I haven’t set foot into my church since early March of last year, just before Indiana locked down for the pandemic. That level of lockdown ended after several weeks, and West Park Christian Church decided to reopen last July.
It was challenging to arrive at that decision. Some of our elders wanted to open sooner, saying that we shouldn’t live in fear, and that us staying closed was starving our members of Christian community.
I took offense to the first point — it’s prudent, not fearful, to avoid a disease that can kill you, or leave you with chronic health difficulties, or at least lay you up for a solid two weeks while it has its way with you. God won’t protect us from it simply because we gather to worship him. Anyone who thinks so has a gross misunderstanding of faith and the nature of God.
I conceded the second point. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Other elders, including me, took the position that our first duty is to keep our congregation healthy, especially given how many of them are elderly or have health conditions that put them at serious COVID risk. I wasn’t eager to stand before God one day explaining the people who suffered or died because I voted to open too soon.
We reached a compromise: we would ask at-risk people to stay away, require masks for all who enter, and alter the service to limit physical proximity. I’m naturally drawn to compromise so I said yes, but soon after I felt a regret I’ve never shaken.
Margaret and I have not been willing to expose ourselves to COVID risk, so we’ve stayed away. Most Sunday mornings we take in the services of North Point Community Church on our TV via our Roku. We both value the teaching of North Point pastor Andy Stanley; even before this, we often listened to his sermons on long car trips.
But a sermon is not the complete church experience, and it is not the main reason to attend church. We go to church to be a part of a community where we can encourage each other in the faith. Hebrews 10:24-25 lay it out very well:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.
Sure, a sermon is part of the worship experience. So is singing, and praying, and giving — other Scripture provides for all of these practices. But the point of these verses in Hebrews is that we’re meant to be Christians in community. This is a faith we do with others, if for no other reason than we can help each other stay with it and keep growing in it. Classically, we find Christian community in church.
That’s what’s been missing for Margaret and me as we’ve watched Andy Stanley preach every week. I can’t write with certainty about Margaret’s experience, but I can about mine: I feel increasingly isolated in my faith. I’ve lost feeling connected to fellow Christians. In parallel, the habits of my faith have fallen off, or feel increasingly stale. I don’t pray as often. I’m not in the Bible as much, and when I do study it, the words often fail to connect with me. And I’m not doing very much that expresses my faith. My faith is action-oriented: what mission am I on and what am I doing to move that in service to him is critically important. I’m not doing anything related to God’s mission right now. Margaret and I have our hands full holding things together with some family challenges during a time when everything is more difficult anyway.
For a long time, I believed that God wanted me to be a part of my church’s urban mission. We did our best to meet our neighbors, most of whom know the problems of poverty, lift them up as best we could, and introduce them to Jesus. My ability to organize and run things helped my church execute on its mission more effectively.
Since the pandemic, I’ve become disconnected from that mission. What is right in front of me is my family, whose spiritual needs have been underserved and often unmet for months now. I feel compelled to give all of my attention to us.
It’s become clear to me over the last couple years that my church’s leader’s need to live in its neighborhood. People like me who don’t live there just can’t be fully involved, and full involvement is needed. We live a good 30 minutes away. And we don’t feel at all led to move there.
Moreover, as an elder it’s my duty to minister to our people. But I and my family need ministering. We’re out of spiritual gas.
I think that my time at West Park is coming to an end. Margaret and I agree that when we think it’s safe for us to return to in-person worship, that we will choose a church together. (I was at West Park long before we met, and she is technically still a member at the megachurch she attended with her children for nearly 20 years.) We want to find a community of Christians where we can make friends and find mutual encouragement in life and in the faith.
As we contemplate and (soon) search for a new church home, we feel church homeless.
I’ve been reading a book that a friend wrote called Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help Or Hurt Social Peace (available on Amazon here). It’s about the nature of belief, why we believe the things we do, and how things that seem obviously true to us seem obviously false to others. It’s a challenging and fascinating read. I’ll write more about it in an upcoming post. Reading it has repeatedly reminded me of this post from 2011 in which I explained my faith in God. The friend who wrote the book is one of the bloggers I mention in the first paragraph below.
