdain she must have felt toward God as she gave her maidservant, Hagar to spend the night with Abram.  Because if it were for Abram's God and all this promise business, she could have kept Abram all to herself. The childless couple could have willed their estate to their head servant without any shared nights in one another's bedrooms being involved. I can imagine Sarai angry at the world she found herself in-- deeply in fact!

So, while it was fine and good that God called out this family, especially choosing them for the adventure of  going to the "promise land"-- by chapter 17 this experience had not turned out like they expected. I'm sure both Abram and Sarai went to bed each night wondering, "what went wrong?" Because they must have heard wrong from the Lord. For this was not the broken pieces kind of life that either of them hoped they'd have. Nomad wanderers far from their hometown, childless, but yet with a son birthed for them from a slave.

I can't imagine Abram or Sarai having the strength to ask for anything else, to ask for more or even hope that there was more. For, beaten down-- sitting in the darkness-- without hope for the impossible dream of parenting together and just stability in their lives to come true.  There was sadness in both of them, especially Sarai that just couldn't go away.

But, even in the darkness a promise comes-- and this promise is "There's More."

Look with me at verse 4, God says, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. . . . I  will make your exceedingly fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you."

"So Abram, you think that I've forgotten you?" God says, " You think that this desire that you have buried deep within you to have a child with your wife is dead, gone and long past?  Think again. Hear me again. You will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. It is your promise for the night."

Just as God said last week to Noah and the crew gathered around the ark-- I will remember you-- God saying to Abram, "Hang with me here. Keep walking with me. Keep moving. Why? Because there is more a comin'!"

I don't know if you are like me, but when someone makes me a promise or says they are going to do something for me, I'd like a sign. Even if it is just a handshake, even if it is just a confirmation email, even if it is just a piece of paper with my name and theirs on it-- documentation is always good for peace of mind and sleep at night, in particularly difficult situations.

And such was the case with Abram and Sarai too. They needed a sign of this promise. Ishmael, Hagar's son after all is 13 years old by now! If I were Sarai or Abram and God still wants to promise our family "father of many nations" business, then, I might have wanted to tell God just to leave me alone. Let me be. But, if you insist God on saying this promise again, then I'll need more...

And the "more" proof, the sign that this family received was a name change.

Abram is told that he will be called Abraham from this point forward and Sarai is told that she would be called Sarah.  Abraham is a name meaning, "ancestor of multitudes" while Sarah translates "princess."  Not only would they have words of promise to speak of a change coming, but they would embody the transformation.

Most notable is Sarah’s new role.

Previous to chapter 17 when God spoke it was all about Abram. And because of this, it would have been easy to assume, for Sarah did that God didn't need her, that she wasn't important. But, everything changes in verses 15 and 16. Look with me in what God says about Sarah, "I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her." 

Sarah's soon-to-be announced pregnancy would become an experience of co-creating with God.

But not only this, God would change too. God would show in this covenant making progress more of the divine character-- more than anyone had ever seen before!

Baptist Hebrew Bible scholar Dr. Tony Cartledge says this, about what we are learning about God: "For the first time in the Hebrew text, God is referred to not as Elohim or Yahweh, but with the Hebrew name El Shaddai." This is the only time in the book of Genesis that El Shaddai is used to speak of God-- which is our sign to pay attention!

Dr. Cartledge goes on to write of El Shaddai, "While translators have commonly translated El Shaddai, God’s name, as “Almighty God” or “All Powerful One,” God’s name change to El Shaddai has more to do with fertility. The words in God’s new name most clearly relate to the Hebrew word Shaddaim, the plural form of the word for the female breast."

 And with this name change, it’s as if God is saying: “We’re in relationship. I will be your God—your fertility God who gives you what you desperately need. And you, Abraham and Sarah . . . you will be parents of a whole new nation.” It was a covenant promise of unprecedented before and unprecedented since proportions.

Such reminds me of the hope that came in Jesus' words from Mark 14 when he broke bread and said, "take and eat; this is my body" and when he lifted up the cup and said, "This is the blood of the covenant poured out for many."

Jesus too, in the midst of this dark night-- as we talked about the betrayal of Judas last Sunday-- shared with his disciples about the something more that was coming as well. And though they did not understand and though they too must have thought that Jesus was crazy for speaking like this, a promise of NEW covenant is made.  My disciples, Jesus says, "I'm going to keep renewing and renewing again my promise to show you more and more and more of myself each time you eat of this meal."

It's a promise in the night that no matter how dark the next couple of days might be, no matter how lost the disciples would soon feel , they'd always have the signs of this new covenant given at this meal. They'd always have the loaf of bread and cup to come back to and taste and drink of the "MORE" or of the abundant life that God had promised all people.

This meal Jesus gave became the sign of promise we call this day communion.  It's the meal of more.

 I recently heard a true story about a dear church member who faithfully worshipped in her local church for her entire life.  Diagnosed with a terminal illness and given only days to live, her Pastor was called to her bed to discuss her final wishes. She told him which songs and scriptures she wanted at the service and what outfit she wanted to wear as she was buried. He took great notes, not wanting to miss a thing. 

