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.

Standard
Stories Told

Christmas spaghetti

I worked very hard to build good family traditions for my sons after their mom and I split up. But now those sons are in their early 20s; one has his first career job, which requires he work Christmas Day. It’s proving surprisingly challenging to get my whole family together at once this year to enjoy Christmas together. We are in a time of tradition transition, and I admit that I’m not entirely happy about it. I loved the traditions we built. But I do know that this is the natural order of things as children fly the nest.

I’m still giving all of my blogging time to the message I’ll give my church at our Christmas Eve service tonight. So indulge me as I rerun this post from December 22, 2011. This Christmas tradition ended a few years ago when I learned that I’m essentially allergic to garlic and onions. Cutting those foods out of my life has transformed my health.


We started having the big family Christmas gathering at my house when I rented my church’s parsonage after my wife and I split. You’d think that holiday hosting duties wouldn’t fall to the newly single guy, but logistically it just made sense. I was pinching pennies thanks to exorbitant lawyer bills, and that first Christmas was mighty lean. It was so lean that I fed everyone spaghetti for Christmas dinner.

Awaiting pasta

I must admit, I really like my homemade spaghetti sauce. I had perfected it through trial and error when I taught myself to cook in my early 20s in my first apartment.  But I was surprised when my Christmas spaghetti was a huge hit, and even more surprised the next year when everybody asked me to make it again. My mom has asked for it every year since. Now that money isn’t so tight, I make a bigger and more elaborate Christmas meal – but make spaghetti the night before or the night after. Here’s my recipe.

1 lb. bulk Italian sausage
1 stick pepperoni, cut into chunks
Small onion, diced
30 oz. crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
30 oz. diced tomatoes, drained
12 oz. tomato paste
5 cloves garlic, pressed
2 t basil
2 t oregano
1 t salt
1 t pepper

Brown the sausage with the onion and drain the fat. Add the tomatoes, pepperoni, and spices and simmer until the flavors come together, at least an hour.

As you can see, there’s not much to it, but it sure does taste good. I usually serve it with a salad, steamed broccoli, and warm crusty bread.

What unusual Christmas traditions does your family have?

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Faith

A brief history of Christmas

While my church continues to search for a pastor, those of us in leadership are having to do all sorts of things a pastor normally does. It falls to me to bring the message during our Christmas Eve service tomorrow evening, which boggles my mind. I’ve been working on that message during my normal blogging time for more than a week now. I may try to cut down that message into a blog post for Christmas Day; wish me luck that I’ll find time. Meanwhile, the blog must go on, so I’m rerunning this Christmas post from December 23, 2015.


The Bible tells the story of Jesus’s birth twice: once in Matthew, once in Luke. But in neither telling, nor anywhere else in the New Testament, are we told to celebrate the event.

It is our choice to do this. God does not command it.

What's the Reason for the Season?

The closest the New Testament comes to telling us to celebrate anything is in Luke 22, when Jesus takes the last supper. After sharing the bread and wine with his disciples, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The Greek from which this is translated carries a connotation of repetition: keep doing this. Most churches interpret this to mean that we should do it, too.

I belong to a church that does it weekly. Some churches do it monthly or quarterly. I know of one that observes it annually. It has many names: the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Evening Meal, and communion.

Meanwhile, it might surprise you to know that several Christian groups don’t celebrate Christmas. The United Church of God doesn’t. Neither do Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh-Day Adventists. And neither do some Churches of Christ, which is where I became a Christian. There are probably others. These churches believe that God doesn’t authorize this celebration, and that we should celebrate and worship him only as he authorizes through his scripture.

I used to agree with them. But over time I’ve come to see that their view on authority is too restrictive. Imagine your five-year-old child drawing you a picture, perhaps one of your family, and giving it to you with a smile — and you rejecting it, because you didn’t authorize it. How unloving. I believe God welcomes and smiles upon our good devotions to him, even when he has not explicitly called for them.

However, those churches correctly contend that December 25th was chosen to celebrate Christ’s birth because nonbelievers already celebrated various pagan winter festivals at about that time. It’s not like anybody knew Jesus’s exact birth date, and they felt sure it would be easier to convert nonbelievers if the church had a celebration then, too.

Some modern churches that don’t celebrate Christmas say they won’t honor a celebration based on something that isn’t true, or something with roots in pagan celebrations. I respect their choice, but believe that those origins are so obscure and remote today that they no longer matter. We have infused this season of celebration with new, valuable meaning.

But that meaning has been strong only relatively recently. Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas at all for the first few hundred years of the church. When they did start celebrating Christmas, it wasn’t yet the central celebration is has become today. At certain times in history, religious leaders even forbade celebrating Christmas to avoid excessive revelry.

In truth, the traditions Christians follow in celebrating Christmas are only a couple centuries old, and have become widespread only in the last hundred years or so, especially since the great prosperity that followed World War II.

And so it galls me when I hear Christians speak of there being a war on Christmas, or insist upon greetings of Merry Christmas, or otherwise decry a perceived weakening of Christmas as a central national religious holiday. Christmas is a devotion and celebration of our own creation. We should celebrate it if we want — but we should not force it on anyone who doesn’t want it.

