Thursday, December 31, 2009


2009 concludes within a few hours. It was a historic year as the first African-American in history, Barak Obama took office as the 45th President of the United States. Now 12 months later there are mixed reviews on that presidency although Mr. Obama is the most popular male figure to Americans.

But most of the rest of the year people would prefer to forget. Debate raged in our country over healthcare--and a Christmas Eve vote along largely partisan lines launched our country into an experiment that may deliver healthcare to more Americans but leaves a lot of uncertainty as the economic and social cost to our nation. A botched terror attack on a flight into Detroit on Christmas reminded us that nine years after 9-11 we still cannot assure the safety of our people from a determined terrorist. The re-emergence in Yemen of Al Quaida once again reveals the unabated hatred of radical Islam towards the US. GM, which has shed Saturn and Saab, and countless loyal dealers, seems once again poised for a government bailout in the name of saving jobs and the economy. And the most admired athlete of the 21st century, Tiger Woods, has been revealed as self-indulgent adulterer, humiliating his wife and disappointing kids who had seen him as their role model.

And those are just the "lowlights" of 2009--not even the worst.

This is why biblical Christians continue to believe that we live in a fallen world, where man's basic sinfulness is the default mode of life and values--without a heart transplant from a holy God. It's not a matter of negativity or judgmentalism. It is simply a confession of reality.

It is also why we believe that you do not change our world by self-improvement, or social legislation, or better education, or vigilant law enforcement, or political movements, or by appealing to humanity's better nature. Our world is changed by one life at a time being changed by the transforming power of the love of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Invictus rewritten by Dorothy Day

Out of the night that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be
For Christ the conqueror of my soul.

Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under that rule which men call chance
My head with joy is humbly bowed.

Beyond this place of sin and tears
That life with Him! And His the aid,
Despite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and shall keep me, unafraid.

I have no fear, though strait the gate,
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate,
Christ is the Captain of my soul.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Thought you would enjoy some Christmas fun as you clean up the wrapping paper, the remnants of broken toys, sweep up the cookie crumbs, nibble of leftover ham, plot the return of unwanted presents, and wait for the credit card bills.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


It is a little before 8:00 am. It is quiet at my house. This Christmas only our adult son Christopher has been able to join us. We have family coming around 12:30 as we host the Dunn Family Christmas, but those preparations are pretty much in place. It doesn't take that long for three adults to read the Christmas story, open presents, and eat breakfast. Since there are no little folks coaxing my family to get up--our Christmas morning celebration will probably wait until 9:30 (when I will coast the other two to get up so we can get on with our family Christmas.

For a pastor, after the hustle and bustle and intensity of Christmas Eve with its special services and a very special message to prepare--Christmas morning is almost anticlimactic. There's nothing really to do--no church projects to tackle, no meetings to attend, no sermons to prepare, etc. Just a morning of heavenly peace to embrace and to enjoy. And when they finally get up--you can have quality time with your family.

For me--the unscheduled, peaceful morning and an opportunity to spend time with my family is a wonderful gift. It is second only to another gift, for which we celebrate this day:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son ..."


Wednesday, December 23, 2009


"Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one
another ...
And do this, understanding the present time.
The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber,
because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
The night is nearly over, the day is almost here.
So let us put aside the deeds of darkness, and put on the armor of light."
-Romans 13: 8,11-12


"The stocking were all hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there ..."

It is just two more days. Are you ready for Christmas? Personally, I finished my Christmas shopping Monday night, my Christmas Eve sermon yesterday. Today I took a day off to make sure that the house would be ready for family to arrive. But I confess, I still haven't taken real time to ready my heart for Christmas.

"Dear Lord, forgive me when the hype and the hustle of preparing for the Christmas celebration makes me rush past the reason for the season. Help me in these remaining hours to slow down, open my heart and my mind, to let You enter in. For the best Christmas present of all has already been delivered and it didn't come by Federal Express. It came in the person of Jesus. As I celebrate His birth,help me to allow His life to make a difference in the way I live. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


It's three days to Christmas. I actually finished my Christmas shopping last night, but this morning I received these words from Scot McKnight on his blog Jesus Creed.

"On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh" (Matthew 2:10-11). Christmas, the original one, had gifts.

