Faith, Personal

The real value of Christmas

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). A few of my classmates were Jewish and several were Serbian; 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.

Lit Up at Night

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! (Because of her, I still love to hear Johnny Mathis at Christmas.)

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 observe only what they believe 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.

What's the Reason for the Season?

I’ve said this to nobody at my 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.

And may this Christmas create many warm memories for you. One of my favorite Christmas memories involves a Polaroid camera. Read the story.

Faith, Personal

Finding joy in service

A year ago my church was still in our building on land where our congregation was founded in 1839, but we were dying. Six months ago we sold the building, bought some land, and prepared to build a smaller building, one we could afford to heat and cool while still paying our pastor. Today we’re still worshiping in a hotel room, though a sign on our new property announces us.

I have really struggled with the building project. Not only have there been endless delays and red tape – we haven’t even broken ground yet – but we have bumbled and stumbled our way through almost every step. It’s easy to say, “Do your best and trust God to bring the rest,” and I suppose those of us in leadership are doing the best we can. All four of us have day jobs and families, limiting the time and energy we can give. We’ve reached out to others in our congregation for help, but our bench is too shallow and much still falls to leadership to handle. It’s not like the project needs us to commit to it full time, but when it needs us, it demands all of our attention and more. I can’t always tear myself away from work and family at these times.

Part of my struggle is personal. I manage projects for a living. I see things that need to be done to successfully manage this project that we’re not doing. The other leaders are good men, and I look up to their spirituality, but I’ve had only occasional success getting them to see what I see. Maybe I’m worrying over nothing, because things always seem to work out, but until they do my anxiety shoots through the roof.

And so this project has been extremely frustrating and stressful. I have found no joy in this service. Frankly, on a couple occasions I’ve prayed to God that he release me and send me somewhere else.

When the building project isn’t consuming us, which isn’t often, we dream about reaching out to the neighborhoods around our new location. We’ve talked about some things we’d like to do, but soon we realized that we don’t know what our neighbors need. Sure, they need God if they don’t know him already. But Jesus sent the disciples out in his name with the instructions to heal them of their illnesses as they told them about the Kingdom (see Matthew 10, Mark 6, Luke 9). After all, why would someone who’s sick or otherwise in need care at all about the Kingdom? They are focused on their need.

So we decided to have a cookout on our new property and invite our neighbors. We would begin to get to know them and to learn about their needs. And so on a recent Saturday we set up picnic tables and gas grills and laid out a spread. Many of our neighbors came and we shared a good time.

I love to hear stories of how God powerfully answers prayer. I can recount a time or two when God’s done that for me. But for the most part the answers to my prayers have been like whispers in the breeze, and I’ve had to learn how to listen for them. I think perhaps I heard God whispering to me at the cookout, as I felt joy in my service for the first time in months. It was great to connect with our neighbors, sharing smiles and laughs and learning a little about them.

I reflected on how, as the building project consumed my available time, I had stepped away from my direct service to others. I realized that I wanted to refocus my efforts more along those lines. I’d been having thoughts about starting a Sunday school class for our teenagers, and about maybe starting a small group or a men’s group. It is time for me to make one of these things happen. The building project will have to do with that much less of me.

I think the church needs not to manufacture false community, but get out into the communities in which they’re planted.

Faith, Music, Stories Told

The old songs

I went to an evening church service last Friday, Good Friday. I’d never done that before.

My Christian “heritage,” if you can call it that, has its roots mostly in Restoration Movement churches (Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Christian Churches). These churches tend to lack the usual trappings of Christendom as part of the movement’s call to return to the kind of Christianity practiced in the first century. Those churches that observe the liturgical calendar do so loosely at best. The old-line Churches of Christ, the most conservative churches in our brotherhood, ignore it altogether and don’t even observe notable holidays such as Christmas and Easter. (They reason that the Bible doesn’t explicitly authorize those holidays.) So while we’re all aware of Good Friday, it’s often not held up any higher than any other day.

