How I Ruined Christmas

As I was preparing for the Christmas Eve service a few weeks ago, I thought, “I want to have fun with this, and I want it to be different than normal.” I decided to write a poem in the style of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. While it was fun to write and to deliver, my hope is that my reflection at the end helped us all take our hopes and expectations off Christmas itself and put them onto Jesus Christ.

How I Ruined Christmas

Based on a True Story

‘Twas the night before Christmas, the kids were asleep

The presents were all wrapped and laid under the tree.

Bing Crosby crooned, the tree lights were glowing,

Inside it was cozy; outside it was snowing.

With glasses of eggnog, my wife and I sat

Wrapped up in our blankets on the couch with our cat.

I savored the moment, and I knew without fear,

Christmas was going to be perfect this year.

As I petted Bart’s back, and heard his soft purr.

I felt a small bump, and parted his fur.

“Oh no,” my wife gasped, as we beheld it with dread:

A tick dug in deep, all the way past its head.

My wife tried to tug it, but I held up my hand.

“Don’t break it!” I said, “I have a good plan.”

Upstairs I sprinted as quick as an elf

And got the rubbing alcohol down from the shelf.

“Let’s pour some on a rag,” said I as I did.

“We’ll smother that tick till he comes unhid.”

My wife held poor Bart while I pressed for a minute,

Then I checked the cat’s skin, but the tick was still in it.

We tried again for longer till his fur was all smelly,

But the tick was still as attached as Santa is to his belly.

Dismayed, we both thought of what else we could try,

When suddenly a box of matches caught my eye.

I said, “How about the red-hot tip of a match?

Maybe that will make the little bugger unlatch.”

As I struck the match brightly, I saw the cat jerk

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I think this will work.”

But as soon as I pressed the glowing tip on the tick

A thought crossed my mind that made me feel sick:

Is rubbing alcohol flammable?

Let me pause for a moment, as you hang in suspense

So I can prepare you for what’s coming hence.

The cat was unscathed in the end—he survived—

But our Christmas did not. So here’s how it nose-dived:

As soon as the match to the cat’s skin alighted,

I heard the sound, “woof,” as poor Bart ignited.

With a blood-curdling howl he shot into the air,

And before we could stop him, he streaked up the stairs.

The eggnog was spilled as we lurched off the couch

And halfway up the stairs, Bart came streaking back down.

“Is Santa here?” A child looked down and said.

“No!” we both yelled. “Just go back to bed!”

But the house was now filled with all kinds of commotion

And everything next seemed to move in slow motion:

The poor cat, still flaming, jumped onto the table,

And knocked off baby Jesus, the wise men, and stable.

He clawed his way up the wall, in vain for relief

And pulled down the garlands, and the holly, and wreath.

As I dived down to catch him, he evaded my grasp

Streaking like a four-legged comet as he passed.

When you cat is on fire, what advice do you need?

Don’t let him go near your Christmas tree.

We got our tree early that year, and by now it was dry

And as Bart ran right for it, I let out a cry.

Diving between presents, poor Bart sought some cover

And the flames on his fur finally started to sputter.

I thought, “What could possibly happen now?”

But then I saw a spark leap up to the boughs

Now three kids were watching, with three mouths agape,

As the Christmas tree lit up, and a singed cat escaped.

Like a reindeer in the headlights, I froze and just watched it.

“The fire extinguisher” my wife yelled, “Where is it?”

Then I saw on the counter a large bowl of punch

That was sitting there ready for our Christmas day lunch.

I grabbed it in a flash and ran toward the tree

As my wife charged in with extinguisher next to me

With a splash and a spray, the fire sputtered out

Bing Crosby crooned, and Bart meekly meowed.

As the kids gathered round like a pageant production

We collapsed on the floor and surveyed the destruction.

Our tree was half burnt, our presents all soaked,

Our cat was now black and our house full of smoke.

The fire alarm beeped, I panted and thought,

What about a perfect Christmas? Well, maybe not.

To top it all off—no surprise, with our luck—

When we picked up poor Bart, the darn tick was still stuck.

All you who want Christmas to be perfect, now hear:

That was how Christmas was ruined last year.

Have you ever felt like Christmas was ruined?

Maybe it was “ruined” by family drama, or bad weather, or stress. For some of us, Christmas isn’t full of joy and cheer, but a time that accentuates our grief.

Even when the holiday goes well, we often have such high expectations for Christmas that we feel an in inevitable let down when it is over.

Sometimes, don’t we think, “If only things could be perfect—if only we could have this special, happy time at Christmas, things would be OK.” I’ve thought that before.

The truth is, Christmas can never do what we want it to. Even if we have a picture-perfect Christmas, it won’t give us the peace, or joy, or sense of fullness and love that we long for. Christmas can’t do any of that. Only Christ can do that.

