Headlines from First Thoughts

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Monday, December 25- The Christmas Angel in the Brown Hat

Two weeks ago, I received this letter from someone who passed by our church. It's a wonderful story and worth sharing "in her own words."

Merry Christmas!

The Christmas Angel in the Brown Hat

Silent Night was playing on the radio as I drove to work. I love the holy day season because of the birth of God’s Son. The crowds of people shopping and rushing around to find that perfect turkey or ham for their Christmas dinner make it very stressful.

I arrived at work all smiles; I had to make a good impression. I was working as a temp and as a temp you would like to be hired full time, so you try a little harder. In most cases a temp is treated like you have a bad case of measles. Your co-workers do not realize you are just like everyone else in the office, you just need a job. I had begun to get used to it by now, so I kept smiling.

This was the second Friday of the month, so that meant pay day. The company I worked for did all their banking in the middle of downtown Knoxville. Oh hey!! This meant I would have to drive in that downtown mess, use up my lunch and be in a worse mood than I was already in.

The temperature was about freezing, but for some reason I did not feel cold. I hate to say it but I was enjoying the Christmas trees on top of the buildings. I really did not know Knoxville had such beautiful old buildings in the downtown area. This walk was becoming very nice.

I finally see the bank that was a quick two blocks. My eyes focus in on something else in front of the First Baptist Church. I was simply frozen in my tracks. In front of me was the most beautiful manger scene I had ever seen. I was in kind of a hurry to get to the bank, but I knew I would be stopping on the way back to my car.

I left the bank and raced to see this wonderful treasure I had found. I stood in front of the First Baptist Church and listened to O Holy Night playing in the background. I had found Christmas in the middle of a busy street and I wanted to tell everyone about it. So I decided to write about it when I got home. I am a long way from being a Nobel peace writer, but I do my best. As I stood there I could feel the presence of another person standing near me, almost shoulder to shoulder I might add. Gosh!! Does he have to stand so close--there is a whole sidewalk?

The gentleman was of small frame, well dressed and very polite. On his head he was wearing a brown dress hat and holding a walking cane with a gold tip on the handle. I looked him over from head to toe, not knowing if I needed to run or see what he was doing standing so close. As we stood there together not saying a word, he finally spoke. “This is beautiful is it not?” It seemed that he came out of nowhere and he was asking me questions. “Do you know how many people stop and take time to admire this?” he asked. “I have no idea,” I answered, somewhat puzzled. I was so shocked at his response: “Only three or four a day.”

I thought to myself, “That cannot be right.” It was hard to believe that something so beautiful could be taken for granted. It came to me that we, as humans, take our Savior for granted a lot. God loves us every day not just at Christmas.

As my friend, yes I said my friend, walked away, he tipped his brown hat, tapped his cane and said, and “God bless you for taking time to stop.” I was speechless, so I just gave him a smile and a big wave.

In a moment my heart was changed so much. It was filled with a peace and thankfulness to have met someone so special. I did not ask him his name, so I call him “My Angel in the Brown Hat.” I was really happy I had to cash my check that day. I do not mind going downtown anymore.

I will always remember my Angel in the Brown Hat.

Saturday, December 24-- One Less Trip

I promise to do things differently this Christmas Eve. Flashback to this same time last year. Kelly and I were safely nestled in a Bed and Breakfast in Charlotte. Along with her family, we were attending a wedding of a friend. I officiated the small ceremony. If it had not been a family friend, I would have said "no." After all, it was Christmas Eve. They accomodated my schedule, however. They knew that I needed to be back by 5:00 p.m. for the Christmas Eve service, and I booked a flight immediately following the ceremony to get me from Charlotte to Knoxville in time for the wedding.

The flight, however, took place in a car. When I arrived at the airport, I discovered United Airlines had canceled the flight (this was a time when they apparently did not need the business). They also did not know how to get in touch with customers. I had not received the email they sent, but none of that mattered at 1:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve. I had a service to preach before the clock struck 5.

Because no other flights were leaving Charlotte until 5:30, I flew down to the Hertz desk, rented a car; and attempted to avoid every speed trap between there and Knoxville. I was befuddled, I missed my exit out of Charlotte and drove through Spartanburg, South Carolina, en route to Knoxville. I arrived at 4:45 p.m.