My Christian Church congregation hasn’t had a Good Friday service in at least the six years I’ve been there. Other congregations in our fellowship do, however, and one of them invited us to join them this year. West Park Christian Church has served its Westside Indianapolis community for at least 100 years. 1910s and 1920s neighborhood photos hanging inside the church show new, tidy middle-class homes; today the houses are dilapidated, the residents are poor, and the streets are unsafe after dark.

When I survey the wondrous cross

We began by walking the neighborhood. A couple men hoisted a large wooden cross onto their shoulders and we headed out, about a hundred of us, calling out greetings to the people sitting on their front porches and out in their front yards enjoying an unusually warm early-Spring evening. We stopped at the homes of several ailing church members and of community leaders to ask them out so we could pray with and for them. We stopped at the community center and at the neighborhood park and prayed over them, too. There’s no way this neighborhood doesn’t know about West Park Christian Church and what it stands for. This church is clearly in a ripe mission field. I envied them their opportunity to serve.

When we returned to the church we shared a pitch-in meal, and then we entered the sanctuary for the evening service. We sang, took communion, and heard a short message. I smiled when I heard the preacher say that he had grown up in a congregation that didn’t observe Good Friday or Easter; I knew exactly where he was coming from.

So many modern churches today have rock bands and sing nothing but upbeat praise songs. I understand why; it reaches so many younger people. I’m all for what’s effective. But while I was in the Church of Christ, we sang the old hymns and spirituals a cappella in four-part harmony and I really loved it. I came to have a deep affection for many of those old songs – It Is Well with My Soul, When My Love to Christ Grows Weak, Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?, I Surrender All, When All of God’s Singers Get Home, and many others. I have missed them. We sang the old songs this Good Friday night. A pianist accompanied us through five or six songs, but after the first verse of Onward, Christian Soldiers, he stopped playing. Everybody was really singing, raising their voices to God, almost clamoring to be heard. I heard a few voices in the back singing the bass and tenor parts, emboldening me to do the same. Then the pianist played the opening notes of When I Survey The Wondrous Cross and, as we began to sing, again let his hands rest and our voices carry. After the first verse I was so moved by our blended voices lifting so powerfully to God on this day we specially gathered to observe Christ’s death that I began to cry, and could not sing.

The joyless work of selling our church building and planning to build a new one as we try to keep a financially challenged congregation afloat has taken me away from the real point of service. I was reminded of it on Good Friday night. We are to go bring the lost to God and turn our faces to Him in worship, giving him ourselves to use for His purposes. And it was the death of Christ on the cross that makes it all possible.

Though I miss the old songs, I haven’t forgotten that our form of worship is less important than carrying out Jesus’s mission for us. That’s what really counts.

Faith, Stories Told

The time capsule

Faced with selling our church building, many in our congregation grieved. They remembered Grandpa who used to teach Sunday school in the classroom, or falling in love with the one they’d marry while serving together in the kitchen, or seeing their daughter married in the sanctuary. It was hard for them to walk away, and their feelings ran the grief gamut. The elders sure took the brunt of it during the anger phase. I can’t blame our members – they needed someplace to put their anger for the years of splits and fighting and their resentment that it ultimately led to us leaving our land.

Before we knew it, before we were ready, we faced closing on our property. Not only had we not packed a single box, but we were going from a 14,000-square-foot building to renting a conference room in a hotel. The monumental task before us was to pack that itty-bitty subset of our stuff we couldn’t live without, and give or throw away the rest.

Did I mention that we owned a grand piano? An organ? A whole roomful of books, another of seasonal decorations? Boxes of records stretching back almost 100 years? About a million folding tables and a billion folding chairs?

