Thanks: 2014 Blog in Review

I am humbled and grateful for everyone who reads my posts. The report below about my readership this year shocked me with yet another reminder of the global village we are privileged to live in. With all the pain and suffering in the world, with all the aggravation that modern technology creates, the potential of the information age to build bridges instead of walls between people is a shining ray of hope. Blessings and peace to you all as we link arms and walk faithfully into the new year.

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,300 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 22 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Best Christmas Gift

For a Christmas Meditation I’m pleased that my very dear friends, Bill and Peg Hull, gave me permission to share their Christmas letter with you. It is one of the very best personal reflections of applying the Christmas story to a real life journey I’ve ever heard. So with gratitude for the good news of the season and this particular good news, here is their gift.

The year 2014 has been a journey in the Hull house. At times it was akin to the journey of the Magi, trekking through the dark of night, focused on the leading of the Star. But, there must have been nights when the clouds obscured the light of the Star. What did the Magi do then? Did they keep on, hoping they were going in the right direction, or did they stop and wait for the Star to reappear?

There were times in the last year when the Star was difficult to spot from our house. Peg was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013. We were assured that it was a gradual process that could be controlled with medication. After all, look at Michael J. Fox leading an active and relatively normal life. We could see the Star.

Then suddenly Peg’s health began to fail. In a matter of a few months she regressed from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair. At the same time, the cognitive ability of her wonderful mind slipped, sometimes dramatically. Her doctors began to question her diagnosis until they conceded that they were stumped.

In the midst of that process, our older son Bryan had a fire in his mobile home. The blessing was that he was not injured. The bad news was that his home was left unlivable. The night was pretty cloudy.

Then we received an early Christmas present. We had been going to the University of Michigan’s geriatric neurology clinic. As something of a long shot the doctors decided that her rapid decline might be the result of an extremely rare hypersensitivity to one of her medications. They gradually removed the medication and the result was a near-miraculous improvement in her physical and mental condition.

Was it a miracle? It depends on your definition of a miracle. Hundreds of times I have stood at the bedside of the sick and prayed, “Lord, we know that all healing comes from you in whatever form it comes.” Whether prayer or prescription, sacrament or surgery, it is God who provides the healing.

The Star is back. Really, it was there all the time. Indeed, when the night was the darkest, it shone the brightest. It was just that, at times, the clouds of discouragement and desperation blocked its light.
Thanks to their caring determination love became incarnate again, in and through the doctors at the clinic. I don’t know anything about their beliefs, but I believe as did John Wesley that God is at work in the life of every human being. Again, Love came down at Christmas. Jesus was the greatest gift ever, but he told us that there would be another Advocate, another Comforter when He returned to the Father. I believe that Advocate was/is at work through the skills and just as importantly through the caring of the doctors. It is the best Christmas gift we have ever gotten.
Thanks be to God for this wonderful gift and for the One who was and is and forever will be the author and bringer of all good gifts. May the Love of God come down again to you in whatever specific way is best in this special season.

The Journey from Bah to Aha

I am not a fan of the way we Americans do Christmas. Most everything about this season bugs me, as in Bah Hum-bug! How do I hate it? Let me count the ways: Black Thanksgiving week consumer mania, Christmas lights that mysteriously become tangled and dysfunctional while tucked in their storage boxes, frozen fingers putting said lights up outdoors, and temporary outbursts of December charity to quiet guilty consciences for another year so we can ignore the injustices in our society that keep people trapped in poverty, just to name a few.

I used to think my negativity about the Holidays was because my employment for most of my adult life required a lot of extra effort in November and December. I worked my way through college working for a florist and put in many long hours from before Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve preparing, selling, and delivering floral finery for festive occasions. And then I jumped out of the frying pan into the fire of being a pastor – writing sermons, planning worship services, caroling parties, collecting donations for those in need, visiting the homebound. Non-stop activity for the entire Advent season leaves little time or energy for doing all the “normal” things people do at home and with family and friends. The last church I served we had Christmas Eve services at 4, 7, 9, and 11, and by the time I crawled into bed early Christmas morning any Christmas spirit I had was pretty well spent. In fact, just writing that paragraph makes me want to go take a long winter’s nap!

There are of course many rewards to the Christian observances of Christmas, and I don’t mean to belittle those. Seeing the joy in a mother’s eyes when we made it possible for her family to have food and gifts for Christmas, sharing carols or communion with a nursing home patient, or singing “Silent Night” with my church family all holding lighted candles at midnight on Christmas Eve are priceless experiences.

2014 is my first year of full retirement from pastoral ministry, and what I’ve discovered is that it wasn’t my various holiday-intensive jobs that made me Grinchy. I still don’t like the way we do Christmas, and that realization helped me come to an Aha moment as I sat in worship on the 2nd Sunday of Advent this year. The sermon by Rev. Tom Slack was based on Mark 1 and stressed the urgency of John the Baptist’s call for repentance in preparation for the imminent appearance of the Christ. To repent means to turn around, to change the way I’m going, and when I applied that to my Ebeneezer Scrooge approach to Christmas I realized, as anyone else could have told me, that my attitude is a choice. I can continue to be a moaning and groaning critic of all the things that are wrong with the way we do Christmas, or I can do as Gandhi suggests and “Be the change I want to see in the world.”

The serenity prayer came to mind and as usual is very good advice. It asks God for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” I can’t change the way other people choose to spend their time or money at Christmas, and if I could, complaining and criticizing is never the most effective way to persuade anyone to change. Secondly, that prayer asks for “the courage to change the things I can.” The only thing I really can change directly is me and my attitude, and that is far more likely to affect others either positively or negatively than any words ever will. As someone once said, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say,” or as St. Francis put it, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

How I relate to others one-on-one, be in a homeless stranger or family and friends, those I love most, or how I treat harried sales clerks and UPS drivers and restaurant servers who are just trying to scratch out a living is a powerful example of either Christ-like compassion or Grinchy grouchiness – and both are contagious. God not only loves a cheerful giver, God knows any other giving is not generosity at all.

Is turning an attitude around easy to do? Not for me. I need a guiding star or Rudolph with his red nose to guide me through the fog of clever marketing and the frustrations of crowded calendars and freeways and malls. Rudolph goes down in history for rescuing Christmas. That’s not my goal. I simply want to do my small part to share the Good News of God’s unconditional love for us by the way I choose to live in spite of and because of the holy busyness of this season.

Everyone in the Christmas story makes individual choices that are critical to the outcome. Some of those choices are blatantly selfish and evil. Caesar Augustus decrees that a poor peasant girl in the final days of her pregnancy must make a dangerous journey to Bethlehem and deliver her precious infant in a barn. Herod’s insecurity drives him to order the murder of innocent children. But those choices from people in power aren’t the choices we celebrate. An overwhelmed innkeeper provides the best shelter he has when there is no room in the inn. A frightened Mary says “yes” to God’s plan for her when she could have ignored or laughed at the audacity of that angelic announcement. And her amazing fiancé loves her enough to trust her unbelievable explanation of how she came to be pregnant. These are all simple individual choices that changed the course of human history.

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t waste any time with genealogies and background stories. John the Baptist and a grown up Jesus both burst on the scene in chapter one demanding that we repent and believe the Gospel. They call me to follow Jesus no matter how busy or frustrated I am or what fantastic doorbuster bargains Walmart and Amazon are dangling in front of me. They remind me that my job is not to judge how others celebrate the birth of Christ. God or Santa can decide who’s naughty or nice. My job is to know what I can control (me) and be the best star-following disciple I can be.