Christmas and the Tree

Just last night, my family decided to attend the City of Riverside Festival of Lights.  The Festival is really quite special, as the Mission Inn (one of the twenty something missions Catholic missionaries built that spurred the beginning of California) is decorated with millions of lights and faux carolers and the downtown city walk is full of people and vendors and singers and food carts (the typical fare- kettle corn, chocolate, gingerbread something or others…).  Anyway, the festival is a wonderful walk and provides lots of light and time for conversation about remembering this or that Christmas song or how the city has grown.  In many ways, it is a time to consumerize (a word?) the season (and the Festival starts right next to the Occupy Riverside!), but in many other ways it is a chance to be wowed and a chance to be thankful as we gather memories of Christmas songs, Christmas trees, holiday food and trips to the Mission Inn.

Yes, I did mention Christmas trees.  Lots of them.  The Festival winds itself from University Boulevard through the downtown city walk to the Riverside Convention Center, where at least 100 trees were set up, decorated and purchased by businesses and schools in the area, and the money donated to charity.  But the trees were beautiful…and unique…and funny.  Trees decorated like a Silver Christmas (silver bells and garland with lots of light- a favorite of mine) and decorated for soldiers coming home and decorated in baking tools or decorated in Mario Brothers.  So wonderful!  Here are a couple pictures (sorry, pictures aren’t great with my phone):

A collection of some trees...

Decorated in Super Mario Bros. Gear!

But, when I saw the trees it made me wonder about the meaning of the Christmas tree. This also happened to come up as we put up our family Christmas tree after Thanksgiving too.  The tree, as I have heard it as times, represents wood which Christ died on.  But that seems so contrived because the tree looks nothing like it.  But as I see it, the Christmas tree represents nothing but family.  The tree is the center of activity of a lot of memories about community, family, giving, receiving, sharing, fellowshipping.  Perhaps the tree is not so much a direct symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus, but a symbol of the people of Jesus.  It should be the gathering place where gratitude and giving meet as the family of God.  From there, meaning becomes quite personal.  The tree reminds me of the giving of gifts by my precious grandfather, and it reminds me constantly of great food and fellowship of my zany and sometimes feed off chaos family.  And often it reminds me of the centrality of children, like when me and my cousins surrounded the tree and its bounty with all of our parents and uncles and aunts watching.  Perhaps there is something there- that the tree represents community, that it represents gratitude and its consequence generosity, and that it also represents joy, a joy which only touches on the purest joy we know as Christians. At that tree, we as kids and as adults get a chance to tap into the great joy, a chance to taste a little of the ultimate joy of God.  Now that is some meaning.

My curiosity wants to ask- what meaning do you find in a Christmas tree?  How is that  communicated to you or your kids or family?  What memories does the tree spur in your life?  Blessings!

The Lord’s Supper

So I was asked to give communion thoughts this morning at Magnolia Center Church of Christ, and I was drawn to the basics:  what are the themes of communion?  So I looked to Matthew 27, Mark and Luke 22 (as well as 1 Corinthians) to find some answers.  And clearly 6 themes emerge in my humble opinion.