Members seemed to be moving through their grief, but we had to be out in a week, and we had to call on them to do the work. Several of our members took the week off and killed themselves packing and pitching. The rest of us came together that Saturday and finished the job. By the time we were done, we had made, filled, and taped shut ten dozen boxes; filled three forty-foot dumpsters and two 20-by-30 storage units; and helped several other churches load our best equipment onto their rented trucks to be used in their ministries. As the mountains of stuff shrunk and disappeared, so did our grief. When we made one last pass through the building to make sure we hadn’t left anything behind, as we vacuumed the carpets one last time, we all knew that the last of our grief was gone. In its place was eagerness and excitement to move forward along the path God has laid out before us.

John, our lead elder, grew up worshiping in the previous building, a 1910 structure that the congregation was outgrowing by the 1960s. He watched our current building go up in three phases as the 1960s faded into the 1970s. He watched the 1910 building be razed in 1973 and a fellowship hall be built in its place. The 1910 building’s cornerstone was reset in the fellowship hall’s northeast corner.

Cornerstone removed

John was determined that the cornerstone would come with us to be re-reset in our next building. He called a mason to chisel it out and replace it with bricks. The next time I saw him, he said, “When you tap on top of the cornerstone, it sounds hollow! I wonder if there’s anything inside. When everybody’s here on Saturday, we ought to open it and see! Could be nothing, could be something!”

Inside the cornerstone

And so we did. With considerable effort, because it weighs a ton, it was pushed into an empty room. We gathered, and John handed a hammer to his elderly aunt Doris, our congregation’s longest-standing member. She took one whack and broke it open. John reached in and pulled out a Ball jar stuffed with old photographs, bulletins, newspaper clippings, a complete membership roster, a roll of paper signed by every member, and meeting minutes from early-1970s church board meetings leading up to the building of the fellowship hall. We were thrilled! Many of us had come to this church after the building was built, and were excited to catch this glimpse into our past. A few who remembered the old building were happy to reminisce.

About 1963

This photo from about 1963, which was printed on the church’s letterhead, shows the new educational wing next to the 1910 building. The church was still way, way out in the country in 1963 – check out the rural-route address! Indianapolis and Marion County wouldn’t merge their governments until 1970, and the suburbs wouldn’t sprawl this far until about 1985.

About 1970

This postcard from about 1970 shows the church’s spiffy new Unigov address. It also shows the completed sanctuary and the second floor of the education wing. The 1910 building’s tower is visible, but the rest of the building is hidden behind trees.

Gymnasium construction, Sept. 1973

In this September, 1973, photo, the old building has been razed and the fellowship hall is being built. According to the church board meeting minutes, it was financed in part by selling bonds, which earned 7½ percent interest and matured in 1987. The minutes also say that the winning bid to build the fellowship hall was for $137,909. You can hardly build a house in our township for that little today!

As we gathered around to look at the photographs and papers, our pastor asked us to think about what we’d like to put back into the cornerstone when we set it into our new building. “If Jesus doesn’t come first,” he said, “what would you like a future generation to know about us when our next building is torn down?” Nobody had a good answer at the time. Now that I’ve seen how we’ve come through our difficulties strengthened and unified, I think that what we put in there needs to be far less about the building we will build and much more about what God has done in and will do through us, the people of North Liberty Christian Church.

It wasn’t until I drove away for the last time that it struck me: John had to know that Ball jar was inside the cornerstone – he was there when it was set! The stinker!

I’ll miss trying my vintage cameras in our church’s cemetery. Check out some shots I’ve made with a Kodak Retina Ia and a Minolta X-700.


Renewing a 170-year heritage

I’ve written before about how the church where I attend has shrunk to the point where our offering doesn’t cover our expenses. I’ve also shared how God seems to be trying to teach us a big lesson about relying on Him. Then late last summer our treasurer, after untangling a snarl in our books, came to us with alarming news: At the rate we were burning through savings, we would be broke by April.

