Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year Everyone

Well, it is only 9:20am here in NC but many of us will be up and about later today and I wanted to take a few moments to wish everyone a happy, healthy, and joyful 2010 full of love, joy, and peace.

Every year also comes with resolutions. Below are a few of my resolutions for 2010:

1. Be more intentional about my health. I plant to go to the local Y more often than I did in 2009, hopefully 4 days a week!

2. Be more accepting of people who have different political or religious ideas. I try to be open minded but sometimes I slip and become very judgmental.

3. Be more intentional in reaching out to others in need, again I try but I can always do more.

4. Be more real, in other words, be fully and truthfully "ME" and strip away the false ideas of who I am. People project their own ideas of what a pastor should or should not believe or should or should not say. Too often we accept these notions forcing us not to be fully who God made me to be. In 2010 I want to be more real.

What are your resolutions for 2010?

How can you be more real, more "YOU" in 2010?

What are some of your ideas or plans for 2010 that you want to share with others?

Wishing you a great New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Personality Types and Ministry: Extroverts and Introverts

Christmastime brings out the best and worst in people. Holidays are a great time of the year for extroverts, people who thrive on conversation, crowds, and communication. Extroverts can talk into the wee hours of the night and are often the last to leave a party or social gathering.

However, the Christmas season can be a burden for us introverts, people who thrive on solitude, silence, and being quiet. If given the choice of going to a party or staying home I would much rather stay home. Our culture pegs us as being anti-social, strange, or weird, but that is not true at all. Introverts would much rather have a deep and engaging conversations with two or three friends than having a bunch of small talk at a cocktail party. I am an introvert but through the years I have learned to compensate and be social when I have too, however I am still not fond of big parties, gatherings, or weddings (yuk!!!).

Recently I came across a really thought provoking book by Adam McHugh called Introverts in the Church published by Inter Varsity Press. I plan on reviewing this book on January 2 which is National Introverts Day. Adam's book is a must read for students who are in seminary formation as well as pastors who serve Churches. His book is full of anecdotes and backed up with research too.

Are you an extrovert or introvert?

How do you like the holiday season, do you find it hard to engage in small talk with people whom you hardly know?

Why does our culture put greater emphasis on extroverts than introverts?

What are some of your coping mechanisms that have served you well throughout your ministry?

In the coming weeks for 2010 I will also review some books by friends and colleagues:

Michael Plekon's Hidden Holiness (a great read for pastors and laity, good for an adult class)

Sarah Miles Jesus Freak (I loved her first book, Take This Bread)

Wallace Alston and Cynthia Jarvis Power to Comprehend With All the Saints: The Formation and Practice of a Pastor Theologian (a collection of essays about the importance of pastors for theology)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Well, it is 6:15pm here in NC and our family is tuckered out. We had a very prayerful and beautiful Christmas Vigil last night and this morning we have the traditional Divine Liturgy with Holy Communion, our usual Communion service. I hope everyone out there in cyber-land has a wonderful holiday season. If you are traveling I hope you get to where you are going safely. Last week my wife and kids were snowed in with 20 plus inches of snow over in Black Mountain, NC I hope that doesn't happen to any of my readers.

Merry Christmas is the usual Christmas greeting, but in the Eastern Church we also say "Christ is Born!" and the response is "Glorify Him" we use this greeting for the period of Christmas and a few days after Christmas too.

I was shocked to see that people in five countries have already logged onto my website and blog (US, Canada, France, Australia, and Russia.

For those of you interested in foreign languages below is a link to "Merry Christmas" greetings in different tongues, but here are just a few:

Feliz Navidad (Spanish)

Joyeux Noel (French)

Natale Hilare (Latin)

The icon today is the traditional Adoration of the Magi or the Wise Men who came to bring gifts to the baby Jesus.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Was Jesus born in a stable or cave?

As we get closer to Christmas I cannot get my mind off these beautiful creche scenes that are everywhere, on the front lawns of Churches, on greeting cards, and in our home. We have a very simple but elegant one on a table in our home library. Each Sunday during Advent my little daughters place one additional figure in the scene, first the shepherd, then the magi, then the angels, and finally Jesus. I get a kick out of watching them do this. But was Jesus really born in a barn or stable or was he born in a cave as some people think?

Well, we really don't know. The origin of the typical creche scene goes back to the 13th century with St. Francis of Assisi. Tradition states that Francis was in Grecio (Italy) preparing to celebrate midnight mass and he realized the chapel there was too small. He walked outside and saw a very nice clearing near the base of a hill and set up a wooden lean-two and arranged to have farmers bring some animals there and that is where they had mass. Francis preached and everyone broke bread. This tradition was recalled by St. Bonaventure back in 1274. I guess this is one example where Francis lived out his maxim, "always preach the gospel, use words if you have to" a saying that I keep close to my heart throughout the year.

The tradition of the cave, which is still a tradition maintained in the Eastern Church goes back to the 2nd century with St. Justin Martyr who tells us that Jesus was born outside with the animals and placed in a manger in a cave on a hill outside of Bethlehem. When you go to Bethlehem you see that there are no many trees and nearly all the homes are built out of limestone or cinderblock and covered with stucco. It is highly likely that people back then lived in hut type dwellings that were hewn out of the sides of hills and mountains. There are plenty of caves throughout Palestine which has a lot of limestone due to the volcanic fault line that goes right through the middle of Israel.

