An Advent Devotion: Joy Comes Home

An Advent message from the prophet Zephaniah
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! . . .At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”  
                                                                                                  Zep 3:14, 20 NRSV

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On Our Way to Christmas

(an Advent Devotion I wrote originally for Asheville’s First Presbyterian Church’s Advent Devotional booklet in 1999)

1972 Chrysler Town and Country Interio

I always got the back seat. The very back seat. The one in our 1972 Chrysler Station Wagon that faced oncoming traffic. My older sister and younger brother sat in the middle seat, behind Mama on the passenger side and Daddy in the driver’s seat. The windows, fogged from the cold, made fresh drawing slates for us to sketch Christmas trees decorated with thumb prints and lined with fingernail garlands. Eight-track tapes sang Feliz Navidad, Drummer Boy, and Silent Night. Finally! We were on our way to Christmas.

It was a tradition, that trip. Almost every year, the five of us traveled great distances to be with my Mother’s family for Christmas. I got my big Raggedy Ann doll in Atlanta, my dollhouse in Tulsa, and Redhead, my very favorite doll, at home in Wilson, North Carolina. The trip was just part of Christmas.

I liked the trip. I liked my hideaway in the wayback. With Redhead and a paper sack full of books I could ride for hours reading and napping and reading some more. I liked the car games we played as a family. (I can still spot an X or a Z on a billboard a mile away!) I liked having Daddy (a Baptist pastor by trade) to ourselves with no one to minister to but us. I liked that Mother was free from her at-home responsibilities. In that station wagon we found hours of forced respite, hours of what would now be called quality time.

1972 Chrysler Town and Country Wagon

We would arrive at our destination, spill out of our car, and race to the bathroom or the fridge, whichever need was greatest. Tins of homemade goodies beckoned us to just taste one. Packages, their bows crushed from the journey, fought for a place under the tree. Hugs and laughter, “You’re it!” “Come See!” Refreshed from hours of unhurried family and private time, we were ready to celebrate!

And so it is with advent, our journey to Christmas. My prayer is that this year, I will take time to prepare my heart for the celebration of Christ. I want to curl up with the Good Book, read, rest, and read some more. This year, I want to spend the Advent season resting in Christ so that, when the time comes, I can fully celebrate Jesus’ birth.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 
Romans 15:5-7

War on Christmas Greetings

xmasaleBack before holiday greetings came under scrutiny, it was easy. Sometimes I would say, “Merry Christmas!” More often, though, I would say, “Happy Holidays!” because it applies to the whole season: Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s. Today, if I say “Happy Holidays,” I might be accused of secularizing the sacred; but if I say “Merry Christmas,” does it sound like I’m trying to proselytize?

It all started several years ago when a few prominent retailers purportedly required employees to wish shoppers “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas.” These over-anxious merchants then painted over their “Merry Christmas” signs to read “Happy Holidays,” putting the kibosh on spreading Christmas cheer. Why, you ask? I don’t really know, but I can guess: money. It’s always about money. I’d bet you an elf on a shelf that this greeting adjustment was meant to increase profits by attracting shoppers of other faiths and appealing to customers who don’t identify with any religion at all.War on Christmas?

Now, I don’t know much about the retail business, but I think this decision was profoundly stupid. It’s pretty clear to me that the last person a shopkeeper wants to offend in December is someone celebrating Christmas. I mean, a high percentage—somewhere between 20 and 60 percent[1]—of all annual retail sales are attributed to Christmas buying.  Alienating these shoppers could lead to a serious financial shortfall. 

Anyway, once word of this ixnay on istmasChray got out, media moguls began enlisting Christian soldiers to fight in the War on Christmas. Pretty soon, folks from throughout Christendom—Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, you name it—were moving merry-christas-bumper-stickerbeyond theological differences to join in this holy war. Bumper stickers appeared on sedans, pickups, and hot rods saying “Keep Christ in Christmas,” or “I still Celebrate Christmas” or “It’s okay to say Merry Christmas to me.” Soon you could buy clothing, accessories, and more emblazoned with these loaded messages.