I threw on my robe and went out to await the service. An usher greeted me. "Dr. Shiell, the city bus service (KAT) is about to tow all the cars parked in front of the church." (This, too, can only happen on Christmas Eve.) I ran to the front of the church with the bells of 5 o'clock tolling. KAT was staging buses in front of our church, and the attendant was upset that cars were parked where buses were attempting to stop. It was Saturday; I'm sure KAT figured no one would be at church on Christmas Eve; and the travelers assumed no one would need their spaces they normally used on Sunday when KAT was not staging buses.

With all the authority of John the Baptist I could muster, I told him that there would be no cars towed on Christmas Eve. I promptly returned to the sanctuary (in the spirit of baby Jesus, of course) and led the service.

Mary and Joseph had the flight to Egypt, but I had the flight from Charlotte. Joy to the world.

Saturday, December 23-- Secret Santa

So it was Larry Stewart after all! Five years ago, I was touched by the actions of an unknown man in New York. The first Christmas after 9/11, this man walked the streets of Kansas City, MO, giving away $100 bills. Despite all the internal "this is not how you help people long term" urges, I was moved by his actions, motives, attitude, and anonymity.

After realizing a tabloid was preparing to publish his identity, Larry Stewart took off the mask, revealed his name, and his full story. He's a millionaire battling cancer. He's a man who once ran out of money after losing his job. He vowed to help others "if he ever had money to do so." This man kept his promise. He's given away roughly $1.3 million since he started.

Larry Stewart is not the only Secret Santa in the world. Many more anonymously help others no matter what the quantity. He's just one more sign, however, that the best gifts in the world are given without hope of recognition or repayment. The greatest deeds in the world are accomplished behind the headlines. Keep up the good work!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Friday, December 22-- More Gifts of Christmas

This morning, I posted a story from our Christmas brunch from the perspective of one of our guests. This man needed clothes for a photograph to send to his mother for Christmas.

Someone special went along for the ride, however. The story begins at the end of the brunch when things were winding down. Parker had been wanting to get with "Mr. Ed," Ed Crook, and go for a ride. Ed found me in Trentham Hall following brunch, took Parker, retrieved the car seat, and started toward Ed's vehicle. On the way, however, they bumped into the guest who was needing a new pair of pants. Ed convinced another deacon, Mike Cunningham, to go with him to the local thrift shop; and Parker went along for the ride. While I'm supervising cleanup operations, Parker is encountering his first experience directly serving the least of these.

Parker asked Mike quietly, "Sit by me." They put the guest in the passenger's seat, and the four went to the thrift shop. They found a nice pair of pants, a shirt, and a tie; but they could not find a place to try on the clothes. The store manager discovered the foursome in the back in the corner behind a wall outfitting the guest; the manager and was not pleased. The group apologized, excused themselves quickly, and arrived back at the church with our guest neatly attired.

I asked Parker about the experience later, and he didn't have much to say. I told him, "You know, you did something Jesus wants us to do, to be kind to each other."

Parker's reply: "That's a verse in the Bible."

Lesson learned, gift received, even when you're just along for the ride.

Thursday, December 21-- Advent Gifts

From my friend Ken Hall, President of Buckner International.....
(read this post at http://bucknerprez.typepad.com/ken_hall/2006/12/the_generosity__2.html)

The Generosity of Others – Part 3
A Picture of Hope
Carol McEntyre serves as the Buckner community minister for First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. It’s one of our collaborations with churches as we team with them to provide viable, meaningful social ministry in their communities. Listen to her story of generosity: “On Dec. 2, the Buckner collaboration at First Baptist Knoxville hosted the downtown Christmas Brunch, an event designed to reach out to families in need in our area. Over 800 individuals and families came to eat breakfast, listen to local choirs sing Christmas carols and receive a new pair of shoes.

“A member of our church, who is a photographer, also took family portraits of everyone who attended. One homeless gentleman who came to the event from the local mission asked if we could get him a clean set of clothes to wear for his portrait. He hadn't seen his mother in many years and wanted to mail her the photo for Christmas.

“Two of our volunteers ran out and purchased the young man a new set of clothes. He wore them so proudly as he posed for the photo. When it came off the printer, he went around the room showing it to all the volunteers. For a moment, he was a normal guy, getting his portrait taken by a professional photographer, to give to his mother for Christmas. What a great gift!”

