Headlines from First Thoughts

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wednesday, December 6- 5 Year Olds and Advent

The greatest thing about a 5 year old during Advent is that he gets it. I know that preachers, musicians, and decorators seem to have a corner on the market this season. What would Advent be without sermons, music, trees, and garland? But everybody needs to see this from the world of a 5 year old.

Parker, who has been planning for this moment since last Christmas, is fully engaged this year. He's been actively involved in decorating the house, helping hang the outdoor lights, even giving instructions about "his" tree in his room. His little tree sits atop a train table, with of course, Papa's old train. It's straight out of a Belgian train factory, or at least that's the story we've been told. It runs with a voltage convertor, a wing, and a prayer, but in Parker's mind, it's a real train. And when the lights switch off in the room, the train chugs around the track. The glow of the train's headlight is surpassed only by the brightness of Parker's eyes as he engineers the railroad.

He knows the real story of Christmas; even the train track encircles a small nativity. Parker can tell you the whole story if you have the time. The point, of course, is not to get the story right or to have everything perfect. The point of the season is the size of his imagination, wonder, and belief. Hope is real, faith is active, and he's ready for all of it.

I don't know what you're up to this season, but I hope you find a child to hug and to ask about Christmas. It won't take much to understand what they're saying. Just watch their eyes.

Tuesday, December 5- Unpacking the Decorations

It's the ritual that begins Advent at the Shiell home. We unpack the decorations, or at least, Kelly does. My job is to retrieve them-- some from the garage, others from the basement. We have the annual worry and concerns: "Which lights are broken, which are working, which ornaments are broken." We discover that someone under the cover of darkness has sneaked into the boxes of lights, unplugged one bulb from the very end of the strand (thus causing all to be useless), and somehow tangled all the others together. It's quite fun.

When a strand of lights carefully packed last year becomes the object of frustration, perhaps it reminds us of the unique discoveries about our own lives this time of year. When family arrives and friends reunite, we discover rearranged lives, a tangled web, and the individual whose life seems to shine more dimly. I wish we could chalk the effects up to the gremlins in the basement. Unfortunately, the causes are more lifelike. Words spoken in frustration, dreams and plans that change, mistakes made, and pathways chosen lead to the annual holiday discovery: "a lot can change in a year."

So before you throw up your hands in frustration, however, remember that people are different than strands of lights. We can untangle, we can change, we can be different, and hearts can glow again. But it takes more than an annual checkup. It will take timing, listening, understanding, and the reminder that at this time of year, angels have much more power than years of regret. Even if those regrets seem to be retrieved every year, with hope and prayer, so much can change in a year.

Monday, December 4, Tools of Christmas

"They are tools, not toys," says Father Christmas when explaining the purpose of gifts in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Father Christmas arrives at the moment of greatest fear: when the children and beavers, fleeing the oncoming witch, think they have been overtaken. Father Christmas appears to deliver presents for the coming battle between good and evil.

This perspective should guide us as we exchange the gifts of Christmas. They are the tools to show the world who Christ is. It might be hard to imagine an ipod or a Wii serving as a tool of Christ. But with a little creativity, a downloaded itune can be a song of encouragement. A Wii can be the platform for starting a friendship with a person who does not know the love of Christ.

On Saturday, our church is using gifts as tools. Sleeping bags for children, food for adults, and shoes for everyone are instruments of Christ's peace during Advent. By sharing these gifts, we have a platform for building relationships with people who do not normally come to our church and may not know the hospitality of First Baptist.

It's all in how you use the tools.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Song for Advent- Sunday, December 3

I have stumbled onto a song for Advent. It's not found in the hymnal, and I doubt it's on the top 10 list of choruses. The lyrics remind me of one of the qualities of Advent: "Waiting."

Entitled "Waiting on the World to Change," and sung by John Mayer, the lyrics are

me and all my friends we're all misunderstood
they say we stand for nothing and there's no way we ever could
now we see everything that's going wrong
with the world and those who lead it
we just feel like we don't have the means to rise above and beat it

so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

it's hard to beat the system
when we're standing at a distance
so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change
now if we had the power to bring our neighbors home from war
they would have never missed a Christmas
no more ribbons on their door
and when you trust your television
what you get is what you got
cause when they own the information,
oh they can bend it all they want

that's why we're waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

it's not that we don't care,
we just know that the fight ain't fair
so we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change
and we're still waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

one day our generation is gonna rule the population
so we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

Mayer's lyrics are an apology for his (my?) generation's response to the world as it stands now. He lists various reasons/excuses while we are just waiting for the world to change. Westand for something, but it's hard to get a foothold in a world full of frustrations, problems, and issues. Mayer's solution is to wait.

