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THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT: THE SEASON OF LIGHT

December 14, 2014
candle

A motorist was trapped in his automobile on a lonely stretch of a North Dakota highway during a December blizzard.  As the snowfall subsided, the traveler ventured out of his car.  In the bitterly cold night, he trudged through the drifts toward a faint light in the distance. The light grew brighter as he approached a farmhouse. The home was that of a Jewish family who offered the warmth of hospitality to the stranded man: a chair by the fireplace and a bowl of hot chicken soup.  The light that saved the stranger’s life came from the glowing candles of a menorah displayed in the window of the farmhouse.

A menorah is a candelabra with nine candles used in the celebration of Hanukkah.

Often, Christmas falls within the eight-day observance of Hanukkah. This year the Jewish observance begins in the third week of Christian Advent, December 16 and extends through December 24, 2014.

Christians mark the days of Advent by lighting candles in an Advent wreath. They gather for worship in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Also known as the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights, the days of Hanukkah are marked by Jewish families as they light candles in a menorah each evening. Read more…

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT: THE CHRISTMAS RUSH

December 7, 2014
Tired Santa

A health conscious businesswoman visited the gym to exercise as a part of her regular routine.   She finished her daily workout by jogging several miles. In the winter months her running was done on a treadmill. One December morning the treadmill she was using went berserk. The control buttons, ordinarily used to slow and then stop the machine, were unresponsive. Instead of slowing down, the treadmill went faster. Frantically the woman punched the control panel, but to no avail. Her heart pounding, her breathing labored, she finally decided she would have to jump.  Sprinting at a flat-out pace, she took a desperate leap of faith and fear. Though she was able to escape the renegade contraption, she landed hard on the concrete floor, fracturing her right wrist. She spent the holidays in a cast up to her elbow.

Something similar happens to many of us during the holidays. We are hijacked, not by a treadmill run amuck, but by the frenetic pace of activities. The Christmas rush begins the day after Thanksgiving and continues until after the New Year. Most of us fill our calendars with activities observing the holiday season.  Busy schedules and deadlines make us feel pushed and harried.  We are constantly reminded of the dwindling number of shopping days until Christmas Day.

A sign announcing the last day to mail packages in order to ensure arrival by Christmas is prominently displayed at the Post Office.  Family gatherings and social occasions, heaped on top of our regular responsibilities, leave us irritable and exhausted. Charitable events and faith group activities, though well-intentioned, add to the demands upon our time.

The choir director of a small church was frustrated and angry. At every rehearsal key members of the choir had been absent for one reason or another. Weary of their excuses, the director scolded the group for their lack of commitment.

Then the director complimented the pianist, “She’s the only one I have been able to count on. She has been here for every rehearsal.”

The pianist responded, “It was the least I could do, especially since I can’t be here for the cantata on Sunday.”

This is exactly the problem so many of us have. We spend an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy preparing for the holiday season, but when the important occasions arrive we are unable to fully participate. Read more…

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT: EXPECTING A BABY

November 30, 2014
Expecting a baby

The season of Advent presents several challenges to a pastor. The first is to tell the old, old story to people who have heard it over and over again as well as to those for whom it is only vaguely familiar. The preaching task is to retain and restore the mystery and wonder of the original story. We have the responsibility of liberating Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi from confinement as stained glass icons, freeing them to be real people again.

A second challenge is to remember that Christmas is a time of sharp emotional contrasts. Many people are happy and have little difficulty finding joy in the season, but December brings sadness to others. For those who are hurting, the coming of Christmas may be filled with dread, despair, bitterness, and anger. Some are freshly wounded; others carry deep scars from years gone by. For them, Christmas is anything but the season to be jolly.  They suffer while others celebrate.

In forty-eight years of pastoral ministry, I have learned that there is no better way to present the message of hope and love that is at the heart of Christmas than through stories that parallel and perhaps merge with the original story.

This year, 2014, the story is unfolding right in my own family. Our daughter. Betsy, is pregnant with her second child. Her expected due date is early December. Betsy and her husband, Jason, have been preparing their Chicago home to receive a new child. Clare and I are a long way from Chicago, but we, too, have been making preparations. Clare is planning to be in the Windy City soon after the new arrival to help as only a mother and grandmother can. I am also planning to spend a few days in the frozen north as a grateful grandfather. Meanwhile we are thankful that Jason’s parents, Pam and Dave, are much closer in proximity to them than we are. Betsy has wonderful in-laws you are always willing to help. Read more…

IN EVERYTHING GIVE THANKS

November 23, 2014
Give Thanks

Fourteen years ago, just before Thanksgiving, our twenty-seven-year-old son, Erik, died suddenly. Some people lamented that our Thanksgiving would be ruined. We found just the opposite to be true. Beyond the parades, the football games, and the turkey, Thanksgiving became more meaningful.