Have a good weekend. Remember that there are others in need. Think of a way to answer their need.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Wednesday, December 20- After Annunciation

"After Annunciation"
Madeleine L'Engle

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There'd have been no room for the child.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Tuesday, December 19-- Seeing through the Light

Frederick Buechner reminds us the funny thing about light is you can never see the light itself, you can only see the thing that the light illumines. It’s not the light that you see in the middle of the cave, it’s the dimly lit pathway out through the rock. It’s not the flame that you see in the house, it’s the carpet, or the hallway to show you the way to the place of safety.

When we light the candles of Advent, we see others who are praying with you, the faces of church people who are surviving with you. They remind us that God is coming, and God will restore.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Monday, December 18- Christmas movement

Christmas moves. It moves from angels to Mary and Joseph. It's a journey of a couple not only to Bethlehem but then to Egypt and back home to Nazareth. The Son of God moves into the world and changes it forever.

It's not enough for the story to stop with a simple nativity and a picture or two in the Bible. That's something for a museum or china cabinet. We can't merely tour the site where Jesus was born to experience Christmas. The wonder of Christmas moves home. In every corner of the globe, Christmas is expressed uniquely in cultures. The Christ child goes home with people who express the story in their own way. It doesn't change the message or the meaning, but it adds to the heritage of our faith.

What would Christmas be without "Silent Night, Holy Night." We have the Germans to thank for it. What would Christmas be without "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing?" We thanks to Charles Wesley in Great Britain for that. Poinsettias were imported from Mexico. Christmas trees began with Martin Luther, and on and on we could go.

Where will Christmas take you this season? How will you express the story in your way? If you're like me, most of the surprises are discovered along the way.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sunday, December 17-- Gifts of Neighbors

Christmas day is difficult for some people, especially if the day is associated with grief. I heard this story told in McGregor, when I was pastor of First Baptist. Jim Johnson described a painful moment that turned into an opportunity to share love.

"Mr. and Mrs. Lange, German immigrants, had lived for many years on property west of our farm. Their three sons and two daughters had grown up and moved away. We had three boys and one girl living at home.

"Our family and the Langes shared good times and bad times. When my parents moved next to the Langes, Dad thought the fence should be rebuilt. Instead of protesting like most neighbors would, Mr. Lange pitched into pay for the fence and helped Dad built it.

'Good neighbors keep a good fence,' Mr. Lange said.

"When Harris Creek running through our farms overflowed after a heavy rain, Dad and Mr. Lange would go to work togeteher repairing the barbwire water gap. If a cow crossed onto the othe's farm, it was cared for and returned to its own herd.

'That man is honest,' Dad would say of Mr. Lange. 'He treats his wife and children good.'

"I felt safe knowing our neighbors a half-mile away were ready to help with any problem.

"Mr. Lange, who was older than Dad, developed heart problems, and Mom and Dad visited to help the Langes however they could. Mrs. Lange often insisted we go with her to the cellar to pick out canned goods to take home.

"Across the open fields, from our front porch, Dad kept a watchful eye on the Langes' visitors.

"We awoke on that cold, icy Christmas morning. When Dad came from the barn, he said, 'There are a lot folks at the Langes'.'

"Two aunts were visiting our family of six. Just as Mom pulled the turkey and dressing from the oven, the telephone rang.

'My father died this morning,' said one of the Lange girls.

"Grief and pain filled me parents' faces. Dad took one look at the turkey and said, 'Mama, I'll be back in a little while. I'm taking this to the Langes.' Mom nodded.

"When Dad returned, we gathered around the table. Dad gave thanks to our Master for food and for a good friend and neighbor. I don't remember what Santa Claus gave me that year, but I remember the gift my parents gave me-- a gift of how neighbors love one another."

One of the first people I met in McGregor, and still to this today one of our good friends, was one of those "Lange girls." They're still sharing the story, and showing the example learned from the Lange's and the Johnson's one painful Christmas day.

Saturday, December 16- The Distance to Bethlehem

Another classic Christmas poem, this time from Madeline Sweeney Miller....