I’ve been thinking for months about writing a post called, “Why I follow God.” It all started when two bloggers I follow began discussing God’s existence with each other on their blogs. In short, one believes and the other doesn’t. I wanted to add to the discussion, but the more I thought about it the more my faith deconstructed. It created a minor crisis in my faith, until I finally realized that I believe in God because I want to, and that I follow God because I have decided to.
That would be my shortest post ever. So I decided I should explain.
I think we curious humans naturally look for answers to big questions: How does the universe work?How did life begin? Is there a supreme being? We weigh evidence and draw conclusions against the backdrop of our predispositions.
Some end up predisposed toward God and others toward reason and evidence. I came to be predisposed toward God, I think, as a boy when my parents briefly sent me to a church’s Sunday school. They spoke of a loving creator, and I rather liked that idea. Later unsatisfactory encounters with people professing their faith did deter me for a while.
It’s not that I don’t dig reason. When I was a young student, my best subjects always included math and science. I followed that path to engineering school, where I graduated with a degree in mathematics. So I came to Christ with a good grounding in logic, reasoning, and the scientific method. That knowledge tells me that you can never prove God.
To prove something requires evidence that makes the conclusion certain. Unfortunately, evidence for and against God is incomplete and imperfect. We may weigh it and draw our conclusion; we may even say that, to us, it proves or disproves God. But what we really mean, even if we deny it, is that the evidence resonates so well with us that we are willing to step over the gap of imperfection and incompleteness. For example, some argue that the universe’s intricately balanced design is evidence of an intelligent designer and therefore proof that God exists. Even my brother, who calls himself an atheist, considers our improbable existence in this mean universe and admits to a creating god. He steps that far over the gap. But he is correct when he says that nothing about this evidence points to a personal God, such as the one the Bible describes.
We draw lots of reasonable conclusions every day from the evidence available to us. We’re wired to do it; we have to do it because so much is uncertain or unknowable. I sometimes stop at a donut shop near my office and buy a dozen to share at work. It’s reasonable to conclude I can do this any morning I want. Unfortunately, the shop burned to the ground early one morning last autumn. Good thing I didn’t make a donut run on my way to work that day. So with any reasonable conclusion, we take some step of faith to believe it.
I think God hasn’t left conclusive evidence of himself lying around because he wants us to take a step of faith if we are to believe in him. My experience with God is that he loves me and wants my love back. In human relationships, love can fail. People you love can betray you, abuse you, or leave you destitute. Even if none of those things happen, someone you love could die before you, leaving you to grieve. Such are the risks you take when you choose to love. In choosing to love God, you risk him not being real. You risk the whole thing having been a sham.
Some won’t take that risk. Some who take that risk end up feeling gypped. If God is real and loves us, why is the world in such a sorry state? Why do so many people suffer? Why do I have to face pain, injustice, and loss? Everybody who contemplates God one day faces these questions; some reach them and turn away. My experience is that patience and determination carries a nascent faith through this crisis.
The worst thing I’ve ever been through was my brutal separation and divorce. I prayed for years that God would heal my marriage, but things just kept getting worse between my wife and me and eventually she hired a lawyer. How could God have ignored my desperate prayers? Doesn’t he hate divorce? I could easily have turned away from God in anger and disgust. I considered it. Yet facing crippling pain and loss, I decided to keep turning to God. I am not entirely sure why. During this time, I repeatedly suffered consequences from destructive choices, sometimes mine and sometimes my estranged wife’s. Each time things could have gone much worse for me than they did. It seemed to me as though somebody was placing soft pillows beneath me each time I fell. And then during this time I had an experience that felt to me like God was loving me directly. Read about it here.
I perceived a pattern of intervention too strong for me to write off as a string of coincidences, and I chose to attribute them to God. This time of difficulty actually cemented my faith. I’m God’s; there’s no turning back. Some might argue that I am drawing too heavy of a conclusion from scant evidence. I freely admit that my conclusion involves a big step of faith.
