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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Faith

Jim Grey, Preacher

I’m, gulp, preaching in church this Sunday. I’m a software developer, not a preacher!

At church, our new pastor resigned. He’d been with us just since March. All the reasons are private, but he left on good terms.

WPCC
Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK, Ultrafine Extreme 100, 2018.

The Elders are now directly operating the church, including doing the preaching on Sunday. That includes me! Which is a little daunting. I have preached twice before, when our previous pastor had to be away and he was desperate for someone to fill in. I used to teach a lot of Sunday school, and I’m comfortable doing that. My sermons will be a lot like Sunday school lessons without the audience asking questions.

At West Park Christian Church
Pentax KM, 28mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax-M, Kodak Tri-X, 2017.

We hired our new pastor to help us attract and retain people from the Generation Z and Millennial generations, which are underrepresented in our congregation. The new pastor made some changes in our worship that our Generation X and Baby Boomer members found challenging. But it’s up to us mature Christians in the older generation to adapt with the times. We don’t get to be set in our ways. Yet worship still needs to feel like worship to us. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and this is what I’m going to talk about. I’m going to borrow heavily from this old post and a little maybe from this one to build my message.

As we move through the holiday season, we will reflect as an Eldership and as a congregation on what we want to do next. That will certainly involve looking for a new pastor. But we want to be certain of what we want, and as much as we can of what God wants, first.

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Essay, Faith

Forgiveness isn’t reconciliation

First published July 17, 2013. It makes me crazy when I hear it said (especially by preachers or others teaching the Christian faith) that when you forgive someone, you must reconcile, returning the relationship to where it was before. It’s not true.

Hibbs Ford Bridge

In my last post I wrote about why and how to forgive – to suffer the loss and bear the pain, to no longer hold anything against the person who harmed you, and to give up your desire to get even. You forgive so you can be at peace.

Reconciliation is a separate step. Where forgiveness is about letting go of the past, reconciliation is about committing to a future – and sometimes it is best for a relationship not to have a future.

Even among people who haven’t harmed us, there are some who are a fit for us and some who aren’t. We routinely choose our intimates, friends, and associates based on any number of factors – shared values, common interests, demonstrations of care and concern for our well-being, and simple appeal. We don’t have to be tight with every person we encounter. We can’t be; there are simply too many people!

God can be tight with everyone; he is perfect and infinite, after all. God’s ideal is forgiveness and reconciliation, and that’s what he offered us at the cross. Jesus’s death gives us both forgiveness from and reconciliation with God, if we accept it as a gift from him. We get to be in relationship with him again, and he will not retaliate against us for our sins. I think God feels deep, deep sadness over every one of us who won’t accept his gift of reconciliation. It is much how we would feel if one of our children thumbed his nose at us and never came home again.

Canadian River Bridge

God wants us to live in peace with everyone, but I don’t think he means for us to keep opening ourselves up to harm. When Jesus preached at the mount, he said something that is frequently misapplied to justify reconciliation with someone who will harm us again and again.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

That’s Matthew 5:38-42, NIV. Jesus was exaggerating a little to make a point; his whole sermon was filled with such hyperbole. Seriously, do you think he means for us to find to a mugger in a blind alley and say, “Here’s my wallet and my phone, and have a nice day?” Jesus himself was struck in the face in John 18:22; he demonstrates his point in John 18:23 where he doesn’t present the other side of his face to his aggressor. He doesn’t hit back or argue, either; he remains peaceable. Jesus is only trying to tell us to let God have vindication and mete out justice.

1880 bridge

I think God wants us to love ourselves enough to choose people who treat us well and build us up.

So when someone harms you, ask yourself:

  • How much did you value the relationship? Highly, moderately, lightly, or not at all? You probably value highly the relationship with a parent, a child, or your best friend of 30 years. You probably place much lower value on the relationship with a distant acquaintance.
  • How much damage was done? Extreme, moderate, or light? For example, someone deliberately burning your house down is far worse than someone casually saying something offensive to you.
  • What does what the other person did say about their character? Was what they did way out of character for them, a one-time deal that is inherently unlikely to be repeated? Or was it consistent with who they are? It’s pretty simple: keep people with good character and shed people with bad character.
  • How well did the other person make amends? Fully, partially or imperfectly, or not at all? When someone harms you or lets you down, trust is damaged. Trust needs to be restored before reconciliation can be complete. Making amends is the first step in restoring trust. Trust builds over time as the other person continues to behave well.
Steel truss bridge, Mill Creek

The answers to these questions help you decide whether to reconcile fully, to end the relationship, or to redefine the relationship.

