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Three Months of Christmas

Christmas Story – 2017

When I was kid… Don’t you love it when an old person begins a story with those words? You prepare yourself for a lecture about the good old days and when times were simple and better followed by a lecture about the terrible condition of the world today. I know you don’t want to hear that and neither do it.

But, when I was a kid one of the best things about Christmas happened sometime in October, perhaps as early as September some years. It was the arrival of the annual Sears Christmas Catalog. It later became known as the Sears Christmas Wish Book, but it was originally called a catalog.Sears

We actually received two catalogs from Sears every year. Earlier, perhaps in the spring, I’m not sure, we received a large one about the size of a big city phone book. It had everything imaginable for a family and home except for toys. Without the toys, the big catalog was of little interest. I’ll confess when I got older and became a teenager the big catalog had a little more fascination for me. The section with women’s underwear was the closest I ever came to dirty magazines at our house.

But about two-thirds of the pages of the one that arrived in the fall consisted of toys. It had pictures of every toy we had ever heard of and thousands of toys we didn’t even know existed. Each toy was represented with a bright colored photo followed by a paragraph or two description of what the toy was all about. The special toys were featured in photos with kids playing with them.

We always knew that catalog was on the way when the weather started to cool down for the winter. I don’t know about other kids, but in our family, we were not allowed to look at the mail before Daddy and Mama. It’s not clear if they were hiding stuff from us but I never gave it a second thought; that’s just the way it was.

When the Sears Christmas Catalog arrived, Mama would bring it to us. It had a brown wrap around the outside and tearing that away was as exciting as opening any gift. My sister and I would study it for hours. I’m sure I spent more time with it that she ever did. I say I’m sure about that, but I don’t really know. I never paid much attention to what she was doing when I wasn’t involved. I do know that I spent many hours with the book. So much so that by early December the pages in the toy section were dog-eared and crinkled.

Thumbing through the pages was living in a fantasy world where every dream can be a reality. I drove the electric race cars around the track that looked like it stretched for miles. I was a fearless driver, but my car never flew off the tracks. I picked out colors for all the cars and trucks I wanted.

I also remember playing with the largest Erector Set you could buy. An Erector Set was a fascinating toy for a kid. It consisted of thin metal slats with a row of drilled holes arranged like button holes on a shirt. I understand they still have them today but now they consist of a bunch of plastic pieces rather than all metal. It had a box filled with small nuts and bolts that you could insert through the holes and attach the metal slats together. With a vivid imagination, you could build a house or a windmill or some other structure. The catalog always featured the sets with small electric engines to be used for trains, large cranes, or other movable pieces. In my mind, I built complete cities using the sets that could be ordered from Sears. It was kind of like Sim City without the electronics.

There was always a piece of notebook paper, and a pencil stuck between the pages of the catalog. It was there so I could make a list of the things I especially wanted from the catalog. I don’t remember ever believing in Santa, so I was making the list for Mama and Daddy. There were many entries and almost an equal number of erasure marks on my paper because I knew I had to narrow it down to one or two items. Over the three months exegeting that catalog, my favorites changed numerous times.

The reason my list could only contain one or two items was because I knew that’s the most I would ever get. That’s why I didn’t really believe in Santa. If everything they said about him was true, then I was getting cheated somehow. We hung up Christmas stockings, usually Daddy’s because they were larger, but when we charged into the living room on Christmas morning the only things in those stockings were the fruit and nuts that had been displayed on the dining table for the past few days. That stuff didn’t come from a joyous fat bearded man who gave out free gifts.

It was even quite likely I would not even receive the gift at the top of my Christmas wish list tucked carefully between the pages of the catalog. We didn’t have much money in those days, so Christmas morning typically consisted of one nice present, a package of underwear (for some reason, Santa was always practical at our house), and maybe a book to read or a small toy of some kind.

I discovered years later in a conversation with Daddy that the reason we received the Sears Catalogs was because they bought Christmas gifts with a Sears credit card. They could pay it off over the next couple of months, which was not an easy feat for them. I was totally surprised by this revelation because I never knew Mama and Daddy ever had a credit card. Daddy was a fulltime pastor of a small church, and they paid him $100 per month. There were other perks like an occasional chicken he had to kill, vegetables from the garden Mama had to can, and a few times a month an invite to someone’s house for Sunday dinner.