The only way I can explain this is to compare it to the way we bind to our mothers when we’re newly born. Our ability to perceive the world is extremely limited. We don’t even see our mothers as separate from us. Yet as we grow, the love that our mothers hopefully showed us through touch and care seeds in us. We know our mothers love us. And so, through my limited ability to perceive God, I have experienced what I believe to be his loving involvement in my life. I have concluded that God is real and loves me.
And so it goes, I think, for anyone who determines to patiently follow God. Sooner or later they experience God in their lives. At that moment, God starts to become as real to them as their mother.
Unfortunately, you can’t get there without making that step of faith. You have to choose to believe and decide to follow. God can be nothing but elusive, mysterious, and maddening until you make that choice. He becomes less so as your faith grows.
Do you enjoy my stories and essays? My book, A Place to Start, is available now! Click here to see all the places you can get it!
I first posted this in 2010. May this Christmas Day truly bless you and those you love.
Even though I’m a Christian, I don’t celebrate the birth of Christ at this time of year.
The home in which I was raised followed no particular faith. My parents acknowledged the God the Bible described, but their devotion went no further. For us, Christmas was a big family holiday where we got to see all of the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I have loads of warm memories from those gatherings. Many of my friends talked of the baby Jesus (after, of course, talking excitedly of the presents they anticipated). Many of my classmates were Jews and several were Serbs; they had their own celebrations at different times. And so I have always has this sense that the holidays are what you make of them.
My mother said more than once that Christ couldn’t possibly have been born in December — his birth was more likely sometime in autumn. She also said that the whole reason the Christian church celebrated Christ’s birth on December 25th was because in the church’s early days, non-believers already celebrated a winter festival at about that time, and it was easier to convert them if the church had a celebration then, too. Christianity should be a faith of truth, she reasoned, and she couldn’t reconcile how Christmas was predicated on a falsehood. It sounded good to me, and when I grew up I looked into it and found that there was plenty of evidence to support Mom’s claims. That didn’t stop her from playing her records of traditional Christmas hymns every December, though!
None of this was enough to deter me from seeking God as an adult. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I got serious about God I did it in the Church of Christ, a branch of Christianity that celebrates Christmas only as a secular holiday. Most Church of Christ congregations hold a restrictive view of Biblical authority that leads them to celebrate in the name of Christ only the celebrations God commands in the Bible. The Bible tells us to celebrate Christ’s death, but never once to celebrate his birth. So they take communion (the Lord’s Supper, they call it) every week, but during December their mostly a cappella congregations sing no Christmas songs and their preachers avoid talking about Christ’s birth.
Eventually I left the Church of Christ’s narrow interpretations in search of greater love from God. Of course, I landed in a church that celebrates Christ’s birth all December; it was nearly impossible to avoid it. Until we fell on hard times, we always held a big Christmas production with a chorus singing traditional Christmas songs and a telling of the nativity story.
I never said this to anyone at church, but this was very hard for me to accept for a long time.
I’m unlikely ever to fully personally embrace Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s birth. Not only were the wrong seeds planted in me as a boy, they were well cultivated when I became an adult.
Don’t feel sorry for me. I love the Lord deeply and don’t feel like I’m missing out on one iota of his love for me. But let me tell you why I have come to think that celebrating Christ’s birth at Christmas is not just all right, but just wonderful:
Because his birth is so openly and joyfully celebrated each December 25, who in the western world has not heard of Jesus Christ?
I know, I know, the holiday has been tainted with commercialism, and because of political correctness we now say “Happy Holidays” to each other rather than “Merry Christmas.” Still, I don’t think the holiday’s connections to Christ and his promise for us have been lost. And when I consider all that celebrating Christmas has done to introduce people to Jesus, my mind boggles. Who cares about the celebration’s origins? God has certainly used it for good.
May God use this Christmas season for good in your life.
In this blog’s early days I wrote a lot about my faith. I’m a Christian, but I wasn’t raised as one. I wasn’t raised with any faith, actually. I went looking for faith in my 20s and I found Jesus Christ.