In Advent, we wait; but we do not wait for the world to change. It already has. Jesus came, died, and was resurrected. That's the good news. In Advent, we await his return. And while we're waiting for the world to change again, we are not sitting back apathetically hoping for another solution. We live responsibly, worship the Christ, do our best, and trust in the God of the past, present, and future.

This message gives hope to those who live in despair about the problems of the world and can motivate people who do not think there is any way they can make a difference. Jesus said my kingdom does not have to break in politically, militarily, or even commercially. It arrives quietly in backlot mangers, through desert travelers looking at the heavens, and illiterate shepherds seeing angels. That's what faith is about. It's something to believe in while we're waiting.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

John the Baptist, Isaiah, and the Orange Barrels


Just in time for Thanksgiving, I-40 is now open. Knoxville greeted me with orange barrels and the obligatory, "it's almost finished" two years ago. Now we have smooth driving from the church to Pellissippi Parkway and back. Or in preacher terms, "I can get to Parkwest hospital and back without packing a sack lunch."

Isaiah, road crew for the Hebrew Bible, and John the Baptist, engineer of paving in the Gospels, would have been proud. Both announced, "Prepare the way for the Lord," and "make a way in the wilderness." For Isaiah, it meant a desert road from Babylon to Jerusalem. Not exactly the highway to heaven, but it would mean hope for the Israelites. John posted signs along the highway announcing a Person coming who was mightier than he.

Advent is about repaving the roads and pathways of life. It's about putting up the orange barrels and redirecting our energy toward a Messiah who has come and will come again. The project requires setting new priorities, paving over the holes of sin with the material of forgiveness, and taking direction from the Supervisor of the heavenly contstruction project. It's not an easy task, but the world needs this kind of direction in life.

We know it won't be easy, and one paving project often leads to fixing other parts of a road. Even in Knoxville, by this time next year, they will close downtown in a attempt to fix the clogged arteries through the center city. But for this Thanksgiving, we are grateful for a job completed, for lighter commutes, easier access, and the hope that new directions will bring.

Thanksgiving for a Churchman

On Saturday, Kelly, Parker, and I gathered in Owensboro, Kentucky, to pay tribute to her grandfather. We will miss him at Thanksgiving this year. He never met a meal he didn’t like and as he wiped the last crumbs from his mouth, he always said, “This is the best meal I ever had.” That kind of statement typified a life of giving and gratitude.

We said goodbye to a true churchman. He chaired every building committee, capital campaign, deacon council, search committee, and group at Far Hills Baptist in Kettering, Ohio. If I know anything about building chairmen and capital campaign chairmen, he was also the first to give his offering—sacrificially—so that others will be inspired to give. He made sure the family was in church and stayed on them to remain involved in church. He’s the only person I know that when he moved closer to his daughter’s family and joined First Baptist Owensboro, they made him a deacon and soon thereafter a deacon emeritus.

He was man enough to cry at the drop of a hat and give hugs to anyone who tried to date their way into the family. In Grandaddy’s mind, you didn’t have to earn your way into the clan.

He was an avid reader of this newsletter and quite a student of worship. He would show me the worship guide from his church, discuss our bulletin with me, and ask probing questions. He was genuinely interested, not in a critical way, but so that he could learn even more about his own life of faith.

When I was in high school, I was na├»ve enough to think that churches just happen. The formula was simple: get the WMU, the prayer room, the youth group, Sunday School, and the Choir moving in the same direction, and you’ve got a great church. But churches don’t just happen. People like Frank Parks happen to join the cause because they care so much about Jesus that they want their church to live like Christ.

Albert Schweitzer remarked, “The great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.” Frank forgot more about church life than most people ever knew. And my guess is we’ll still be telling several more Frank stories for years to come—stories about meals, and church, and family. And it will be the best advice we’ve ever had.

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