Surprise! 4 Days Until Christmas!

 

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“But about that day or hour no one knows… –Matthew 24:36a

At a press conference today in Nazareth, Archaeologist I.M.Fixion holds up a fragile set of scrolls, and makes the following announcement:

“These scrolls were recovered from an ancient rubbish heap outside of Nazareth.  They have been dated to somewhere around 10 a.d.  They appear to be a stack of birthday cards…to Jesus.

“That’s right.  These are cards written to Jesus on the occasion of his surprise 10th birthday party.  One is from an aunt Elizabeth, some are from a bunch of shepherds, and even some very expensive cards appear to come from distant royalty.

“Of course, this is a find of extreme importance, but there’s more.”  He gestures to several of the pages.  “The cards all list the date of Jesus’ birthday.  Adjusting for changes in calendar and so forth, there can be no doubt.  Jesus was born…

“On December 8th.  Thank you.”


 

Surprise! CHRISTMAS IS IN 4 DAYS!

Jesus may (or may not) have had a surprise 10th birthday party, but his birthday has never been a surprise for us.  There it sits on the calendar, bottom of December, circled in red and green.  We know what’s coming, we make our lists, we plan it out.  No surprise.

But what if Christmas showed up unexpectedly, say, on December 10th? What if there wasn’t enough time to do all the million and one holiday traditions we’ve laid out over the course of our lives?  What if Christmas came as a surprise, leaving us to celebrate without all the boxes in our garage, or all the excess baggage in our hearts?

If you had to celebrate the birth of Jesus right away, how would you do it?

Here’s what I think I’d do:
I guess I’d pray.
And give some $ to the church or a charity.
And volunteer somewhere.
And call my family.
And go to church.

What would you do?  In the face of a surprise Christmas, maybe we’d have to let the other stuff go, and focus on what’s most important.  Remember, Jesus doesn’t really need tinsel, or a plate of cookies, or a bunch of parties, or even an overpriced birthday card. If a simpler, more spiritual Christmas celebration sounds as enticing to you as it does to me, maybe we can dial back a little on the pomp and circumstance, and surprise Jesus with an Advent filled with meaning.

This year, for Jesus’ birthday, all he really wants us to send him is our attention, and our devotion.

Those are the real Hallmarks of a Merry Christmas.

Have a great Advent,

Mitch

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O Come, O Come, To Manuels.

 

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Sadie and Wayne Palmer (my in-laws), with my wife Jan.

 

Taste and see that the Lord is good -Psalm 34:8a

Blasphemy warning:  I’m about to compare the Christ Child to a burrito.

But oh, what a burrito.  I’d pay triple the price for one. Actually they just call it “a tortilla”.  The one I had for breakfast a week ago was stuffed with mushrooms, cheese, eggs, beans, and onions.  And topped with a special hot sauce.  Here’s what it looked like.

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The thing is significantly bigger than your head.  And the taste makes you want to shout “Rejoice! Rejoice!”

You’ll have to drive down to Port Isabel, TX, to eat one of these marvels.  And you’d better bring cash.  And no attitude.  And an open mind. Because Manuel’s is pretty much a hole in the wall.

Here’s what it looks like inside.

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The floors are rough and uneven.  The walls are covered in posters for old 70’s movies, like “The Godfather” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, along with pictures of Manuel’s family, especially grandkids who are athletes or cheerleaders.  From the ceiling hangs pennants of college and NFL football teams. It has a strange man-cave charm to it.

But let’s come back to the tortillas, or as I call them, “the Reason for the Seasoning”? 

Tortilla 2 manuels

Beyond delicious.  I’ve been coming down to this place (adjacent to S. Padre Island) for maybe 15 years or so.  Things change down on the South Texas coast, but Manuels stays the same, like a dear friend waiting with open arms.

If I’m describing this Hole In The Wall as if it were a Holy Place, there’s a reason.  Somehow, despite the rundown conditions, Manuels just feels special.  I’m not the only one sharing that sentiment.  I know because of the walls.  Any place not touched by a poster or a picture bears the signature of someone who’s been there.

 

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If you look real close, you can see the writing on the walls.

Hundreds of signatures fill up the walls, with folks from across the country (and beyond, I’m sure), making their mark.  My signature is there, somewhere, from years ago.  I don’t remember where, but I know I’ve gone on record as a fellow pilgrim to Manuels.

 

Now, if your mouth is watering, and you feel the need to road trip down to South Texas for breakfast this week, let me know and maybe I’ll join you.  But I hope that, as this Advent season begins, you are feeling an even more powerful pull towards the manger.

