About Me

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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

It's Hard to Be Still on Christmas Eve

It's hard to be still on Christmas Eve.


On Christmas Eve we go to church.

Whose idea was that?

Mom says we have to be still and pay attention.

She says she'll take my candle away.

But the preacher talks for a long time.

And I don't know all the words to the songs.

And tomorrow's Christmas!

How could anybody ever be still?


My grandfather winks at me from down the row.

Somebody's cell phone rings.

They pass a tray of bread over top of me.

Nobody else is still. Why should I be?


I like it when we pray.

When we pray no one is looking but Jesus.

I close my eyes and think of him.

I wonder what he was like at Christmas.

I bet he cried like all babies do.

I think he liked looking at the animals in the manger.

I'm sure it felt good when his mom held him.

I hope nobody told him to be still.


So if I wiggle on Christmas Eve,

I think it's OK with Jesus.

Because he was a kid, too.

If Jesus moves around on Christmas Eve,

it's OK with me.



It IS hard to be still on Christmas Eve.

Even if your body's still, it's hard to keep your mind from wandering.



Nobody bustles except at Christmas.

You're mentally running.

Jumping through lists. Checking them twice.

At least.

And look around you at all these people doing the same thing.

I know what you're thinking.

"What's that person's name?"

"He's put on weight."

"She's had work done."

"What an unusual Christmas sweater."


Even at church there's so much to see.

Choir. Handbells. Tree.


"How much does it weigh?"

"How well is it attached?"

You think you're the first to ask these things?


It's Christmas and our brains are busy.

Minds wandering, led down memory lanes by ghosts of Christmas past.

Minds racing.

Minds chasing – chasing dreams of how Christmas is supposed to be and could still be and should be if Santa would only pay attention and write down the gift ideas when we say them the first time.


It's hard to be still at Christmas.

No matter what age you are.

And you know what?

That's OK.




The Bible's Christmas Story is about Joseph and Mary and a little gray donkey.

It's about an earthly host of tired travelers converging from all directions on a town unprepared for the season.

It's about an inn with not a single room left.

Barely even a stable out back for the poor lady who's so more than ready to give birth.

It's about shepherds and kings and heavenly choirs and a star so bright you can set your course by it.

So, so many racing people, chasing people, hustling and bustling, not a still, not a silent, not a holy night.


It was hard for Mary and Joseph and Bethlehem to be still.

It was hard for the countryside and the crowds.

And you know what?

Apparently that was OK, too.




It's hard to be still on Christmas Eve.

It's always been that way.

From the first until now.

It's hard to be still.

It's hard for our bodies to be still.

It's hard for our minds to be still.

It's hard for our children to be still, to be silent, holy, no crying they make.

Not only is that OK, it appears to be God's fertile ground for doing something new.


Christmas can be chaotic.

It often is.

A lot of people stress out at Christmas.

(Anybody here been stressing out?)

We want it to be perfect.

The stockings hung by the chimney with care.

The tree trimmed where the ornaments face the right direction and the cat doesn't see it as a giant playground.

With Carrie Underwood herself standing in the living room, singing carols.

"Oh, Carrie, thanks for coming. Have another egg nog."

We want it all calm and bright, tender and mild, a truly silent and holy night.

We'd like at least a few hours of heavenly peace.

God bless you if your Christmas works like that.

But the first one didn't.

It looked like a mess.

Any of you ever ride a donkey for a couple of days right before your due date?

With a fiancé who didn't make reservations?


And God still blessed.

Blessed a world too busy to see, people too absorbed to notice.

In fact, God seems to really like making something holy from the chaos.

Not only does God seem to like it, it seems to be standard operating procedure.

It's God's standard operating procedure from the beginning.


"In the beginning."

The Gospel of John tells a creation story:

"In the beginning was the Word…. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."


Sounds a lot like Genesis in the beginning.


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good…


God's standing operating procedure is to create something out of nothing.

Light out of darkness.

To roll the big bangs of swirling, churning chaos into meaning.

Nothing's still when God's on the move.

Not the earth and the stars, not heavenly bodies or earthly babies.

They're all bouncing off the walls.

Delivery of God's love sure seems to be scheduled at the most unexpected times, because they're the ones when we think chaos is all there is and ever will be.


