My 2015 Christmas Eve Message

The other day one of my friends texted me that she wanted to come and live at my house…I responded that she’d have to turn our new den into her bedroom. She hasn’t replied back yet. Of course she wasn’t serious! But later, as I read this oh so familiar story of Jesus’ birth I thought about her request.
What would I do if a good friend, or family member, or a stranger needed a place to stay? What would you do? Would it matter if the need were temporary? Would it matter who the friend or family member was… would I even consider a stranger? Then the consideration moves on to… well, even if I wanted to provide a place to stay, would I have room? Our house is pretty small you see. I wonder if I have room…If I failed to make room, would I be turning away Jesus? (a nice little girl sitting near the from said, “no”)
Sometimes its not physical space… I wonder if I have room to do one more thing…deal with one more emotion…Do you ever feel this? Maybe just getting to this night felt more like an endurance event than a celebration. We do have a penchant for cramming lots and lots into the short period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Do we have room for more?
We shop…we decorate…shop some more…maybe send Christmas cards (or at least a message on Facebook)… shop some more (but its getting difficult because all the easy gifts are gotten)… we bake cookies and other treats, and eat them… go to parties (family, work, clubs, friends), where we eat some more and if you’re like me you eat too much…oh and now to wrap all those presents (wow! We bought more than we thought!)…we think about who we may have forgotten… and frustratingly run out to the store for hopefully the last time… get impatient with the crowds, the traffic, the lines…and don’t forget to go and look at all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood… are you tired yet? Do you have room for more?
Would you have some more room if Jesus was knocking?
I am grateful that you are here tonight…because with all of that activity we might feel like we don’t have any more room in our busy busy Christmas celebration. Or we may have received messages from others that have us convinced that God… that Jesus has no room for us… that we are not good enough…Is there room for us, for me?
We know the story. Jesus was born in a barn or stable because there was no room for his parents to stay. Can you imagine the horror of this? I know that we have sentimentalized the scene… so today it’s kind of a cozy place, nice animals all about, some straw here and there provides a more comfortable place to sit than would bare ground, and that warm and inviting light that permeates everything. At least this is my vision of it.
But the reality would have been much different… dirty, dark, smelly, cold. Could you imagine staying in a barn overnight? Can you imagine welcoming a newborn into such conditions?
Can you imagine hearing the words, “there is no room for you here.” Maybe in the scheme of the world, those words should have ended this whole Jesus who is God incarnate experiment. I mean, really, if you’re God and you decide to go and live as a person… to be born as a baby… and the world cannot even make room for you among humans… so that instead you are born out with the animals, then why bother?
Maybe those who couldn’t make room then, and those of us who struggle to make room today don’t deserve Jesus. Harsh words, I know… they sounded harsh to me as they came across my keyboard… but these harsh words help us to better see that none of us deserves Jesus. Not one of us. And I’m pretty sure that each of us in our own ways has failed to make room for Jesus in our lives.
So what does Jesus do in the face of this rejection? He comes anyway. He comes right into the busyness, distractedness, and messiness of our lives. He comes not at all because we deserve it… you see, he’s not Santa, deciding if we are naughty or nice… he comes. He comes for you… because he loves you… more than you can ever imagine.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the manger scene. Look…
As we look in the manger… along with Mary and Joseph and the others gathered… we see a little baby… but not just any baby… we see Emmanuel, God with us… we see the baby who became the man who came and lived so that we too might live… we see the baby who became the man who gave his life for all people… and we see baby who became the man who taught us to not only love those who are loveable but to even love our enemies and to love those who persecute us. We see the baby who became a man who invites us to make room in our lives for him…and for others.
When we look into the manger we see the baby who is Emmanuel, God with us… we see hope. And you know what? There is always room for hope…
Merry Christmas!

My 2014 Christmas Eve Message

I often re-read previous sermons as part of my preparation.
This year I was struck while re-reading the message from last year
that I could easily just “re-use” it. I won’t though.
But I did decide that I could share it here on my blog.

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Almost two years ago Scott and I moved into a house in the historic district, which is also Christmas Tree Lane. We very much enjoyed decorating the outside of our house the last two years and this year we’ve happened upon a new tradition of eating dinner on the porch while watching the people go by… and we’ve seen a lot of people go by. It seems as if there are many more people visiting the neighborhood than last year.