Some are torn about giving gifts at Christmas because they protest consumerism.
Some are torn about giving gifts because they are unemployed.
Some are torn about giving gifts at Christmas because so many are poor.

But giving gifts transcends a Dickens kind of Christmas. Giving gifts, regardless of whether or not we can offer the royal gifts of gold and incense and myrrh, are natural to Christmas because God "gave" his Son to us at Christmas. Christmas is gift and our gifts mirror God's gifts to us.

Perhaps we should see all of our gifts as "regifting."

We give worship to God at Christmas as regifting what God has given to us.
We give gifts to others as regifting what God has given to us.

We regift to God, not because we are cheap but because all we have to offer to God is what he has given to us: our possessions, our money, our lives, our very selves. Even our worship is participation in the perichoretic worship of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

I don't mean to sound cute with this idea that Christmas is about gifts and regifting. I mean only to say that all we have has been given to us and at Christmas all genuine gifts are participations in what God has given to us. We pass it on.


Last night I watched one of my top ten Christmas movies, George C. Scott's version on A Christmas Carol. During his visit from the ghost of Christmas Past, he is shown all of the things about his past--good and ill, finishing with a disturbing picture of love and life lost to Ebenezer's greed and obsessions. Scrooge demands the ghost depart him, but as it evaporates, the spirit cries out. "Truth will win!" Denial and rationalization does not change the consequences of our past choices. The truth will work through and we will have to live with the truth. We cannot change the past.

But we can change the future!

How so? First, by not holding onto the past but by learning from it. Are there persistent patterns of thought and behavior in your life that consistently fail and rarely satisfy? That might be the first clue as to what you need to face. Does your personal story always begin with the disappointments in your life, is your default mode a victim mentality? You may very well be holding onto the past. The only thing you are learning from the past is how to stay there.

Second, make a relentless moral inventory. What is there about your values and your character that create negative, self-defeating, destructive patterns? Don't trust simply our feelings (your feelings often lie to you). Don't trust your own capacity to see the truth. Find someone you trust and invite them to speak the truth in love to you.

Third, seek the help of God to see what can be changed and to empower you to be changed. Ebeneezer Scrooge wasted a lot of his life, and caused a lot of suffering to others along the way. But because he made those changes, he was honored because "he always kept Christmas in his heart."

"Behold, I am making all things new!" - Jesus

Monday, December 21, 2009


It is now four days until Christmas. Unless you have been swamped at work, or immobilized by depression, or just a major procrastinator; I suspect your Christmas decorating is complete, Christmas cards have been sent, presents to distant relatives have been sent, menu for Christmas dinner established, and you are preparing the house for a family time.

Let me ask a simple question. Are you ready for Jesus?

This is not one of those "turn or burn" evangelistic questions. It is a simple question about your focus and your openness. In our culture, it is very easy to let the reality of Christ to be lost in the observance of Christmas. Not totally so since researchers tell us this is the number one time people go to church--it's both a family tradition and politically correct. But are you making a point each day as Christmas approaches to remember the message, "God is with us." Are you thanking God for the most essential and awesome gift ever given--Jesus Christ? Are you going about your holiday business in the name of Christ?

And openness? How about this prayer ...

Heavenly Father, I know that You have loved us unconditionally and unasked.
I know that You sent Jesus into the world--first to the cradle and ultimately
to a cross-so that we might no longer be separated from You.
I know that You desire to make us a new creation, to give us a fresh start.
Help me to be open to what Jesus wants to do in and through me,
At Christmas and beyond.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is a beautiful place to live. Yesterday's snowstorm added to its beauty. It is also gave me an unexpected day off. Don't go me wrong, despite being a recovering workaholic, I enjoy a day off. But I confess, I don't like Sunday being that day. I live to worship God and live abundantly because I worship. I know theologically that I can worship God alone in a golf course on a Tuesday afternoon enjoying the sweet sound of a warm breeze passing through the trees. But I worship best in the company of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Sharing their joys, uniting our hearts and voices in praise to God, hearing read scripture and say "This is the Word of God for the People of God", feeling their hand upon my shoulder as they pray for me, listening to someone share their personal God story--these are the things that enrich my worship time and multiply its blessings.