Show people love instead, the kind God gives you despite your sin.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Photography

Christmas in Millennium Park

Happy Christmas to you and yours!

While Margaret and I had our long weekend in Chicago earlier this month, the big Christmas tree in Millennium Park drew our attention. Here are some photos I made of it. Enjoy!

Christmas tree in Millennium Park, Chicago
Christmas tree in Millennium Park, Chicago
Christmas tree in Millennium Park, Chicago
Christmas tree in Millennium Park, Chicago
Christmas tree in Millennium Park, Chicago
Christmas tree in Millennium Park, Chicago

Canon PowerShot S95

Standard
Personal

The Christmas experience

Before we got married, Margaret and her kids had their Christmas traditions and I and my kids had ours.

At Christkindlmarkt

Because our children are older — our youngest is almost 18, and our oldest is 33 — I hoped our families would blend their traditions and we’d have one giant Christmas celebration that satisfied everybody. That’s not how it has turned out.

I am surprised to find how strong my family’s traditions became. I always thought that we made them up as we went, as we flexed around frustrating parenting-time rules and my ex-wife’s holiday plans.

At Christkindlmarkt

But in the couple years Margaret and I have tried to blend our family’s traditions and get-togethers, I can see that the main flexibility my family had was in timing of our gathering. Sometimes it was Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, sometimes it was the weekend that worked out best before or after Christmas, and once it was New Year’s Eve (which was very cool). But we celebrated together in exactly the same way every year. Unfortunately, that celebration just doesn’t blend neatly with Margaret’s family’s celebration.

At Christkindlmarkt

So this year we decided to just honor each family’s ways separately, and have two celebrations. The Greys celebrated on Saturday. I’ll celebrate with Margaret’s family tonight and tomorrow morning. And I think everybody will have had a satisfying Christmas experience.

However you celebrate, happy Christmas to you and yours!

Ornaments photographed with my Canon PowerShot S95 at this year’s Christkindlmarkt Chicago.

Standard
Photography

Chicago at Christmas on Kodak T-Max P3200

Christmas at Macy's

I loaded my Nikon F3 with Kodak’s resurrected T-Max P3200 film and took it along on our early-December trip to Chicago. It was to be a gray weekend, and we were going to be walking about a lot after dark. That seemed like a perfect opportunity to try this nominal ISO 800 film that cheerfully pushes to 3200.

Wooden soldier

It was so much fun to shoot anywhere and everywhere — indoors, after dark, on an overcast afternoon — at generous apertures and shutter speeds. I was too busy having fun to take notes, but I think I was shooting at f/8 anywhere I wanted with shutter speeds of at least 1/30 second. I never had to worry about camera shake. 

Macy's Christmas

The first two photos are from the Christmas display inside Macy’s on State Street. Here’s a shot of Macy’s exterior all decorated for the holiday. The P3200 needs just a little ambient light to make a plenty usable image.

Marshall Field & Co.

Macy’s bought the former Marshall Field department-store chain. I miss Marshall Field.

Christkindlmarkt

We also walked through Christkindlmarkt twice. The first time was on a busy Saturday afternoon and the second was early on a Monday when we had the place largely to ourselves.

Bulbs at Christkindlmarkt

I shot an ISO 100 film on our Chicago trip last year. That slow film gave me limited depth of field, which limited what I could do. Not so this P3200 — I could shoot up close and choose just how much blurred background I’d get.

Dragon at Christkindlmarkt

Christkindlmarkt offers so many subjects: the market itself, the individual booths, the wares in each booth, and the people enjoying themselves. 

Wooden toys at Christkindlmarkt

The P3200 let me photograph any of it in pretty much any way I pleased. I’ve never had so much flexibility in bad light with a film camera.

Christkindlmarkt

So many people wander Christkindlmarkt with their cameras out that I don’t feel as self-conscious as usual about photographing people. But I’m happy I didn’t notice until this roll was back from the processor that this fellow here spotted me in the act.

Selling nuts at Christkindlmarkt

One night we walked over to Millennium Park to take in the Christmas fun. The ice-skating rink was open late.

Ice skating at Millennium Park

The P3200 wasn’t fast enough to let me freeze the skaters as they sped by. I suppose you can’t have everything.

Ice skating at Millennium Park

We also explored the Great Hall at Union Station. It’s gorgeous; you should see it.

Polar Express, Union Station, Chicago

It, too, was all decked out for the holiday. You might not be able to make it out, but this Christmas tree is decorated with logos from various railroads, past and present.

Christmas tree, Union Station, Chicago

I had a ball shooting Kodak T-Max P3200. Anywhere I went, in virtually any lighting conditions, my Nikon F3 could get a solid exposure and I could make an image.

As you can see, the images I got have good sharpness (through my 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor lens) and decent tonality. I especially enjoy the rich blacks this film returned.

These images would make lovely snapshot-sized prints. I’ll bet they’d even make usable 5x7s. But the grain becomes more pronounced the larger you make these images. Click any of them to see them on Flickr, and then click the image there to see it at full scan size. You’ll see: the grain is giant. Fortunately, it’s also really pleasing — and subjects hold their definition.

I’ll definitely buy more P3200 and keep it on ice for gray-day and nighttime shooting. Shooting these two rolls and seeing the wonderful results was a real joy.

Standard