What Time Is It? 
Wednesday, December 31, 2008, 08:10 AM - Extra Christy
On December 31st, folks are focused on the time in a special way. Usually we are not concerned with the actual seconds, minutes usually do well enough. Some folks are happy with quarter hour or half hour targets while retired people sometimes strive only to know whether it is daytime or nighttime.

This New Year's Eve I'll be wearing a button that says, "Is It Midnight Yet?" Tonight is the night we long to know what time it is right down to the second. Folks will watch televised clocks or descending balls of light to know exactly, to the second, when the new year begins for them, yearning for the beginning of a new year.

A new president in less than a month, new lows in the stock market, and even new gasoline prices every hour makes us wonder in a larger sense about the times we are living in.

New Year's Eve festivities reminds me of one of the few Advent hymns, "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night." In the hymn (see below) people yearn to see the dawn of a new age when the Prince of Peace comes and doubt and terror withdraw.

Best wishes for the Advent of a Happy New Year.

Watchmen Tell Us of the Night
Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o'er yon mountain's height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes-it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.

Watchman, tell us of the night;
Higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light,
Peace and truth its course portends.
Watchman, will its beams alone
Gild the spot that gave them birth?
Traveler, ages are its own;
See, it bursts o'er all the earth.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
For the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, darkness takes its flight,
Doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;
Hie thee to thy quiet home.
Traveler, lo! the Prince of Peace,
Lo! the Son of God is come!

- Words: John Bowring, Hymns: As a Sequel to Matins, 1825.
Music: Watchman (Mason), Lowell Mason,
The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music, 10th edition, 1831

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Celebrating Transformations 
Wednesday, December 24, 2008, 03:00 PM - Sermon, Christmas
Luke 2:1-20, 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 (not lectionary)

The last several weeks Presbyterians here have been enjoying Charles Dickens story, A Christmas Carol, which ends with a transformation of Scrooge from, well a Scrooge, to a Saint, from Humbug to Hallelujah. He wakes up from the dreams of Christmas Eve, to find he has a chance to change, to love, to break Christmas Chains, renew relationships and write a good ending to his Christmas story.

How is transformation possible? Our Epistle Reading has it: So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. (2 Corinthians 5:16) Scrooge got an other worldly look at the circumstances of others and the context of his life decisions in the past, present, and future. He saw others not just as means to his ends of profit and business but with their family and loved ones.

Christians don't have spirits coming to them like Scrooge, we have something infinitely better: God with us as Jesus Christ. God knows what being human means. God lived life, as Jesus, he did not just watch it from the outside like the Spirits and Scrooge. God understands us. I believe that the greatest attribute of God is love, and the love is best expressed as patience. In the book The Shack by William P. Young the main character, Mackenzie, asks God (who is called “Papa”):

“Why do you love someone who is such a screw-up? After all the things I've felt in my heart toward you and all the accusations I made, why would you even bother to keep trying to get through to me?”

“Because that is what love does,” answered Papa. “…let's say that I know it will take you forty-seven situations and events before you actually hear me—that is, before you will hear clearly enough to agree with me and change. So when you don't hear me the first time, I'm not frustrated or disappointed, I'm thrilled. Only forty-six more times to go.” (p. 186-187)

Because that is what love does, by understanding, by seeing the world through the other eyes, love patiently calls for transformation, for change. I believe that God loves all of us, because he knows all of us, knows where we've been and what we have gone through to get us where we are now. He understands why we are how we are and loves us into being what he calls us to be.

There is a story written by Elizabeth Silance Ballard and told by Tony Campolo and others about a teacher name Jean and a boy name Teddy that illustrates a transformation by a changed point of view.

It seems that there was a lady named Jean Thompson and when she stood in front of her fifth-grade class on the very first day of school in the fall, she told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her pupils and said that she loved them all the same, that she would treat them all alike. And that was impossible because there in front of her, slumped in his seat on the third row, was a boy named Teddy Stoddard.

Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed he didn't play well with the other children, that his clothes were unkempt and that he constantly needed a bath. Add to it the fact Teddy was unpleasant. As the school year went by it got to the point that she would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold ‘X's and then marking the ‘F' at the top of the paper biggest of all.

Because Teddy was a sullen little boy, nobody else seemed to enjoy him, either. Now at the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child's records and because of things, put Teddy's off until the absolute last. But, when she opened his file, she was in for a surprise.

His first-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright, inquisitive child with a ready laugh. He does work neatly and has good manners...he is a joy to be around.” His second-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student and is well-liked by his classmates -- but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.” His third-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy continues to work hard, but his mother's death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn't show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren't taken.” Teddy's fourth-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn't show much interest in school. He doesn't have many friends and sometime sleeps in class. He is tardy and could become a problem.”

By now Mrs. Thompson realized the problem, but Christmas was coming fast. It was all she could do, with the school play and all, until the day before the holidays began and she was suddenly forced to focus on Teddy Stoddard on that last day before the vacation would begin. Her children brought her presents, all in gay ribbon and bright paper, except for Teddy's, which was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper of a scissored grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents and some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet, with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one-quarter full of cologne. She stifled the laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and she dabbed some of the perfume behind the other wrist.