Even though I knew the Sears Christmas Catalog did not mean all those toys would magically appear under our tree on Christmas morning, that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of endlessly thumbing through the pages. Although the toys seldom arrived, having the catalog and a vivid imagination meant that my Christmas began in October with a gift from the mailman and lasted into the next year.

Sears doesn’t publish the Wish Book any longer. In fact, nearest I can tell they stopped twenty-four or twenty-five years ago. We don’t need it any longer now that we have eBay, Amazon, and countless other suppliers. Finding what you want is much easier nowadays—just a couple of clicks, and it arrives on your doorstep two days later.

Not only are the catalogs not available, we no longer need an imagination. Kids spend countless hours watching stuff but not imagining stuff. If they want to know what it’s like to play with a toy, just find a video of other kids doing it. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a different thing.

I wonder how many kids today would be content with one gift, not even off the top of their list. Perhaps the reason they would be dissatisfied is because they haven’t had the opportunity of playing with numerous gifts for the past few months in their imagination. I don’t recall ever being disappointed with Christmas. I loved everything about it, even cracking open the walnuts retrieved from Daddy’s stocking.

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The Greatest Christmas Gift

Leaving church on Sunday morning with a new outlook on life was not a common experience for Walter. He normally ended the hour of worship with a growling stomach and acute anxiety that he had missed the opening kickoff. But, today was different. Something the preacher said captured his attention.

He didn’t mind going to church, even though he would not classify himself as a steadfast believer. Walter had no doubts about the existence of God, and he rarely disagreed with anything spoken from the pulpit; he just had other interests. He enjoyed church because he loved sitting next to Sally. She was the love of his life, the apple of his eye, and every other cliché you can think of. More often than not, they would even hold hands for a good portion of the hour.

The amazing thing of Walter’s strong affection for Sally is that they were not young teenagers in love. Walter and Sally had been married for forty-two years. Yet, he was just as anxious to sit at her side as he had been when they first met as college freshmen. The years had brought them closer. In fact, since Walter retired six months ago, they spent most of their time together, and he had never been happier.Christmas-Gift

It was the first Sunday of Advent, a time that Walter always enjoyed. He loved everything about Christmas, especially the gifts. For Walter, giving a present was a process, including shopping, wrapping, hiding, and opening. His greatest joy every Christmas morning was to watch expressions as family and friends opened the gift he meticulously picked for them. For Walter, the first Sunday of Advent was the signal that Christmas was almost here.

The sermon by Rev. Wilson was about the gift of God that we celebrate at Christmas. He pounded home the notion that God’s gift was the greatest ever. He defined that gift as loving those who are unlovable. Rev. Wilson was not known for his oratory skills, but whenever he worked at it, he could be as convincing as any car salesman pushing an extended warranty.

Whatever he said on Sunday, he certainly captured Walter’s attention. In spite of the fact that Walter had been attending church for decades and that he had heard hundreds of Christmas sermons, something about the words of Rev. Wilson captured his interest. Like a child entering a toy store, Walter’s mind was racing with possibilities.

He decided that Christmas was about loving the unlovable. This was revolutionary to Walter. He had spent his whole life giving to those he loved. He could not remember ever giving a present to someone who was unlovable. He had never even given it a moment’s thought.

Walter and Sally put on their coats as they walked toward the church foyer. Leaving church was always tedious for Walter because Sally liked to stop and visit with too many people. She was accustomed to Walter tugging on her sleeve like a bored child. On this Sunday, Walter walked off and left Sally. He was in a hurry to speak to Rev. Wilson.

Waiting his turn in line with the complimenters and complainers, Walter finally reached the preacher. Walter stretched out with both arms and grabbed the Reverend’s hand.

“Pastor, you really spoke to me today,” he blurted out as he shook the minister’s hand like a rag doll.

“Thank you, Walter,” said Rev. Wilson in a tentative voice, “I was just trying to say what God laid on my heart.” He was somewhat stunned because he did not remember his words ever having an impact on Walter before.

Almost before Rev. Wilson finished his sentence, Walter said, “Pastor, I’ve got an idea about Christmas. You convinced me that Christmas is about loving the unlovable. That’s what I am going to do!”

