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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Stories Told

On the corner of Erskine and Woodside, 1976-1985

Rerunning my post about the street on which I grew up, Erskine Boulevard in South Bend, Indiana, the other day made me nostalgic. So I looked through my photos for childhood images from the old neighborhood.

Here I am standing on the sidewalk in front of our house shortly after we moved in. It was 1976, and I was nine.

1976a

I had Verichrome Pan in my Kodak Brownie Starmite II, which my grandmother bought me for a quarter at a garage sale. I hadn’t learned to smoothly squeeze the shutter button; shake marred most of the photos. And then I stored the negatives carelessly, allowing them to become scratched. But I’m still very happy to have them today. Especially this one below, of my brother (right) and neighborhood friend Kevin, who passed away unexpectedly in his 20s.

1976c

We played a lot on the sidewalk and even in the street on Woodside, which is the street pictured below. Woodside was only lightly traveled, so it was the better choice for street soccer. That’s my brother there on the left and neighborhood friend Phil crouched on the right. The fire hydrant was painted as a Revolutionary War figure in honor of the Bicentennial the year before, as I shot this in 1977. Hydrants all over the city were so painted. I shot this on Kodacolor II with my truly awful Imperial Magimatic X50 camera, which took 126 cartridge film.

1977a

The shutter button was so stiff on that camera it was virtually impossible to avoid shake. Here I aimed the camera east along Woodside a little. The old Plymouth station wagon there is the only thing that dates this photograph, which is also from 1977.

1979a

The city repaved Erskine in 1982. I’d never seen a street stripped of its asphalt before. I had Kodacolor II in the Kodak Duaflex II I had recently purchased at a garage sale, and photographed some of the equipment in action.

1982a

Soon a fresh, black ribbon of asphalt had been laid on Erskine and cars could again travel our street. From the looks of the above and below photos, I made them while sitting on our front stoop.

1982b

1982 was the year I began to experiment with the growing collection of old cameras I had amassed. I made this photo with an Argus A-Four, probably using Kodacolor II film. I feel fortunate any photos from that roll turned out, as I didn’t know what I was doing with f stops and shutter speeds. My guesses were lucky. This is just another shot of Woodside from our front yard. The house on the left was owned by the Mumford family, who had owned a small grocery near my mom’s childhood neighborhood downtown.

1982c

In 1984 a friend who was in my high school’s photography class gave me some hand-spooled Plus-X for my A-Four. I asked him for advice about exposure and he said, “f/8 and be there.” It worked out well enough. When I made this shot of the street blades on the corner of Erskine and Woodside, I chided myself a little for wasting a frame. But these unique embossed black-and-white blades, which were on every South Bend street corner, were removed during the 2000s in favor of more generic green-and-white blades with stick-on letters. Now I’m glad I have a record of this time gone by. If I had known the city was going to replace these blades, I’d have stolen this one.

1984c

I shot a roll of color film, probably Kodak, probably in my A-Four, as I was about to graduate high school in 1985. I climbed the giant oak tree in our back yard for this view. The van was Dad’s; he used it to haul lumber and finished pieces in his cabinetmaking business. It had, for a few years, been our family car.

1985a

Here’s a quick peek down Erskine, showing its distinctive curve, from that 1985 roll of film. I remember being deeply disappointed when the city replaced our minuteman fire hydrant.

1985b

Here’s one photo looking up toward our house from that 1985 film roll. Erskine was dubbed a boulevard because of its curve and because it was noticeably wider than other streets on the city’s grid. My childhood home is visible, above and to the left of the station wagon rolling up the hill.

1985f

Our house was quite famously green. When we gave directions to our house, all we had to say was “the green one” and people found us with no trouble. We never really liked the color, however.

1985g

I left for college in 1985, and moved out for good in 1989. My parents stayed on until 2014. Somewhere along the way they had the house repainted in light gray. I never got used to it. In my dreams, my childhood home will always be green.

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Along the Wall

Along the north wall
Olympus Stylus
Eastman Double-X 5222
2017

I have way too much film in the fridge. Way too much. I moved a bunch of it to long-term storage in the freezer and am systematically shooting the rest.

The first roll I shot on Operation Shoot-Em-Up was some Eastman Double-X 5222, which I liked pretty well the last time I shot it. It tended to blow out in bright sun, but under the right conditions the blacks were so deep you could fall into them.

I dropped a roll into my Olympus Stylus, a camera I don’t shoot often enough. I didn’t shoot any terribly important subjects, but I did experiment with perspective a little bit here and there, as in this photo.

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Photography

single frame: Along the north wall

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Image

Kitchen window

Kitchen window, redux
Pentax ME, 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M
Kodak Gold 200
2017

Funny thing about praise: what you praise in others, you tend to get more of. And a few of you praised, and praised heavily, an image I made of my kitchen window several months ago (see it here). Since then, I’ve shot it over and over, hoping for more magic.

