My Ecumenical Christmas

Yes, I know it’s January 27 and I’m posting about Christmas. I started writing this a while ago and had planned to finish it the week after Christmas. When that didn’t happen, I thought I’d just not write it but I just couldn’t make myself trash it. So here it is, one month and two days after Christmas.

Last year, as Christmas approached, I found myself without Christmas Eve plans for the first time in my life. Growing up, we always had a “big-family” Christmas party with the entire side of my dad’s family. It was always one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. As my siblings, my cousins, and I all got older, got married and had kids (myself not included on the kids), the party started becoming harder and harder to organize until it finally stopped.

It was during the same time (my college years) that I started working for churches as a paid musician so my plans switched from family Christmas parties to singing in Christmas Eve services. I enjoy church so it wasn’t anything I dreaded, actually I enjoyed it quite a bit. After college I started working my first “real” job in ministry at Christ UMC in Plano, TX. CUMC is a large church, large enough to warrant having seven services on Christmas Eve. So for the last three years, I spent my afternoon and late evening performing various tasks and participating in the services. I would also always take out a little time to attend a Christmas Eve party with some dear friends, a party that became very special to me.

This year however, I found myself with no plans. No Christmas Eve parties, no responsibilities to fulfill at the churches for which I now work, nothing at all. At first I didn’t know what to do. Then one day the week before Christmas, as I was looking at some old photos, I came across some pictures from a church performance during my old youth choir’s tour to Chicago. We sang at a predominantly African American inner-city church on the west side of Chicago and the atmosphere was electric. I remember thinking how awesome it was to watch two groups of people with very different socio-economic, political, and theological backgrounds come together to worship. That’s when I decided to have my ecumenical Christmas.

I decided to visit 4 churches around Birmingham representing a wide range of the theological and political spectrum. The night of Christmas Eve, I set out with my step-sister to visit Mountaintop Community Church (Non-denominational), Bluff Park United Methodist Church, Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, and Cathedral Church of the Advent (Episcopal). My goal was to experience various styles of worship…to gain an understanding of how different people choose to celebrate Christ’s birth. I thought it would be a nice evening filled with pleasantries associated with my favorite holiday. What I got was a renewed spirit.

There was something so sincere about each place I visited. Each church worshipped in different ways…some used guitars, some used organs, some used projection screens, some used hymnals, all had sermons and all had candles. What I found was that even though they chose different styles with which to worship, it all came down to the same thing: thankfulness for a God who chose to take on human flesh, bear our sins, and save each of us.

So much of the church’s energy is spent arguing things like who God loves or doesn’t love, how to get to heaven, how to avoid hell, what is a sin and what is morally appropriate, do we choose God or does He choose us, is it wrong that I used “He” to refer to God…the list goes on and on. But this one night I visited 4 very different churches and left each one feeling a renewed spirit about how the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present Creator of all things and time itself took on human flesh for each person I worshipped with that evening. He took on human flesh for each person worshipping around the world that evening. And He took on human flesh for each person NOT worshipping around the world that evening.

I know that it’s January 27 and that this post has been mostly about Christmas but as I think ahead to the rest of this year, I find myself wanting to keep those feelings alive. As I prepare for Lent and Easter Sunday, I find myself thinking about the initial choice God made to come to Earth in human form. Christ knew His destiny was to end up on the cross. He knew his destiny was to take on all the suffering of this world in the most painful act of love ever displayed. Yet he made the choice to come anyway.

I think about all the different people I worshipped with that evening. I saw a wide variety of social, economic, professional, political, and theological backgrounds. I saw males, females, heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, blacks, whites, asians, hispanics, and ethnicities I would not have been able to identify without asking. I saw many different people coming together to glorify God for the greatest gift ever given and it gave me hope.

It gave me hope that the church universal would return to love. It gave me hope that the church universal would preach a gospel that is never contained by any parameters of a person’s identity. It gave me hope that the best is yet to come. It gave me hope that the church would, in the same way that the candles illuminated each building that Christmas Eve, do it’s job of shining the light and life of Christ to a dark and dying world.

 

“Christmas means you don’t have to be afraid of the dark ever again.” -Pastor Doug Ferguson (Mountaintop Community Church)

“The people most attracted to Jesus were those who could recognize their own inabilities best.” -Rev. Andrew Pearson (Cathedral Church of the Advent)

“We live in a world where everything is a problem needing to be solved when the real solution was laid in a manger 2000 years ago.” -Pastor Gary Furr (Vestavia Hills Baptist Church)

“Christmas is a time to trade in our pessimism and receive the life changing gift of joy everlasting.” -Rev. Mike Holly (Bluff Park United Methodist Church)

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Music Monday 01.26.15

“Sinking Deep” Hillsong Young and Free

Over MLK Day weekend, I took my middle school youth on a ski retreat up to Lake Junaluska in North Carolina. It’s hosted by the UMC camp and conference center up there with a guest speaker, a worship band, games, and, of course, skiing. We closed each day with a corporate worship service for the entire group. The guest band leading worship for the weekend ended the service every night with this song.

When I heard it the first night, I thought it might an original song of theirs as I had never heard it before and I consider myself reasonably knowledgable about worship music. I did a little research care of Google and Spotify and found out that it was actually written and recorded by Hillsong Young and Free a little over a year ago.

I was enamored with the song. I couldn’t stop playing it. I looped it over and over taking in every word and every note. I dwelled on the lyrics.