Let’s look at redefining the relationship for a minute, because it’s not an obvious outcome. It’s when you change the rules of the relationship to protect yourself.

In college, a buddy used to lend me his car sometimes. Once I brought it back with a slightly dented fender. I apologized all over myself. He told me it was all right, and that the little dent didn’t make his old beater look any worse. But he also said that he’d like it if I didn’t ask to borrow his car anymore. He was just as friendly to me after that, but there was this one limit to our relationship. Perhaps in time I could have rebuilt that trust and he might have let me borrow his car again, but college ended for us before that day came.

I once knew a woman with an alcoholic husband. She finally told him that while she loved him and didn’t want to leave him, she couldn’t tolerate his drinking anymore. She told him that when he came home drunk she would kick him out, change the locks, and cancel his debit card, for increasingly longer periods each time. When she let him come back home, she would treat him with love and respect. He eventually got into AA and got sober, but only after being kicked out like this a handful of times, the last time spending many months unwelcome at home.

US 36 Wabash River bridge

Still, there are just going to be times when it’s right to call it quits permanently. Many years ago someone who was supposed to love me hurt me instead, repeatedly, in breathtaking ways. It took me several years to forgive and heal from the abuse, and to be at peace again. There have been no amends made, not even an acknowledgement of what happened. I sometimes encounter that person. I am polite, but I keep interactions short and move on. I think it unwise to let that person be close to me in any way.

I’m thinking again about the college roommate who stiffed me for the $400 phone bill, whose story I told in my last post. He called me trying to apologize. He tried to rebuild my trust by sending me money every couple months towards the debt. Yet I spurned him until the debt was repaid in full. My heart was in the wrong place.

Thankfully, my friend forgave me for that.

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Essay, Faith

The mechanics of forgiveness

First published July 15, 2013. $400 bought my resentment and scorn.

Roadside flowers 2010

When I was in college, one of my roommates had a girlfriend who still lived in his hometown. He missed her a lot, and spent a couple hours on the phone with her every night. One day he abruptly quit school and moved back home to be with her.

The next phone bill was for $400. (Remember when we paid by the minute for long distance?) He’d left me no way to contact him, so there I was, left to pay this enormous bill. Oh my goodness was I ever angry.

After a couple months, he called and wanted to talk with me. With a huff, I said I wouldn’t take the call. He called a couple more times but I still wouldn’t have anything to do with him. But then he sent me a check for $50. Another small check followed, and later another, and then another, and after about six months he’d paid me back in full. And then I was able to let go of my anger. I forgave him, and I was willing to be his friend again.

And I had it all wrong. All wrong.

Roadside flowers

For those of us who follow God, it’s clear that God wants us to forgive and be reconciled when others fail us. Jesus even made it part of the model prayer: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. The whole point of Jesus going to the cross was so that God could forgive us and be reconciled to us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are simply core to the Christian life. Yet the Bible is maddeningly silent on why (other than because God said so) and, especially, how we should do that.

To fill in some of those gaps, I’m going to have to invoke the Nazis. Please bear with me.

When I lived in Terre Haute, a woman named Eva Kor was frequently in the news because she built a holocaust museum there. Terre Haute might seem like the last place you’d expect to find such a museum. But that’s where Eva ended up after she was liberated from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Eva had a twin sister, Miriam. When Eva’s family arrived at Auschwitz, the girls were separated from their family, whom they never saw again. They certainly all died in the gas chambers. Meanwhile, Eva was injected with something – bacteria, a virus, something deadly – and was left to die. This was the practice of Dr. Josef Mengele, who gathered twins in the camps to experiment on them. He would inject one twin and wait for death, then quickly kill the other and autopsy both bodies to compare them.

