Details, Details: There’s Still Time to Save Your Christmas

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about dead presidents this year. It’s not because it’s Christmastime and I’ve been handing dead presidents to retailers like Amazon.

I’ve been thinking about dead presidents because this last year, I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.” By “reading” what I really mean is listening to the audiobook (because the book is over 750 pages and I’ve got a life and family).

A few years ago I read Goodwin’s book about Lincoln, Team of Rivals, and I learned my lesson. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Doris Kearns Goodwin spent over 7 years writing “The Bully Pulpit.” When reading, you can’t help but realize the superabundance of newspaper articles, editorials, interviews, journals, calendars, and dairies she combed through to master the material.

I’m taken by the number of books she has read about both William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. Goodwin chronicles every aspect, every facet, of their lives, beginning with the births of their mothers and fathers to who they dated to what grades they received in school. I’d find it hard to believe that anything has been written about either Roosevelt or Taft that Doris Kearns Goodwin either hasn’t read or didn’t write.

I say all of that to say: When it comes to these two Presidents, Doris Kearns Goodwin knows every conceivable detail…750, small print pages worth.

Just think: All of that work, over Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft?

While Roosevelt and Taft might someday come in handy as Trivial Pursuit answers, there have been 44 Presidents of The United States, and most Presidents aren’t that memorable.

Not many – without the aid of Google – can recall the grand ambitions of Grover Cleveland or Benjamin Harrison. Simply put, not every President is remarkable. They can’t all be hefty enough to get stuck in a bathtub after all.

But all U.S. Presidents were – at the very least – one of the most powerful people on the planet during their day. They were either making and guiding a new nation or shaping and leading the world’s most powerful one; yet few of us can name even half of them.

Forty-four of the most influential people to have ever lived, but few people can name 22 of those 44.

Like me, we have to read books to remind ourselves of the issues which seemed like the most important and pressing matters in the world at the time. Looking back we can see some issues were incredibly significant. Many were not.

We care little about the muckrakers and why Roosevelt’s and Taft’s Republican Party was so strongly in favor of unions and their rights to collectively bargain.

There was a time, however, when certain minute details kept people up at night, grayed thinning hairlines, and wrinkled brows. It was all terribly important…once. But as our lives have proven, it wasn’t all that memorable.

Few details turn out to matter. Much of what humans fret about as impactful doesn’t last either.

We shouldn’t be surprised, though. Most things don’t last.

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Speaking of Michael Brown

As we approach the end of the year, I’m reposting the most popular blog posts of the year. Here is one of my favorites that you also loved. Please share for your friends who may have missed it the first time around.

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My friend, a fellow preacher, Jeff, took his wife bowling a few years back. In the lane next to them a couple drank, bowled, and drank some more. Jeff, never having met a stranger, struck up a conversation. As tends to happen in conversation, the woman asked, “What do you do for a living?” Jeff replied, “I’m a preacher.” Throwing her head back, swishing another Coors down her gullet, she looked back, and said, “I hope you’re a good preacher.”
Jeff smiled.

“I go to church,” she added. “I like my preacher because he talks about real s***!”

If I were to criticize my professional guild, I would say this: Sometimes, we lack the will, the clarity, or the courage, to talk about things that matter.

In Search of Michael Brown

Many Christians went to church Sunday and didn’t hear the name Michael Brown. It came as a welcomed event for some. Brown’s name is all over the news as well as the cable and radio outlets pretending to be news. I’m sure there are many of us who were more than happy to sing rousing choruses of How Great Is Our God and Oceans, without the bother of being swept up in the deluge of news regarding a slain, unarmed black kid.

At the same time, there were sparse mentions of Israel and Hamas, ISIS, Ebola, and other devastating revelations pooling around the world. And that’s sad. It’s sad because it reveals (once again) the anemic ability of Christian churches to talk about things that matter.

