Thoughts for a New Year

For 30 years, Pete Carril was the basketball coach at Princeton University. He won 514 games there – the only coach to win more than 500 games without the benefit of athletic scholarships.

Coach Carril had a lot of success at a school known more for academics. No doubt, he worked with a number of student-athletes for whom the order really was just that: student, then athlete. One of those guys was Steve Goodrich, who played center. Carril was asked once why he didn’t move Goodrich from center to forward, where he would play further away from the basket. Carril’s reply? “He has the shooting range. What he doesn’t have is the making range.”

When my daughters were younger, they would spend New Year’s Eve with a friend whose dad grew up in Europe. And when they were in elementary school, they began the tradition of celebrating the New Year at 7:00pm, when it was midnight in Europe. As little kids, this enabled them to have a New Year’s party, and still be in bed well before 12:00.

But the tradition continued, even when they were able to stay up late. And along with the 7pm celebration, another tradition developed. We began writing down our resolutions for the new year, and sealing them in an envelope – to be opened the next New Year’s Eve.

Somehow, we adults got pulled into this tradition – and I remember writing down all kinds of stuff. Some was silly, and some serious. Some of it would happen naturally, and some would require effort to happen. It was always interesting to open those each year, and remember what I thought I was going to do, or hoped to do – or simply never got to.

See, here’s the deal: life happens. It happens whether you plan it, or not. And even what you plan often doesn’t turn out exactly how you plan. As we approach the new year, you will be “shooting” at something. But what will you be making?

As I think about 2015, and new year’s resolutions, and, even more, what it means to live intentionally and faithfully, here is what I would encourage you with:

  1. Start with grace. We are not called to just do stuff, nor simply accomplish things on some kind of cosmic checklist. Instead, the place to start – in the new year, or with any new decision – is grace. To trust in, rely on, and rest in the all-sufficient grace of God.
  2. With grace as your foundation, commit to daily living out your calling. New Year’s resolutions are made in a day – but they are lived out day-by-day. Every day. Whatever you hope to become in 2015, it will happen by God’s grace – and by daily seeking to grow into that.
  3. And what does daily living out your faith teach you? Well, a lot of things, no doubt – but one of them is certainly humility. Humility when you stumble. Humility when you have small successes. Humility when life happens exactly as you plan. Humility when life blows up in your face. For daily growth will teach you that life is hard, and humility is essential – because stuff will happen that you can’t control.
  4. Which leads to another thing we need: friends for the journey. You simply will not grow as you want to, as you need to, without others to encourage, challenge, and love you through the process. Whatever you hope to become, make sure there are others – godly, faithful friends – to walk with you along the way.
  5. And finally, make sure you end where you began. With grace. For I can think of no better place to start the year, and end the year – or to start a life, and end a life – but with grace. For in the end, we are not determined by what we accomplish, but by who we are. And I know – I know – the only way for me to become who I am called to become, is not by doing more, but by trusting more. And resting in His grace.

So, what do you say? Are you ready for a Grace-filled and Faithful New Year?

Top Ten Christmas Memories

Around our house, today (Dec 23) is known as Christmas Adam. Ok, nobody else calls it that; but I do. Why? Because tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Of course!

As I think about Christmas, some memories come quickly to mind. I’ll bet that’s true for you, too. But, since this is my blog, I get to list my favorite ones. If you have ones you’d like to share, feel free to comment below. (Or get your own blog.)

So, in the spirit of the retiring David Letterman (he does look kind of like an elf, doesn’t he?), here are my best Christmas memories, in reverse order:

10. Having kids who are now old enough not to get up at 6am to open presents.

9. When they were younger, going with my kids on Christmas eve or day to visit with folks in the nursing home.

8. Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I love that movie, and if you catch me at the right time, I just might do my best Jimmy Stewart impersonation.

7. 1968. It was my first Christmas. I don’t remember it, as I was born just a week before Christmas came. But my mom wasn’t supposed to have me until January, and since I came early, she hadn’t yet bought gifts for my four older brothers and sisters. So she sent my dad out on Christmas eve, and he came back with one present for the three oldest kids. My 20-month-old sister didn’t even get a gift; I guess she was young enough, so my parents figured she wouldn’t know — and my parents were living on mission support at the time. So, I pretty much messed up my first Christmas. But my siblings still love me. I think.

6. When my son was a toddler, we got him a train table. As I recall, I spent a lot of time on Christmas eve putting it together. Since you can’t wrap a train table, we covered it with a blanket. When my girls were looking at it, we asked them what they thought was under the blanket. Sophie, who was probably six, whispered her suggested “answer” to her little sister, which Ruth Ann promptly parroted back to us. What’s under the blanket? “Lemon pie,” she said. Huh?

5. When I was a teenager, we had a blue Volkswagen Van that was on its last legs (or tires, I guess). The heat wasn’t working in that old car, and I remember riding to Christmas eve service with my toes frozen. Don’t remember anything about the service, but I sure was glad to get into the warm sanctuary.

4. When I was in college, my sister and I snuck out of the house to go to Midnight Mass. What? Well, growing up in the Christian Church, I had never experienced mass, and I thought I would see what it was like on Christmas eve. And because it was late, and I didn’t want to worry my parents, I snuck out. Really.