Hello, Spring!

Unexpectedly, Eva survived her injection. At about the same time, the camp was liberated and Eva and Miriam were freed. But can’t you imagine how Eva must have felt? Her anger, resentment, and emotional pain had to be off the charts.

Yet in time she chose to forgive. In 1993, Eva flew to Germany to meet with one of the doctors who worked at Auschwitz. They went together to the camp, which still stands as a memorial to the slaughter. And there, in front of reporters and cameras, she said it: “In my own name, I forgive all Nazis.”

You would not believe how angry this made many of the other concentration-camp survivors. Their pain and anger was just too deep for them to let go. But Eva Kor is certain that she did the right thing. She will tell you that her forgiveness does not mean she has forgotten what happened. She just chooses not to hold it against the Nazis anymore, so that she can be at peace.

Peace – this is why we should forgive. Holding on to anger, resentment, and bitterness harms us. Like a loving parent, God does not want to see us harmed. And when we harbor those feelings, it can lead us to treat others poorly, or to retaliate against the one who harmed us. God doesn’t want to see us harm any of his other children, either. Even if you don’t follow God, peace is an incredibly compelling reason to forgive.

First color

To forgive means simply to let go of resentment, to no longer hold something against someone. It means that you accept what happened to you. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that you agree with what happened or think it is right. It also doesn’t mean that you automatically have to restore the relationship with the person who harmed you. It means only that you take the hit, suffer the loss, bear the pain, and give up your right to get even. The pain will eventually subside, and you will be left with peace.

Sometimes it takes a very long time for the pain to subside. Consider Eva Kor, who announced her forgiveness almost 50 years after the fact. I haven’t had anything as monstrous happen to me as happened to Eva, but I’ve learned a few things about how to forgive, and here they are.

  1. Don’t wait for someone who has hurt you apologize or to make it right. They might never. Sure, it’s easier to forgive then, but if you wait for that, you will carry your pain until you do.
  2. Pour out your heart to God. Let him know the pain you feel. Ask him to heal you, to ease your pain. If you don’t believe in God, pour your heart out to a trusted friend.
  3. But try not to keep turning it over in your mind, because it can become a self-defeating bad habit. When you find yourself ruminating, distract yourself. Go to a movie, get out of town, call a friend – fill your mind with something else.
  4. Keep asking God to bless that person, to watch over and protect that person, and to lift that person up. Remember Matthew 5:43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Again, if you don’t follow God, then decide within yourself to always wish that person well.)
  5. Cultivate compassion for the person who harmed you. Try to understand why they may have behaved that way – what happened to them that made them behave so badly toward you? We all have a backstory that explains who we are and how we behave. This isn’t meant to excuse their behavior. It’s just meant to soften your heart.
  6. Some days you’ll wake up willing to forgive but as the day goes on your anger and pain will be more intense than ever. This is just how it goes sometimes. Forgiveness can be a day-by-day thing. When this happens, just get up tomorrow and decide to forgive anew.

Can you see how forgiveness is a process? The bigger the hurt, the bigger the loss that must be grieved, and that takes time and attention.

What do you do to forgive that I haven’t listed? Please share in the comments. And in my next post, I’ll talk about reconciliation – why it’s a separate step from forgiveness, and when it may not be a good idea, even though it’s God’s ideal.

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Essay, Faith, Personal

Unrightable

First published Dec. 18, 2008. A friend has wanted to talk lately about the hard work of forgiveness, so I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned about it over the past few years.

No More Sake
Photo credit: Matt Reinbold

Not long enough ago I hurt someone pretty badly and was hurt back as badly in return. We had cast down the china teacup of our relationship and it shattered. The best repair we could manage leaked through its glued seams. It wouldn’t hold and we came apart for good.

That experience taught me a lesson that seemed paradoxical at the time but is now so obvious that it’s elementary: Getting over being hurt means accepting the pain. It doesn’t go away as long as you deny it. It doesn’t go away as long as you ruminate on it, where it builds resentment. Acceptance is the only way through; acceptance accomplishes most of the healing. As I worked at simply letting myself hurt – and it hurt a lot – the pain diminished and disappeared, and I came to no longer hold anything against that person.