Why The Problem Exist (In Part)


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Christmas at St. Francis’ House

A friend of mine was walking through his neighborhood a few weeks before Christmas years ago. As he approached one house, he noticed the Nativity in the front yard. Everything was in its place; shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and manger. Only inside the manger was the baby Jesus wearing a Santa Claus hat; a fur-lined, red, hat with that cool looking white ball thingy at the top. That’s the problem with Christmas – many of us cannot see the difference between who Jesus was, what He taught and did, and the unhinged, consumerism of America’s most gluttonous season.

It requires us to ask: What should we be thinking and doing at Christmas?

Before a renaissance in my own thinking over the last 10 years, Christmas was essentially about getting the stuff wanted, the presents under the tree.  A good Christmas meant I got what I wanted and the sweet potato pie was tasty.  It had nothing to do with Jesus.  In my religious tradition we simply did not celebrate Christmas as a religious event.

It was purely secular!

I remember asking my sixth grade Sunday school teacher, Larry, why we didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, and why we paid absolutely no attention to the Christian calendar.  No Pentecost! No Advent! Nothing! 

Larry told me that no one knew the exact dates of those events so to celebrate them on the dates proposed was outside what we knew from the Bible.  That’s true, I suppose.

However, I also knew that my grandmother, as a black woman born shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Mississippi, had no birth certificate and no one could remember her exact birth date, but she still got older each year and we still acknowledged her life. I applaud Larry and the church of my youth for being concerned about what the Scriptures say, but at the end of the day it taught me that Christmas was about the same thing that Fisher-Price and Mattel wanted Christmas to be about: The stuff!

Shake It Off

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around, I know that there are very few things that I need. A new pair of pants, some new shoes, maybe, but nothing alluring – no iPhones or new cars.  I tell myself that I don’t need anything, don’t want anything, and that I won’t ask for anything, but I can never keep up with my plans.  Suddenly newer things start shining, old things seem, well, old and in need of replacement.  Those items and interest that seemed like nice hobbies to start “one day” turn into imperatives that need me to invest in them immediately.  So I end up needing, asking and wanting more. Thank goodness for Cyber Monday!

Before I know it, this time of year, this Advent season, in which the church is to anticipate the coming of Jesus into the world, this time when we are to be looking to the Heavens with expectation about the healing of the world and the healing of our broken relationships with God and each other has somehow become a dime store smash and grab to see what stuff we can make off with.

Have you ever had that experience?

Am I the only one?

Recently, I was thinking about my Christmas coveting and reading about Francis of Assisi (these are not two things you should do simultaneously).  Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant and had visions of becoming a fighter. After an illness, however, he began to experience deep religious feelings.  He would go off by himself to pray, wore ragged clothes and gave away money from the family business to the poor.  As you might imagine, this made his father a little – um, irritated!  His father took Francis to court and asked that the Bishop force him to give back all the money Francis had given to the poor.  Equally as irritated as his father, Francis stripped off all his clothes, hurled them toward his father and walked out of the court proclaiming that he would only now speak of his Father in Heaven.

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Giving Your Kids The Gift of Discouragement

“Sean, you’re not a very good pitcher.” My mom’s words cut like a knife at 10-year’s old after a baseball season which started out with strong performances on the mound, but ended in a game when I was taken off the mound and sent, unceremoniously, to play shortstop.

I was a great hitter in those days, and a darn good first baseman, but I also wanted to pitch. The problem was that I wasn’t very good at it. I couldn’t find the strike zone. At one point my team suffered through multiple games watching me walk the bases loaded and walk run ins. Our team was good, so we mostly overcame the obstacles I erected, but nevertheless, my Won-Loss record was less than reputable.

Then my mom told me I stunk as a pitcher. After that, I quit pitching.

In today’s parenting culture, my mother would be raked over the coals for not being encouraging enough or supporting me or helping me dream big. I understand why the rod of contemporary parents is bent toward encouragement. Too many people grew up with too little encouragement. Some had none at all. As I told parents when I was a youth worker, more people die of a broken heart than a swelled head. I get it. I really do, but concurrent with a parents job to encourage, is their much more delicate duty to discourage.