The Christmas story in the Bible is not about love, or peace, or kindness, or family. It’s about a person, Jesus Christ.

We heard it in the readings tonight: thousands of years before his birth, there were prophecies about him. In the Christmas story, he is the focus. Mary hears about Jesus. The angels announce to the shepherds that he has been born. The wise men come to worship him. He is the long-awaited Messiah, the King, the Savior, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.

So I say, enjoy the Christmas traditions you have. Savor the time with family you have. But if the holiday doesn’t live up to your hopes and expectations this year, remember that Jesus Christ will. He never fails. There is nothing you can do to ruin the truth that Jesus came as God in the flesh to be with us, to die on a cross to save us, and to bring us home.

The Value of a Life

The following is an article I wrote for the St. Albans Messenger, which was published on Friday, December 14th.

The Value of a Life

In the past eight days, I have attended two funerals. The first was for my grandfather. We anticipated his death for months. When it finally came, a few dozen family and friends gathered to mourn, reflect and celebrate his life. Eulogies were offered. Scriptures were read. Songs were sung. As far as funerals go, his was typical for an 87 year-old who died of “old age.”

The second funeral was for A.J. Holzscheiter, the 18-year-old BFA Senior who took his own life on November 30th.

A.J.’s death was anything but expected. He was young, healthy, and liked by all. He was a star athlete and an exemplary student looking forward to college, with many close friends and a tight-knit family.

Two funerals. Two very different circumstances. Yet both reminded me of one truth: life is precious.

It was at A.J.’s funeral that it hit me the hardest. As I stood in the back of the Collins-Perley Sports Complex (it was standing room only) and scanned the crowd, I saw the many other lives A.J.’s single life had touched. By my count, at least 750 people were there [I have since learned it was at least 1500]: A.J.’s family members, friends, teachers, classmates, teammates, and many friends of the family. At varying depths, our hearts all felt the same void left by A.J.s life. When something valuable is lost, we feel its value keenly. A.J.’s life was valuable. It was priceless.

If this is true of A.J., it was also true of my grandfather. It is true of everyone you love. It is true of your friends and your enemies. It is true of your mail carrier, your Hannaford’s cashier, and your furnace repairman. It is true of the old woman neglected in a nursing home and the celebrity at the peak of her fame. It is true of every single person living or dead who has populated this planet. And it is true of you. Your life is precious.

What gives our lives value is not our achievements, our usefulness to society, our productivity, or our beauty. Our value is inherent. It is the mark of the divine on us—or rather, in us. The famous passage in the first chapter of the Bible tells us that God created men and women “in the image of God.” Every person bears the indelible mark of their Maker. 

At Christmas we remember just how far the Maker went to prove the value of human life. God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), being born as a baby, growing up, and living a human life much like any other. Jesus came and shared in our human experience, and by his life showed the sacredness of all life. What is more, he came to bear all our human sorrows and pain, meeting an early death himself, in part to show that God is no stranger to our suffering.   

Don’t wait until a funeral happens to appreciate the value of a life. Behold the image of God in those all around you. Give hugs to your family. Be kind to strangers. Spend less time looking at screens and more time looking at faces. Prize people over things. Celebrate with those you love. Thank the God who gives the precious gift of life. I can’t think of anything more appropriate for the Christmas season.

My Top 9 Takeaways from Genesis

With our Genesis series in the rear-view mirror, I didn't want to move on too quickly without first reflecting on some of the big things I have learned. I hope you have gotten these out of Genesis also.

  1. God is the Great Initiator. He creates. He speaks. He loves. He comes to find Adam and Eve after they sin. He chooses Noah. He calls Abraham. He appears to Jacob. He makes covenants. He destroys. He saves. He works evil for Good. His initiative and power, not man’s, are what drive the story forward.   
  2. Human beings can have a relationship with God. This can only happen by God revealing himself to us and entering into a covenant with us. We then can choose to respond by faith and obedience. Faith is believing that God is real, active, and dependable. Obedience is doing what God commands based on the assurance that he is trustworthy.
  3. God is in control, yet we are responsible. The writer of Genesis commends the patriarchs for their faith and obedience, yet also warns us by describing their foolish escapades. 
  4. Sin has devastating consequences. Rebellion against God began a cascade of evil in the world. Genesis shows us the horrible fruit of that evil: murder, boasting in violence, abuse, rape, warfare, exploitation, deception, jealousy, pride, selfishness, and plenty more. The magnitude of sin is also revealed in God's judgment on the world through the flood and later his destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.   
  5. God is a redeemer. He chooses to save the world rather than destroy it. He uses messed-up, imperfect people to do his will. He is the master at weaving all events, even evil ones, into his good plan.
  6. God is patient. He is patient with Abraham’s family through their failures. He patiently waits for his plan to unfold. All the patriarchs waited for something. Abraham and Sarah waited 25 years for Isaac. Jacob spent 20 years in “exile” in Mesopotamia. Joseph spent 21 years in Egypt before he saw God's purpose in it. God is not in a hurry!
  7. Human nature is universal. The culture and setting of Genesis are far removed from ours. Practices that were normal then seem shocking or strange to us. Yet the human experience rings true.
  8. Our understanding of God through Genesis is limited. Genesis does not tell us everything we need to know about God.It raises as many questions about God as it gives answers. But Genesis is only the beginning of the story. We need the rest of Scripture to understand fully who God is.
  9. Genesis points to Jesus. Genesis creates expectation for a coming Messiah. With the New Testament, we can see how Jesus Christ fulfills these expectations. He is the second Adam who will rule over creation. He is the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head. He is the true heir of Abraham. He is the ram God provides instead of Isaac. He is the suffering servant, like Joseph, exalted to save. He is the Lion of Judah. Jesus is God’s final answer to the problem of sin. He carries out God's greatest work of redemption. All the questions we have about God in Genesis are answered in Jesus. All God's promises in Genesis lead to Jesus.   