"How far is it to Bethlehem town?
Just over Jerusalem hills adown,
Past lovely Rachel's white-domed tomb--
Sweet shrine of motherhood's young doom,
It isn't far to Bethlehem Town--
Just over dusty roads adown,
Past Wise Men's well, still offering
Cool draughts from welcome wayside spring;
Past shepherds with their flutes of reed
That charm the woolly sheep they lead.
Past boys with kites on hilltops flying,
And soon you're there where Bethlehem's lying.
Sunned white and sweet on olived slopes,
Gold-lighted still with Judah's hopes.
And so we find the Shepherd's field
And plain that gave rich Boaz yield,
And look where Herod's villa stood.
We thrill that earthy paretnhood
Could foster Christ who was all-good;
And thrill that Bethlehem Town today
Looks down on Christmas homes that pray,
It isn't far to Bethlehem Town!
It's anywhere that Christ comes down
And finds in people's friendly face
A welcome and abiding place.
The road to Bethlehem runs right through
The homes of folks like me and you.

Friday, December 15-- The Gift

This poem, originally written from the perspective of a mother to a son, could also be read from the perspective of God to us.

"Can You Come Home for Christmas?"
Thomas Carruth

I'm writing to you somewhat soon
About a certain, special date;
Strange thing to do, right here in June,
But Christmas plans just will not wait...

The papers praise your civic worth;
The people join in warm acclaim
(I somehow knew, before your birth,
That multitudes would sound your name).

Your calendar is always filled
With such important things to do;
But I'll admit that I'd be thrilled
To get one special gift from you.

No packages, no presents fine;
No fuss or flurry, no ado;
No frilly, fancy place to dine;
The Christmas gift I want is you.

Can you come home for Christmas, Joe
And maybe spend a day or two?
It is a lot to ask, I know
The gift I really want is you!"

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Thursday, December 14-- Christmas Letters

When did the "Christmas letter" craze begin? Do you receive these? They're the annual state- of- the- family reports from people who send Christmas cards. I still receive a few cards with just a nice picture; but most of the time, the sender includes a highlight reel of the year's landmarks.

I've noticed something this year however. The older the writer, the more realistic the picture. Younger families usually write glowing reports: "Little Julie was born, Johnny can now ride his bike to France and back, Glenda is now a straight A student at Harvard." The info is nice, but you really want to ask, "Are these people real?!" Even I know there's more to the story. Where's the good stuff? Where are the failures and problems? Tell me about a few bad breaks.

Enter the senior adult letter. Few mature citizens send out the annual letter, but they are usually the most interesting. They not only include the snapshots of the year, but invariably they discuss surgeries, medications, pains, aches, test results. This is good stuff-- maybe a little too much-- but at least you get a realistic picture of life. "Why try to paint a rosy picture?" the senior adult asks, "Just tell 'em like it is."

Matthew had to be nearing the retirement home when he finally edited the pieces of Jesus' story into a cohesive Gospel. He didn't pull any punches. There are a few nice, glowing images. He includes a report of "righteous" Joseph and wealthy magi. Those fit well into the nativity pageant.

But then we also read the rest of the story. Jesus is related to Rahab, and Herod slaughtered most of the babies born at the same time out of fear. Joseph and Mary spend most of the time on the road, and the world ignored the birth of Jesus.

Matthew's Christmas letter wasn't rosy, but it was realistic. Maybe that's a story worth sending more than once a year.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Wednesday, December 13-- Kindergarten Party

Advent took on a whole new meaning for the Shiell home Tuesday night. We were invaded by approximately 1800 Kindergarteners and their parents for a class Christmas party.

The groundwork for the assault was laid long before tonight. When I was growing up, we learned in American history Congress passed an obscure law in 1925 that stated, “All school parties must be held in the school classroom.” Apparently, we failed to notice the fine print: “Except at Rocky Hill Elementary in Knoxville.” Little did we know that when Kelly was crowned “Room Mother” what this new title would do to change our lives. I of course became “Room Husband,” which meant that I received ample opportunity to volunteer on Fridays and work the pickup area at the end of the day. I also discovered plenty of other chances to know the kindergarteners and their parent-enablers.