Not sure what Walter had in mind, Rev. Wilson said, “That’s good to hear Walter. It’s always good to know that someone is listening when I preach.”

“Pastor, this is my plan. I’m going to find the most unlovable person in town, and I’m going to love them. That will be my Christmas present to them.”

You could still hear some skepticism, or perhaps it was simply reservation in Rev. Wilson’s voice, “That’s great Walter. I’ll be glad to help. Just let me know what I can do.”

Walter didn’t hear the last few words because he had already turned to look for Sally. She was finishing her conversation as Walter seized her arm and escorted her out the front door toward the parking lot.

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American Christianity and Dementia

During the past couple of years, my family has walked the difficult journey of Dementia with my mother. She has moved rapidly from a healthy alert woman living by herself, to a senior living environment, to assisted living, to memory care, and now to nursing care. Perhaps the thing that is most difficult about the process is knowing that improvement is not going to happen.

I have often wondered what it must be like not knowing who you are or where you are. Forgetting your past and even your identity makes you do things that are totally out of character. A couple of times Mama has slapped one of her caregivers and even used inappropriate language. These are things that are completely unlike who she is and has been her entire life. Most of the time her caregivers speak about her kindness and sweet personality, but those ugly responses have appeared a few times.Dementia

I bring this up because Dementia seems to be an accurate metaphor for the American church. It seems as if the church is experiencing a similar debilitating disease, forgetting who it is and what it’s supposed to be. Let me clarify by stating I’m not referring to the church identified in the Bible as the body of Christ. I’m speaking of the American church—the church that embraced the notion that being a follower of Christ is equivalent to being an American.

It came on almost imperceptibly. For several years, Daddy talked about Mama losing her memory, but since none of us were with her every day we thought he was exaggerating. After he died, and we were more involved with her life, it was obvious she was struggling.

In like fashion, almost imperceptibility, the American church began to lose its identity and history. I’m certainly not qualified to write a history of the American church, but I can offer one example that suggests this might be the case—the issue of abortion.

It wasn’t that long ago, at least in my lifetime, evangelical Christians were not as singularly focused on the issue of abortion. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision allowing abortions was issued in 1973. Speaking about that decision, W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, spoke out in support of the ruling with these words: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” Continue reading

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Finally, An Idea by a Church that Has Potential

There’s a church just down the street from our house with a good-sized sign out front that reads, “Drive through prayer on Friday.” I didn’t especially feel the need for prayer at the moment, but who knows, by tomorrow I might just stop by. I hope the line at the drive-through isn’t like the line at Chick-fil-a. It probably won’t be that crowded since I suspect more people are interested in chicken than they are prayer.

But the sign got me to thinking—always a dangerous proposition.

I wonder if they have one of those typical drive-through speakers that are characterized by static and often unidentifiable noises? That could be discouraging if you request prayer for your Aunt Suzie’s sciatica and they end up giving you a prayer for Grandmother’s drinking problem. After a few minutes, you find yourself screaming, “NO! My Grandmother doesn’t have a drinking problem. It’s my Aunt Suzie’s pain in her butt.”chicken basket

Perhaps there’s a big menu board as you round the corner of the church and approach the speaker. Instead of photos of chicken baskets and cheeseburgers, there would be pictures of saints on their knees at the altar.

That got me to thinking once again.

What would be on the prayer order menu? Items one through ten could be combos for the Big Ten. That would be a prayer of forgiveness for the sin of…

  • Having another god, like working nights and weekends so you can have more money.
  • Making an idol, like your favorite political party.
  • Taking the Lord’s name in vain, like when your lottery ticket is a loser.
  • Neglecting the Sabbath because the Cowboy’s kickoff was scheduled before church was over.
  • Dishonoring a parent by telling your parents you were busy when they invited you for dinner last weekend.
  • Committing murder, well, hopefully not this one.
  • Committing adultery, it happens, apparently to a large percentage of us.
  • Stealing something, who doesn’t?
  • Lying about my neighbor, especially to the neighbor on the other side of my house.
  • Coveting something, but that doesn’t include the new I-Phone.

Since it’s a combo prayer, it comes with a side order of two lesser sins of your choosing.

Other items on the menu could include a prayer for sickness, yourself or a loved one, and if you’re willing to super-size this item, they might even throw in a hospital visit (probably not because I don’t think pastors do this any longer).