I thought faith would be a way to make my life more certain. Trust and obey, and all will be well. But it wasn’t true. I experienced at least as much disappointment and difficulty with faith as without. It almost drove me away from the faith.
But I’m stubborn. I meant to hold God accountable to what I thought he had promised me. I laugh at myself for it now. I spent a lot of time in the Bible looking for scripture that I could wave in God’s face. Instead, I learned that God aches when we experience loss and suffering — but he means for these things to cause us to grow, and to draw us closer to Him. This is the nature of faith.
This story is about the beginning of that transformation in my faith, about how I moved from legalism to grace, from God as cold judge to God as someone who loves me and wants me to figure it out.
Even though I wrote this in 2007 during my blog’s first year, it remains my favorite post I’ve ever written on this blog.
This story and many others are in my book, A Place to Start. I’m working hard to make it available later this month.
On my first day of Kindergarten, my mother walked with me the half mile to school so I’d know the way. I felt anxious about the long walk, but also reassured that Mom was taking me there. When the time came, I held my hand up for her to grasp and we left our house. In the warm September sun we walked uphill past the houses that curved along our narrow street. She led me along the Secret Sidewalk, a shortcut between some houses that emptied onto another street that led down the other side of the hill. As we passed the synagogue, Mom explained how Jews in our area walked to services there every Saturday. As we passed a patch of little sumac trees, Mom warned me not to touch them because they were poisonous. As we passed a wooded lot, Mom warned me to stay on the sidewalk because the hippies liked to hang out in there and she wasn’t sure they were safe. As we rounded the corner and passed the Church of Christ, Mom said that I was not to join the other kids if they shortcut through their property. I took in everything Mom said, fascinated and excited by how much there was to know about this walk to school. When we reached the corner across from the school, Mom explained how to watch and listen for the crossing guard. The guard gave the okay, and we crossed and walked up to the school. Mom left me at the door with a kiss, a hug, and a promise that she’d be waiting at that door when school let out. I felt secure as I walked inside.
On my own twenty years later, I felt alone and lost. I wanted a path to follow that would work better than what I had come up with. I felt sure God would have that path, so I wound up in a Methodist church. The pastor sprinkled water on my head and I was in. I did things I thought I should do as a Christian: I attended Sunday school and services every week, I tried to quit swearing and always be honorable, and I helped with the youth group. I enjoyed the people and socialized heavily with my Sunday school class. But I struggled with God, whom I expected to judge me, eyebrow arched and lips pursed, each time I slipped up.
I also struggled to understand the church’s rituals. For example, every couple months we took communion. We read puzzling texts from the hymnal and then lined up to eat a little wafer and drink a sip of grape juice. But I didn’t know what it was for! I used to pray, “Lord, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I pray that you will bless it anyway.” God and church weren’t making sense. In time, I had some serious brushes with church politics. It turned me off and I fell away. I used to blame the Methodists, but something the pastor said to me many times comes back to me now: “Each man must find his own path to God.” I sure wasn’t searching so I might find; I guess I expected the church to show me.
One day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and promised that my Bible could be an open book to me, giving me accurate knowledge of God and His standards for me and for His people, the true Christians. I was nervous because of the Witnesses’ notoriety, but the fun young couple who came to study with my wife and me soon melted those reservations. Steve, a slight man who bobbed and twitched with nervous energy, enthusiastically shared his knowledge. He flipped rapidly through his Bible looking for verses that answered our questions. In counterpoint, Jessica sat like a reference librarian, placid and poised with a heaping gob of thick blonde hair usually pulled up into a bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could clarify in ten words anything Steve said in a hundred, but she always quietly let her husband speak.