Immediately after the coronation, however, Kelly’s doc placed her on bed rest. “Relief!” I said. I would not be responsible for as much room husbanding as I thought. But somehow Kelly’s doc and Kelly were conspired to remove the bed rest restriction by Thanksgiving. To celebrate the end of bed rest, Kelly decided to actually invite the entire class over for the party. Miss Corden actually endorsed this event, because I’m sure she knew that old 1925 law was still on the books.

The first wave hit at 6:15, followed by one after another until by 6:45 the entire Dunbarton Oaks subdivision (at least this is how it felt) thundered with the sound of elephants on the 2nd floor of our home. Parker’s tree house became an outpost for another assault. Soon a football game broke out on the front lawn with all 1800 Kindergarteners. What made matters more exciting, Queen Kelly actually served a buffet of cookies, cake, candy, pretzel-thingies, hot chocolate with more sugar to put a diabetic into a coma. I’m not kidding about this part. This was a feast fit for Rachel Ray. What were they thinking?

But soon I realized that, as Miss Corden said, “This was probably the best Christmas present you could ever give Parker.” The gift of relationships can only be shared with people. The joy and fun of boys and girls conquer many fears and worries, and 5 year olds know how to spread that Christmas cheer better than anyone else. Just let them take over—cookies and all—and they will show you how to enjoy the season in ways you never thought of. I’m not sure how God will bring peace on earth, but my guess is that much like his first coming, he will start with the same laughter that only the Christ child brought and a 5 year old can bring.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Tuesday, December 12-- Hearing Voices

Before we were born, all we could hear were voices. They were coming from the outside. Can you remember that time, safe in the confines of your mother’s tummy? Did your big brother say, "Hello"? Did your mother sing to you? You probably thought life was so easy then, fed by a cord, nurtured and cared for; but then something happened that you were not planning. After 8 months, the noises grew louder. Things around you changed. Suddenly, a light flashed; you arrived into a new world. You were so stunned by the lights and the temperature; and perhaps what you saw. All of a sudden those voices had eyes, ears, and hands. You were so overwhelmed you just let out the biggest scream of your life. And you realized that YOU had a voice too.

As Eugene Peterson notes in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, before Jesus was born, the only thing that the world knew about God was through the sound of voices. Think about all the references to God’s voice in the pages of Scripture. Genesis 1 opens with the very word, the voice of God calling out breathing, moving, speaking the world into being. Just a voice. When God intervened in the world from time to time, he spoke to boys like Samuel in the still of the night, through the angel of the Lord appearing to Joshua, and to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The prophets spoke after they listened to God, and kings claimed to be at the right hand of God listening; but at best, all they had was a voice to speak to them.

John describes it this way in his marvelous paraphrase of Genesis 1-2, this time with resurrection eyes to see it. In John 1, we read, “In the beginning was a voice—in the beginning was the word." The word-- the voice-- was with God, the word was God. The voice made it—all things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” Word, voice, light, all united together from the very beginning of creation. That's a voice worth hearing this season.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Monday, December 11- Bethlehem, Georgia

How large was that little town of Bethlehem? Let's just say that if Bethlehem were located in Georgia, the village would not have made the map. According to the Knoxville News-Sentinel Sunday, the map makers in Georgia decided to remove all communities "under the population of 2,500 to "eliminate clutter." From what we know about Bethelehem, the population was no more than 1,000 at the time of Jesus' birth...probably more like 600. When the world was focused on Rome, Jerusalem, and other capitals, God chose the place described in Micah as "least among the rulers of Judah."

Is that how God works today? While the world focuses on events in Washington, London, Moscow, and Baghdad, God works just as readily in Bucksnort, Tennessee and Oglesby, Texas; Cut-n-Shoot, Texas and Opp, Alabama. When it comes to the work of God, location doesn't matter. The faith of the people make the difference. The God of the universe just asks us to be ready....even if no one else can find you on the map in Georgia.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Sunday, December 10-- Holding Your Breath

At the theater, there is one moment in the production when everything is so quiet, you can hear your own heart beat. It’s so still, you can hear the thoughts of the parents standing beside you awaiting the moment when they are going to see little Susie in her brand new pink dress. At the same time, there’s a lot of activity going on behind the scenes. The stage hands scurry with last minute details; the cues arrive through the stage headphones; the sound operators are poised to cue the microphones. It’s the final hush before the curtain rises; it’s the moment the conductor raises his baton before the downbeat of the orchestra; it’s the pregnant pause before the lights turn on.