  1. Remembrance.  Of course, we are called to do this in remembrance of the sacrifice Jesus has performed for us.  And this is really important.  We come together to remember, and mostly because memory is a way of keeping the significance, of etching it into our minds and lives.  But it usually is the ONLY theme talked about at CofC communion celebrations.  Thus, remembrance often has a feel of sadness and solemnity that are appropriate but don’t contain the entire grip of communion.
  2. Community.  We come together to celebrate.  We don’t normally see it fit to serve each other communion as a couple or as friends randomly.  Rather, we come together and structure a service around the table because it is the event that brings different types of people to equal footing.  It humbles the high and low alike, and yet it uplifts and strengthens the low and high alike.  It provides encouragement to all, shapes us all, molds us all.  It is an act that is done celebrating the unity and love we have for one another- it is done being mindful of the forgiveness and love we must give to others as followers of the Christ who went to the cross as a sign of the greatest love one can give.  Some of the CofC founders even called the communion a love feast (Alexander Campbell and David Lipscomb), because it was the epic core event that calls forth and exemplifies who we are as a community – as a people who worship and call themselves brothers and sisters- and as a people who love those outside our walls.  The communion shapes us into a cruciform church- it should actively create Christlikeness.
  3. Proclamation.  Indeed, this moment of communion is one where we surely become evangelists.  Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim to the world, to the community outside, to the visitors inside, and to ourselves that Christ is Lord, that Christ is Victor, and that Christ is Love.  It is one chance to proclaim the glory of God and the faith we have in a God who is perfect when we are not.  It is not something then done shamefully as quick as possible, but with an eye towards its space for sharing what God has done for us: saved and rescued, provided and protected, welcomed and befriended.  It is also that opportunity to proclaim that while we are welcomed as we are, God has greater purpose and meaning for us yet and so we continue becoming more- more faithful, more patient, more kind, more generous, more joyous, more pure, more dependent of God and less dependent on the world.  In fact, we proclaim to the world in the Lord’s Supper that all of the political chaos and economic chaos, that all of the governments and education and money are not where security and rich life is found- it is found in a God who saves us from ourselves and renews us in Christ!
  4. Relationship/Covenant/Forgiveness.  The new covenant God calls us to in the participation in the communion is a relationship with a God and the forgiveness and transformation God will provide.  Thus, the communion is not a distant remembrance but an intimate relationship where God speaks, listens, provides, protects, nurtures and calls.  We are forgiven so that we have a reconciled relationship with the greatest treasure we could know.  That is a special covenant, not solely made for individuals but for the people of God as a whole.
  5. Celebration/Joy.  Sure solemnity and silence are a part of the communion.  But being forgiven, having a community of faithful who encourage, having a relationship with Jesus, and proclaiming grace and love- those are joyful things that we celebrate with open hearts and eagerness.  We have life and life abundantly now, even when life is terrible or broken.  And for so many life is broken and sadness is ever a part of their lives.  But in spite of the wrongs we face or the suffering we endure or the poor choices we make (with exceptions of course like the Holocaust or genocide or rape victims, for you who appreciate nuances), there are little blessings or relationships that make our lives worth living, most of which is a God who pursued and rescued us and then seeks to transform us into pure, loving, faithful, gentle, patient, generous, grateful, and peaceful people through the cross and resurrection of Christ.  Let us celebrate that and give thanks as a core of communion.
  6. Anticipation/Expectation/Hope.  Now this is the one we rarely pay attention to.  We get stuck remembering Jesus died on a cross but neglect that when we take the communion, we are anticipating the time where we can celebrate this with Jesus again.  We anticipate the return of Christ in the Second Coming and eagerly and earnestly yearn for Jesus to return and set the world straight.  We take the communion and in doing so we anticipate eternal life with God, a full transformation into God’s people, release from Satan’s grasp, and the final victories over death, sin, suffering and evil.  That is indeed part of what we do in communion.  That ought to give a major sense of purpose, in that our acting in the Lord’s Supper is the substance of hope that life does not end in death, that evil isn’t the last laugh, that sin cannot overcome us, that there is an urgency to proclaim this great truth to others and maybe most simply that Jesus is still alive and present!  Many times when asked to do communion with dying patients, it was not because they wanted to remember, but because they wanted to look forward to their time with God.  And we do that too!  We look forward and find strength and encouragement and help anticipating and hoping every time we partake in that simple bread and cup.  But for many celebrating communion, it is also an opportunity to anticipate the time where we celebrate communion with loved ones deeply apart of our lives and memories.  The Lord’s Supper not only anticipates Christ’s second coming and victory, but of the lives and faith and meaning of our own loved ones who we cannot wait to see again and worship with.  Indeed, the communion is an act of anticipation, one in which we long for in the midst of lives of uncertainty, insecurity, failures, greed, corruption, loss, grief and darkness.  Come take the bread and wine as we anticipate the feast for which we wait!

I hope you enjoy this.  I love the Lord’s Supper and wish more could be done with it, because it truly is a treasure.  And to think it is only treated as a remembrance sometimes. God has truly given us a gift when we think of all these parts of the Lord’s Supper!  (by the way, job updates coming in the next couple days but there is still not a ton happening!)

1,915 Days

I am a stats man.  I love numbers.  So I crunched the numbers and found that I have been here in Texas for 1,915 days (5 years and a couple months) by the time I leave Texas for Southern Cal on my move.   Those 1,915 days have been a great time.  Consider all these numbers that can help quantify (yes, I love numbers and stats!) my time in Texas:

  • 1,915 days
  • 2 cars
  • 94,000 miles driven
  • 2 churches
  • 15 sermons preached
  • 168 bible classes led
  • 1 Texas Chaplains & Church of Christ Chaplains Conference
  • 1 Spirituality and Pediatrics Conference
  • 1 School of the Prophets Conference
  • 3 Camp Star Trails (camps for kids with cancer)
  • 3 epic water balloon fights
  • 3 Houston orchestras (Handel’s Messiah, Scheherazade…)
  • 2 Rice football games
  • 8 ACU football games
  • 4 Abilene Rough Rider games (yuck)
  • 1 Houston Rockets game
  • 1 Dallas Mavericks game
  • 4 Texas Rangers games
  • 9 Houston Astros games
  • 5 units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)
  • 46 Verbatims written
  • 61 weekly reflections
  • 3 Lifeline Chaplaincy Gala’s
  • 8 babies baptized (as a chaplain)
  • 18 prison inmates baptized
  • 22 major 20 page papers written
  • Learned Greek and Hebrew
  • Forgotten (a lot) of Greek and Hebrew
  • Learn(ing) basic Spanish
  • Around 175 books read (or skimmed)
  • 6 semesters of Graduate Assistantship (probably thousands of papers graded)
  • 3 semesters of Resident Advisor (RA)
  • 85 students RA’d
  • 2 Census jobs in Abilene
  • 3 Tin Man Competitions played
  • 1 Martin Luther King Day March
  • 1 wedding performed
  • 1 wedding performance accepted
  • 1 wedding for a braindead man declined (!!!!- ask about that story!)
  • 2 funerals
  • 5 memorial services assisted (1 child, 1 staff member, 1 NICU service, 1 Pediatrics service, 1 adult hospital annual service)
  • 1 Pancake breakfast speaking engagement
  • 687 holes of golf played
  • 9 birdies (not enough)
  • 2 intramural basketball seasons
  • 1 buzzer beating 3 in an intramural game
  • 6 pairs of basketball shoes
  • 775 hours of basketball played
  • 16 frisbee golf discs
  • 70 hours of ultimate frisbee played
  • 3 Graduate School of Theology talent shows (hey Wilson!)
  • 3 Graduate School of Theology Christmas Banquets
  • 2 years “Self Appointed Graduate School of Theology Sports Commissioner”
  • 8 months work with troubled kids in a residential home/shelter
  • 4 months work with developmentally disabled women
  • 1 birthday parking ticket (the greatest gift I never wanted!  Love you Caleb!)
  • 2 tickets (1 rolling stop, 1 speeding)
  • 146 hours for Big Brothers Big Sisters
  • 2 littles for Big Brothers Big Sisters (Armando/Blue and little Stephen)
  • 3 hospitals
  • 22 24 hour on calls
  • Over 4000 hospital visits
  • 2 holiday weekends in Lubbock with the Hegi’s (July 4, Thanksgiving)
  • 7 Oplin potlucks
  • 1 tractor ride with Doug Sellers
  • 1 brand new pair of cowboy boots
  •  1 “pudding incident”
  • 1 Oplin Dance Night
  • 2 Fredericksburg Day Trips
  • 1 day trip to Dublin, TX for Dr. Pepper Festival
  • 1 weekend youth retreat in Galveston
  • 2 day trips to Galveston
  • 2 long trips to Corpus Christi to see some great kids
  • 1 trip to Abilene Zoo
  • 1 movie made
  • 1 giant water slide (made on a hill into a tractor dug ditch)
  • 2 nicknames (AOD & Loon)
  • 2 sweet Halloween costumes
  • 1 great dinner group (8 dinner groups attended)
  • 1 awesome young adults group (hey hey 242)
  • 56 Wednesday Night bible classes with 4-12 yr olds
  • 5 bowling outings with kids
  • Hundreds of awesome friendships with kids
  • 12 awesome wrestling matches with kids
  • 2 major crushes
  • 1 incredible date
  • 1 great date, some good dates, some awkward dates (cougars?)
  • 0 solid relationships (oh well!)
  • 1 Lenten fast from sports
  • 1 Lenten fast from meat
  • 1 Lenten fast from sodas and appropriate portion sizing (abnormal but helpful)
  • 1 Final Four attended (semifinal and championship)
  • 222 league games bowled (plus countless others outside of leagues)
  • 210 bowling avg in my time in Texas
  • 36 games of Settlers of Catan (none in Houston?)
  • 22 games of Dominion
  • 1 family Thanksgiving week in Abilene
  • 7-9 vs Jeremy Hegi in NCAA Football on his Xbox
  • 23 sessions with a personal trainer
  • 45 lbs lost
  • Started cooking and cooked often (no numbers come to mind…maybe 300 garlic cloves used? Ha!)
  • Over 150 non chain restaurants tried in Abilene, San Antonio and Houston
  • 4 magazine subscriptions started and continued (National Geographic, Nat Geo traveler, Popular Mechanics, Cuisine at Home)
  • 1 masters degree
  • 1 2 day silent retreat
  • 1 golden retriever (Buck!)
  • 1 Netflix membership (35 movies watched on Netflix!)
  • 14 documentaries watched (through Netflix)
  • 61 Fioza Fight Clubs attended (guys who read Scripture Thursday mornings)
  • 1 cup of 1957 Scotch drank
  • 67 wine bottles saved (I collect them), over 100 wines drank (at least)
  • 2 roommates
  • 1 89 (to be 90 year old man)
  • Countless best friends
Wow.  Love those numbers.  Feel free to comment, to ask questions, or to add a number I am forgetting!  That is some great 1,915 days.