Plus, I am a preacher and God had given me a message for His people. It's hard to be overflowing with the Good News of Jesus Christ and have to save it for next week.
Really thankful that Christmas Eve is Thursday. Won't have to wait a whole seven days before experiencing the power of worshiping with God's people.


Some of us try to keep our budgets under control. 70 channels of basic cable is enough. But I like sports, including professional football. I know it's a business, but frankly it makes enough money that it really doesn't need to reserve some of its product for a special network, for which it can charge even. It was bad enough my a meaningless game between the hapless Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers was scheduled on a Thursday night so only people who wanted to pay more for cable could see the game.(That stuck in my craw because my beloved hapless Browns finally beat the Steelers and I had to settle for a few clips from ESPN.) But when a truly important game like the unbeaten Colts versus the Jaguars on Thursday night and Saturday night's contest between the Cowboys and the unbeaten Saints was also denied the general football public because both were on the NFL Network.

It seems like a mark of our persistent falleness that someone is always figuring out how to make some people "haves" and others "have nots."

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I am Irish by ancestry and thought this little prayer would help you as you focus on your final preparations for Christmas.


The first major snow storm of 2009 hit Lancaster County (and the entire Middle Atlantic region) early Saturday morning. They had been watching it develop and storm track projections had it pretty much making where we live Ground Zero. Coming on a Saturday, most of us welcomed the event as it gave us an excuse to abandon work projects, the crowded malls and stores, and just cocoon without guilt. I went to the office before the storm had begun do its major damage and in the solitude finished most of my preparations for Sunday morning and completed a project or two that needed to be ready Monday.

I also sent out email on the "contingency plan" for the storm's impact on our Sunday morning worship schedule. Emails went to all the persons who have leadership responsibilities reminding them of our cancellation policies and letting them know we would not implement any plan until six a.m. Sunday morning. We posted (per our practice) initial information on the church web site.

By policy we do not cancel worship services unless a snow emergency is declared or our church parking lots are unusable. Too many of our people consider worship so important that they prefer to be at church honoring the Lord and encouraging one another if at all possible. In this church and others, we have always found people who came. When the weather is bad and cancellation conditions have not met, we simply ask them to use their best judgment. And many a time, given the unpredictability of weather and the efficiency of road crews, a cancellation made on a Saturday has turned out to be premature--as the wind died down, the sun came out, and people were out and about to the malls, to the restaurants, snowmobiling--just not at church.

As a pastor, I am always inclined to be available for whoever needs to worship instead of canceling and being available to no one who needs to worship. More than one time, although attendance was slim, it was that morning that some one who did make it church heard a message that was vital to their lives, or someone else desperately needed to connect with caring Christians for prayer and support. Or given the "changes" required by a worship service on those days--the Spirit prompted some important opportunities for people to connect.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Four of my top five are movies that I grew up on. They're what I watched on Christmas Eve until the television switched over to a Midnight Christmas Eve Service from places like St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

5. Charlie Brown's Christmas was Charles Schulz wonderful portrayal of Christmas. Schulz was a wonderful Christian whose comic strip Peanuts often carried powerful theological observations. Charlie's Christmas was a whole lot more like mine, and certainly a cut above Ralphie's.

4. It's a Wonderful Life is generally at the top of most lists. Jimmy Stewart had a powerful portrayal of what life is like devoid of hope; but also how one life impacts another.

3. The Nativity Story is the one Christmas movie that actually compels me to worship. It is more than entertainment. In a few years of watching it, I suspect it will move to number one.

2. Miracle of 34th Street is a reminder of the simple joys of Christmas, especially for children. It is also a cautionary tale about trying too hard to take a scientific look at life instead of letting Christmas have some mystery. Plus, I love it when the US Post Office (which represents the "In God We Trust USA") recognizes Santa.

1. Next to the Nativity story, A Christmas Carol is the most spiritually redeeming of all Christmas stories. This is the one I watched as a kid (in black and white). My favorite scene is when Ebenezer Scrooge goes out of his mind with joy when he realizes he has a second chance in life.

