Sunday, December 21, 2014

When Christmas Hurts

Tonight at Table of Grace, we held our annual Blue Christmas service. It’s something that we’ve done every year since we started the church, and even though it is always attended by somewhere between 1 and 8 people, I believe it is one of the most important services that we do. I borrowed a new name for the service this year from an Episcopalian colleague, who calls her Blue Christmas service “When Christmas Hurts”. Sometimes, it’s not just that folks are a little extra down or lonely during the Christmas season, sometimes Christmas, and the reminders of what we no longer have, hurts, badly.

I seem to be reminded of this harsh reality even more this year than in years past. I think it’s because our youngest, Morgan, is an 11 year old sixth grader, just like I was when my world came crashing down around me. It was on this night 32 years ago, that I went to bed, a little bummed that I wouldn’t be enjoying the day before Christmas break celebrations at school the next day, due to the fact that I had chicken pox. Little did I know that chicken pox would be the least of my heartbreaks that Christmas. When I woke up the next morning, I woke with a terrible headache. I remember walking into the kitchen in my underwear and t-shirt that I had slept in, and feeling a little awkward when I saw that our kitchen was full of people. They all sat around the table as if they had been there for hours while I slept. 

I don’t remember any of the words, just that it was too light in the kitchen, it hurt my head. And there were too many people, and I was in my underwear. And they said he was gone. My brother. My hero. Gone. Something about Christmas shopping and dark and windy roads, and sleeping and driving, or not, and a wreck, and gone. 21 years old and gone. In my young mind, and with his wild nature, it seemed somehow inevitable that it would be a car wreck, someday. But now? This soon and this close to Christmas?

It wasn’t my first taste of death. I believe it was in the spring of that same year when I awoke to the news that one of my best friends had died of some fluke illness, and just like that, she was gone. Funny, I remember something about underwear and a headache that day, too. The difference, of course, is that Kendra’s house was the one that had too many people in the kitchen for a weekday morning, and her sister was asking “what happened” and “how” and “why so soon”.

Even though it wasn’t my first experience with death, it was my first experience with hating Christmas. I carried that with me for a couple of decades. I don’t remember anything that I got for Christmas that year, except the thing that made me hate it. It was a little ceramic thing, a knick-knack. They told me that he bought it for me. I never really understood the story, and I had questions. Did he buy it on a previous shopping trip? What 21 year old man buys his kid sister a gift in advance? Where had he kept it? Had he wrapped it himself? Did he buy it that night? Did someone find it in the wrecked car? If so, how did they know he bought it for me? So many questions, though none that I would ask. Instead, I would just let them rumble around inside me, fueling my anger and my newfound dislike of Christmas. Years later, I would find a Christmas gift, still wrapped, in a file cabinet at my grandparents’ house, with a tag that said: To Grandpa From Roger. I wondered if he had the same questions. I didn’t ask.

I’m not sure when I got over hating Christmas. As I grew into an adult, I had all sorts of excuses. I owned a retail store, and worked ridiculous hours through the Christmas season, right up to Christmas Eve. Somewhere along the line, I had to get away to pick up gifts for everyone else for multiple family celebrations that would take place, often beginning that very night. People were demanding, rude, and thankless; and deep down I knew that even with a successful Christmas, we’d be right back in the red within a couple of months, pinning our hopes to the next Black Friday to Christmas Eve cycle. Maybe it was when I got out of the jewelry business, maybe it was when the joy of seeing my kids excited on Christmas morning became greater than the pain of dashed hopes and shattered dreams. Maybe it was when I realized that Christmas was about new birth, and sixty-fifth chances, and God breaking into the harsh reality of my life to say “I am here, will you stop being so damn stubborn and walk with me?” And yes, I think God would say damn, among other things that we’ve been taught not to say out loud.

Whenever it happened, I bet I wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t have made the choice myself to move forward and to begin to see the beauty of the season again. Thankfully, God doesn’t usually ask if we’re ready. In our Blue Christmas service tonight, I read an adaptation of a passage from Madeleine L’Engle’s “First Coming”. I’d like to share it with you.

“God did not wait until the world was ready, till the nations were at peace. God came when the heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried for release. God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great. God dined with sinners in all their grime. God did not wait until the hearts were pure.  In JOY God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt. To a world of anguish and shame. God came in JOY, and his light never goes out. God came to a world which did not mesh; to heal its ill, and shield its scorn.  In the mystery of the Word made flesh, the maker of the stars were born. We cannot wait until the world is whole, to raise our songs with joyful voice, to share our grief, to touch our pain. God came in grace, with love. Rejoice!”

God knows that right now our need is deep and great, that we live in a world of anguish and shame, and that we still don’t mesh. Thank God it doesn’t matter! God breaks in anyway. God shines light in all the dark places of our hearts, our souls, our world; and as hard as the darkness tries to fend off the light, it can’t. John 1:5 tells us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Thank. You. Jesus. Thank you for coming into this broken world and especially into this broken heart. Thank you for your assurance that joy comes in the morning.