Because I’m given to foolish fantasies of a harmonious world, I also learned a second, more difficult lesson. I always thought that when I forgave, it was to be as though the wrong never happened and that I should be reconciled to the one who hurt me. God says that when he forgives, he remembers our sins no more. He gives second, fifth, ninety-fourth, and seventy-times-seventh chances. But while God loves reconciliation, he also does not want me to keep putting myself in harm’s way. Two people can simply not be good for each other. Maybe one or both have a nature that’s toxic to the other. Maybe the number or severity of past hurts make it too hard to rebuild trust. Maybe their needs conflict in too many ways. So sometimes the best way I can care for myself is to let the other person go. I’m sure that a few people are best off having let me go, too.

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Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “The Bible is our instruction manual”

What do I do now?

We all say this more than once in our lives, at times when we seem to have no options or when all the things we know to do aren’t working. At these times, many of us naturally seek counsel, coaching, or advice.

Those of us who are Christians also turn to God through prayer and Bible meditation. It’s wise even in good times to seek ongoing guidance from the creator of our universe.

But once in a while, I’ll hear a Christian say that the Bible is life’s instruction manual. And I wince. Because it’s really not.

Reader

I used to write instruction manuals for a living. Manuals are about teaching skills and accomplishing tasks. For example, I once wrote a manual for a device that telephone companies used to collect network telemetry. I included a schematic diagram, a line drawing of the device’s front panel with all the controls called out, and paragraphs detailing every configuration option. Technicians used this manual to install and configure the device, and to troubleshoot it when it misbehaved. My manual was factual, comprehensive, detailed, and complete. It covered every situation.

I’ve also written piles of step-by-step instructions. Here are some I whipped up just for this post, about how to save a document as a PDF in Microsoft Word:

  1. Open the File menu and choose Save As. The Save As window opens.
  2. If the window does not show the location where you want to save the PDF, in the pane at left, click the location to use. Then in the folder list at right, click the folder to use.
  3. Type a name for the document in the File Name box.
  4. Click the arrow at the end of the Save As Type box and choose PDF.
  5. Click Save.

Notice how specific these instructions are. If you follow them to the letter, you will have your PDF.

The Bible, in contrast, offers neither step-by-step instructions nor specific configuration and troubleshooting information for life. There are two primary reasons, the least of which is that life, with all its richness and complexity, can’t be boiled down in this way.

The bigger reason is that the Bible is really about revealing the nature of God through his relationship with his people, and about telling the story of his people.

The Bible can, absolutely can, help guide your life. But rather than turning to page 207 and following the five steps you find there, you must rather keep reading the Bible throughout your life, studying what you find there in the context of culture and history in the times it was written, discussing what you read with others who are farther along this path than you, and meditating and praying over what you’ve studied. If you do this, you will gain insight into what it means to be a Christian and the kind of life God wants you to live. You then apply this insight every day, adjusting and adapting as you go, all the while continuing to study, discuss, and pray.

Opening the Bible expecting specific guidance on a specific topic can lead to misapplying God’s word. Some Scriptures are bluntly unambiguous: don’t murder, don’t sleep around on your spouse.

Others only seem crystal clear. Here’s one: Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (NASB) Do you want to make more money? Do you want to find a loving partner and get married? Do you want to win the big game? Then let yourself be strengthened by God and you can have it! Or, at least that’s how it is sometimes interpreted.

But if you study this verse in its context, you learn some startling things. Paul wrote this book from prison — he was living in oppression. Now consider the verses that lead up to this famous verse:

11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (NASB)

Paul isn’t saying that God will help him achieve all of his dreams. He’s saying that no matter what difficulties come, God can help him through them. The message is that God can help us push through when life hands us loss and defeat.

Study, discussion, prayer, application. Repeat, repeat, repeat, all your life. God’s word will surely change you, as rushing water slowly shapes rock. You will come to know God, you will come to know the people who have followed him throughout history, and you will see how God loves even the most imperfect people, including you.

“Things I wish Christians would stop saying” is an occasional series. You’ll find other posts in this series here, here, and here.

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