My wife and I enjoyed their company and our study. We became excited and encouraged to find that the Bible could be our sole guide to living a life worthy of the name Christian. At last, here’s the path I didn’t find in the Methodist church! It would be all spelled out for me! I could put on Christ like a new suit of clothes and leave my troubled life behind! But it troubled me that the Watchtower Society’s theology and doctrine didn’t always add up. Finally, Steve couldn’t explain a particular doctrinal point to our satisfaction, and we began to lose our confidence. A succession of church elders came to try to explain. Finally one elder brought it all into focus for me when he said, “Look, just come to services for a few months, and then you’ll understand and it will seem natural.” In other words, he wanted us to become a part of their culture, and then we would naturally do whatever the Watchtower Society asked of us. That seemed flat wrong. We ended our studies with Steve and Jessica, and since we had turned away from their faith, they couldn’t see us anymore. We missed them.
Not daunted in finding God’s sure path for us, we found the Church of Christ. Dedicated to following the New Testament pattern for living a Christian life, they looked only to Scripture for their authority and not to any man-made organization. Since part of that pattern required baptism by immersion, my earlier baptism by sprinkling didn’t count. The preacher dunked me, my sins were washed away, and I was in. We did things we thought Christians should do: my wife taught Bible class for children, I created a Web site for the church, and we faithfully attended twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening
On the one hand, I felt secure in the standards for Christians that the Bible seemed to spell out. Forgive. Love your wife as Christ loved the church; that is, sacrificially. Do not divorce, except for adultery. Give as you purpose in your heart, as you have prospered. Above all, do not forsake the assembly of Christians. I just had to do these things, and others the Bible specified, to be right with God. This was the way I was looking for.
On the other hand, I felt secret shame that I could meet few of these standards well and consistently. I didn’t feel good enough. Truly, because of how much I missed the mark I often doubted my salvation. I compared myself to all the longtime members, most of whom grew up in that congregation, who seemed to be able to do all of these things. Seemed. Much later I saw how many of them had the same secret shame I did.
Shame’s brother is fear, which led to members interpreting the Bible ultra-conservatively to be on the safe side. We practiced only what the New Testament specifically authorized. It led us to have some distinctive practices that included singing a cappella, and not celebrating Christmas. Hairsplitting doctrinal discussions were common. I remember a discussion with a fellow about church leadership. The Bible says that an elder should have children. (Look it up in 1 Timothy 3:4 and Titus 1:7.) My friend asserted that a man with only one child should not seek the eldership, just to be safe, because God might really have meant two or more children. “Oh, come now!” I said. “If you had one child and I asked how many children you had, would you say, ‘I don’t have children, but I have a child?’ How absurd!” Yet he held fast to his fear-based conclusion lest he find himself hellbound.
But I loved those people. They showed my family love during a particularly painful and difficult period of my life. Several men stepped up to encourage me, pray with me, and study with me. Several women reached out to support my wife through the crisis. But a year or so later, fear seemed to seal shut the doors of that love when the elders learned that the end of my wife’s previous marriage ran afoul of the church’s teachings on marriage and divorce. The elders considered our story, reviewed Scripture, and then met with us to say that God didn’t recognize our marriage and we had no right to each other. They were grave yet deflated as they delivered the message; one elder looked physically ill. I felt guilty that this had burdened them so. But our situation had become serious because the church’s teachings spoke of separating and never remarrying. I was distraught. I had hoped for help keeping my family intact, but all these elders could do was tell me their interpretation of Scripture and withdraw awaiting my decision of what I was going to do. When you live by the law, you die by it too.
Through my own study I came to disagree with the elders’ interpretation of the relevant scriptures. We couldn’t come to a mutual understanding, and so we left the Church of Christ. We soon settled in a Christian Church down the road. Soon one of the elders from the Church of Christ called to ask where we were attending. When I told him, he gasped, said, “Oh! Jim, you were taught better than that!” and quickly hung up the phone. Soon we received a letter signed by the elders telling us that by joining a denominational church, “denominational” meaning “any church other than the Church of Christ,” we had left the faith. Members there were not to associate with us except to help restore us to the faith. As far as they were concerned, we were no longer Christians.