Scott and I were talking about it and decided that maybe the increased visitors is a sign… a sign of a better economy maybe? I read this morning that for the first time since 2007 more people than not are optimistic about the economy. Or maybe, slightly related, the increased traffic is a sign that lower gas prices have made even the shortest trips more affordable. Or maybe it’s just that there is not so much good news lately and so celebrating Christmas is a welcome diversion.

Whatever the reason, I’m happy to see everyone happily walk by. I’m happy to see you all here tonight celebrating as well… maybe you too have been thinking about signs lately. You see, they are all over the news, they are all over Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and wherever else you look. Not subtle signs… like increased numbers of people visiting the neighborhood. But overt signs… signs that have served to divide an already divided people.

Internationally, we have ISIS and their extreme violence that successfully terrorizes those who are near and far. In Mexico and Pakistan recently we’ve seen the mass murder of students, young people and children, while in Nigeria girls who sought an education were kidnapped and are still missing. Are these signs that our world is out of control?

In our own country we’ve seen many sighs of unrest… especially in relation to race and law enforcement. So we see:

Black lives matter… hands up, don’t shoot… I can’t breathe… and most recently, in the wake of the tragic shooting of two police officers last week, police lives matter.

The sense that I get from these signs, and postings that go along with them in various places is that we are to choose sides. That calling for better policing in the wake of too many unarmed black men dying is tantamount to attacking the police. If this is true, then I don’t see much hope for the future. But what if it weren’t true? What if there was another sign that supersedes all that we have seen and experienced?

You’ve heard the children read the Christmas story. It is the same story that we read every Christmas Eve… as it is the only story of Jesus’ birth in the gospels. Back when I was younger and never went to church, except maybe on Christmas and Easter, this was one of the only stories I heard in church… since I was never there.

So, it is familiar… maybe even so familiar that we don’t really hear it anymore. As I was reading it again this week, I noticed that the actual birth of Jesus only warranted two sentences…

6While they were there (Bethlehem), the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Two sentences… we’ve sure found many creative ways to fill out that story. But I’m wondering why they could find no place at the inn…they were in Bethlehem because of a census… because Jacob’s family was from there… so wouldn’t he have had some, even distant relatives, who would take them in?

Maybe there was no room because Jacob and Mary weren’t married yet…and so her pregnancy was a sign of her sinfulness…and nobody wanted to be associated with that. You see, the story of Jesus’ birth is just one example of or one sign of… all the ways we, as human being judge and divide one another. All of us, at one time or another, have experienced the isolation of being judged unworthy by others, or by ourselves.

Of course this is speculation… about Mary because the story doesn’t give us details… but it is speculation based upon knowledge of the day. What’s not speculation is that the first to hear the news of this wondrous birth were not the rich and powerful… no, the first to hear were other social outcasts who were out guarding their flocks.

I love to imagine their surprise at witnessing the visit of the angels… first one and then a multitude. And with this visit the shepherds were told about Jesus’ birth. Interestingly the visit of the angels was not the sign… no they were just the messengers. The sign was actually the little baby. What was he a sign of? What the angels said…

I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

That is the good news, because you see the Messiah is the Christ… who will lead and teach and love us so much that he will take all the sin… all the hurt… all the division… all the violence in the world with him to the cross… but that’s a story for another day.

Meanwhile, we celebrate the baby, who is the sign… and who brings us a special light with which we can read other signs. Many years later Jesus would tell us that the law of God is summarized in this: Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.

We learn though, that it is difficult to love our neighbors… and sometimes it is difficult to love ourselves. Thankfully we don’t have to do it on our own strength. Because you see, Jesus has not only given us love in abundance but also his spirit to help us. This is the good news of Christmas… and of Easter… and of every day in between.

My hope and my prayer is that we can harness the power of this love so that we can enter a new year refreshed and renewed and ready to listen to our brothers and our sisters in ways that will lead to better understanding. My hope and my prayer is that rather than participate in what divides us we can live the grace that Jesus gives and be peacemakers in our communities.

Because when we think about the miracle of Jesus’ presence and the love that is for the whole world we realize that the ultimate sign to us from God is that you are important, you are precious… regardless of your race, language, sexual orientation or creed. You are precious, not because you’ve done anything to deserve, it but solely because God loves you.