But first, let’s distinguish “discouragement” from being a downer or jerk or disheartening your children. A certain kind of discouragement is designed to make folks feel badly about themselves and their abilities. That’s not what we’re after. To discourage someone is simply to persuade them against an action. Encouragement, then, is to give support or confidence for an action. Parents cannot be one-note. We have to both encourage and discourage, lest our children be ill-equipped to face the world, deal with reality, and run amok. Discouragement allows the people we love to focus more intently on God’s gifting in them.

Here’s what I mean: When my mom discouraged my pitching, I didn’t shrink into life’s background. I developed deeper virtues.

In response, I focused on my fielding and redoubled my attention on batting. I could do this because my mom had been otherwise encouraging. As a boy, my mother was present for every baseball and soccer game, every band concert, and every other amateur undertaking I attempted. Even today she listens to every sermon posted online and reads every word I write (Hi Mom). She wants me to win in life.

Second, my brother and I were taught, from our earliest days, that quitting was never an option. Regardless of how well or poorly we performed, we could not and would not quit. Resilience was built into our mental and emotional hardware. When I quit pitching, I didn’t stop playing baseball. In the intervening years, my brother and I have faced multiple setbacks, each time, we stopped, pulled ourselves together, made the best of it and move forward with renewed energy. When I look back over the arch of my life, I’m equally grateful to my parents for their encouragement and discouragement.

I fear one of the necessary virtues lost to modern parents is bestowing the gift of discouragement. There seems to be so much focus on encouraging  kids, that some of us have forgotten, not everything is praiseworthy. Without doses of both encouragement and discouragement humans are destined to set themselves adrift into seas for which they were not designed.

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The Faulty Formula: How The ‘Return To God’ Sermon Isn’t About God

The formula is now concretized to the point that it takes almost no imagination to preach or teach the “return to God” sermon. Here’s how it goes (as if I need to explain it to you): 1. The world/culture/country is in terrible shape. 2. Here are all the aspects where the world/culture/country are out-of-whack. 3. It didn’t use to be this way when I was a kid. We used to have a better world/culture/country. 4. Here’s a list of all the people responsible for the shoddy state of contemporary world/culture/country. 5. The only way to fix it is for our world/culture/country is to “return to God” (which, just coincidentally, coincides with “the way things used to be when I was a kid”).

You’ve heard this sermon? If not, I can send you some URL’s. As a matter of fact, my ears were recently assaulted by a sermon by someone stating when he grew up he didn’t know any gay people (and no, it was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad).

One reason you’ve heard this sermon before is because nearly every motivator is deployed. First, selective nostalgia drawn from fuzzy memories — which all memories are — are employed as the ideal world. Second, disdain for cultural phenomenons we dislike or don’t understand, are positioned as evil on the basis of our own lack of understanding. Third, a clearly identified enemy (which is never the hearer, but always “those people”) is at fault. And finally, the power of God is offered as the magic wand for everything the speaker dislikes.

Without reflection, this sounds like a pretty good homily. In fact, in certain circles, this sermon formula produces a defined and predictable response: standing ovations. After all, who doesn’t have a fairly good list of things they wish are different about our world? I do. And what a relief to know that if enough of us performed the right religious dance steps everything would return to the way we think we remember it.

But there’s a problem: This sermon formula mocks God.

We Should Have Learned This Already

In 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites are fighting their archenemies, the Philistines. We use the word Philistine as an insult, the truth is they were an advanced nation whose chief business was metal-work. That means the Israelites were fighting with sticks and stones against an army using swords and spears.

[In those days, the Philistines warred against Israel,] and the warriors of Israel went out to fight them. They camped at Ebenezer while the Philistine forces made camp at Aphek. The Philistines lined up against Israel; and when they advanced, they defeated Israel, killing about 4,000 of Israel’s warriors on the battlefield. 1 Samuel 4:1b–2

The Israelites go out to war and get CRUSHED! In the aftermath, the generals get together to recalibrate.

 

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