This moment, says, Frederich Buechner, is Advent. That’s what we’re in right now; it’s the extraordinary moment before the moment. The world holds its breath waiting for God to cue the camels, the manger, the shepherds and the magi. We hold our breath right before the curtain rises on the drama of this Christmas story.

Saturday, December 9- Advent Publicity

How do you spread the word about Advent? You could always try the strategy used by the promoters of the new "Rocky" movie. Yes, as in Sylvester Stallone, Rocky XXVIII. This guy is old enough to be Parker's grandfather, and he's still fighting. Now his producers are "Christianizing" the character. Read this email that I received a few weeks ago. You'll think it's a joke at first, but I've actually received two "invitations."

Dear Leader,
Sylvester Stallone (as in, "Rocky") cordially invites you, as a leader in the faith and family community, to JOIN HIM ON THE PHONE LIVE this Friday at 12:30 - 12:50 pm Pacific Time.
Sly would like to take some time to talk to you about the faith and values that run through the Rocky films, and share with you about his upcoming movie, Rocky Balboa, the final chapter in the Rocky story (yes, Stallone himself gets back in the ring!).
As space on this call is limited, please CLICK HERE TO RSVP immediately to reserve your spot.
In interviews with various faith-based publications, Sly recently shared some of his thoughts about the Rocky character and faith:
"In Rocky, if he's just a fighter, then it's just a boxing story, and I told the producers in the beginning, 'It's not a boxing story; it's a spiritual journey. It really is about a man that has been chosen to accomplish a role, to be an example for other people.' " Interview with New Man Magazine
"If you don't have a great relationship with God, you can go off the deep end. The Christian foundation of life is really the perfect ideal which one should base every decision they make on, because it comes from a sense of kindness, a sense of giving, a sense of fairness, and it avoids everything which I'm exposed to every day in my particular industry which is greed, and avarice and jealousy and bitterness . . ." Interview with Catholic Digest
We recently screened Rocky Balboa for some key leaders, who had a chance to meet with Sly after the screening. Here's what they had to say:
"Life is hard, and faith can help us to face some of those challenges and issues in our past and you see Rocky do that throughout the movies but particularly it comes to kind of a peak in this movie and it was exciting to see." Jud Wilhite Senior Pastor, Central Christian Church Las Vegas, Nevada
"I thought it was a tremendous film. I thought it was powerful. It was not an overtly Christian film, but it was a film filled with Christian themes of faith and hope and second chances and redemption, and I would say that for us as Christians that it gives us real fodder for conversations with people to talk about those themes." Mark Mittelberg Writer, speaker and Church Consultant
"I guess if there's one theme that stood out for me was the whole idea of self esteem. And how important that is to be formed in the family, first of all, and then, if it gets lost along the way, that it can be regained. And that's a good message for people to know, and to hear that there's always hope." Sister Rose Pacatte Daughters of St. Paul
We at Motive Entertainment (we managed the grass roots campaigns for The Passion and Narnia, among others) have created a variety of FREE faith-based Rocky resources for teaching and preaching (visit www.RockyResources.com).
Though this is not a religious film, we believe there are many themes ("The Heart of a Champion," "Fighting the Good Fight," "Recovery After a Fall," etc.) that relate to faith and values. But don't take our word for it - listen to Sly himself explain how he has woven these themes into his movies.

Needless to say, I didn't join "the conference call." Consider me another cynic if you wish, but I just don't think "Rocky" fits the genre of the "Nativity Story," the "Passion of the Christ," or even the "Chronicles of Narnia." I'm beginning to grow weary of the "Christian" marketing schtick anyway. Hopefully my church is more than just another "untapped consumer waiting to spend money."

It's no wonder God chose to send angels to the hillsides instead of the temple. If God had a "marketing plan," it certainly did not follow a Hollywood script. The only ones open enough to listen were not looking for a superstar. They were looking to the stars, gazing into the night sky, or obeying God daily. When they heard the news, they bowed in reverence and spread the word to friends and enemies.