Perhaps you need a prayer for guidance. This combo prayer would come with an abridged version of John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” In case you’re wondering, Calvinists have the opinion that God is operating this whole thing as He pleases, so you don’t need to worry yourself about finding His will.

Another combo prayer could be for the person seeking salvation. It would come with a side order of the Roman Road and a free mpg download of “Just As I Am” that continually repeats until you say “yes” to Jesus.

One other thing I need to note—it’s an Assembly of God church. Perhaps that means you can either get your combo prayer with or without speaking in tongues.

Wow, I’m excited. I’m going to work on my list tonight, so I’ll be ready for drive-through prayer tomorrow. That will be especially nice since it’s supposed to be much colder tomorrow. I won’t even need to get out of the car. Thank you Jesus!

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Broken: The Life and Times of Erik Daniels

Every person is broken in some way. Most of us get repaired along the way and become functioning contributors to the world. Others are severely broken, and despite the best efforts of family and friends, never are entirely repaired. Erik is the only person I have ever known who was completely broken and never had anyone care enough to help him put his life back together.

I met Erik when he asked me to write a book for him, a “tell-all” book about his life. He was living in hiding, using a fake identity, and facing a death sentence from people who were out to kill him and the doctor who diagnosed him. The 39 years of his life were filled with tragedies and horrors that would have broken most of us.Broken FC

As he told me his story, so I could write his book for him, he provided vivid details of abuse, violence, murder, drugs, and prison sentences. Beginning with a mother who cared nothing for him, a father who abandoned him, a stepfather who abused him, and a grandfather who molested him he became a hardened criminal as a young teenager. In prison, he was mentored by a leader of a hate group and international drug dealer.

Out of prison, his young adult years were spent with drug trafficking and murder. He arrived at a point in his life where his only goal was survival. He became good at surviving, but along the way, he damaged many others.

Although Erik doesn’t sound like the kind of person you want to befriend, after spending hours listening to his story and re-listening to the recordings, we became friends. We never met in person, I have no idea what he looks like. If he were talking in the next room, I would recognize his voice, but I wouldn’t know his face.

His story was painful for him to tell and painful for me to hear. I have tried to tell it for him so you can understand him like I do. He is not a lovable person. But he is a person who can be and needs to be loved.

“Broken” is Erik’s story, but it is more than that. It is my story. Telling the story meant a lot to him. Hearing the story meant a lot to me. I hope that as you read the story, Erik Daniels will impact your life like he has mine.

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Thoughts and Prayers

There’s a phrase frequently heard in the aftermath of a tragedy, especially after a huge disaster like a massive hurricane, extensive flooding, or a mass shooting. We hear people say their “thoughts and prayers are with the people of…” and fill in the blank identifying those who are suffering. We hear it from television announcers, politicians, and almost everyone making any type of public remarks. It might be one of the dumbest things a person can say.

What exactly does it mean? I understand the “prayers” part. I’m all for praying for people in the midst of a storm. Personally, I have always been encouraged when people tell me that they are praying for me. I take them at their word. I’m a firm believer in prayer, and I try to remember to pray for those I know who are suffering. It is a good thing to tell people they are in our prayers.

However, what possible good does it do for someone to say to a suffering individual that my “thoughts” are with you? Huh? Ok, so what? Am I supposed to find comfort that in the midst of my suffering you are at least thinking about me?

Sometimes if a friend tells me he is going to a baseball game, I might say, “I’ll be thinking about you.” What I really mean is that I’m envious and wish I was going and I want him to know how fortunate he is to be at the game. He’s not going to have a better experience at a baseball game because I was thinking about him. I might even ask him where he’s sitting so I can catch a glimpse of him on television, but again, that’s not going to benefit him in any way.

If my house washed away in a flood or was blown away by a tornado, your thoughts are not very helpful. If a friend or family member was killed by a sniper, knowing that you are thinking about me does not provide a great deal of comfort. For some reason, we take great pride in telling suffering people they are in our thoughts and prayers.

