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)

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.

Happy Thanksgiving

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

I Thessalonians 5:18

 

Being thankful is not always easy. It’s something I try to practice on a daily basis as I pray and think on the blessings I’ve received but not something I always accomplish. Of course, there is usually an emphasis on it around this time of year as Thanksgiving approaches. However, it seems this year there is more emphasis on what is wrong with the world. There has been a harsh focus for the past week on political and social differences with little focus on what is good and right with the world. I wanted to share with you some things for which I am thankful. I hope it encourages you to spend some time considering all you’ve been given.

Christ, Mom, Dad, Denise, Tori, Griff, Brittany, Addison, Logan, Jordyn, Korban, Lawson, Becca, Bradley, Maria, Goggy, Grandad, Kay, Scott, Ashlyn, Natalie, Lauren, Nathan, Clark, Jeff, CUMC, Matt, Zach, Pat, Joan, Berk, Michael, LPYC, Jim, Amy, Sarah, FUMC-Trussville Youth, Bluff Park UMC, ministry opportunities given to me, mercy, grace, the cross, music, and Advent Conspiracy.

This is just a small list of things currently on my mind but there are so many other people and things that I could share with you. I have lived a blessed life, even when I maybe wasn’t able to see it or realize it.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful and happy Thanksgiving Day.

Reset Button

I used to love playing Pokemon on my GameBoy Color. And I’m lying when I say “used to” because a friend recently showed me how to get the game on my iPhone and now 2-3 times a week, 12 year old Trey reawakens for some mind-numbing Pokemon action. When I was really into it, I would research and use all these different strategies to get better and better (let’s all take a moment for how incredibly nerdy I was)…One of the strategies was pretty basic, right before something big or important was about to happen, you save your spot in the game, that way if it doesn’t go the way you want, you can reset by turning the game off and then on again to start over from your saved point. I used it often.

I can think of several times that being able to use this strategy in real life would have been really nice. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions in my life, who hasn’t right? Sometimes it would’ve been great to have my place right before that decision “saved” and then I could just magically go back to that exact moment if things didn’t go how I liked. It doesn’t even have to be the big moments or decisions in life either. There are some days that just don’t go the way I’d like, things I can’t even control, that would be awesome to reset.

That’s, at least, how I always feel in the moment. See, when we are facing adversity, indecision, complications, etc., it’s understandably hard not to focus on what is wrong. It’s easy to forget Romans 8:28 and forget that God is working for us while we are working for His will. As I look back at all the times I made decisions that turned out bad or those days where everything that could go wrong went wrong, I see a negative and frustrated person who wanted that reset button. Then as I take time to reflect on the aftermath of those bad decisions and terrible days, I see a person who is covered by the mercy and grace of a God who loves him enough to work for his good.

I’m glad that life doesn’t have a “reset” button. Not figuratively, I mean literally. Anyone can change their path in life at any point if they want to bad enough, I get that…I mean that I’m glad life doesn’t have a literal “reset” button or “on/off switch”. Some choices I’ve made that seemed “bad” in the moment have even led me to bigger and greater things than I ever could have possibly imagined happening in the first place. We serve a great, big, loving God. The next time you find yourself searching for that save and reset button right before you face the elite 4 (Pokemon reference), spend some time searching for the One who is always working for your good.

Sandbars and Faith

Every summer growing up, my family would vacation in Florida. We always went to Navarre Beach on Santa Rosa Island because of its beautiful and secluded beaches and because it was right in the middle of Pensacola and Destin which provided several “touristy” opportunities nearby. The best part was definitely the beaches. There were miles of virtually undisturbed powdery, sugar-white shoreline which gave us great access to the warm gulf coast waters. (Can you tell I love the Alabama/Florida gulf coast?)

I remember one of my older brother’s favorite parts was swimming out to the sandbars. They’re very common all along the gulf coast and because of Santa Rosa Island’s location, we could always count on a few being along Navarre Beach. My older brother loved them, I hated them. You see, you almost always had to swim over a trench-like part of the seabed to get to the sandbar and that terrified me. Being much younger and much smaller than my brother, I couldn’t touch and therefore had no concept of what was below me…to top that off, I’d seen Jaws and was terrified of sharks.

The summer that I was 8, my brother and his friends wanted to swim out to the sandbar as they usually did. My brother asked me if I wanted to go out to the sandbar with them and I wasn’t about to have anything to do with that. My brother told me that I could “ride” on his back meaning that I could hold on and he would swim. I was still hesitant to do this but I trusted my brother.