The accommodations that night in Bethlehem were lousy.  The décor? Non existent.  It was, perhaps, a hole in the wall.  But something Truly Holy draws us in to that cattle stall.  It is an encounter with Someone that makes it worth this journey.

We are called to be counted amongst the millions who pay homage to the Child.  To write our name on the walls of the stable.  To tell the world that we were there.  To proclaim that God is here.

And so, in spite of my love for Manuel (he’s a great guy), it cannot compare to my love for Emmanuel. And as much as I want you all to get a taste of that amazing food, it is eclipsed by my desire that you experience the All Powerful Love of Jesus.

Christ is, indeed, more than a burrito, and even more to be savored.  Taste and see that the Lord is good. He will nourish you long after December 25th…

with zero chance of indigestion.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Parannoyed

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Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.  Luke 21:10-11

This can’t be good for us.

Living like this.  Looking over our shoulders for the next terrible thing to happen.  Waiting for the other size 15 shoe to drop.  Watching it raining crazy around the globe.

I’ve decided I’m being parannoyed.  Both paranoid with fear over what comes next, and annoyed that this appears to be my new normal.  Do you feel this way too?

It doesn’t really feel like the end of the world, to me.  Just more of the same long line of crazy stuff we humans are capable of.  However, that list in Luke makes me feel the same as all the recent things happening in our world make me feel.

It’s this feeling of doom.  Of non-stop yuckiness.  Of powerlessness.  It just keeps coming.  So much so that it’s beyond distressing.

It’s parannoying.  One irritating reason to be afraid after another.

This can’t be good for us!  The human body can only take so much stress.  The human mind can only process so much negativity.  The human heart can only be slapped around so many times before we’re brought to our knees.

Ah, but here’s some help:  Mid way through Jesus’ list of end times event, he says,  “Stand firm, and you will win life.”

For us to stand firm means to put our trust in Christ as our sure foundation.  In Christ, we remember that we live according to God’s plans, not the world’s chaos.  And Christ reminds us that there is more to the story than what we see on the nightly news.

So stand firm, dear Christian. Trade out your paranoia for passion.  Exchange your annoyance for assurance.

That’s right. It will be very very good for us, if we

trade out our parannoyance…

for some Blessed Passurance.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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The Back To Eden Movement

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Let’s get naked.

I mean it.  Let’s get naked. Let’s go back in time…back before this moment:

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.  –Genesis 3:7

Let’s spit out the forbidden fruit, and tell the serpent to talk to the hand, and hang out in some place — any place other than next to that infernal tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Who’s with me?

Let’s choose not to Fall this time.  Let’s stay innocent and happy.

Let’s frolic in the garden, and maybe name some more animals, and just be there with God.

And if that means giving up our free will, and never growing and branching out and using all the knowledge we have in our brains, it’s a small price to pay. Right?

I mean, I look around and I see so much misusing of that ole Free Will.  Don’t you?

Maybe we’d be better off without it.

And so… you get to hear it here first:

I’m officially launching the Back To Eden Movement!

And in the next breath, I’m announcing that the Back To Eden Movement is closing down.

You see, for every time I get exasperated and despairing, for every time I throw up my hands and say, “I give up, God…put me back in the Garden, and reset me, and I’ll be your devoted robot”

For every time I say that, I immediately remember that Christ came to THIS world, with all it’s messiness, with a message of Love and Hope, Salvation and Service.

Stripped naked of all pretenses and ulterior motives and sinful behaviors, Christ revealed to us the core of human living.

Christ modeled for us a way of life that works in THIS life.  It’s not always easy.  Sometimes it’s downright painful.

But Christ showed us a way of life based on using our God-given abilities and gifts in the service of the Kingdom.

No Eden required.

When I long for a more innocent world, for a simpler existence, I need only affirm my discipleship to Jesus, and I calm down.

We may not need to head Back To Eden — maybe couldn’t if we tried.

Instead, we are moving toward the Kingdom.  (A New Eden?)

where Clothing ourselves in Christ…

Is probably not optional. 🙂

 

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Homesick for the Holidays

christmas-is-a-time-when-you-get-homesickI’m homesick.

I know I’m in good company.

I picture countless college students, soldiers, business travelers and others, pining for home.

This is the time of year when it hits hardest.  A time for togetherness, a time of tradition.

But here’s my thing:

I counted it up, and in my life I’ve had exactly 15 places that I have called home.

That’s a lot, although you may have had even more.

Which one am I longing for?

I have wonderful memories that come from many of those places.

Families, fun, meals, gifts given and received.

But this year, it’s not for any of those places that I am homesick.

I am longing for what I might call a heavenly home.

 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  –John 14:23

The earthly world seems especially slippery this year.  I find it hard to cling to some of those “home” traditions with the same joy I do most years.