The Meaning of Friendship

I was at a farewell party tonight, since I am leaving in a couple of days.  It was a poignant moment for my year and a half in Houston.  The theme for me this year has been ‘gift’.

And gift it has been.  Southwest Central has been a gift to me.  It has been a gift to find welcome and hospitality.  It has been a gift to find a place that welcomes the chaplain and playful sort that I am.  It has been a gift to find a place to smile and to laugh.  I have so many stories- of Halloweens I have dressed as the Mad Hatter, of evenings reading out of a children’s book to miss Maggie, of wrestling with JD and Ellery and Zoe, of laughing over Sunday lunch with Dan and Billy, of laughing over God’s workings in my world with Bobby, of smiling through the frustration of terrible golf with Steve and Caleb, of finding true friendship with the Bells, McDaniels, and Sargents, among others.  And I have found great calling and true joy with the children- with DeAndre, with Ellery, with Maggie, with Gregory, with Jose(s), with Steven and Emily, with JD and Zoe.

In other words, at Southwest I received the gift of life (among many other things).  The farewell party, though sad, was only a reflection of that.  In fact, I received an album made by the kids, and when I saw the album I became tearful.  Because that gift of life that that album, and the gifts of the presence and love of the adults too, was real and tangible to me.  And I am grateful for what God has done in my life through Southwest.

Thus, the power of God is reflected in friendship.  I see God at this church.  I see God in a Wednesday night where we provide food for people at church and for the poor children and families across the street. I see God in the face of a child who reads Scripture.  I see God in the provision of a song in sign language by a teen.  I see God in the parenthood of Maggie, of Ellery, of Carter, of DeAndre and Taylor.  I see God in the passionate pursuit of Christ by men on Thursday mornings reading Scripture and shooting the breeze on what’s happening in each other’s lives.  I have seen God in the care for babies and children at Seeds and Roots.  I have seen God in the willingness to listen by widows and pastors, by teens and couples.  I have seen God through the service of women like Susie and Barbara.  I have seen God in the love of children and candy at Halloween, and seen God even through the costumes worn at Halloween- it was the ultimate reflection of a God who became something else to show great love.  I see God in a church that loves its gifts- that asks its own to preach, to teach, to pray, and to serve and welcomes all people.  I see God in a church that knows how to cook and how to eat.  I see God in the bright smiles and welcoming hugs of Beth, Beverly, Nelson, Millie, Deborah, Marianne, and Rene.  I see God in a church secretary who serves with all of her heart and honors God through her compassionate hands.  I see God in a church that gathers for an Advent service to call Lord come.  I see God in a church that gathers to serve underprivileged children a real Thanksgiving meal.  I see God in a church that gathers its men and women in prayer services and commits to being a prayerful church.  I see God in the kids crying at church, in the loud shrieks of kids playing in the church foyer.  I have seen God in a group of friends willing to show their love by saying goodbye to one of their own.

The power of friendship is then the power of God to give life to people- the power of God to make me a better human being and see God working in my life for his purposes and his joy.  Amen to that.


Well, surely you are aware now that I am moving back to Southern California this next week.  And of course that brings a lot of grief and sadness as life transitions to a different stage and style.  And this week, lots has happened to add to that grief- kids saying how much they appreciate me, people enjoying my presence and laughter and joy at the church halloween party, and many offering their gratitude and foretelling how much they would miss me.

