Snowy, steepled church inspires Christmas blessings

churBy Joe LaGuardia

Just mention the word “church”, and people do not think of auditoriums with coffee shops, but the classic one-room, steepled church set in a snowy, foothills environment.  A red door stands ready to greet visitors and large windows provide light even on the darkest of days.  Perhaps there is a bell tower, chiming people to worship on the Sabbath.

Although I grew up in a congregation that met in a renovated library, this was always my picture of the stereotypical church.  There is something beautiful about it, something naïve. It’s like a Thomas Kinkade painting, an escapist perspective that makes us feel that all is well in the world.

I enjoy seeing churches like this on our family trips across the South.  We even purchased Christmas cards this year with a picture of one on the front.  “Christmas blessings,” it reads, anticipating a snowy Christmas in an otherwise mild-weathered year.

These churches also remind me of a song my children used to sing with clasped hands in front of them: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple; open it up, and here are the people.”

Their fingers, waving in the air, represented the people of course.  It is not the building, but the people who make the church what it is.

The only problem is that the people who make up the church are imperfect, flawed individuals.  Get into the life of the congregation and remove the building, and issues arise in our perception for what it means to be Christian.

No wonder there are those who call Christians hypocrites.  Ask any churchgoer why he attends church, however, and he will be the first to tell you that he attends precisely because of his sins.

Like St. Paul, we Christians want to do what the Spirit tells us, but we mess things up instead:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” Paul wrote to churches in Rome (Romans 7:15).

You can keep your perfect people; I’ll take the misfits, thank you very much, because the very meaning of being a church is of being the people of God gathered together to bear witness to salvation that comes with grace and grace alone.

Several weeks ago, our church ordained our associate pastor, Karen Woods, to the gospel ministry.  Somewhere along the way, we read passages from Romans 12 and 1 Peter 3.  Both scripture lessons affirmed the gifts that God gives us, the gifts of the Spirit, and the gifts that empower us to do the work of the church and be the church in the world.

The passages also encourage us to give God the gift of our very life:

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).

Christmas is a time of gift-giving and receiving, and though our perspectives of church become a little more serene and nostalgic during this time of year (how many people return to church after being absent all year long?), we are reminded of the great gifts we exchange with God in time for Jesus’ birthday.

We give God the gift of our life as a response to the great gift that God has given us in spite of our weaknesses and sin.  We acknowledge God’s grace although we are undeserving.  We celebrate our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to live for us, lead the way, die for us, and rise from the dead in order to give us eternal life.

What better time to come back to church than during Christmas?  Our churches may not look the same, but the feelings of entering the sacred space of what is historically called “God’s womb” remains constant.  It is there that we receive the singular mandate to repent, believe, and then share the good news of the Gospel with others.

160 Sheep missing; Imagine if it was only 1

Germany Shepherds ChampionshipsSeveral weekends ago, a little town in England ironically called Wool fell victim to a mass sheep theft ring.  Shepherds returned to an industrial farm on Monday morning to find 160 sheep missing from the fold.  Authorities claimed that the heist was one of the largest in cattle history, and the thieves would have had extensive knowledge of sheep and sheep transportation.

When I heard this story, I could not help but chuckle a little bit.  Don’t get me wrong: I feel terrible for the lost sheep, which surely amounts to a great deal of money for farmers who have a living to make.  Their loss should in no way be an opportunity for our entertainment.

But 160 sheep is a lot of sheep!  Just all gone in thin air!  Its a comically peculiar situation.

The amount of sheep has made headline news for sure, but what if only one sheep went missing?  No one would notice; there would not be any reporters or interviews.

In Luke 15:3-7, Jesus told a parable about one lost sheep.  Of course, in typical fashion, Jesus started the parable in the form of a question: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

This question seems simple at first, but it has actually garnered some debate.  Would Jesus’ original audience, agrarian peasants familiar with life on the farm, affirm this question without hesitation?  Sure, they would search for a sheep because each sheep is valuable.

Or would Jesus’ audience understand the question to be a form of satire?  No one in his right mind would leave an entire flock for one sheep, especially if the flock was in someplace as dangerous as the “wilderness.”

Perhaps, the debate focuses on the wrong point.  Perhaps the real point comes about only when we measure the amount of sheep found (one) with the exuberant amount of joy that the shepherd had in finding it: there was joy, rejoicing, and a party with neighbors…over one little sheep!