At the end of the day, as the other children joyously raced from the room, Teddy Stoddard stayed behind, just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to.” As soon as Teddy left, Mrs. Thompson knelt at her desk and there, after the last day of school before Christmas, she cried for at least an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading and writing and speaking. Instead, she began to teach children. And Jean Thompson paid particular attention to one they all called “Teddy”. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded and, on days that there would be an important test, Mrs. Thompson would remember that cologne. By the end of the year he had become one of the smartest children in the class and...well, he had also become the “pet” of the teacher who had once vowed to love all of her children exactly the same.

A year later she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that of all the teachers he'd had in elementary school, she was his favorite. Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. And then he wrote that as he finished high school, third in his class, she was still his favorite teacher of all time.

Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, that he'd stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would graduate from college with the highest of honors. He assured Mrs. Thompson she was still his favorite teacher.

Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor's degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still his favorite teacher, but that now his name was a little longer. And the letter was signed, “Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D.”

The story doesn't end there. You see, there was yet another letter that Spring. Teddy said that...well, that he'd met this girl and was to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering... well, if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the pew usually reserved for the mother of the groom. — Originally by Elizabeth Silance Ballard, “Three Letters from Teddy”, Home Life magazine, 1976

Our teacher's journey from “Humbug” to “Hallelujah” started when she saw Teddy from a larger and longer perspective. Teddy's was set back on the right road by his teacher's kindness in accepting his gift. How can someone be transformed from “Humbug” to “Hallelujah”? Look at others the way God sees them. In their complete context and full history. Look at others the way God looks at you from the inside Jesus' loving eyes. Amen.

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Making It Special 
Wednesday, December 24, 2008, 09:41 AM - Extra Christy, Christmas
I lost my wedding ring last year. I saved my nickels and bought a replacement to surprise my wife on our anniversary. (It was really a gift for me.) I wear it every day, I hope I do so for another twenty-five years.

Why is a wedding ring special? It is made of gold, a rare metal which commands a premium price. Rarity is one way to make something special, but not the only way. Or even the best.

I like to think it is special because it is so common. I wear it every day out in the open. It proclaims to me, my wife and the world that I am married. If I kept my wedding ring in a safe deposit box and only wore in on rare occasions, it's value would be less!

There is much that is common in our lives: family we see every day, weekly church services, close friends, daily employment, even the light of every day. I hope that this Christmas, when our special God became one of us, you rejoice in the specialness of the common.

Wedding Ring

"Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." - Luke 15:8-10 (NIV)

From the The Gospel of Luke by William Barclay:

The mark of a married woman was a head-dress made of ten silver coins linked together by a silver chain...It may well be that it was one of these coins that the woman had lost, and so she searched for it as any woman would search if she lost her marriage ring.

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Writing a Good Ending 
Sunday, December 21, 2008, 08:00 AM - Sermon, Christmas, Podcast
Matthew 2:1-18 (not lectionary)

Pastor Christy introduces The Ghost of Christmas Future from Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Karen from the movie Love Actually to show how like the wisemen we can write a happy ending to our Christmas Story.

The message below is available as a podcast recorded live at our worship service. Click the podcast image to listen now or right click the image and choose "Save As" to save this message in mp3 file format on your computer for playing later.

“Tell me. If you were in my position, what would you do?” asks the character Karen played by Emma Thompson in the movie, Love Actually. “Imagine your husband bought a gold necklace, and come Christmas gave it to somebody else...Would you wait around to find out if it's just a necklace, or if it's sex and a necklace, or if, worst of all, it's a necklace and love? Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse? Or would you cut and run?”

That is only one of the several stories in the film where couples write the own end to their Christmas stories.

In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Scrooge knew the end of his Christmas story. The Ghost of Christmas Future shows him his own death, unmourned and ignored and contrasts with the great mourning and grief of Bob Cratchit over the loss of his son, Tiny Tim. Scrooge asks about the ending to his own story:

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

"Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point," said Scrooge, "answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?" -- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Our scripture today examines the wise men and Herod and dueling Christmas stories. The wise men wanting to praise and welcome the new King and old King Herod wanting to put an end to that story before it even started. Herod invites the wise men to be part of his murderous story, to come and tell him where the king of the Jews is born, asking them to be accomplices in his murder story.

How do you get out of the rut to a different route? How do you take a different way home? How do you turn a wasted life that Scrooge sees in his future into a one that is valued and cherished like Tiny Tim's? How do you stay with a husband who gave the other woman the gold necklace?

There is no change without hope. This is no happy ending written without hope planning and prompting it. Hope is something Christians should have plenty of. We should be the OPEC of hope. Folks should get up in the morning and asks Christians what the Hope index is today. C.S. Lewis says “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Like Scrooge we have seen the end of the story. But in our vision God wins. Evil loses. No matter how bad things get, God saves God's people. When we realize that we are part of eternity and moving toward God's good end, who can help but have hope? A baby can do nothing for itself. A baby Jesus is not a savior, it is the sure hope of salvation. We celebrate hope when we celebrate Christmas. We see the manager and say, “Look, there's hope!” It is a baby now, but it will grow, and learn, and teach, and heal, and love, and die, and rise again to save us. In that baby there is the hope of the world, hope that world and the people in it will be saved. Take the hope of Christmas, that a baby can change the world, and write it into your life. Small beginnings can have great and wonderful endings.