Take some time to reflect on what you have learned through Genesis. How has Genesis affected your relationship with God? What has challenged you or comforted you? What unanswered questions do you have? 

The Power of Small

The following is a column I wrote for the St. Albans Messenger. I hope it is encouraging to you whether or not you are part of the Georgia Plain Baptist Church family. 


A member of our church recently returned from visiting family out of state. There, he attended a large church, complete with a parking crew, a loud worship band, and auditorium seating. When he relayed what the experience was like, he said with a smile that he sure was glad to get back to his little country church in Georgia.

The timing was uncanny, because I had just returned from a conference for Vermont pastors all about rural, small town ministry. It was called a “Small Town Summit” (smalltownsummits.com). I joined two other Franklin County pastors: Jason McConnell, of Franklin and East Franklin United Church, and B.J. Walters of Redeeming Grace Church in Georgia. The Summit’s goal was to gather rural pastors for encouragement and networking, to talk about the value of “ministering a great big gospel in small and forgotten places.”

Vermont is a small, often forgotten place. We have the second smallest population in the U.S. (after Wyoming). We usually make small headlines. We are a land dotted with small towns, small schools, and small churches.

The rest of our country (and world) is quickly moving in the opposite direction. In 2007, for the first time in our nation’s history, more people lived in urban areas than in rural ones. By 2050, only 30% of the U.S. population will inhabit small towns, while 70% will be in urban and suburban settings (in 1950, 70% were rural and 30% urban).

Many of us live in Vermont precisely because of its smallness. We love being out of the spotlight, away from the hustle and bustle. But in the wider culture, rural areas are forgotten and despised. We don’t have much of what the world values: cultural influence, wealth, or political power. How many people in Manhattan know or care about places like Richford or Fletcher?

Unfortunately, the same attitude has crept into the church. For decades, with the growth of the megachurch movement, small places have been overlooked, even despised. Since small places have less influence on culture, they were less strategic to reach, and had less of a return on investment of resources. For pastors, there’s a temptation to see a small country church as a “starter church” on the way to something bigger and better. For members of small churches, it can be tempting to think, “If only we had bigger attendance, a bigger budget, a bigger building, then we would have something to offer.”

But maybe that is all wrong.

It turns out that the gospel Christians believe exemplifies the power of small. If the story were not so familiar to us, it would seem ridiculous. Jesus was born in a stable and grew up with poor parents in a backcountry village. (“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” [John 1:46]). Jesus had only a handful of disciples. They had no property, no wealth, no political power. And when Jesus was crucified, it looked like a complete failure. What kind of strategy is that?

Likewise, God's love for small things is extravagant—even wasteful. He is like a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to go recover one that is lost (Luke 15:1-7). He throws extravagant parties for people who don’t deserve it (Luke 15:11-27). He gave his Son to die for people who can never repay him.

As one of the presenters at our conference said, “God does not disdain what is small.” On the contrary, he esteems it. His kingdom starts like a mustard seed (Matt 13:31-32), and in his economy, two pennies offered in love are more than a thousand dollars given for show (Mark 12:41-44).

The power of small is built into the very way God works and saves. Therefore, if you are a member of a small church, know that God has powerful work to do through you. It may not look flashy, strategic, or impressive, but it is eternally important. Embrace the power of small. 

A poem for the Jacob in all of us

Last Sunday we talked about how God wants to break the back of our self-reliance so that we can trust him. The truth is, as one writer Eugene Peterson said it, "The Kingdom of self is heavily defended territory." Sometimes we, like Jacob, need God's violence against our sinful nature so that we can surrender to him. This 400 year-old poem is by a man, John Donne, who knew that experience well.  It can take some work to make sense of the language, but it's well worth it.