Here’s what I think.  Political correctness started as a good thing. The idea was basically, “Think about your words before you say them aloud.”  I ask you, “Who among us couldn’t benefit from that basic restraint now and then?” Like many good things though, political correctness sometimes goes too far. Take your roadside “Holiday Tree” vendor. Now, this
Christmas Tree Saleperson is in truth selling Christmas trees. I know this because I have Jewish friends; I have Muslim friends; none of them have trees up in their houses. Paying obscene prices for trees that once grew in our mountains but now stand, freshly axed from their roots, bunched together under multi-colored lights—well that behavior is singularly Christian. Wait, I take that back. I have friends who are atheists. They buy Christmas trees too. But I don’t know anyone who buys a Hanukkah pine, or a Ramadan bush. Same thing goes for wreaths. I mean really. Do we decorate for any other holiday with a wreath? No! It’s a Christmas wreath. It’s not an Arbor Day wreath. It’s not a Kwanzaa wreath. Whatcha got yourself there is a Christmas wreath, plain and simple. So if you’re a seasonal foliage pusher, call them Christmas decorations—because that’s what they are. Or call it all “Holiday Greenery” if you want—it’s your business.

That is what it is too: business. And since when was it retailers job to keep Christ in Christmas? What matters to corporations is money. So, if they are putting the name of Jesus Christ on something to make it sell, then I believe they are using God’s name in vain. Plus, I don’t know anyone who has come to a saving knowledge of Jesus because they looked up in Toys-R-Us™ and saw a “Christmas Discounts” sign; do you? (One more thing, I don’t think we can begin to guess what Jesus the Nazarene would do with this mess of affluenza and consumerism we’ve got going on in this country; but I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t want his name on it. Just sayin’.)

Once several years ago, my daughter and I were watching a Christmas movie when a Wal-Mart™ commercial aired. After advertising the prices that had just gotten lower on Christmas must-haves, they signed-off promising, “Christmas costs less at Wal-Mart™.” I winced like I do when someone uses the name of God as a swear word. My daughter looked at me and with 14 year old wisdom and said “Christmas doesn’t cost anything.”

She was right; it doesn’t—at least not in the way that commercial meant. Yet there are incalculable costs: the preparations for Christmas meals; the sacrifices we make to be with family; the practice time musicians invest in preparing annual concerts. These things can’t go in sale papers. They can’t be discounted. They can’t be put on glitzy signs in high-dollar department stores.

In order to Keep Christ in Christmas, we don’t need merchants to put the name of the holiday on their signs. Instead, we need to turn our own eyes away from the modern accoutrements of the season, and focus instead on the gift God gave us in God’s son Jesus.

Christmas Latina Angels
“Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth (which clearly includes Facebook™) Peace to All People!” Luke 2:14 (paraphrased)
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

[1] http://www.wilkes.edu/pdffiles/holidayretailsalesforecast2013.pdf

I published much of this content here on my blog a few years ago, but when I reviewed it recently, I found it lacking. (The original post is no longer available.) This version has been updated, edited, and completely revised.

Overcorrection = Customer Service Fail

Recently, my sister reminded me of a family story that I hadn’t thought about in years. It happened back when we were in college, working in restaurants over holidays and summer breaks. At the time, she was waiting tables in our hometown in South Carolina.

iced tea and stirring spoonNow, for those of you unfamiliar with the South, you need to know this tidbit. In South Carolina, when you order tea, it is assumed that you want your drink served over ice and—unless otherwise stated—sweet enough to pass as a dessert. It’s the rare Southerner who would choose hot tea to go with a meal. Even then, it would be requested with a touch of embarrassment or a word of explanation. “I’m coming down with a cold, you see, or I’d have the regular.” At which point, the waiter would say something like, “Oh! Bless your heart! I’ll getcha some iced tea for after you finish that stuff. No charge. You can take it to go.” In the South, iced tea is serious business, and it’s just not something you want to go messing around with . . . .

As my sister recalls, it all started because one night during the supper rush, a fella complained to the management because he had to request a spoon for his glass of sweet tea. According to him, the tea wasn’t quite sweet enough and he wanted to add more sugar. Not having a spoon readily available (and apparently unable to make do with either his knife, fork, or straw), he made quite a stinker of himself, frustrated that he was made to wait even momentarily for the required utensil. His nastiness threw the staff off kilter and made for a rotten night for everyone.