The icon has Jesus in swaddling clothes in the center of a very dark cave. There is of course Mary below him in a prone position since she just have birth. Angels and shepherds are above in the upper right and left and to the bottom left is Joseph being tempted to leave Mary which is allegorically depicted by an old man. On the bottom right are mid-wives cleaning up the baby Jesus, again, showing us the reality of birth, blood and other bodily fluids.

So in the end we really don't know and quite honestly I enjoy both stories, since in both we have the image of a very humble God sending his son to be born among animals, poor shepherds, and a fallen and broken humanity.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Away in a Manger

My sermon this morning was on the very human aspects of Jesus' family. In the Eastern Church we read from Matthew 1 today, the geneaology of Jesus which includes 42 names of Jesus' parents, grandparents, and great grandparents..........a real tongue twister for newbie pastors! We hear about the birth of Solomon from Uriah's wife (hint hint--Bathsheba was Solomon's mommy!), Rahab the harlot, and of course good old King David who wasn't always that great. We also a heard about Mary who was both unwed and a young teenager at the time of Jesus' birth, nothing short of a scandal in those times.

Then I spoke about the Nativity scene that we often see in front of Churches, lawns, and in small creche scenes at home. They look so cute. Yet something important is missing, the real humanity of it all, the yelling and screaming of Mary as Jesus entered the world, a midwife perhaps helping her; Joseph, like most new fathers nervous as all get out, and then the stench and smell of animals. Our Nativity scene at home has a small donkey and cow, but if you ever spend any time in a farm or in a petting zoo you smell the noxious fumes of animal dung, urine, and musk, and the noise, the howling and noises that animals make. It is all there on paper but somehow it gets lost in our whitewashed and sacherine ideas of Christmas. When was the last time you saw King Herod on a Hallmark card? Probably never, but he is a prominent feature in Matthew's story.

Furthermore, the gospels say that Mary placed Jesus in a manger, not some hand made wooden frame crib made at Pottery Barn, but a manger, a food trough where farmers and shepherds put water and food for their animals. A place of drool, spit, and sloppiness. In the Middle East you see many examples of these troughs they are about 24 inches long by 16 inches wide by about 10 inches tall.

What are the gospels telling us in these particular aspects of the gospel story? I think they show us the really human aspects of life, the pain and screaming at child-birth, the smells and odors of the farmhouse, the noises of donkeys, sheep, and goats as they churtle away throughout the night. Jesus was born into all this and the gospels record it as such, the real and human nature that we all have, it is not whitewashed or glossed over, but presented to us at each reading of the Christmas story and in the Nativity creche scenes. I guess we have to look a bit closer and read slower to take it all in.

Only five more days till Christmas.................

Saturday, December 19, 2009

O Little Town of Bethlehem

As we get closer to Christmas I can't help but think of the Christmas story, especially the importance of Bethlehem. Bethlehem seems so big and important in the gospels yet in actuality it is a pretty small place. This past May I had the chance to take a wonderful two week pilgrimage to the Holy Land and we went to Bethlehem which in Hebrew means "house of bread" and in Arabic "house of meat" I guess in the Middle Eastern world bread is just as important as meat and vice versa.

Bethlehem is about three or four miles just south of Jerusalem and located in the West Bank or as the Israeli's call it the IOTA (Israeli Occupied Territorial Area). To get to Bethlehem you have to drive through a series of military checkpoints, young men with machine guns come on board the bus and check passports, these guys can be no more than 18 or 19 years old. When you pass through the large cement car barriers you feel like you are in a different country--extreme poverty, homes that are in dire need of a new coat of paint, rusted out cars, and very few stores. Our tour guide told us that only 1 or 2 % of the population is Christian, a sad commentary on the birthplace of our Lord. Large minerets and modern looking mosques dot the landscape.

In the middle of Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square, the supposed birthplace of Jesus, I say supposed because no one really knows for sure.

Bethlehem and the West Bank remind me of the Old Wild West in our country, dry, dusty, everything looking so worn and in need of rest. Yet this is where Mary gave birth to Jesus, in the house of bread, in this old, dusty, and worn out part of the world. What humble beginnings for the savior of the world!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tis the Season

Every Christmas season I remind myself to take it easy during this hectic time of year, don't hurry, don't rush, don't get frantic, just slow down and smell the roses. Well, that is easier said then done I think. This year, like the year before and the year before that I am just as wired and wound up as ever, errands to run, presents to wrap, food to cook.

The word "sabbath" means rest. In the Old Testament the Jews were required to take a day off during the week in order to read and study the Torah (the Law), spend time with family, and just "be". When was the last time you did nothing? No gardening, no paying the bills, no cooking, no cleaning, no nothing? When I remind myself to take a sabbath my answer is usually, "yes, great idea, I'll do it when the work is done."

Perhaps our life would be less hectic if we just took a few moments out of our day and just "smelled the roses." Enjoy a cup of coffee and look at the falling snow outside, sit and read a book that you always wanted to read but were to busy to read, or to close your eyes and remember that life is more then the sum total of our work. God values us for who we are right now. We don't have to do anything special to earn God's love.

I think a lot of what we "do" in life is either to prove our worth to our boss, company, institution, or even to ourselves. Christmas is right around the corner. As we reflect on the birth of Jesus maybe we can take a few moments out of our day to just 'be" and remember that God loves us for who were are in the here and now.