Faith

Christmas calls you home

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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Music

Driving and Singing: Megadeth, “Addicted to Chaos”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

I was a metalhead in the 80s. Even looked the part, with the long hair and the black concert T-shirts and the worn-out jeans. I looked way meaner than I was.

But apparently I looked too mean for a professional job. So I cut the hair and dressed business casual, and my career promptly took off. But I was still metal inside, or at least I felt that way in 1994 when one of my favorite metal bands, Megadeth, released their sixth CD, Youthanasia, full of punch and power and melody. It was in heavy rotation on my car’s CD player for years.

MegadethYouthanasia

And that’s all I thought about it until after my wife divorced me. Long story short, during my divorce all my records and CDs were lost. As I rebuilt my life, I bought my favorite CDs again one by one. Soon enough I came to this disc. And when I really listened this time to the second song, “Addicted to Chaos,” I was flattened. Poked right between the eyes. Pierced through the heart. Because through the crunchy guitar and the growling, wailing vocals, I heard my own experience.

Megadeth’s founder Dave Mustaine was famous in the day for abusing alcohol and drugs in stupefying quantities — and for raging and fighting with anyone within reach while drunk or high. He did rehab something like 15 times, even lay briefly dead of an overdose and was somehow revived at the hospital. At some point, he got himself clean. He even found God and says he’s a Christian now.

I know what it’s like to be addicted — I had my own monkey on my back in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Those chaotic, destructive days contributed directly to my marriage failing. It is impossible to have a healthy relationship with an addicted partner.

My marriage a shambles, headed for divorce, unable to stop using and hating myself for it, I finally hit rock bottom. I found a 12-step meeting and kept going back, and slowly got clean. It not only restored my life to sanity, but let me finally truly come to not only know God, but see that he has my back. Recovery is where my faith in God began. I never want to go back to those awful days, but I’ll always be grateful for the blessing they led to.

Recovery was hard work, and never a straight line — and I played it out against turmoil and anxiety as my marriage finally ended in a bitter, protracted divorce. It was in the midst of those crushingly stressful days when I picked up my new copy of this CD. And then I heard Mustaine sing:

Monkey on my back, aching in my bones
I forgot you said “One day you’ll walk alone”
I said I need you, does that make me wrong?
Am I a weak man? Are you feeling strong?
My heart was blackened, it’s bloody red
A hole in my heart, a hole in my head

I felt like I’d been slugged in the jaw. My emotions went right back to the addicted days, overpowered and outmaneuvered, lost and trapped, weak and shamed. I could feel it: the “you” of which Mustaine sang was the addiction. I always knew mine was going to turn on me and do me in.

But in the second verse, Mustaine sang of having turned the corner.

Light shined on my path, turned bad days into good
Turned breakdowns into blocks, smashed them ’cause I could
My brain was labored, my head would spin
Don’t let me down, don’t give up, don’t give in
The rain comes down, the cold wind blows
The plans we made are back up on the road
Turn up my collar, welcome the unknown
Remember that you said, “one day you’ll walk alone”

Turn up my collar, welcome the unknown. Maybe you have to have been through this to understand, but for me that line is the center of the song. I had tried to salve my fears of life and ended up addicted. But thanks to recovery, I need fear nothing. Life? Bring it on. No need to hide! Such a joy and blessing recovery gave me.

And then it turns out I wasn’t interpreting the song right at all. Mustaine explained it in several interviews; here’s what he said in one of them:

…The subject of it is my drug counselor who got me sober. When he said that I would walk alone, it was after counseling me for a period of time, and he said “You know I’m gonna have to cut you loose some day.” The finality of it was two puncture wounds in his arm and an overdose on heroin. My drug counselor died.

No matter. I still hear my own experience in Mustaine’s words. And today, going on thirteen years sober, singing this song out loud does two things: it tears up my voice, as I can’t keep up with Mustaine’s growling and wailing vocal — and it makes me cry.

Click Play to listen to “Addicted to Chaos.”

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