Our options were few:

  1. We could work hard to stay. Our congregation could increase their giving and aggressively invite others to join us. Meanwhile, we could seal off our unused second floor so we could save on our jaw-dropping heating and cooling costs.
  2. We could leave for affordable accommodations. We could list our building for sale, hope it sold before we were broke, and then rent or buy a space we could afford.
  3. We could give up. We could close our doors for good.

Though I never said so, I liked option 3. I felt like we were a defeated congregation, too apathetic to manage option 1. I thought that our chances of option 2 being successful were nil in this difficult economy.

But I underestimated the amount of fight left in John, our lead elder. His family can trace ancestry at the church back to the late 1800s, the last such family left in our congregation. 50 years ago most members were related to the original farmers who founded the church in 1839. In recent years, the city has overtaken our land, and we’ve become an urban church. John watched all the changes; he has never been a member at any other church. He was not willing to give in. I think for a while it was only John’s determination that kept us going.

We prayed for God’s leading but we couldn’t discern it. We wrung our hands over what to do for several weeks. Finally, we thought that perhaps God meant for us to walk in the dark to give him the opportunity to light our path. Said another way, perhaps we needed to take some action to give God something to work with. So we decided to do both options 1 and 2 at the same time. We decided that whatever happened – if one or the other of these options worked, or if neither worked and we had to fold – we would consider it God’s will for our congregation.

Although we had not kept our situation from our members, we had never laid it out for them in stark terms. So after one late-autumn Sunday service we explained the three options before us. To my surprise, our members not only seemed behind our plan, but they determined to give option 1 the best they had.

They did leave more in the offering plate, and a few did invite friends and neighbors. It was obvious that they were giving their best, but unfortunately it was enough only to delay the inevitable. Meanwhile, we engaged a Realtor and listed the building for sale. The Realtor warned us that it would take 12 to 24 months to sell the building. I saw option 3 looking more and more like reality.

Six weeks later, another church made a good offer on our building.

Things have moved very quickly since then. I wish I could say we handled it with aplomb, but the fact is that this process rather dragged us along behind it. We’re a little shaken up and weary, but it’s over. We no longer own the building. We now worship in a nearby hotel’s conference room.

But it seems clear that God doesn’t mean for us to do that for long. As our sale was in progress, we came upon a few acres for sale around the corner on the main road. Land is expensive on that road as the last couple farmers hold out for big bucks from strip-mall developers. Our proceeds from the building wouldn’t buy an acre. But 0ne owner was in a bind and was glad to sell us his land for a fraction of what his neighbors were asking. We engaged a builder, who proposes a small, simple building for us that will be within our means to operate. The cost of the land and the building is a bit more than we netted selling our building, and will stretch us a little. But we take this as such a strong sign that God means for us to build here that we are stepping out on faith and moving forward with it.

God has taught us some tall lessons through this:

  • A church is not a building. It’s hard to walk away from a 170-year heritage on a piece of ground. But the service God has in mind for this body of believers apparently needs us to be headquartered about a mile away. It confirms that regardless of where we collect our mail, this group of people are North Liberty Christian Church.
  • God wants to light your path. It’s just that very often you have to take some steps in the dark first. In other words, you can’t walk on water if you don’t get out of the boat.
  • God’s path for you will be an adventure. It will take you out of your comfort zone, involving you with things you can’t imagine. It will have nail-biting moments, but things will tend to work out. On the other hand, just because God’s involved doesn’t mean he will erase the consequences of your bad decisions along the way. (See above, about the sale process dragging us behind it.)
  • When you let God work among you, people respond. Our apathetic, defeated congregation found its ounce of fight and its unity of purpose when we got on the path God had in mind for us. More than ten years of factionalism and infighting have ended, and we are eager to move into the future God has planned for us.

I became a Christian as an adult. Read some of the story of how I found God.


Afternoon of awe

On one of the first warm nights last spring we were standing in the pastor’s kitchen in our shorts and flip-flops after a meeting.