So this season, if you want a glimpse of the kingdom of God, watch for events less commercialized, like the cries of a baby or the stars in the skies. You'll be better prepared for heaven's publicity plan.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Friday, December 8- Shoes of Peace

The week preceding the second Sunday of Advent prepares us for the Sunday of peace. I will confess that in our peaceful neck of the woods, we need to walk a little ways to see the world's hurts. The turmoil of Iraq, the difficulties in Sudan, the hardships of people battling AIDS, the hurts of neighbors losing jobs-- we can block all of them out if we really try. That is, until the people facing hardships walk into your world.

This happened to one of our church members this past Saturday at the Christmas brunch. He was working the shoe department of the brunch, distributing donated gently used and new shoes to guests. One man walked in wearing a pair of shoes that did not fit quite right. They were in farily good shape; but like everyone else who wears shoes, it doesn't really matter if they look good. If the shoe doesn't fit, you can't wear it. He found the right pair on our rack. After trying it on, he took his old shoes that really weren't that old and put them on the rack. Our member asked him, "Sir, don't you want to take your shoes with you?"

"No," he said, "These are in pretty good shape, and maybe someone else can use them."

Less than an hour later, another guest walked in. He needed shoes badly, and he discovered the "old" pair of shoes. He tried them on, and they were a perfect fit. They were still warm from the heat of the former owner.

Peace arrives as one needy person shares with another person out of generosity and love. Maybe we just need to be in the right place to see it walking into our world.

Thursday, December 7- Home for Advent

It’s hard to paint a picture of a vibrant 21st century Center-City Church. We can use all sorts of techniques, talk about ministries, and find a few ideas from other congregations. I can tell some stories, and I usually catch a glimpse of it each day I’m in the office. Rarely can a person see it framed at one time. This weekend, we saw it at First Baptist Knoxville; and it looked a lot like a spiritual home.

In a span of 24 hours, we fed over 800 people in our building with over 245 volunteers and donations of clothes, sleeping bags, food, and more. The second annual Christmas brunch brought the working poor, Latinos, South Knoxville families, homeless, and the spiritually needy into our church for an experience like none other. As one person said, “You are one of the bright lights in the city.” Your light shined Saturday, but you did it 1B’s way. You served across generations and languages. College students, median adults, youth, senior adults, young adults, and kids all had a part; and we truly could not have done it without each one. We modeled a missions lifestyle to one another by watching choirs and missions offer a gift to those who do not normally have this kind of quality programming; and we demonstrated these values to our own children by treating others better than ourselves. Missions is much easier caught than taught. You showed that Saturday.

If Saturday weren’t enough for a great weekend of ministry, we studied the Bible and worshiped together Sunday to open the Advent Season. On Sunday night, Kely Hatley, Sydnor Money, Karen Smith, and Kelly Shiell brought together another classic example of our church. We worshiped together across generations, led by an incredible Chapel Choir, Golden Notes, Praise band, and instrumentalists. We decorated our sanctuary together, and the youngest to the oldest played key roles. These people offered their best offerings to God, whether through decoration or music, in a quality way that showed their lives are being transformed by Christ.

We learned several things from the weekend. It’s not only fun to serve, but it sure is fun to serve together. There is something about picking up plates of scrambled eggs when you know that 200 others are helping. Hanging garland is much easier with 200 of your closest faith family. Another thing we learned is that people want to be involved, and typically become more involved, when they can be a part of something first. Many of our volunteers are not church members…yet. Two of them actually joined Saturday. Some, however, are getting involved because you invited them to a music group or asked them to serve on a Brunch team. These are easy ways not only to introduce them to what makes us First Baptist but to introduce people to each other. A third thing we learned is that people like to be treated like people. When someone speaks to you in the pew—whether guest, member, poor, or rich—we just feel welcome. I watched you greet people with a loving touch.

I have seen these kinds of things throughout my tenure here at 1B. I’ve watched you do this in Croatia, through Operation Inasmuch, at South Knoxville Elementary, in Helena, Arkansas. All these have been vital to the ongoing ministries of our church, and they have benefited other people and organizations beyond our walls in ways too numerous to explain. But this weekend, everything came home. We could see how these walls have become a missions, ministry, and worship center. First Baptist is a warm, hospitable, safe platform to live out the gospel; and we have brought our experiences outside the walls to benefit the center city of our hometown.

That’s just the beginning of the season, but this weekend is all about seeing the picture come together and living it out in 2007. Thanks for what you are doing and being together, and welcome home.

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