Merry Christmas.

 

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A little indoor cheer in our dining room. Last year at this time I was in the midst of refinishing this wood.

Mustering Up Some Discipline

LaceUp2015Over the few years that I have been running, I’ve discovered that, for the most part, the running community is very supportive of and friendly to their fellow runners. People wave, say hello, and give encouragement. I remember mile 14 of an 18 miler last August, when a man passed me quite easily. As he passed he did so by sharing words of encouragement, telling me, “good job! you’re almost there! keep it up!”

Unfortunately everyone we encounter in life is not so encouraging, or helpful. So a week or so later I was on mile 6 of a 10 mile run (its amazing that I can remember these things!). This happened to be my last run of a 42 mile week, so I was on mile 38 for the week. I was going up a small hill and feeling pretty good, when some man on a bicycle passed. As he passed he looked over and said, “trying to muster up some discipline?” I replied, “No! I have it.” But as I continued my run I was very annoyed.

It’s amazing how that incredibly rude and annoying question has stayed with me all these months. Maybe its a testament to how we sometimes allow space in our minds for the naysayers. It could be that. But it could also be that since encountering that rude man on the trail, I have noticed so many ways discipline is important in our lives. I’ve also been inspired by the discipline that I’ve seen in others.

I can say that this year I truly became a runner. I say truly because although I’ve run for about 4 years, I never felt as confident or disciplined as I do now. What changed you might wonder? First was joining a running club (such supportive people!), having a plan prepared by a real live coach, deciding that I needed to eat better, and having fun along the way.

Upon reflection, it is very difficult to be disciplined all alone. We need each other, we need to the support, and we need the accountability. This is not just true in running, but in life in general. So, if you are feeling the nudge towards attempting some great task, find a group of like minded people to help you. You’ll find that it will be much easier to accomplish.

This is true also in our faith lives. In our individualistic culture we sometimes think of faith as a relationship “between me and Jesus.” The reality is that to thrive in our faith lives we need one another. We need the encouragement and accountability that gathering together brings. It is when we journey together that we have the opportunities to encourage one another, pray for one another, serve together, and grow together…all as we become more disciplined.

 

What about you? How have you grown in discipline? What challenges do you face? How have you been helped? Who has inspired you?

On Killing, #3

41Bu29eZsZL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_This is part 3 of my interaction with the book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. It’s been awhile sense my last post. Today I’m writing about Section II of the book, “Killing and Combat Trauma: The Role of Killing in Psychiatric Casualties.”

As I read this section of the book I couldn’t help but think of the debates regarding guns that are happening in our country. What I suspect that some don’t understand is that it is not so easy to kill. So, to have the idea that a response to gun violence is to have more people carry weapons would result in more safety is naive. Maybe someone who is properly trained can help to increase the safety, but then that is the role of our police. If combat is as difficult and traumatic as described, then untrained civilians, whose idea of combat is gleamed from movies and television, have no clue as to what is really required. 

Last, I grieve for all the soldiers through the centuries who’ve experienced the trauma of war and combat. As I grieve I continue to pray and hope for that one day we will experience peace in our world.

Following are highlights of the section.

We start with a telling quotation:

“Nations customarily measure the ‘costs of war’ in dollars, lost production, or the number of soldiers killed or wounded. Rarely do military establishments attempt to measure the costs of war in terms of individual human suffering. Psychiatric breakdown remains one of the most costly items of war when expressed in human terms.” -Richard Gabriel, No More Heroes (page 41)

The author then goes on to describe the stressors that cause psychiatric trauma. I was surprised to learn that the chance of being a psychiatric casualty is”greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire.” (p43)

As the goal of combat is to kill the enemy one would think that fear would be the biggest cause of psychological trauma. However fear of death and injury are not the primary problems. This is evident in that the majority of civilians who suffered bombing campaigns during WWII did not exhibit the same psychological breakdowns and neither did those who served in combat but did not directly face enemies. The difference between soldiers and civilians was that civilians did not have the “responsibility of (1) being expected to kill and (2) the stress of looking their potential killers in the face. (page 65)

Factors that lead to psychological trauma:

  • Physical exhaustion. I know exhaustion from running marathons, but a marathon doesn’t even come close to the physical exhaustion experienced by soldiers in combat. Their physical exhaustion entails: lack of sleep; lack of food; and the impact of the elements. (pages 71-72).
  • Then there is the sheer hell of it all. This quote is telling:

“I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.” – William Tecumseh Sherman. (page 73)

  • Another psychological cost is in dealing with hate. Here not some much in hating others but in being the recipient of hate. The trauma felt here is one that sadly can be readily transferred to civilian life away from the battlefield. Sadly the author notes, “Many medical authorities believe that it is the constant hostility and lack of acceptance that they must face – and the resulting stress – that are responsible for the dramatic rate of high blood pressure in African Americans.” (page 76)

    The “one historic circumstance  in which noncombatants did suffer a horrifyingly high incidence of psychiatric casualties and post-traumatic stress,” was among the survivors of Nazi concentration camps. (77)
    As I review this material I am saddened by the hate that we are seeing today exhibited toward Muslims.

  • Still the biggest source of stress is in the act of killing, or needing to kill. “The media’s depiction of violence tries to tell us that men can easily throw off the moral inhibition of a lifetime – and whatever other instinctive restraint exists – and kill casually and guiltless in combat. The men who have killed, and who will talk about it, tell a different tale.” (87)

    For many a coping method is to use euphemisms for killing, so that “most soldier do not ‘kill’, instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and moped up.” Soldiers throughout the world use alternative words for this, as well as dehumanize the enemy by using negative pejoratives.

For the author, non-soldiers do not understand the reality and stress of war. I agree with him that we who have not experienced combat are clueless as to the realities of war, of combat, of killing.

“A culture raised on Rambo, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and James Bond wants to believe that combat and killing can be done with impunity – that we can declare someone to be the enemy and that for cause and country the soldiers will cleanly and remorselessly wipe him from the face of the earth. In many ways it is simply too painful for society to address what it does when it sends its young men off to kill other young men in distant lands.” (page 94).

A Much Delayed Race Day Recap – The Santa Barbara Half Marathon

The Santa Barbara Half Marathon was November 7, 2015. So exactly one month later I’ll offer a bit of a recap.Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 11.10.29 AM

First, this was a very hilly course – for me at least. Second, I ran this race exactly two weeks after another half marathon and so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I certainly wasn’t expecting to run faster.

The Wednesday before the race I asked our running club coach for advice on running this race. He seemed to have more confidence in my abilities that me because he said that I should plan on a 9:50-10:00 pace per mile. He also said that I should try to stay around 11:00-11:30 on the hills, but that 12:00 was a possibility on the big hill at mile 10.

I finished the Lexus LaceUp half marathon in 2:13:01 so I decided to line up halfway between the 2:10:00 and 2:15:00 pacers. When the race actually started I quickly found myself running very close to the 2:10:00 pacer. At first I was a bit freaked out and thought that I was going to die on the hills that would come later. At the same time I felt pretty good and I was running at the recommended pace.

The course was beautiful but crowded as it consisted mostly of bike trails that linked various neighborhood located between UC Santa Barbara and the beach. One thing about trying to navigate through this crowded course, time passed very quickly.

At around the 7th mile we encountered a long gradual hill. I momentarily fell behind the 2:10:00 pacer, but he was never out of sight. I was able to catch up with him on the downhill… I’ve discovered that I absolutely love running down hill. It’s faster, but also a time to rest, and my legs get a nice stretch.

Before long I hit 10 miles. I remember thinking, “only three miles and one big-ass hill to go.” I felt really good, amazingly so! Then I hit the hill and it seemed to just go up and up and up. My goal at this point was not to walk, however my pace was so slow that a fast walker could have probably passed me. My average pace for that mile was 11:30.

Once I made it to the top I saw the 2:10 pacer really far ahead. Wondering if I could catch up once again, I let gravity give me a boost and took off down the hill. I was tired but it felt wonderful to be moving so much faster. I caught up with the pacer with about a half mile left…passed him, and finished in 2:09:09. This was 4 minute improvement over a much easier course two weeks earlier. Amazing!

My average pace per mile was 9:55. For comparison purposes, I ran a 5k June 3rd and the average pace for this race was 10:09. I’m incredibly happy with this improvement. I credit it to hard work combined with the excellent coaching/training plan/track workouts from the running club that I joined in May.