Shortly after we started attending that new church, I had this strong sense that my family belonged there. I heard a voice gently whispering, “Join here.” Today, if I may be so bold as to say so, I recognize that as the Holy Spirit guiding me. I followed that guidance, but I didn’t understand it. This church didn’t fit the approved pattern I learned about in the Church of Christ. They took up special offerings. Women led singing and sometimes read Scripture to the congregation. A piano and a guitar accompanied the singing, and some members clapped and raised their hands with the music. They celebrated Christmas. These practices were forbidden in the Church of Christ and made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to stick with it because I felt God led my family there. Perhaps my service to him might not be about certain worship doctrines. Perhaps he will make good use of a church even if it uses musical instruments and celebrates Christmas. I took the uncomfortable step of letting him lead me without knowing the way first.
My marriage didn’t survive, and I was dragged through a brutal divorce. Not only were church members a great encouragement to me, but both pastors met with me regularly mostly to listen and empathize, but also sometimes to offer a good word of advice, and always to pray with me. The senior pastor, who grew up in an ultraconservative church similar to the Church of Christ, taught and modeled a great deal about moving away from doctrinal legalism to grace, love, and a personal relationship with God. They helped meet my physical needs by letting me move into the church’s vacant parsonage rent free while I worked through the divorce. I have even been on three mission trips because of this group, which has taught me deep lessons in service and in being served. These Christians helped me stand firmly through everything that happened while also encouraging me to grow spiritually.
Trying to find and follow the ready guide, the list of things I must do to live successfully and in God’s good graces, failed me. I tried my best, but I always fell short.
You see, I missed the lesson when Mom walked me to school on my first day. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to strictly heed all of the things she told me about along the way. Knowing about the sumac and the woods and the crossing guard were useful and important. But the crucial lesson was in the simplest and most automatic thing I did on that walk: I held my hand up for Mom to take. I trusted Mom to guide me to school. I didn’t know where it was, how to get there, or what dangers I might encounter on the way. I didn’t have to worry about it because Mom knew the way and she led me there.
I trusted Mom because she had proved herself trustworthy in my early years. Babies naturally seek to trust, but grown men are wary. Grown men even forget that trust is an option. I sought rules and regulations because they seemed sure. It took crisis to reduce me to surrender where I could finally hear God’s voice and take that first tenuous step toward trust. As my trust grows, I am learning that as long as I hold up my hand, God will take it. He will lead the way, and He will tell me useful and important things about living. I will find life fascinating and exciting, and I will reach my destination safely.
I haven’t been to church since the first of March. That Sunday, Hoosiers were just starting to get sick from the coronavirus. We sent messages to all of our members discouraging them from hugging and even shaking hands. We didn’t pass the communion plates but rather asked people to come to the front to take the emblems, which elders handed them while wearing disposable gloves.
The following week the state shut down, and so did we.
You may recall that we hired a pastor early in 2019 but by autumn it was clear we weren’t a mutual fit and he moved on. The elders, including me, had been sharing preaching duties with several guest preachers. Just before we shut down one of those guest preachers expressed interest in preaching for us every week until we found our new permanent pastor. We took him up on it.
We tried to offer worship and connection for our members. Our interim preacher recorded his weekly sermons on video and sent them to me for posting on Facebook. They went live every Sunday morning at 9 am. It wasn’t the same as worshiping in person, but many of our members appreciated the effort very much. We also began to have Zoom gatherings for our members, but they were poorly attended. Many of our members couldn’t make the technology work.
The city and state began to reopen in May. Curiously, they allowed churches to congregate well before they allowed any other large gatherings. We elders were not of one mind about how to proceed. A couple elders wanted to resume Sunday services right away so we could be in Christian community and take care of each other’s spiritual needs. I was staunch: reopening was irresponsible. To resume in-person services could result in our members becoming sick — and, given that many of our members are in high-risk categories, possibly even dying. The elders favoring reopening reasoned that our members should decide to opt in or out based on their own conscience and willingness to tolerate risk. There were good and valid points on both sides, but these difficult discussions were hard on the eldership.
We stayed closed for several weeks, reopening the first Sunday in July. But I and one other elder have not attended. We remain unwilling to place our families at risk.
Additionally, serious family stress has taken my attention almost fully away from West Park Christian Church. Except for the elders’ meetings over Zoom every couple weeks, I have neither time nor energy for the eldership.