Now, regardless of how the peasants in Jesus’ day would have answered the question, they certainly would have balked at this second part to the parable.  Yes, perhaps a shepherd would search for one sheep even if it meant letting the herd be vulnerable for a few minutes, but throwing a party?  For a sheep?  Nonsense!

So whether Jesus’ initial question is controversial or not is not so much as scandalous as rejoicing over a sheep.  160 sheep, maybe; but not one.

That’s where the heart of the parable is found.  Jesus wanted to accentuate the joy that comes with finding even the most overlooked of sheep because when it comes to God’s agenda for salvation, no one person is overlooked.  Each person is valuable to God, and each sinner saved calls for rejoicing, joy, and a party of reconciliation both on earth and “in heaven.”

Let us not forget why Jesus told this parable in the first place.  The Pharisees were criticizing Jesus for eating with sinners (15:1-2).  It was one thing to preach God’s message of salvation to sinners; it was another thing to welcome and eat with sinners.

Jesus was guilty by association, but he did not come to spend time with the righteous, he came to save the lost.  His welcome of the lost was a divine invitation that embraced people right where they were, with no strings attached.  Jesus exhibited God’s grace, which both sought out the most neglected soul and then forgave the debts of the most undeserving and vile of men and women.  Now that’s something to celebrate!

Being a pastor has its unique…disadvantages

A pastor's face only a mother could love...

A pastor’s face only a mother could love…

When I heard the call to ministry in my teenage years, I wanted everyone to know that I wanted to be a pastor.  I went to school, got experience, landed a great ministry at a great church, and have done fairly well in living out my calling thus far.

It’s odd, then, that years later, I am hesitant to tell people I am a pastor when they ask what I do for a living.

Why am I now so shy to tell people I’m a pastor?  Its probably because when I do get around to that (only after a person asks, of course), I always get some sort of apology that goes something like this: “Oh, I’m sorry I used bad language in front of you,” or “Gee, I hope I didn’t offend you when I told you I liked that movie.”

And my favorite: “Oh my, I wouldn’t have ordered that drink if I knew you were a pastor.”

It’s funny how people change their behavior when they are in the company of clergy.  I’m confident the only other people who feel like that are lawyers (“You’re a lawyer?  May I ask a question?”) and doctors (“Oh, Doctor! I’ve had this pain for the past month…”).

To be honest, I’ve become quite used to that shift in body language, verbal fanfare, and sudden guardedness strangers portray in my company, but it’s still very discomforting.

I guess if I were to give advice to anyone meeting a pastor for the first time, I’d say this: Just be yourself.  Besides, if you have to change how you act, speak, and behave in front of a pastor, you probably shouldn’t act, speak, and behave like that in the first place.

We pastors are normal human beings, too, and we simply want to fellowship with other normal human beings.  I watch all kinds of movies like everyone else.  I have an occasional glass of wine with my meal (I am Italian, after all).  Don’t be surprised if I get grumpy when things don’t go my way.

Nor do I part my hair or wear a tie whenever I leave the house. And I’m certainly not going to quote you the Bible for no good reason in the deli line if you’re acting a fool because the grocer didn’t cut the cheese right.

I prefer authentic people.  I like people who have rough edges and lousy manners and really rotten opinions.  I like people who act strange and get attitudes.  It all makes me feel at home; it reminds me of my family, who also gave up trying to act differently around me a long time ago.

I’m not naive, though.  There will always be people who quickly throw on a mask when I tell them I’m a pastor.  Our hypocrisy knows no bounds, as one crusty movie character once uttered, and we all become white-washed tombs now and then.

Maybe that is why Jesus never got along with the pious crowd.  He knew they were putting on airs, and he spent more time with people who were sinners and knew as much.  “This fellow,” it was once said of Jesus, “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).  How repulsive.  My type of guy.

That is why Jesus told some folks who were throwing a dinner not to waste time with those who bandied about their so-called honor, but instead invite the folks who didn’t have enough change to dress the part (Luke 14).

That is why Jesus meets us where we are, offers himself to us without asking much in return, and simply calls us disciples as long as we put one foot in front of the other.

On second thought, maybe Jesus gets along great with people because when they ask him what he does for a living, he still says, “Carpenter.”  And who doesn’t like a carpenter?