Listen to Others
Scrooge gets to see people react to his death, or rather, not react. The wise men get a warning in the dream not to be a part of Herod's murderous plan. In the movie, Love Actually, the revelation comes when Karen finds the gold necklace in her husband's coat pocket before Christmas, and then doesn't find it under her tree. Each of these takes direction from outside themselves. The Wise Men see Herod for who is really is, Scrooge sees himself as others see him. Karen notices what her husband is doing and even asks her husband for advice on what to do about his unfaithfulness.

Do you know why the magi are called wisemen? It is because it the entire history of humanity, they are the only men to stop and ask for directions. Truly wise men.

If you want to change your route, write a new good ending to your Christmas Carol, pay attention to what others are doing how others see you. Yes, even the nasty ones can help you see things in yourself that those who love you or fear you, won't tell you. Pay attention to those around you. Ask directions if you must. Others can help you find a new route, a way home, a way to a happier ending to your story.

Give Happiness to Others
Dr. James Dobson relates a story of an elderly woman named Stella Thornhope who was struggling with her first Christmas alone. Her husband had died just a few months prior through a slow developing cancer. Now, several days before Christmas, she was almost snowed in by a brutal weather system. She felt terribly alone—so much so she decided she was not going to decorate for Christmas.

Late that afternoon the doorbell rang, and there was a delivery boy with a box. He said, "Mrs. Thornhope?" She nodded. He said, "Would you sign here?" She invited him to step inside and closed the door to get away from the cold. She signed the paper and said, "What's in the box?" The young man laughed and opened up the flap, and inside was a little puppy, a golden Labrador Retriever. The delivery boy picked up the squirming pup and explained, "This is for you, Ma'am. He's six weeks old, completely housebroken." The young puppy began to wiggle in happiness at being released from captivity.

"Who sent this?" Mrs. Thornhope asked.

The young man set the animal down and handed her an envelope and said, "It's all explained here in this envelope, Ma'am. The dog was bought last July while its mother was still pregnant. It was meant to be a Christmas gift to you." The young man then handed her a book, How to Care for Your Labrador Retriever.

In desperation she again asked, "Who sent me this puppy?"

As the young man turned to leave, he said, "Your husband, Ma'am. Merry Christmas."

She opened up the letter from her husband. He had written it three weeks before he died and left it with the kennel owners to be delivered with the puppy as his last Christmas gift to her. The letter was full of love and encouragement and admonishments to be strong. He vowed that he was waiting for the day when she would join him. He had sent her this young animal to keep her company until then.

She wiped away the tears, put the letter down, and then remembering the puppy at her feet, she picked up that golden furry ball and held it to her neck. Then she looked out the window at the lights that outlined the neighbor's house, and she heard from the radio in the kitchen the strains of "Joy to the World, the Lord has Come." Suddenly Stella felt the most amazing sensation of peace washing over her. Her heart felt a joy and a wonder greater than the grief and loneliness.

"Little fella," she said to the dog, "It's just you and me. But you know what? There's a box down in the basement I'll bet you'd like. It's got a little Christmas tree in it and some decorations and some lights that are going to impress you. And there's a manger scene down there. Let's go get it." --Robert Russell, writer and pastor, Preaching Today #195

Her husband wrote a different ending to that Christmas and managed to bring joy to those he loved even after death.

The wise men change the ending of the story of Jesus birth that Herod had written. Herod wanted to kill the baby king, after all he was king, and he was quite happy with that arrangement. The wise men, change the end of the story, by changing their part in the story, they went home by another route.

Scrooge changes his life story from humbug to hallelujah. He buys a Christmas Turkey for the Cratchits, gives generously to a collection for the poor, and makes merry with his nephew Fred and his family. He chooses a different route.

In Love Actually, we are treated to a scene where all the couples join at the all coming home at the airport, all changed. In one of the scenes, Karen welcomes back, coolly but sincerely, her straying husband showing us what route she took home, one of forgiveness, love and family.

With others, with hope, by sharing joy, choose the route that leads to a good ending this Christmas.

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Optimist Prayer 
Thursday, December 18, 2008, 09:22 AM - Prayers
There was a good prayer at Kiwanis today. I asked the leader if I could share it here. He said fine, but to give credit to the Optimist Club creed, which inspired it and not to him:

We ask that you would challenge each of us to reach higher and farther to be the best we can be as an individual, at home, at work, and through Kiwanis, with a spirit of joy and enthusiasm... to give so much time to the improvement of ourselves that we have no time to criticize others... and to be too large for worry, too noble for anger, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble to hold us back.

The Optimist Creed

Promise Yourself-
To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

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