I held onto my brother as he and his friends began to swim out. Let me tell you, at the time that felt like the longest minute of my short life. In my head, I’d made a huge mistake and there was nothing anybody could say to me in that moment that was going to calm me down. I just knew I was going to die.

I see the same thing happening in life sometimes. We are confronted with some opportunity that is scary because it’s new and different. It may even be that we’ve seen someone else venture out in a similar fashion and have a terrible experience. We hesitantly step out in faith because ultimately we trust in God but the second we hit any sort of speed bump, we lose that trust. We forget about the faith on which we leaned from the beginning and we refuse to be calmed by any scriptures, any words of affirmation.

Why? Why do we constantly question Him? Hasn’t God proved Himself to be faithful time and time again? Yet, as often as He proves Himself to us, we revert back to the the questions and complaints. It’s because of our human nature to expect failure. It seems unreasonable to expect someone to be completely and totally dependable 100% of the time. I know that I am terribly guilty of this. It’s often hard for me to give complete trust to anyone including God Himself…but I also recognize the fault in this. I recognize that I continually receive opportunities that I simply don’t deserve; I haven’t “earned” them and never could. They are simply reflections of God’s faithfulness to me.

Spoiler Alert: I didn’t die swimming to the sandbar. I made it out there with my brother and actually had a blast with him and his friends. After some time we swam back and, while I was still nervous, I felt better having experienced the swim once before. We made it to the sandbar and the shore unscathed despite my fear and lack of trust, much like how it has worked time and time again in my life with my fear and lack of trust in God. It’s not always easy to have faith but take assurance that God is looking out for you. The end result may not always be what you expected but it’s always going to work for your good and His glory and ultimately, that’s all that really matters.

D’oh!

I met with an old friend the other day over a drink to catch up and reconnect. It had been a good while since we’d seen each other and even longer since we’d actually sat down and chatted. As we caught up, he began telling me this laundry list of things currently going wrong in his life. Now before I continue let me tell you, I have been avoiding listening to other peoples problems like the plague recently. I felt like I had too many of my own problems to be able to help anyone else with theirs.

As he started telling me about what was going on, I dreaded having to sit through it (which in and of itself is a terrible mindset to have). He wasn’t saying it in a whiny or complaining way, he was just presenting himself and what he was going through in an honest and vulnerable way. As he began wrapping up his recent history, he surprised me by ending it with “but I’m not going to let those things control my life”. It’s great that he had this mentality but it surprised me because for as long as I’ve known him, he’s been a major worrier. I mean stressed out all the time kind of personality.

Both of us having gone through some recent troubles, our troubles became the main topic of our conversation. You see, I’m a split personality when it comes to worrying. There are some things about which I’m very laid back and there are some things about which I worry until I stress myself right into a panic. When it came to my divorce, my relocation, and my job change this year, I panicked. A lot. Having experienced those things and having reacted the way I did, I found myself very impressed that my friend was having such a healthy attitude towards his problems.

A couple days after meeting with him, I was having some quiet time to just pour into scripture and I landed on the 6th chapter of Matthew. Matthew 6 is a part of the sermon on the mount and is probably best known for Jesus introducing what has become known as the Lord’s prayer. In the last few verses of the chapter however (Matthew 6:25-34), Jesus talks about worry and anxiety. None of the verses stand out to me more than verse 27:

“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

As I thought about my friend’s reaction to his troubles and I thought about what Christ was saying here, I had a Homer Simpson “D’oh!” moment (currently watching the “Every Simpson’s Ever” Marathon). How much more simple can it be? We all get so wrapped up in our troubles and our concerns, the big and the small, and we think that stressing over it will somehow help the situation. Not only does it not add any hours to your life as the verse above tells us but there is significant medical research which suggests that worry is awful for your heart health.

I know it’s easy to get caught up in stress. It’s easy to let worry invade our thoughts and control our reactions…but because it’s so easy, it’s important that we spend even more time thinking on the wonderful stress relief our Savior provides. I’ll be the first to tell you that as much you as try, you can’t predict the future. Things will not go the way we want them to; people will change, places will change, situations will change. In this world that seems to be ever-changing, let’s learn to appreciate a God that is never-changing; a God that doesn’t want you to worry.