24-hour news cycles show us vivid, discomforting, often horrible pictures of how our world is awash in chaos.

And it's not OK.

The world is not OK.

But when has it ever been?

The world's not moving according to God's plan.

But how could a reader of the Bible be surprised?

Human beings, as a whole, have never moved according to God's plan.

Things are always spinning apart.

They always have.


But time and again the Bible tells us of how, at points of critical pressure, God takes the mayhem, and God folds it, God bends it, God wrestles it into unquiet birth.


Again and again.

God makes something from the mess.

Something new.

Something like light that shines in the darkness and will not be overcome, overtired, worn out, or used up.

And that IS OK.

It's more than OK.

It's a blessing.


God is not still on Christmas Eve.

Jesus is not still on Christmas Eve.

The Holy Spirit is not still on Christmas Eve.

They wiggle.

They laugh.

They dance atop the chaos.

They sing in the darkness.

They call to us like children to join in.

They say, "Even if you're not OK, even if things around you aren't hung with care… that's OK."

Because not only can God make something with the scattered pieces, God is exceptionally good at it.

God has a lot of practice.

God has seen worse.

And you – you WILL see better.




Jesus is not still on Christmas Eve.

He's moving around.

He's fidgeting.

Good news for us.

And it's more than OK.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Strange Greetings

2014-12-21 Lk 01 26-38 Strange Greetings


I’m having lunch at one of those trendy West Knoxville restaurants.

Panera Bread Company.

At the table next to me is a group of women, one of whom has her baby with her.

The baby is new, like, freshly born.

The mother is way too perky.

So, right away, I’m thinking, "This baby is stolen."

I get out my phone to call 911.

But to be certain, I decide to observe them for a few more minutes.



The mother is bouncing the baby up and down.

She’s saying, “You’re just the cutest baby in the whole wide world.

Yes you are.

Yes you are.”

Very suspicious.

First, I doubt this young mother has actually seen all the other babies in the whole wide world.

Second, I’m pretty sure she never saw our daughters when they were infants.

I think about leaning over to show her some pictures to prove my point.

But this would blow my cover.

Judging by the comments from the other women at the table, as well as random passers-by, this baby is not only the cutest, but also the happiest and smartest child recently born or perhaps ever.

This makes me wonder: What if?

What if I’m seeing the next Einstein?

What if this child grows up to cure diseases, to become president, or a TV celebrity?

What if?



Don’t all new parents think their child is special?

Weren’t we all so certain that we had the cutest, happiest, smartest child in recorded human history?

Weren’t we all so worried that they weren’t?

Babies are like that.

But so is a lot of life, which is what turns into the strange greeting of this story.


What we call the Christmas Story started a long, long time before Christmas.

The Psalm we read about God’s promise testifies to the old, old story that predated Mary by generations.

People had been pining for a Messiah as long as anyone could remember.

It was an emotional issue.

But these emotions hit their peak with Mary and the Angel Gabriel.


Babies amplify everything.

All the excitement, all the fear, all the hope gets turned up to 11.

When we’re around babies and the people birthing them, adopting them, inheriting them, surprised by them (“How can this be, for I am a virgin?”) our hearts grow three sizes, don’t they?

We tune in to that baby vibe from tables away.

Our senses sharpen.

We catch the giddiness.

We sigh in shared exhaustion.

We hope.

We check the kid out and make mental bets whether she’s the next Kim Kardashian or Kim Jong Un.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said,

“Yes, I was a Liberal Arts Major. Would you like fries with that?”

You agonize over how they’ll turn out.

You wonder which of your mistakes they’ll be telling their therapist and what they’ll say at your funeral.

“Well, he probably wasn’t the worst dad in the world; then again, I haven’t seen them all.”

Babies – sometimes even the thought of babies – brings out the best in us.

And our psychotic fears.

It’s a human life, for crying out loud.

And they do.

We can barely take care of ourselves, much less this helpless, beautiful, terrifying, sleep-depriving bundle of joy (or something like it).

Am I saying this right?

Am I getting close to describing the stomach-churning, mood-swing they call parenthood and/or its potential?

Are you with me, here?


Because there, right there.

Right there in the eye of this emotional whirlpool, this storm of worry and wonder, faith and fear… beneath this swirling cyclone of promised things and angel’s wings, is where scripture lands us today.