Thanksgiving in this country has often been linked to times of hardship. For the Pilgrims of New England, the first winter in the New World was severe, and disease was rampant. Pneumonia and scurvy decimated the ranks of the colonists. By spring, fifteen of the eighteen wives had died, as had five of the twenty-eight children. Nineteen of the twenty-nine hired men and fifteen of the thirty sailors died from hard work in the harsh weather. Only five Pilgrim Fathers remained alive. Teenager Priscilla Mullins lost her entire family.

The bereavement and hardships of the winter of 1621 bound together Pilgrims and Strangers, the soldiers, sailors, and tradesmen who traveled with them. A hardened soldier, Miles Standish tended the sick alongside Separatist William Brewster. Sneering sailors and praying Pilgrims now shared a bond of common suffering. Read more…

BEN FRANKLIN’S BAD IDEA

November 16, 2014
TURKEY

Last Monday night I watched Cam Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, endure a brutal pounding by the Philadelphia Eagles. Newton was sacked nine times by the aggressive defensive line of the team from Philadelphia. As I watched Monday Night Football, I thought the team from the City of Brotherly Love was not so kind to the team from Carolina

When the game was over the beleaguered Panthers flew home to prepare for their next opponent, the Atlanta Falcons. My hope is that the team from Charlotte will fare better against a team with a different bird of prey as the mascot.

Then I recalled the historical importance of the Pennsylvania city. Independence Hall is a treasured location in American history. It was the site of origin for two of our defining documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. Philadelphia is the home of the Liberty Bell. The city was also the home of the patriot pictured on our one-hundred-dollar bills, Benjamin Franklin. He is one of the most famous Americans of his time, and he is considered to be one of our Founding Fathers.

Franklin helped to establish a new nation and to define the structure and function of American government.  The Philadelphia statesman played a major role in crafting our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

Franklin’s inventions reveal a man of varied interests, many talents, boundless energy, and great curiosity. Ben had poor eyesight. Tired of constantly taking his glasses off and on, he cut two pairs of spectacles in half.  Putting half of each lens in single frames, he invented bifocals. I am grateful for his invention every single day.

My family and I deeply appreciate the fact that Ben Franklin founded the first public lending library. What a great idea!

Franklin learned much about ships during his eight voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. He suggested dividing a ship’s hold into watertight compartments so that if a leak occurred in one, the water would not spread throughout and sink the ship.

In colonial America, people warmed their homes with open fireplaces, a dangerous practice that burned a lot of wood. Ben invented a cast iron furnace that used less wood and allowed for warmer, safer homes. His invention is still called the Franklin Stove. In the same vein, Ben also established the first fire department and the first fire insurance company. Think of that the next time you see one of the big trucks rushing to a fire.

As Postmaster, Franklin mapped mail delivery routes. He invented a simple odometer. When attached to his carriage, it allowed him to measure the distance of postal routes accurately.

Inventor, businessman, writer, scientist, musician, humorist, diplomat, civic leader, international celebrity, and ladies’ man, Ben Franklin was a genius.

Like most brilliant folk, Ben Franklin had a few crazy notions.  The story of Ben’s famous kite is well known. Rigging a kite with wire and a brass key, he flew it in a thunderstorm.  Not a good idea. Because of him, meteorologists now refer to thunderstorms as electrical storms. Out of his hair-raising experiment came Ben’s invention of the lightning rod.

Franklin had many good ideas. He also had at least one very bad idea that could have altered the course of history and changed the celebration of Thanksgiving as we now know it.  Ben proposed to Congress that the wild turkey be designated as our national bird.  Thank goodness the distinguished group of legislators saw fit to overrule the patriot from Pennsylvania.  In their wisdom, Congress made the bald eagle our national bird, not the wild turkey.

Imagine how our lives might have been different if Benjamin Franklin had prevailed and the turkey, rather than the eagle, had become the symbol of our great nation. We can all be glad that Ben Franklin did not have his way. For those among us who look forward to the first day of April each year as the beginning of turkey hunting season, April Fools Day might be a  different kind of experience if the wild turkey had become our national bird as Ben Franklin proposed.

Other things in our culture would have been different, too.