Batter my heart, three person’d God (Holy Sonnet 14)
John Donne, 1572 - 1631
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
 

Try Church

The following is a column I wrote for the St. Albans Messenger's "Faith and Community" page. If you are reading this here, chances are you are already participating in the life of our church. I still hope this is encouraging to you. If you aren't part of our church (or any church), this is written especially for you.

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For many of us, the new year brings fresh energy and resolve to make life changes. Maybe you got a membership to Planet Fitness. Maybe you set a career goal like higher sales numbers, a promotion, or continuing education.

But let me suggest another resolution that, I believe, will have long-lasting benefits reaching into every part of your life: go to church. Here are three things I believe you (and I) need that the church has:

1.       Relationships. Our culture has overdosed on individualism. Church has the antidote. To some degree in every church, you will find community. Not just an affinity group, but real community: people from different walks of life with whom you find unexpected kinship. People to share your sorrows and celebrate your joys. People who challenge you and people who annoy you. People who show up with their truck when you move and with soup when you’re sick. In short, family. That’s why writers of the New Testament call fellow Christians “brother and sisters.” If you are feeling lonely or disconnected, you need the church. If your life revolves around your nuclear family, you need the church. You need the rich relationships that a church provides.

2.       Something bigger than yourself. What draws all these different people together? One word for it is a “metanarrative.” That is, a story that makes sense of all reality, including our own lives. For Christians, this metanarrative is the story the Bible tells—that a good God created us to love and be loved, that we have all gone horribly wrong, and that God came into history in the person of Jesus Christ to make us right again. The church has been the keeper and proclaimer of this story through history. In the act of gathering each week to sing, pray, and listen to the Bible, we remember that we are part of something much bigger than our own lives. And this, we believe, is the key to a healthy, flourishing life.

3.       Opportunities to serve. While there are many organizations through which to volunteer your time and talent, the church is unique because it is more than a service organization. It is a school for love. As we remember how God has sacrificially loved us, we learn to love others (1 John 4:19). Therefore, service in and through the church transcends volunteerism; it is soul-formation. And, paradoxically, as we learn to give ourselves away for others, we discover more about ourselves. Whether your gift is teaching, building, music, administration, encouraging, praying, giving, or something else, your gift is needed in the church.

As a pastor, I talk to people almost every week who tell me things like, “I’ve been meaning to get back to church, but life is too busy,” or, “I went to church when I was younger, but then I drifted away.”

There are many reasons people don’t go to church. What’s yours? Maybe you just don’t believe. Why not give the story of the Bible another hearing? Maybe you left church because you were hurt by people in the church. Why not give people another try? Maybe you think that you have many more important things to do on a Sunday morning. I suggest that you reconsider.

I know I’ve painted a pretty glowing picture. As a pastor, I can tell you that the church rarely lives up to her ideals. The church will disappoint you, and you will find plenty of evidence that people are not perfect. Yet this is exactly the reason we need the church so much. At its best, it is a place where broken people like you and me can find a greater love. 

So, for your sake, try church. And maybe in the process you will realize that it’s about something much bigger than yourself.

 

Thoughts on my Ordination

On Sunday, November 19th, I was ordained to pastoral ministry by Georgia Plain Baptist Church and the American Baptist Churches of Vermont and new Hampshire. Here are some reflections on that experience and what it means for us. 

  • It was about me. I admit this somewhat uncomfortably, as I don't enjoy being the center of attention. Yet the church was full of people who recognized my calling, have supported my ministry, and prayed for me to be empowered by the Spirit. Sunday was a time for me simply to receive that support, affirmation, and prayer. I was grateful and humbled for all who attended to support me--from our church, from my family, and from the community.
  • It was about you, the church. Pastors are called to a church, a specific body of believers. Just as it took many people from the church to host the event itself, it has taken this church as a whole to raise me up as a pastor. On Sunday we celebrated God's work in our church. And the reason I was ordained to ministry is to "equip God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" (Ephesians 4:11-12). As a "minister," my job is not to do the ministry but to teach and equip you, the church, to do the work of ministry.
  • It was about God. One of the most powerful parts of the service last Sunday for me was our songs of praise. We raised the roof with praises to our awesome God, and in so doing we remembered that we exist for His glory alone. Another powerful part of the service for me was the laying on of hands and prayer. As I knelt on the floor, with leaders laying their hands on me and the congregation stretching out their hands toward me, I believe that something actually happened in our church and in me. God's Spirit filled me in a new way for service to His people. It's all about God. 
  • Other thoughts:
    • For all others who played a part in the service, from setup, to greeting, to running the sound and video, to reading--thank you! And the Social Committee did an awesome job with the reception!
    • No, you don't need to call me Reverend Smith! Although I am a "Rev" on paper, my role is still a pastor to this church.

To God be the glory.