“I keep having this dream about a concert,” Nancy said, “in the parking lot at the church. Over and over again I’m dreaming this. I’m getting the feeling that I’m supposed to be the one who makes it happen. In this dream, I even see myself on a stage as the emcee. And people from all the neighborhoods around us are there dancing and praising God and being touched by him. The more I talk to God about it, the more I’m sure he means for me to make this happen. But I don’t know anything about concerts. I’ve never organized anything in my life. I don’t talk in public! Who am I that God would want me to do this?”

The pastor and I encouraged her. “If you feel like God is telling you to do something,” we said, “then do it, and give it the best you have. God can make up for whatever strength and experience you lack.”

My encouragement, while heartfelt, was backed with little experience. In retrospect, I barely knew what I was saying to her.

Nancy was energized, and her vision for the event grew. She imagined a number of bands all singing praises to God, fun and games for children, and food for everybody who would come. She wasn’t sure where to start, and she could see she couldn’t do it all herself. So the pastor gathered the usual suspects, the people at church who seem to be involved with every event, and they started planning.

I really didn’t want to be a part of this. I’ve written before about how I felt like I had too much on my plate already, and I wanted no more church responsibilities. Yet somehow I got sucked into the planning meetings. The more we planned, the more I felt like we were off our rockers. Not only did we lack the experience to pull this off, but our church was shedding members – many of whom were the usual suspects in our planning meetings. Before long the planning meetings consisted of Nancy, the pastor, his wife, and me.

Weeks and weeks had gone by, and we were getting nowhere. We had set a date – September 26, six weeks away – and only one band was tentatively willing to participate. We had no stage, no sound equipment, nobody qualified to run the sound equipment we didn’t have, no food, no fun and games, and no firm plans to promote the event. And then I said it. I said I thought this idea was crazy. I said that we had a snowball’s chance of pulling this off, that we lacked the experience and sheer manpower to make this happen. I said that the only reason I was willing to participate at all is because Nancy believed God was leading her to do this.

I saw nothing but lack of confidence in Nancy’s eyes. It struck me that I could squelch the whole thing if I continued. So I backpedaled and raised a challenge. I said that when we met next, in two weeks, we needed to have at least three bands committed, food lined up, a stage and sound equipment rented, and promotions planned, or we should delay the whole thing until next spring. It seemed that if we didn’t have those things in order by then the event would be impossible.

And then God started to move. The things we needed seemed to start falling from the sky.

The concert was Saturday. We had four bands.

Praise and Music Festival

We had food. We bought some hot dogs, but a barbecue restaurant donated enough pulled pork to feed 100 people.

Praise and Music Festival

We had fun and games.

Praise and Music Festival

The company from which we rented but a little bitty stage donated their best stage, all the amplifiers and speakers we could want, a huge sound board, and three people to run it all.

Praise and Music Festival

And Nancy emceed, introducing the bands with great energy – and with the glow that comes from seeing God act, multiplying your efforts beyond your capabilities.

Praise and Music Festival

If that wasn’t enough, God even brought the weather. It rained all week before the concert, and the forecast for Saturday called for more of the same. The dark clouds hung around as a crew set up Saturday morning, sprinkling on them occasionally. Then fifteen minutes before the show, the clouds parted and the sun began to shine. The skies were blue all four hours of the show as a gentle breeze blew. Fifteen minutes after the show ended, the dark clouds rolled back in. As we finished cleaning up and putting everything away, those clouds started to spit rain again.

But the one thing God didn’t bless us with was a large audience. It was the only part of Nancy’s vision that didn’t happen. But several people from the neighborhoods around us did come and go throughout the afternoon, and we got to meet them.

Praise and Music Festival

I’ve learned that sometimes God’s measure of success is different from mine. Maybe God’s primary purpose for this was not to reach out to the community. Maybe God wanted to show all of us what he can do if we just follow his lead. If so, lesson learned. I am in awe of Nancy. I am in awe of God.