But there is another sadness that I am aware of tonight.  I have worked my way through the six part series of “Auschwitz”, a PBS documentary of the horrific events there in Auschwitz-Birkenau Poland, from the idea of a concentration camp to the lives of the Jewish survivors and SS since then.  Consider these facts of Auschwitz:

  • 1,200,000 died there in a little over three years. (That makeup includes 1,000,00+ Jews, 21,000+ Gypsies, 10,000 Soviet political prisoners, and hundreds of homosexuals)
  • 7,000 SS (SS was the special guard of Germany that was highly trained for missions and purposes of the political machine, i.e. clearing German empire of Jews, interrogating political prisoners…) worked around and in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Only 10% (around 800) ever were identified and prosecuted.
  • The camp started for political prisoners and only became ramped up because of the finding of minerals and fuels close to Auschwitz and thus a number of factories were needed and created.  Thus, the need for (slave) labor actually created the “need” for the giant and effective concentration camp.
  • Of the 1,000,000+ Jews murdered in Auschwitz, at least 200,000 were children (and perhaps women.  I’m not sure.)
Amazing right.  Amazingly awful and horrible.  And as I have worked through this series, I have been aware of the deep sinfulness of humanity that sometimes we admit and sometimes we don’t.  Humanity has an awful side when it comes into contact with power.  But humanity’s great sinfulness and ability to do the evil actually coincides with the ability to be deceived- by ourselves or another.  These SS guards believed that what they were doing was so correct and important because of the messages they had been fed- the loss of World War I was masterminded by Jews, Jews were the wealthiest people and controllers of the world, the Jewish race was an animal race…
Deception eats us alive.  Deception eats us alive because it invites us to claim power where there is none.  When someone decides to rape another, there is a sense of self deception that one has more power than one ought to.  When we go to war, there is a deception that we are policemen and that the other is our enemy.  Anyway, deception was clearly there with the SS soldiers and Auschwitz.  The deception, the corruption, the business like mass murder, the feeling-less ness of burning hundreds upon hundreds of bodies, plundering the wearied clothes of the gassed dead- these people actually de-humanized and commodified others out of their deep racism and self deception.
What is learned?  Perhaps nothing is learned.  A commentator on the documentary said that nothing was learned because this was so horrible that there is no such silver lining, which he believes is what happens if we find something to learn.  But we must learn that this cannot happen again right?  We must learn that humanity is capable of more than we can imagine, both good and evil right?  We must learn that when we perceive others or ourselves as good people, there may be much behind we are not aware of (the capability to kill without conscience). We must learn that racism eats at us, even if not to the extent of the Nazis.  Perhaps, we learn that we cannot hate others.  Describing others as animals or cockroaches (ala Rwandan genocide, watch “Hotel Rwanda”) invites racism, murder, genocide, or the Holocaust.
The lesson that humanity is capable of this must open our eyes to the possibility of genocide and mass murder in our world.  And it happens too.  Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, the hunting of Kurds in the Middle East, North Korea (in the same vein but perhaps a little different).  We must learn to not let others become prey to the deception of power, hate, and fear monghering.
Alas, all this is to say that I feel great sadness for this event.  It is deeply troubling when I hear and see pictures of emaciated people in Auschwitz, hear of Jewish prisoners (Zonder group) being forced to burn and clear their dead Jewish people, learn that SS men are still not brought to justice, hear the stories of being packed up in ghettoes and then trains and then chaoticly unboarded almost straight into gas chambers, hear of doctors performing medical experiments of twins and other children, and see the suffering of so many people on such a horrific scale.  It is truly saddening and it makes me want to say “I’m sorry”, even though I was not even born then.
This puts my sadness in perspective.  It ought to put many of our sadnesses in perspective.  Suffering sometimes is so bad, that sadness isn’t even the right word- the abandonment of God or the lack of the presence of God is.  Many people sit and wonder where God was.  Perhaps that is the unanswerable question, ala Elie Wiesel’s Trial of God book.  Can God be amongst the greatest of suffering?  As a hospital chaplain, I am fond of considering this question and listening to the sufferer.  Suffering has few, if any answers.  The presence of God in the midst of Holocaust suffering- even fewer answers.  But we must respond in the Spirit of God any way.  We must get angry at the presence of hate and racism in our world and not ignore when it happens in our world, whether in a country’s genocide or the shunning of a group of people.  We must not forget the suffering of others, but not forget humility in the face of power and self aggrandizement.  We must not forget that others outside of the Nazis played games with the suffering too (people in the home countries of the rounded up Jews rarely let the Jews back into their pre-war property and often looked upon Jews suspiciously), reminding us that in genocides and racism, few people are actually innocent.
Thus, I end my night.  After I write this, perhaps my sadness is sadness too, but it is of a different character.  There is a much greater sadness and suffering out there, and I must be mindful of it, and learn to count my blessings and stand up for others’ blessings more often.