Then, as the Pastor was leaving, the lady suddenly cried out, "Wait. There's one more little thing. I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand." The Pastor didn’t know what to say.

"So that puzzles you, does it?" she replied before she went on to explain:  "In over 70 years of attending community socials and dinners, church functions and birthday parties, seems like every time someone would tell me, 'Keep your fork.' I liked to hear that because it meant something better was coming, like chocolate cake or pickled pears or pecan pie, something sweet and wonderful. So now I want my friends and family to remember me with a fork in my hand and I want them to ask, ‘What's with the fork?’ I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork, the best is yet to come.’"

The Pastor became teary eyed as he kissed his dear friend good-bye. But his heart was full as he believed along with her, something better was yet to come.

As expected the woman soon passed, and at the church funeral, many, many people walked by the casket, for she was greatly admired in the community. Everyone wanted to pay their deepest respects to this beloved one.

They all saw the fork. Over and over, the Pastor was asked, "Why the fork?" And over and over he only smiled and said, “The best is yet to come.” During his homily during the memorial, he told what the fork had meant to her, and how he couldn’t stop thinking about it.  The fork symbolized everything this humble servant of God believed about purpose of her life.

So whatever kind of sign you need today-- whether it be a fork, an invitation to the Lord's Table as you will be receiving soon, or writing some of these promise words of scripture down and keeping them close to your heart-- I invite you to do it. And do it this week. As you take up these signs of remembrance, know though the nights and days of this season of repentance of preparation called Lent are long-- we are not a people ever who are without hope. Why? There's always more.

Thanks be to God for this our promise for the night today.


 Do you open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?  It's the question of the day!

No matter your traditions (if you are a cultural American or religious Christian alike), the next couple of days are those consumed in the practice of gift giving and recieving. Depending on expectations on both ends, it can often be a stressful time of hoping the other likes what you get and/or being satisfied (or not) with what you received.

But, have any of you gotten a gift this season from someone that you didn't expect already? It happens to me every year and is quiet a quandary.

Consider this story from Will Willimon (former dean of Duke Chapel of that wonderful basketball school where I received my seminary education).

The following could really preach (oh you preachers looking for last minute sermon ideas, read closely), but as I am going a different homiletical direction this year, I thought I'd share it on this blog in hopes that all of us who have a second to take a breath this Christmas Eve will consider the marvel of God's grace given to us in Jesus. It's the gift we could never reciprocate, ever.

Probably most of us have had the experience of receiving, right out of the blue, a gift from someone we really don’t know all that well. And, perhaps, to our consternation, the gift turns out to be nice, something that we didn’t know we wanted and certainly didn’t ask for, but there it is, a good gift from someone who is not really a good friend.

Now, what is the first thing we do in response?

Right. We try to come up with a gift to give in return -- not out of gratitude (after all, we didn’t ask for it) or out of friendship (after all, we hardly even know this person) , but because we don’t want to feel guilty.

We don’t want to be indebted. The gift seems to lay a claim upon us, especially since it has come from someone we barely know. This is uncomfortable; it’s hard to look the person in the face until we have reciprocated. By giving us a gift, this person has power over us.

It may well be, as Jesus says, more blessed to give than to receive. But it is more difficult to receive. Watch how people blush when given a compliment. Watch what you do when your teen-aged son comes home with a very expensive Christmas present from a girl he has dated only twice. "Now you take that expensive sweater right back and tell her that your parents won’t allow you to accept it. Every gift comes with a claim and you’re not ready for her claim upon you." In a society that makes strangers of us all, it is interesting what we do when a stranger gives us a gift.

And consider what we do at Christmas, the so-called season of giving. We enjoy thinking of ourselves as basically generous, benevolent, giving people. That’s one reason why everyone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged generosity. The newspaper keeps us posted on how many needy families we have adopted. The Salvation Army kettles enable us to be generous while buying groceries (for ourselves) or gifts (for our families). People we work with who usually balk at the collection to pay for the morning coffee fall over themselves soliciting funds "to make Christmas" for some family.

We love Christmas because, as we say, Christmas brings out the best in us. Everyone gives on Christmas, even the stingiest among us, even the Ebenezer Scrooges. Charles Dickens’s story of Scrooge’s transformation has probably done more to form our notions of Christmas than St. Luke’s story of the manger. Whereas Luke tells of God’s gift to us, Dickens tells us how we can give to others. A Christmas Carol is more congenial to our favorite images of ourselves. Dickens suggests that down deep, even the worst of us can become generous, giving people.

Yet I suggest that we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people. The Christmas story -- the one according to Luke not Dickens -- is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.

We prefer to think of ourselves as givers -- powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are. Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we -- with our power, generosity, competence and capabilities -- had little to do with God’s work in Jesus. God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins and stars in the sky to get it done. We didn’t think of it, understand it or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was receive it. A gift from a God we hardly even knew.