That first window shot was what I consider a throwaway, a photograph I make of some convenient subject to make sure the camera is mechanically functioning, or to see how it behaves in some challenging situation, or just to finish the last one or two exposures on the roll so I can send it off for processing.

But none of my subsequent window shots have been throwaways. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t like any of them: I was trying too hard. Such was the case with this photo. It turned out okayest of any of them, so here it is. Since the last window shot I painted the window and installed new blinds, all calculated to help my house sell.

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Photography

single frame: Kitchen window, redux

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Image
Photography

Do any of your photographs hang in your home?

John Smith shared a favorite photo on his blog recently (here) and said it was the only one he’s taken that hangs in his home.

Like him, I’m perfectly happy to view my work on my computer. But I do have six photographs framed and hanging in my home. These:

Bridgeton Covered Bridge Canadian River Bridge
Old US 36 Old US 36
Early autumn sunrise, almost Indianapolis Ford F-500 fire truck

The bridge (and Bridge Out) photos hang in my home office. I love old bridges and like these photos and thought they’d make a nice series. My prints are all 8x10s, though, and cropped to fit.

office

The silhouetted tree hangs because I printed and framed it for a contest, which to my surprise it won. I had a spare spot on my hallway wall so after the contest that’s where I put it. It, too, is an 8×10. I had uploaded the cropped version to Flickr and so that’s what you see in this post.

The Ford photo hangs in my bathroom. After I remodeled that room several years ago a bare spot on the wall seemed just right for some sort of hanging, but nothing seemed right until I took this photo. The red of the fire truck’s body is the same shade of red I used in bathroom accessories. So I printed it 4×6, framed it, and hung it in that spot.

I get my frames at Walmart, of all places. They have a surprisingly good selection, and quality is reasonable.

Which photographs that you’ve taken hang in your home? Tip: If you paste into your comment a complete URL to a Flickr page, or a complete URL to an image file (a file ending in .jpg or .png or .gif), the image will appear in the comment for all to see!

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Personal

Consumed with home projects

I’ve remained consumed with home-improvement projects. It’s cut deeply into my time for photography or thoughtful commentary — it’s all projects, all the time, as I prepare to put my house on the market.

I took up the worn-out carpet in the hall, crossing my fingers that the hardwood floor below would be in good enough shape to leave it be, as it was in the two other rooms where I previously took up the carpet. It wasn’t. And I neither want to refinish it myself nor pay someone to do it. Fortunately, this isn’t a high-class neighborhood and perfection isn’t required to sell a home here. So I put down rugs and moved on. Did you know you can order runners in almost any style and length from Amazon? They were here in two days.

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I have spent the bulk of my time painting. The previous owner painted every wall and ceiling a yellowy beige just before I moved in. Except for the criminally lousy job they did patching nail holes, it looked good enough and I never bothered to change it. But after a decade it was looking shabby, so I bought paint and broke out the rollers and brushes. I chose a more neutral beige, and I painted the ceilings white. This is my office, where I write this blog. It’s actually the house’s dining room, but my table is too big to fit in here so I stuck it in the eat-in portion of the kitchen, which is surprisingly spacious.

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The last room to paint was the living room. Here’s a glimpse of that yellowy beige, which I was busy covering up.

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I also painted my front stoop, as the concrete was mottled and pocked and unattractive. I filled the holes I could see with concrete patch but still missed several. Did you know you can buy paint with grit in it to provide a non-slip surface? It works great. This stoop now feels like 120-grit sandpaper.

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Finally, the faucet I put in the bathroom sink during Operation Lipstick on the Pig several years ago proved to be cheap and crappy. The finish wore off it and the metal was oxidizing. So I bought a new faucet and installed it. Removing the drain, I twisted the trap ever so slightly and it crumbled apart in my hands. I made four trips to Lowe’s before I finally got the right replacement part. Lowe’s is 15 minutes away, so a job that should have taken 15 minutes took about 2½ hours. Lesson learned: take the worn-out part along so I can match it precisely.

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One job I’m not going to get to is to replace the original 1969 aluminum storm front door. I had hoped I could pay Lowe’s or The Home Depot to install it, as hanging doors is not my forte. But they either won’t respond to my calls or are booked through the Second Coming. So I bought a jar of aluminum polish and am applying elbow grease. It’s not giving me the good results I hoped for, but the door is original to this 1969 house and is quite pitted.

A handful of smaller jobs remain, including recaulking the bathtub, washing the surprisingly dirty front gutter and soffit, and fixing a noticeable problem with the back storm door. But now the major work is over, and perhaps I’ll have a little more time to write the kinds of things I normally write around here!

 

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