Tonight also happens to be the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. As part of our Blue Christmas service, we share a “Blessing for the Longest Night”, which ends with these words: “So when this blessing comes, take its hand. Get up. Set out on the road you cannot see. This is the night when you can trust that any direction you go, you will be walking toward the dawn.”

And so I’ll walk. I’ll walk blindly forward in the darkness of a world filled with love and hate, violence and peace, justice and grave injustice. I’ll walk in trust, knowing that even as God’s light shines in the darkness of my own heart, it does so in the hearts of billions of others as well. And I’ll believe that there will be a dawn. I hope that you’ll believe with me.

We closed our service tonight with this song from the Indigo Girls. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhSLK_iMLaw


Listen, sing, watch, and believe. There’s still our joy. Christmas Blessings to you, my friends. May you experience anew the magic of God born into our midst; even when Christmas hurts. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Trading the Turnpike of Expediency for the Dirt Road of Connection

There’s a thought that’s been floating around in my head for the last several weeks and I haven’t been able to grab it and put it into words. And then, thanks to one of my Facebook friends, today it came to me. My friend was commenting on the Oklahoma Tourism ads, revealing her skepticism about their honesty, having never experienced such beauty herself. Her comment was this: “all my drives through Oklahoma with nothing in site but tolls.....no thank you.”

I read her words and immediately it hit me. You have to leave the turnpike if you want to see the beauty. If you don’t, you’re destined to believe that all a place has to offer is gas stations, fast food, and run down casinos. For those of you who have never driven the Oklahoma Turnpike, you can pretty easily substitute I-70 from Kansas City to St. Louis in your mental image. True, if that were your only experience of the Show-Me State, you wouldn't think there was much to show. If you never left the interstate in Missouri, you would miss all the sights that look like these (and many more!):

             


                        
And as much as I believe this shift in perspective is important in our geographic explorations, I think it is even more necessary in our interactions with people. I have the opportunity to decide if I’m going to view people that I meet through a ho-hum, when do I get off this road, I-70 lens, or through a knock-my-socks-off, wow that’s beautiful, thank you God lens. 

I wish I could post pictures of all the people that I’ve met through Table of Grace that I have had the honor to see through lens #2. I would show you endless pictures of people whose lives may appear messed up, hopeless, and down-and-out at first glance; and who, in reality, have had the most profound, positive impacts in my own life.

They would be pictures of people who have fought and are currently fighting addictions, who have shown me more courage and authenticity in their struggles than I've ever seen anywhere else.

There would certainly be pictures of young people who struggle with self harm, suicidal thoughts, and debilitating deficits in self-esteem; who have taught me about wrestling so hard with fear, doubt and pain, that every scar tells a story of struggle and redemption.

There would be pictures of numerous people struggling to reconcile their sexual preference or gender identity with everything that society and religion has previously told them. If there were a way for the picture to show their hearts and minds, you might see the resolve, strength and compassion that comes from somebody having to go against every existing system in order to just be who they are. You might see the gift of tolerance and appreciation for diversity that takes root in a person who has truly experienced a life of being “the other”.

There would be adorable pictures of children who are crazy cute, with huge smiles, that sometimes mask the pain of troubles at home, bullying at school, and disorders that make sitting still and just communicating with others a major challenge. Yesterday at church, I leaned over one of those kids to talk to the person next to him, and as I leaned past him, he grabbed me and gave me a hug that melted my heart. I can’t begin to count the number of heart-melting hugs, notes, and smiles I've received from kids who others have seen as out of control and disruptive. I continue to be blessed to my core by these holy disruptions.

There would be pictures of straight, middle class, seemingly “normal” individuals and families who don’t struggle with the effects of exclusion, or extreme poverty, or mental illness; but have a commitment to being present with and being in relationship with others whose lives are different than theirs. If you could see inside them, you would see minds that know the truth that we are all part of one human family; and you would see hearts that have both experienced and rejected the privilege of being what the rest of the world might call “normal”. They come because they believe whole heartedly that diversity, respect, and a sense of belonging for all people really can transform our world.

I could go on forever about the hidden blessings that I've discovered in the ragtag collection of people that we have gathered at Table of Grace as a direct result of our commitment to welcoming everyone. It is, simultaneously, the most important and most challenging commitment that we have as a faith community. Today I’m thankful that I got off the proverbial turnpike, and started traveling the back roads of human interaction. I’m thankful that somewhere along the line, somebody taught me to look past the surface and into the soul of the people that I have been blessed to encounter. Each and every one of you has knocked-my-socks-off; and all I can say sometimes is “Wow, that’s beautiful! Thank you, God!”

For those of you who are still on the Turnpike, judging other people at first glance as nothing more beautiful than fast food, gas stations and run-down casinos; I would invite you to spend some time travelling the back roads of human interaction. Dismiss your judgments long enough to see the soul. You are sure to have your eyes opened, your heart changed, and your life enriched by what (and who) you will find.


Blessings my friends. May you discover some gems in your travels. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

More, with less.


The vision of The Pantry.
video

We are in need of the food items listed on the donation list to make this work so we are asking for your help. You can help us feed some folks meals by donating to The Pantry. Here is the donation sheet. Please feel free to print it out, fill it out and/or donate anytime. Thank you for your support!