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 14, 2016

Journey of Las Posadas

Dear Friends,

When I was young, one of my favorite things at Christmas time was when my mom and dad took us kids to Olvera Street for Las Posadas. Olvera Street is considered to be “the birthplace of Los Angeles” and is where you’ll find the oldest house in the City. The Olvera Street adobe and brick buildings were restored in 1930 and today you’ll find a block-long, tree-shaded, brick-lined market place that ends at the historic plaza. “Las Posadas” is a Catholic-Mexican tradition that commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the search for a place where Jesus would be born. You could feel the excitement all along the narrow, colorful street as we waited for Las Posadas (The Inns) to begin. You first heard the singing and then saw a teenage Mary riding a small donkey lead by a teenage Joseph. There was a bunch of kids, about my age, dressed as either shepherds or angels and all were singing and carrying candles. As the crowd passed us, we joined the procession as it made its way down the street. “Mary and Joseph” stopped at every shop entrance asking for shelter and were turned away until they reached their final destination. The “inn-keeper” invited them in and everyone was served a Mexican hot drink and cookies. Things were far less inclusive in the early sixties, but it never seemed odd to me that we were one of the very few non-Catholic, non-Mexican families who took part in this Christmas tradition on Olvera Street!

We can think of Las Posadas as a metaphor for the Advent season. Jesus knocks on the doors of hearts and He’s either rejected and turned away or He’s invited in. Jesus invites us to come and live within Him and He will live within us. John 15:4 You can ignore Jesus the rest of the year, but He’s in your face from Thanksgiving day until Christmas. That’s why this is a very tough time of year for atheists. Immanuel means “God with us” and while Jesus is with us year-round, you definitely can’t escape from Him at Christmas time! Even atheists cannot hide from the “God with us” for He is with them too. From the music at the mall to the nativity scenes, the songs and images of Jesus Christ are everywhere we go and that means that the atheist must be constantly and continuously rejecting the Son of God.

Last Friday we were at our favorite beach restaurant on a very cool, overcast day so we were happy to find that the outdoor patio heaters were working. The only other one braving the outdoor patio was “Peggy” and her small dog. She’s a regular at the restaurant as we are. We’ve talked with her before and so we asked what she was doing for Christmas. She told us about a trip that she and some of her children were taking to South America. After sixty-four years of a happy marriage, her husband had died a year and a half ago and she began to talk to us about the loneliness and emptiness of her life without him. I heard her sadness and saw her eyes fill with tears.

God prompted me to turn this conversation toward Him and I asked her about her faith. She said, “I’m going to disappoint you both because I always see you pray before you eat, but I’m an atheist.” She had been uncertain about God throughout her life and at the age of seventy-two decided that she just didn’t believe. She told us that one of the hardest things about being an atheist, and not believing in God or in an afterlife in Heaven, was the realization that she would never see her husband again. I asked her if she ever prayed. She shook her head “no” and I told her that we would start praying for her. I told her that we were both strong Christian believers who believe in the efficacy of prayer and I told her that I was also a pastor. She said she hoped that we would still like her and we assured her that we still did. We all finished our lunch at the same time and the three of us stood to leave and we said goodbye. Peggy turned away to walk down the steps toward the street but then stopped and turned back. “Don’t forget to pray for me,” she said. “I’m leaving Wednesday and pray for my plane trip. I’m not afraid of terrorists but bad airplane mechanics. Please pray that I have a safe flight.” We assured her that we would. 

The Advent journey is the journey of Las Posadas. No longer is it Mary and Joseph but Jesus Christ who is knocking on the doors of hearts all across the world and inviting us to come and abide in Him and He in us. It started with us asking Peggy how she was going to spend her Christmas this year. She apologetically but firmly explained that she did not believe in God or prayer. But then as she was leaving, she not only asked for our prayers to the God she “didn’t believe in,” but she asked specifically for God’s protection of her and a safe flight. At some point during our conversation, the Holy Spirit intervened and Peggy opened that door to her heart just a little crack. Just enough to wonder again. To maybe hope again. This is why I love Advent! I know that our conversations with her will continue...

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?