Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Prayer

Dear Lord God, Giver of all that is good.
We thank You today for the gift of Your Son, 
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was born into poverty in a hard and cruel time.
Who gave Himself for us on the cross,
and lives and reigns with You in glory.

We thank You for our family, our pastors, 
our friends who have gone before us,
and taught us the meaning of Your incarnation 
that we celebrate today.
With gladdened hearts, 
we celebrate Your Nativity 
with beloved scripture 
and Christmas carols and loud rejoicing.

Help us to teach those who come after us 
that Christmas is a holy time. 
It’s about the greatest gift that we could ever receive.
The gift of a Baby in a manger.

Bless us O Lord as we continue to seek Your Son 
and to love Him more each day.

Bless us Lord that through Your Grace 
we are looking more like Him 
and less like us.

Bless us as we seek to honor the mystery of the Incarnation
and as we remember that You made us in Your divine image.

Help us to welcome You into the messiness of our humanity 
with Your wisdom, power and peace today 
and throughout our days to come.
Emmanuel.  God with us.  Thank You, Lord.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Grandma's Greatest Gift

Grandma ~ Christmas Morning 1979
Dear Friends,

Quirky is one word that you could have used to describe my grandmother. Twice divorced back in the days when women just didn’t do that, she never paid too much attention to socially-accepted convention. Grandma was strong, out-spoken, independent and adventurous. She was a school teacher on a military base in Okinawa, Japan after the war and then a school teacher in Compton. I loved my Grandma. I didn't love her Christmas gifts. She lived on a multi-acre property in Downey with “Demi” her Great Dane. She had a commercial tropical fish hatchery on her property and the adjacent storage building was the secret place where she stored the Christmas gifts. When schools closed for summer vacation, Grandma traveled to distant lands and brought back gifts for her now-grown children and grandchildren. Among the pallets of fish food and old tanks in the storage building, she had shelves with our names neatly printed on them. Throughout the year, whenever she found something that could be a Christmas gift, she put it on our shelf. I spent many enjoyable summer weeks with her when she wasn’t traveling so I soon discovered the not-so-secret Christmas shelves. 

One year, I found a pair of boy’s German “leaderhosen” on my shelf. These are leather knee-length shorts with colorful embroidery and suspenders – think Oktoberfest costume. I was a painfully shy kid who wore only Levis and long-sleeve flannel shirts to school and a suit to church. So I did what any good church-goin’ lad would do. I moved the leaderhosen over to Howie’s shelf and prayed that my grandmother would think that she had bought these for her other grandson. But it was impossible to deceive Grandma – did I mention that she was a schoolteacher

The only time I ever wore the leaderhosen was on Christmas morning when my parents insisted that I try them on so that Grandma could see me in them. I spent that Christmas day dressed like a character in the Nutcracker ballet with grownups telling me how cute I looked and my grandmother thrilled at giving me the perfect gift. Many years later, when I had matured into a painfully shy teenager, my Christmas gift was a wine-stained African Caftan that Grandma had worn at a ceremonial dinner with a tribal chief on her last trip to Africa. I could tell you about other gifts but you get the idea. When I was a little kid, I didn’t want a wooden statue hand-carved by Aborigines, I wanted a Tonka Truck.

But if Grandma missed it when it came to those wrapped gifts under the tree, she gave her grandchildren the greatest gift of them all. She gave us the gift of her love and time. I have so many happy memories of going places with her. Everything she did with her grandchildren was an adventure. And she gave her love and time not just to her family. When I was at her house in Downey, she would often bring home a student from her class to spend the day with me. These were all African-American kids my age who loved all the animals on the property, particularly the Great Dane. They lived in poverty conditions in broken homes and she treated these students as if they were her grandchildren. A lifelong Episcopalian, she lived out her faith by giving her love and her time to others and I am certain that after she took her last breath on earth and her next breath in Heaven, she heard Jesus say, “Well done good and faithful servant.” 

You and I have received the greatest gift of them all. It’s nothing wrapped and under the tree. The very best gift that we have ever received is laying in the manger. “For the grace of God that brings salvation appeared to all men.” Titus 2:11 And I love the way the NLT translates verse 14: “He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us His very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds.” Titus 2:14 NLT Christmas is the time of year that we are reminded of our need to focus less on ourselves and more on others. But many of us try hard to make it easy on ourselves to do the “good deeds.” We give money to our favorite charity at Christmas. We drop off that $5 toy at Toys for Tots. We toss our loose change in the Salvation Army kettle and pat ourselves on the back for our giving spirit. We write out that Christmas check for our grandchild. But when Jesus spoke about giving to others, He never mentioned an Amazon gift card or something on sale at Macy’s. [Read Matthew 25:31-40] The greatest gift we can give to others comes from our heart – the gift of time and love. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate receiving appropriate gifts (review the opening paragraphs for what not to give me) and I love giving gifts to others. But what I learned from Grandma was how to give that greatest gift of all.

To whom in your church can you take some freshly-baked Christmas cookies and then just sit with them awhile and visit? Which elderly neighbor on your street can you help today with their outdoor decorations? Who are the people you can call this Advent season, just to talk with them? For anyone who has experienced a major life transition this past year – loss of a loved one, loss of a job, difficult family situation, Christmas is a tough time for them. Is there someone you know who will spend Christmas alone unless you invite them to your house? God created us to be in relationship with others and many older people are alone and feel a deep and pervasive loneliness this time of year. Did you know that 60% of all people who live in assisted living facilities and nursing homes never receive a visitor? Just to have someone to talk to brings great joy to them. Who can you give the greatest gift to this Christmas season? You know the gift I mean. The one that Jesus talks about. The gift of your time and your love. Amen?