3. Aunt Dorothy’s visits. She never married, and had no family of her own, so Aunt Dorothy would often visit us over Christmas. I loved going to pick her up at the airport, and waiting anxiously for the box of presents and candy she had brought to slide down the luggage chute. One of the things Aunt Dorothy would bring was sponge candy from where she lived in Buffalo. Our family loved that stuff — and wouldn’t you know, for the past two Christmases, I have received sponge candy as a present. It’s the perfect combination of chocolate, sugar, and stickiness. If you are ever in Buffalo, you really ought to try some.

2. One year, as our kids opened a present that was meant for all of them, my oldest, as she began to realize what it was, exclaimed: You mean you guys actually spent real money on us this year?!

1. Getting to share with those I love the power and the promise of the season: Jesus has come, and he is the light of the world!

Merry Christmas!

Lessons from a Ferguson Nursing Home

I think I gave my first real sermon in Ferguson. I had given a “practice” one in a preaching class in college, but that doesn’t count. It was for a grade, and delivered to a captive audience (other preaching students, who were also mostly concerned about their grade). Plus, I wore a lavender suit; I kid you not. Can anyone deliver a real sermon in a lavender suit?

But my efforts to take the message out of the classroom and into real life happened when I put together a sermon for the folks who lived at a nursing home in Ferguson, Missouri, where my dad was the chaplain. The name of the home? The Christian Old People’s Home; again, I kid you not. A person simply can’t make up questionable suit choices or nursing home names.

For nearly 20 years, my dad faithfully, lovingly, daily served the seniors that were spending their final days and years at that nursing home. And from my mom and dad, I learned that church includes people who are different than I am. I was young; they were, ahem, old. I was largely clueless; they had learned the hard lessons of life. Sometimes they slept through my dad’s services; I knew better than to try that. And some of the good folks at the COPH were black; I was (and still am) very white.

Some preacher’s kids grow up frustrated, hurt, shackled by the life they feel they have to live. I don’t think I ever felt that way. Because, from age 11 until my dad retired when I was 30, I got to learn from dad, and from the folks he worked with. And I got to experience church that was not about me, but included me.

I don’t think I realized the lessons I was learning then, but subtly, quietly, subconsciously, I believe the Spirit was sowing them in my life. Lessons that include the reality that the Church is for everyone, no matter our age, our gender, our race. That unity takes work. That grace is essential. And that we need each other.

I think about those things as I think about what has been happening in Ferguson this year. Michael Brown died less than 3 miles from where my father ministered to — and taught me to love — folks very different from us.

It is so easy to take sides, to argue with those who disagree with us when it comes to Ferguson — and so many other realities we face today. But I wonder: where would Ferguson be today if the Church really were more like the church I experienced with my dad at that nursing home in Ferguson? What would it look like if the Church were on the forefront of breaking down the barriers that separate us — be they race, or gender, or age, or the myriad other things that keep “me” from “you.”

I believe that the way this happens is when Christians lead in living out the peace that Jesus came to the earth to bring. When “peace on earth” is not simply a phrase we speak in church — but words that we live out, daily, as the Church.

In Ephesians 2.14, we are told, “For he (Jesus) is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (RSV). The goal of breaking down this wall? To “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.”

Whether it is Ferguson, or Pakistan, or Iraq, or your neighborhood or mine — couldn’t our world use an end to hostility? How does it happen? How can it happen? I believe that hostility ends when we encounter the Jesus of Christmas — and the Jesus of the cross. He brings us peace. You. Me. And changed by peace, real peace, we become peacemakers. The kind who recognize that peace only comes when we roll up our sleeves, and learn to love someone different than us. Someone for whom Christ died to bring peace.

How desperate the world is for peace. How desperate I am — and you, too. This year, Christmas can’t come fast enough. Because Christmas is the coming of peace, of the Prince of Peace. And is there anything we need under the tree more than that?

We are ready for you, Jesus. We are desperate for you. For without you, what hope is there for the Church? Without you, what hope is there for the world?

The Truth That Sets Us Free

Sunday, I mentioned how unusual the prophets can be. Their words can be hard to swallow, and their actions even more so. But why should we be surprised? For that’s how truth often is: hard to hear, and even harder to swallow.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of being at a retreat once where the leader asked them to think of someone who represented Christ in their lives. When it came time to share our answers, one woman stood up and said, “I had to think hard about that one. I kept thinking, Who is it who told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?”

If the prophets in the Old Testament weren’t treated well for speaking the truth, how much less was Jesus? For was there ever a more truth-filled, truth-telling, truth-living person than Jesus?

And the truth is, the truth from Jesus went down hard. And so everyone came down hard on Jesus. The political powers. The religious powers. The crowd. Even Jesus’ best friend was willing to swear off Jesus rather than face the consequences of telling too much truth.

As Jack Nicholson famously said, You can’t handle the truth! He may have been speaking in a movie, and he may have been speaking to Tom Cruise — but he might as well have been speaking to all of us. For who of us can really handle the truth?

But the truth is: without the truth, how do we know the truth about ourselves? For while we often run from truth, the reality is: we should run toward the truth. It is the truth, Jesus famously said, that sets us free. It is the truth about my life, and what I’ve done, and what I’ve become, that opens the door to the grace that takes me beyond what I’ve done, and helps me become what only God can lead me to become.

So, in a world that continuously redefines, waters down, or avoids truth, give it to me straight. I may not want it, I may not like it, and it may be hard to swallow — but without the truth, how will I ever get free?