Being an elder is not meant to be primarily an administrative role. Elders are meant to be involved with the congregation as shepherds. That was challenging enough for me before the pandemic because I live 30 minutes away from West Park, which is really a neighborhood church. It is impossible now.
I don’t know why it’s not been clear to me before, but it’s clear to me now: West Park’s elders really need to live in or near the neighborhood. Maybe the situation at West Park has evolved to this and I’m just now catching on. I don’t live in the neighborhood. I don’t believe I’m called to live in the neighborhood. I don’t want to live in the neighborhood.
Since lockdown Margaret and I have been watching the online services of North Point Church in Georgia together every Sunday morning. We both love the teaching of their pastor, Andy Stanley. He brings such a fresh perspective, always well reasoned from the Bible. We’ve benefited greatly from his sermons during these months.
But we both know we want to be in community with Christians again. We miss it greatly. But it’s not clear to us that we will return to West Park. We feel like our lives are leading us in a new direction, yet to be determined.
As I thought about what Christmas Eve message I might like to give at my church, I knew that I wanted it to be more about the hope the birth of Christ brought to the world, than about the birth of Christ itself. Here’s the message I gave last night.
Lots and lots of people travel at Christmas. AAA estimates that one in three Americans will drive or fly somewhere this Christmas season. That’s more than 100 million people!
Perhaps it’s been that way since the beginning. For Joseph and Mary, Christmas Eve came during the last leg of their long journey home, as Joseph had been ordered to return home to his city of birth for the purpose of conducting a census.
Where was Joseph going? Home. Where are most Americans going this Christmas? Home, just like Joseph. Christmas calls us home.
Why have you come to Christmas Eve services tonight? If you’re like me, somehow Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the familiar hymns and the candles and the story we know so well. It’s tradition – we’ve done Christmas Eve services at West Park for as long as anyone can remember. If you’re like me, you’re here tonight because Christmas has called you home.
The word home reaches deep into our spirits, deep into our souls. Maybe when you think of home, you feel safety and warmth and love and affirmation. If so, you were fortunate. Because for many people, thinking of home brings up painful memories. Dad disappeared and Mom couldn’t keep up with the rent and the family nearly ended up homeless. A daughter died in an accident, and it nearly tore the family apart. A son became addicted to drugs and went in and out of jail and put the family through some incredibly hard times. Mom drank too much and when she did she lashed out at everyone, and the whole family was afraid of her.
For anyone whose story is hard like that, it’s understandable if they don’t want to go home.
Yet it’s only by working through those painful memories that we may return. Our spirituality is so vitally connected to our own story, to our own journey, and to our deep longing for home.
I remember after my first marriage ended. I lost my home. I didn’t get to see my two young sons every day anymore. I couldn’t even figure out a stable life for a while — I moved three times in four years. As we kept moving, no place felt like home. Those were hard years for my sons and me. Finally I bought a modest house in a quiet neighborhood near Kessler and Michigan. In that house we made a home for ourselves. We built our traditions and fell into good patterns. There was love in our home. We suffered for a while, but we came out okay in the end. We were fortunate.
There’s real suffering in this world. Maybe there’s been real suffering in your life. Most of us fall on hard times, most of us suffer, at some time in our lives. Sometimes that suffering makes us wonder where God is. It makes it hard for us to turn to God, to come home to God.
So what does it mean for you to come home? Would it mean asking questions that have no real answers?
The faith to which we cling, the faith that we celebrate this night, is one that through the course of Jesus’s life would take Him from the cradle to the cross. We have no answers to the questions about suffering – we know only that He meets us in it.
Which brings us more than anything else to why we are here. The shepherds were working the graveyard shift when they were surprised by angels. Sleepy shepherds and sleepy sheep were suddenly awakened to a floor show that blew away anything they had ever seen before. After the angels made their announcement there came a crescendo of hope that built and built until the angels themselves erupted into song. The angels announced the birth of Christ. The birth of Christ announces Good News. Christ is the good news, for it is in Him that we have hope.