I know this morning we lit the candle of Love.

I spent all week thinking it was the candle of Joy, because I didn’t preach last week and I confuse easily.

I just know the big one in the middle’s for Christmas Eve, because, as I was told in Children’s Sermon several years ago, it’s the Santa Candle.

This job is so complicated.

If they had asked me, I would have told them Hope was the right candle for today.


Because I think what the Angel Gabriel tells Mary is more complicated.

Hope is peace, joy, love… fear, doubt, wonder… all swaddled up together, not unlike a newborn.

Babies are complicated.

Hope is complicated.


The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says,


Gabriel was apparently the patron saint of understatement.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Then, it’s Mary’s turn to understate.

Luke writes,

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Ya think?

Just wait, Mary.

You ain’t heard nothing yet.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”


All parents think their child is special.

Grandparents are sure of it.

All parents think their child is the cutest, happiest, smartest ever born.

The light of the world.

When they’re at Panera, surrounded by fans.

But it’s always more complicated than that.

Maybe Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes; but everybody else’s kid will throw some royal tantrums.

The light of the world will ruin outfits faster than grandmothers can buy them.

The cutest, happiest, smartest child in the world will feast at the dog’s bowl.


An ultrasound will raise concerns.

A test will make you terrified.

A chromosome falls out of place.

A gene switches on.

Even if kids come into the world announced by angels, the demons of worry will scare you to death.

I’m told that never ends.

Like a doctor reads a lab a report in our day, Gabriel brings strange greetings.


I wonder.

Did Mary hear Gabriel’s greeting as a blessing, or a burden?

How can one person bear the weight of whole generations of longing?


We don’t know how Mary felt.

We can’t know.

We might try to imagine how she felt, but in the end that’s all it is, imagination.

Imagining how Mary felt is impossible.

It’s not the point.


It’s not about us taking a field trip in our minds back to the manger.

It’s not about going back to a past we can’t remember.

Gabriel’s news is about God (and about us) taking a step forward –  a first step, a second step, a third - as scary and as joyful as a baby’s first might be.

We might not be able to journey back to the time of Gabriel and Mary.

But blessedly they catch up with us.

What we DON’T know, what we CAN’T know – about ourselves, about our kids, about our parents, much less about the strangers at the restaurant table next to us, can bring as much anxiety as excitement.


That’s why I think this scripture’s about hope.

Because at the intersection where anxiety and excitement meet is where we find hope.

Hope’s always a balancing act between what scares us and what makes us complete.

Hope’s always a work in progress, conceived but not yet born.

Imagined but not yet seen.

Promised but not fulfilled.

That’s the miraculous thing about hope.

It’s always unfinished.

That’s the difference between wishing and hoping.

Wishing’s predictable.

When you wish for something, you know what you want.

You make a list and check it twice.

You get what you wish for, or you don’t.

And when you do, it’s over.


Hope’s different.

When you hope you give up your predictions.

When you hope, you give up your selfish wishes.

Hope is not wishing.

Hope is not a plan.[1]

Hope is waiting, willingly waiting.

Hope is accepting the swirling, expectant, uncomfortable term of anxiety and excitement and whatever they bring.

When you hope you turn yourself over to mercy of hope itself.

Which is Mary’s last word.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s last word courageously faces the greeting that made her so perplexed.

She accepts the mercy of hope.

She knows that life is going to get really complicated, if it isn’t already.



I don’t know anyone whose life isn’t some kind of mix of anxiety and excitement, fears and joys.

I think the thing is remembering that even for the Blessed Mother of our Lord Jesus, it was like that, too.


That little girl at Panera?

Remember her, the cutest, happiest, smartest baby in the whole wide world?

Turns out she was.

At least for that moment.

She was a little angel.


THE last word in this passage today isn’t Mary’s.

Or Gabriel’s.

Luke finishes the scene with a strange benediction.

He says,

Then the angel departed from her.

The angel leaves Mary alone.

Which for us, really is a merciful blessing.

Even when our little angels appear to be sprouting horns, even when your anxieties threaten to overrun your excitement, or snuff out your light of joy, hope still shines in the awkward balance.

Hope still lives, when you feel left alone.

Hope is where you find it, waiting.

Hope is always where you find hope waiting, with strange greetings.

[1] Dr. Atul Gawande, Being Mortal.