This year I long for something eternal.  Something true.  Something I can hold on to.

I long for a Love I can call home.

This home is not necessarily a place, nor is it only accessible after one’s death.  It is the Father, Son, and Spirit setting up a spiritual home with you.

A home base.  A safe place.  A launching pad.  HOME.

What triggers this kind of homecoming?

Jesus says it:  Clinging to him.  Living with faith.

This is the kind of home I’m sick for.

The very kind that will make me well.

Merry Christmas!  Cling to Christ!

 

Have a great week,

Mitch

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The Walgreens Prayer

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I pray a lot.

That is not a statement about my personal piety, but more about my function as a pastor.

It seems that I will be tasked with opening a meeting with prayer, or closing it.

Or both.

Some days I’ll pray 9 or 10 times for this gathering or that event.

And I don’t mind.  I kind of like it, actually.

Usually I’ll thank God for gathering us and being with us.  I’ll pray for our community.  I’ll ask God to guide us as we move from here.

That kind of stuff.

Recently, a certain phrase began creeping up in my prayers.  “May we be happy and healthy…”

“Keep us all in your Good Graces Lord, and may we be happy and healthy until we gather together again.”

That kind of thing.

That’s a nice sentiment, right?  One day I just started using it, wondering how those particular words had come to me.

Last week, I found out.

There it was, staring up at me from the prescription bag I held in my hands:

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Good Lord.

Had I been praying the slogan of a pharmacy???

Was that even legal?

I’m convinced that the Walgreen’s slogan had seeped into my subconscious and made its way into my prayers.

My main questions was this:  Does Walgreens have a corner ON Happy & Healthy?

I mean, isn’t that what the church is offering, too?  We want people to be happy, to find joy in their lives, to know Christ in a life-changing way.  And we want people to be healthy, too.  To care for their bodies, minds, and spirits.

I guess it just surprised me that a pharmacy’s mission was so similar to our church’s.  But I soon realized that while Walgreens offers a certain level of happiness and health, it is the church that helps people dig deeper, developing their faith, discovering Christ, leading New Lives.

So, I’ve decided to allow myself to use that phrase whenever it pops into a prayer.  I’m not breaking a trademark (am I?) and I’m speaking to something real and deep in our Christian experience.

And if the store gets a little more business, well good on them.

We’re not in competition with Walgreens.

We just happen to be set up…

on the same corner.

Have a great week,

Mitch

happy-and-healthy

Are you guilty of Supererogation?

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A Sunday school class at church has been studying the Methodist Articles of Religion.  This is number eleven and it caught my eye:

Article XI — Of Works of Supererogation

Voluntary works—besides, over and above God’s commandments—which they call works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety. For by them men do declare that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake than of bounden duty is required; whereas Christ saith plainly: When you have done all that is commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

Supererogation?  It sounds like someone who over waters their lawn.

I don’t think I’ve ever used the term before.  I had to look it up.  This statement, along with many of the other articles of religion, were written out of a Protestant response to Catholicism.

As best as I can describe it, Supererogation is over-doing it.  God expects X from you, but you do X2 hoping to keep the balance of your goodness in your own little spiritual bank account, that you can draw from on a rainy day.  (Or, to use to get out of doing penance for future wrong-doing).

Supererogation was one of Martin Luther’s main concerns when he launched the reformation.  His belief was that we’re called upon to do exactly what Christ requires of us — no less, no more.  To attempt to do more than is required is an act of impiety, going beyond Christs’s wishes in an arrogant way.

Although I’m fascinated with the Catholic perspective about this, I’m more interested today in how little this is talked about in churches I’ve been a part of.

I don’t think people are taught about supererogation.

In fact, I think we’re taught the opposite:  Serve Jesus till you drop!

The idea that Christ sets a limit on how much work you need to do would probably be a shock to several pastors I know, and church staff, and super-volunteers.

The whole Protestant work ethic prompts us to go-go-go!  That there is no end to the work we might do for Jesus.

In this article is the notion that Christ commands us to do only so much.  To do more than that is…excessive.  arrogant, even.

Maybe that is the main point.  There’s only so much we need to do.  There is no spiritual bank account to store your extra good deeds in.

There’s a reason for boundaries when it comes to work, even in Jesus’ name. Raise your hand if too much church work has ever burned you out before?

Perhaps you’re guilty of Works of Supererogation, driven by the notion that by working too hard you’re earning extra goody points. Don’t do that!

As the 4th commandment reminds us, life is about more than work.  Apparently Christ would have us discern that in our lives.

Don’t be lazy, of course.  And don’t be a workaholic, for God’s sake.

Just be a responsive, responsible disciple.

No less, no more.

Have a great week,

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