And that's one of the most powerful lessons of Christmas - either in God's Word or in literature. God is making something new. He is giving us a second chance to live in the light, not in the darkness--to embrace hope instead of despair--to live the more perfect way of love.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Each Christmas we see some wonderful Christmas movies ... and we see some real "turkeys." Despite TNT's obsession with "The Christmas Story," I have great difficulty with this ode to a totally dysfunctional family. Ralphie's phobias are simply sad. If I had that childhood, I'd want to forget it and pray my adulthood had Christmases more worth celebrating.

Hollywood has generally stayed away from movies actually portraying Christ's birth. Until The Nativity Story (2008), most of our memorable Christmas movies are about the Christmas spirit rather than an explicit religious message. With that in mind, here are my top ten starting at #10.

10. Scrooged Charles Dicken's classic A Christmas Carol is perhaps one of the most powerful vehicles describing the conflict between the greed and self-serving of humanity versus good will, brotherhood, and giving. This crazy take-off starring Bill Murray was a glitzy, fast-moving and tongue-in-the cheek assault on the crass commercialization of Christmas that defied the humility of the babe in the manger,

9. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the original antimated version--not the insanity of the Jim Carey version (my insanity quotient was used up with Scrooged) was Dr, Suess' classic reminder that Christmas is not about materialism, it is about a heart of generosity and the greater value of relationships.

8. Next comes the sheer fun of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Chevy Chase's obsession with the perfect Christmas experience to the hilt was a powerful parable of how we place too much pressure on Christmas to bring us happiness.

7. Loyalty and friendship are the wonderful message of White Christmas. Even two theatrical schemers like Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby exhibit their better side when a friend is in need. (Normally Christmas musicals are a little too syrupy for my tastes, but this one was worth the song and dance.)

6. George C Scott's version of A Christmas Carol gave a wonderfully artistic portrayal of Scrooge as he assesses his life and its consequences.

Now check in tomorrow for the top five. How about you, what are your favorites?

Monday, December 14, 2009


Just so you know, this is not my favorite Christmas movie. Actually, it wins my award for the Most Crass Christmas Movie That Gets Replayed Too Many Times. Actually, I'd be interested in which Christmas movies have taken a special place in your heart. Watch for tomorrow's LIFE MATTERS for my personal top ten, and my "Life Matters Reasons" for why these movies are worth watching over and over.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


A picture is worth a thousand words ... my caption is "Angels in Training." Any caption suggestions?

Monday, December 7, 2009


The Christmas season has been underway for some time now. Christmas carols have been playing over the radio and mall music systems for several weeks. We are now being inundated with Christmas movies and specials on the television, especially on cable. The Salvation Army Bell ringers are now positioned outside the stores (this year I understand with credit card readers since people don't carry cash). The stores are being jammed with shoppers who don't seem to think there's a recession going on.

There have long been two celebrations of Christmas in America. The first, the cultural one, I have pretty much described it above. The latter is the spiritual celebration, the Christian holiday that proclaims the birth of Jesus Christ and the message of hope He brings.

These dual celebrations, however, often spark a "Christmas war". Marketers, mindful of the cultural celebration, try to bleach the Christ out of Christmas. "Happy holidays" is the politically correct and market smart (so they believe) way of greeting people in the season. Christians, especially those who are frustrated by the loss of respect and influence in America for Christianity, bridle at anything less than a heart "Merry Christmas" (even in the clerk or service provider has no religious affiliation or values). Already my email in-box is filled with strident jeremiads that we need to fight to keep Christ in Christmas.

Frankly, I don't stress or obsess over this issue. A hollow declaration of "Merry Christmas" is empty of meaning and about as useful as a prayer ritualistically recited in a church service. The systematic de-Christing Christmas of references to the Savior does offend me; but making it a personal affront to which I feel the need to retaliate seems inconsistent with a follower of the Prince of Peace.

Christmas is really a celebration of the Incarnation, of God loving His people enough to come in the flesh to redeem us from our sin. Philippians 2.5-11 tells us about this and declares, "Let your attitude be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but humbled himself and took the form of a servant .."

To me--Christians would better serve God by not insisting that people keep Christ in Christmas by saying "Merry Christmas" but by being Christ in Christmas. The best declaration to the world that Jesus Christ has been born is not a holiday saying or manger scenes or overt religious ceremonies, but by taking a cue from Christ--by serving people with the same sacrificial love Christ exhibited--doing it in Jesus name--serving even those who despise Christ and Christians.