I have an idea where this came from. Many people who don’t pray or believe that prayer makes any difference are not going to say, “I’m praying for you.” Why would they? But, they want to communicate something, so they offer nothing—their thoughts. For many people, thoughts are equally as effective as prayer. Now it has become the accepted response. The phrase allows everyone to say something and feel like they are contributing. “My thoughts and prayers are with you (even though I don’t believe either one is helpful).” So, those who believe in prayer and those who don’t believe in prayer can feel better about themselves.

I’m somewhat perplexed when anyone uses the phrase, but it is especially disconcerting when it is used by someone who has the ability to do more than offer “thoughts and prayers.” For example, to hear a politician send out “thoughts and prayers” to families of the victims of the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas is not the least bit helpful when they have it in their power to do so much more. How about working to pass some laws or devise some better circumstances where this type of thing doesn’t happen again?

Or, the President telling the people of Puerto Rico that his “thoughts and prayers” are with them and then does very little to alleviate the actual suffering. I think if I were in Puerto Rico I would suggest he keep his thoughts to himself and send some real help.

Or, what about the NRA member who sends “thoughts and prayers” to those suffering in Las Vegas and then sends his membership dues to the NRA?

If you believe in prayer, when there are people in need, get on your knees in prayer. If you don’t believe in prayer, get off your butt and do something else that is helpful. Write a check, grab a carload of supplies and go help, lobby your Senator or Representative to do something. I hate to tell you this, but your thoughts are not really helpful to anyone if that is all they are—thoughts.

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The Myth of Tragedy

This week, a Congressman from Louisiana was shot by a deranged man (how else can you describe someone who did what he did). The heavily armed gunman stalked a group or Republicans practicing for a baseball game in an apparent attempt to make an obvious political comment. It was a tragedy in every sense of the word.

Shortly after the incident occurred, we began hearing that perhaps this tragedy will help bring us all together. A few thousand additional people showed up at the baseball game a few nights later, and a significant amount of money was raised, more than in the past. News stories were filled with calls for the need to come together.Tragedy

There has been a great deal of moaning about the dysfunction in politics and the sharp divide throughout the nation. Whenever a tragedy of any kind occurs, there is the notion that it will bring us back together.

That is a myth. Tragedies do not unify the country.

I realize you are going to remind me of the horrific tragedy of 9-11 and how the entire country came together. It appears we were united as a result, and all of us made the same commitment to make sure this never happens again.

However, I don’t think it was the tragedy that united us because that’s not what normally happens after a tragedy. Think about other tragedies that have occurred in the recent past.

  • Twenty young children were shot and killed at Sandy Hook.
  • A nightclub in Orlando was shot up, and forty-nine people died, and another fifty-eight were wounded.
  • Five police officers were killed and nine others wounded by a sniper in Dallas.

The full list is much longer. However, none of these events brought the country together. In fact, they did more to highlight our divide than they did to heal our separation. After each one of these incidents, people became more and more entrenched in their opinions about the causes and solutions for these events.

It seems to me that tragedies are ultimately divisive. When a tragedy occurs, it is important to assess blame, and we tend to place the blame on the basis of our preconceived notions. For example, when someone shoots and kills a group of people what do we do? We usually initiate a debate over gun control. When a police officer kills a young black man, what is the result? Often it is a race riot, and police supporters and minority spokespersons shout at each other while the rest of us pick sides.

If tragedies don’t unite us, what is the explanation for what happened after the horror of 9-11? We were united. We all agreed and were willing to accept tight restrictions on air travel. All of us were more watchful when we entered stadiums or gathered in large groups. We didn’t protest when they asked to search our bags. We all agreed that such measures were necessary.

However, it was not the tragedy that brought us together. It was the need for survival. We didn’t mind being searched before getting on a plane because we wanted to survive. Ok, go through my purse before allowing me into the stadium, because I don’t want to die.

The reason a heavily-armed crazy man shooting at a flock of congressmen doesn’t unite us is because it is not a threat to our survival. A police officer carelessly shooting a black teenager doesn’t unite us because most of us aren’t black, so we’re not worried about survival. It pains us to see dozens of deaths in a nightclub, but it doesn’t unite us because few of us will ever be seen in a gay nightclub. It’s not a threat to our survival.

We need to stop buying into the myth that someday a tragedy is going to unite our country. The sooner we accept this truth, the quicker we will get about the hard work, roll up our sleeves, sit down at the table with one another, and find the solutions to our divisions.

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