“Sinking deep in mercy’s seas”

“Your love so deep is washing over me”

I like the allusion that God’s grace/mercy/love is so vast, so overwhelming, that we can’t possibly contain it. It’s such a force that we can do nothing but sink deeply into it, be completely overtaken by it. It’s immovable, it’s immeasurable, it’s incredible, and it’s yours for the taking.

 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Music Monday, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

Music Monday 01.12.15

“Future/Past” John Mark McMillan

I traveled quite a bit during the holidays so I decided to take a break from the Music Monday posts as I focused on visiting with friends and family. The holidays are now over and 2015 is well underway. As I was deciding on which song I felt led to begin the year in this series, I found myself reflecting on another blog I’m working on right now. Thinking about that led me to this song that was introduced to me late last year. I love most of John Mark McMillan’s worship songs (“How He Loves” is my favorite) and this one was no exception. To me, the lyrics are a simple way of praising the beauty of how intertwined God is with our lives. Everything that happened/is happening/will happen to me last year, the year before, this year, next year, etc… it’s all connected to my relationship with Christ. He is my most powerful yet loving and tender relationship. He is my friend, He is my first, He is my last. Here is to a 2015 where I allow Him to be my future and my past.

 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Music Monday, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

Not Alone

This morning, I panicked. It hit me that I move in a month and I freaked out. I’m leaving behind the past 4 years of my life. I’m leaving security, I’m leaving friends, I’m leaving a ministry, I’m leaving people who have become like family. What if I am making a huge mistake? What if I am just running away from something truly wonderful? What if I never find what I’m looking for? What if I never find someone else? What if I never get over my ex-wife? What if…?

The thoughts swirled through my mind all morning. I fixated on them. I retreated to my escape and ran for as long as my legs could stand it. It was hot, muggy and there was no breeze. It didn’t work. I returned home and began getting ready for work. I turned on music while I got ready and sang along. It didn’t work. No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake it.

I got to my office and immersed myself in work. I longed for anything to distract me…to take my mind off all the panic and the surging pressure I was feeling on the inside of my body. I started going over details for my last tour with LPYC. It broke me. I lost it. I stopped everything I was doing and simply thought to myself “I can’t take this”. I said it aloud. “I can’t do this”. It was silent in my office for a brief moment. It was then that I heard a voice in my head say, “I know…but you don’t have to take this because I can. And remember that you’re not doing this alone.”

It’s that simple. This is undoubtedly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’m leaving my life behind. I’m leaving what I thought was a great marriage. I’m leaving the job I thought I would have for a long time. I’m leaving what has become home. I’m leaving a planned future. I’m leaving what I thought was certainty.

What I am not leaving is God. And He isn’t leaving me. I can’t take this. I can’t do this…but this morning as I panicked, as I cried, and as I looked for every possible distraction rather than confront my emotion, I got a much needed reminder that I’m not doing this alone. And while I can’t handle this, God can. In fact, I Peter 5:7-10 directs us to not even attempt to handle our own worries and anxieties but to cast them on God.

It’s easy to get caught up in “what if’s” and it’s even easier to let the worry and bitterness from those questions control our minds. In a recent sermon series, Johnathan Pokluda said something that stuck with me, something I very much needed to hear. He said “Worrying is fear that God will get it wrong and bitterness is believing that He did.” All my thoughts this morning were based on fears that I was making a mistake. Even as I believe that I am following God’s direction for my life, I fear the uncertainty my future now holds and fear can be powerful. I won’t let the fear control me though. Don’t let it control you either. Trust in God and know that whatever comes your way, you’re not doing it alone.

Doubt

Faith is the art of holding on to things in spite of your changing moods and circumstances.

C.S. Lewis

I have always felt strong in my faith. I’ve had seasons where I maybe wasn’t as close to God as I should have been but I’ve never struggled with believing that He truly loved me. A few months ago, when I started to have serious doubts about God’s care and concern for me, I didn’t know what to do. So, I began to lash out at Him. I began to wonder how He could allow something so very devastating to happen to me. I’ve lived my life for Him. I’ve devoted my life and career to service in His ministry and this was His way of rewarding me. I was angry with God.

Here’s the first problem with that: never once has God said that life was or would be fair. Often times, people like to point to Jeremiah 29:11 and say that life should be a bed of roses. Read the entire 29th chapter of Jeremiah and you find out that the hope and future God is promising in verse 11 is amidst slavery, trials, and turbulence. God promises hope but He doesn’t promise an easy life or a fair life. He promises a future but it may not be the future you had in mind.

Here’s the second problem: I was blaming God for someone else’s choices that go against His will. God didn’t cause my wife to leave me. He allowed it to happen through the direction of His own sovereignty and her free will, but He didn’t cause it. So why should I blame Him? Why should I doubt His will and His plan for my life because of someone else’s choices?

Tony Evans has said “Sometimes, God lets you hit rock bottom so that you will discover that He is the rock at the bottom”. That very much describes my state during all this doubt. I had to crash because it truly was the only way I was going to turn to God. During that crash, I turned to a variety of sources for answers and happiness or simply an opportunity to numb the pain. None of them could compare to the answers, the joy, and the deliverance from pain that comes with Christ.

The doubt, anger, and confusion I was experiencing was completely normal during a time of grief but it’s important that we not give in to those doubts. It’s important that we keep our faith even in the most uncertain times.