It was the announcement of His birth that re-awakened hope in the lives of the shepherds. And hope, in turn, awakened a curiosity to the extent that they were willing to risk even their livelihood to “go over to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened, that the Lord had make known to (them).”
Coming home means that we are willing to risk again, to re-experience the awakening of hope, and that we are willing — if we are curious enough — to latch on to His star and hang all of our hope on Him. Coming home means that before we can feel at home, anywhere, we must first be at home with God. Coming home means we have a relationship with a person, the person of Christ. Home then is more a state of being than it is a place. It is not a goal to achieve, but a child to receive.
The idea of home reflects a deeply rooted yearning within us to have a place to rest, a place to be, a place to belong. Jesus addressed this desire when, after He and His friends had their last supper together, He spoke about His death and resurrection. He promised that although He would go away, He would come back for them. And He would prepare a room for them. A dwelling place. A home.
When evangelist Billy Graham died last year, his daughter Ruth spoke at his funeral. Her story is a perfect illustration of what it means to be welcomed home. Here’s Ruth Graham’s story.
I have learned in the weeks since my father’s death that everybody has a Billy Graham story. But I have my own Billy Graham story. Some of you may have heard it many times, but it bears repeating because it speaks to the essence of who my father was and is.
After 21 years, my marriage ended in divorce. I was devastated. I floundered. I did a lot wrong. The rug was pulled out from under me.
My family thought it would be a good idea for me to move away, to get a fresh start somewhere else. So, I decided to live near my older sister and her family and near a good church. The pastor of that church introduced me to a handsome widower, and we began to date fast and furiously. My children didn’t like him, but I thought, you know, they’re almost grown. And they can’t tell me what to do. I knew what was best for my life.
My mother called me from Seattle. My father called me from Tokyo. They said, “Honey, why don’t you slow down? Let us get to know this man.”
They had never been a single parent. They had never been divorced. What did they know? So, being stubborn, willful and sinful, I married this man on New Year’s Eve, and within 24 hours I knew I’d made a terrible mistake.
After five weeks, I fled. I was afraid of him. What was I going to do? I wanted to go talk to my mother and my father.
It was a two-day drive. Questions whirled in my mind. What was I going to say to Daddy? What was I going to say to Mother? What was I going to say to my children? I’d been such a failure. What were they going to say to me? “We’re tired of fooling with you. We told you not to do it. You’ve embarrassed us.”
Many of you know that we live on the side of a mountain. And as I wound myself up the mountain, I rounded the last bend in my father’s driveway, and my father was standing there waiting for me.
As I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me and said, “Welcome home.”
There was no shame. There was no blame. There was no condemnation. Just unconditional love.
You know, my father was not God. But he showed me what God is like that day. When we come to God with our sin, our brokenness, our failure, our pain and our hurt, God says welcome home.
And that invitation is open for you.
That’s Ruth Graham’s story. It’s a story of hope, a story of acceptance. It’s the story that began 20 centuries ago on that first Christmas. When Jesus was born, so was born our hope.
Jesus made a home for us with God when he went to the cross, sinless, and died. He assured His disciples that if He went to the trouble of creating this home, that of course He would come back for them and not leave them alone. They didn’t need to fear or be worried about their lives, whether on earth or in heaven.
We can take comfort and assurance from Jesus’s words, for we believe and trust that He makes a home for us; that He makes His home within us; and that He has gone ahead of us to prepare our heavenly home. Whatever sort of physical place we live in, we belong with Jesus, upheld by His love and surrounded in His peace.
This is the home Jesus offers us in the right here, and in the right now. A place of peace, where we can rest in Him. Rest. Isn’t that what we all want when we go home?
Jesus is calling you home. Christmas is calling you home.
This isn’t truly my original work. I used the structure of, and plagiarized whole paragraphs from, a sermon by Timothy McNeil, which you can read here. My wife Margaret gave me some great ideas and even a few key phrases that found their way in here. I also used ideas and text from the April 17, 2017 Our Daily Bread devotional, which you can read here. Finally, you can watch and listen to Ruth Graham’s story at her father’s funeral here.
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