  • Our coins might be minted with turkeys on the reverse side rather than with eagles. A flip of the coin might require a call, “Heads or turkeys?”
  • The Great Seal of the United States of America might display the image of a wild turkey instead of a bald eagle.
  • The professional football team in Ben Franklin’s City of Brotherly Love might not be the Philadelphia Eagles, but the Philadelphia Turkeys.
  • When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 Lunar Module on the surface of the moon, we might have heard the radio transmission, “Tranquility base here. The turkey has landed.”
  • The Boy Scouts of America might never have become the character developing organization that it is today. Scouts might not be as motivated to make their way through the ranks if the highest award were the Turkey Scout Award.  To call a young man a Turkey Scout just doesn’t have the same ring as the honor of being an Eagle Scout.

I have a notion that Thanksgiving Day might be a different kind of celebration if families who gathered at Grandma’s house were praying over and feasting on our national symbol. We can be grateful that the eagle is on our coins and the turkey is on our tables.

Both ornithology and theology point to the eagle as a rare bird.  The eagle is a symbol of strength and achievement, representing the qualities of clear vision and vigilant protection.

The Bible includes multiple references to the eagle.  Turkeys, however, are never mentioned.

Perhaps you will gather with your loved ones on Thanksgiving Day to enjoy a turkey dinner.  Before the meal, take a moment to give thanks for two birds, the turkey and the eagle.  You might choose to read Psalm 103, a beautiful prayer about the blessings of God that mentions the eagle.   Or perhaps you would enjoy the words of the prophet Isaiah in one of the best-loved references to the eagle:

 

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;

they shall mount up with wings as eagles;

they shall run, and not be weary;

and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31 KJV)

 

Each year the traditional Black Friday shopping frenzy encroaches on Thanksgiving Day.  True thanksgiving is as rare and as endangered as the eagle.

While turkey has become a thanksgiving tradition, I know that other fowl are sometimes substituted. One year just before Thanksgiving Clare and I were given two wild geese with directions about how they were to be cooked. We followed the directions and the birds were tasty. However, our children were not favorably impressed. The following year we resumed the tradition of turkey.

Some people prefer quail, Cornish game hens, or doves for Thanksgiving.

I recently heard a five-year-old child ask an interesting question. “Grandma, do we have to have turkey for Thanksgiving? Could we have fried chicken this year?”

I am glad Congress rejected Ben Franklin’s idea. I am grateful for both turkeys and for eagles. The truth is that Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the bird on our platter.  It has everything to do with the prayer in our heart.

THE STORY OF SERGEANT ALVIN YORK

November 10, 2014
Alvin York

Alvin Cullum York was born in a two-room log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee, on December 13, 1887, the third of eleven children. Alvin’s father was a farmer and a blacksmith. The York sons attended school sparingly because they were needed to work the family farm and hunt small game to feed the family.

When their father died in November 1911, Alvin’s two older brothers had married and relocated away from the family home. Alvin helped his mother raise his younger siblings. To supplement the family income, Alvin first worked in Harriman, Tennessee, in railroad construction and as a logger. York was prone to fighting in saloons and was arrested several times.

Despite his tendency to drink and brawl, Alvin was regular in church attendance and often led the hymn singing. His church had no specific doctrine of pacifism but opposed all forms of violence.

In a lecture later in life, York reported his reaction to the outbreak of World War I: “I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”

On June 5, 1917, at the age of 29, Alvin York registered for the draft. He had to answer the question, “Do you claim exemption from draft?”

Alvin responded simply by writing “Yes. Don’t Want To Fight.” Read more…

THE ELEVENTH DAY OF THE ELEVENTH MONTH

November 7, 2014
Flag on Coffin ii

Several years ago, I conducted the funeral for a veteran of World War II. The day before his funeral, I visited with John’s family. His daughter said, “My daddy was a hero.” I heard the story of John’s service to this country. John landed on the beach at Normandy with his battalion in the Invasion that was a turning point in World War II. He served as a medic in the infantry. He marched across France, Belgium, Germany, and into Czechoslovakia. He was wounded three times, twice in the shoulder and once in the leg. He returned to the front lines by oxcart. He lost his hearing because of repeated exposure to the sound of artillery fire. Among his medals, John received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

John returned to Spartanburg County from the war and operated a service station. He was a pleasant man with a kind word and a smile for everyone. He enjoyed joking and teasing. He rarely talked about the war; never about his honors. He was an unsung hero, a man of peace and humility. Read more…

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