By the time the servers arrived the next day, the restaurant owner had devised a solution to this customer service conundrum. Incidentally, this was the first time in memory someone had requested more sugar for the sweet tea. Never mind that though; on to the solution.

“From now on,” the owner told the wait staff, “We will put teaspoons in each glass of tea. That will solve the problem.”

The staff just looked at her, apparently waiting for her to see the obvious flaw in the plan. She didn’t; someone spoke up.

“Well . . . umm . . . we put the spoons in the glasses of unsweetened tea so we can identify them. How will we tell them apart if we put spoons in all the glasses?”

The owner thought for a minute, came up with the answer, and said, “Okay, in the sweet tea, put one spoon. In the unsweetened tea, put two.”

“Two spoons?”

“Yes! Two spoons.”

Well, you can imagine how this played out. The first really busy night, they ran out of teaspoons early on and the plan was scrapped. Which was fine really, because the problem wasn’t the system in the first place; the problem was a grumpy man who had probably just had one inconvenience too many that day.

We always get a big laugh out of this story, but in reality, I’ve overcorrected plenty of times in my own life. Have you? Tell me about it in the comments below. I’ll be having a glass of sweet iced tea while I wait to hear from you!

A Parenting Payday

I decided a long time ago that I could either have company when my house is messy, or not have company. So one Wednesday when my youngest (leader in her high school marching band’s saxophone section) announced that she wanted to have the section come over on Friday night before the football game, I was far more concerned with what they would eat than with how my house looked.

Marching Band Saxophone QuintetStill, I wasn’t totally indifferent about the house’s condition. There are a dozen or so saxophones and many of them had never been to my house. I figured some of them had parents who are far better at the details of life than I am. I straightened up, cleaned the bathroom, swept the floors: that kind of thing. But there was still a lot that could have been done. A lot.

They arrived, I welcomed them with soft drinks, snacks, and pizza, chatted briefly with them, and then disappeared for most of their visit. The first chance I got to speak to Margaret about it was on Saturday morning.

“Hey Margaret, sorry I didn’t get to vacuum downstairs or anything before your friends arrived.

“Oh it was fine. When we were coming in, I said, ‘Sorry about the house,’ but then I opened the door and said, ‘hey wait, this isn’t too bad . . . for us. It’s usually a lot worse.’”

“Great. Lovely. Thanks for that Margaret. I’m sure they all went home telling their parents, ‘Poor Margaret has to live in squalor. Thank you mom, dad, for keeping our house so nice and tidy.’”

“Pfft,” Margaret blew off my comment. “Actually they all loved you. They were talking about how great you are. One of them said, ‘Margaret, your mom is just the coolest!’”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I call a payday. As parents, we do a whole lot for which we will never receive any credit at all. Plus we are all flawed and we mess up regularly. But every now and then—during school programs, at concerts, or as we observe our kids with their friends and with other adults—we get a payday. We have a moment when we know without a doubt, despite our countless failures, somewhere along the line we have done something right. And those moments? They are absolutely priceless.

Me and my daughtersI’d love to hear about your favorite parenting payday! Comment below and tell me all about it!

Harold and Gloria Mitchell, Together Forever Wedding Chapel

What My Daddy Says

Today’s Throw-Back Thursday Post is from June 2013. I post it again today in honor of my daddy; born 11/13/36, he celebrates his 78th birthday today, 11/13/14. Here you go, Daddy: proof I have been listening all along!

 By way of greeting meHarold & Gloria Mitchell

  •  “Hey Girl-baby!”
  • “How’s my Aileenie?”

 About work and school

  •  “I don’t care one bit whether you make straight A’s. But don’t let me hear tell of you not doing your best.”
  • “Do what shows first.” (Meaning, “When you are overwhelmed, get the big stuff out of the way and don’t get sidetracked by minutia.”)
  • “A big part of your job is making your boss look good.” (Meaning—among other things—“Never badmouth your boss, even to co-workers.”)
  • “If you get so smart you think you’re better than somebody else, it’s time for you to go back to school.” (Daddy has his Doctorate of Ministry.)

 Because he’s Daddy

  • To wake up teenagers: “Rise and Shine and Give God the Glory, Glory!” (Only he sings it. Loudly. While turning on all lights and opening all blinds.)
  • When he’s surprised: “I’ll be John Brown!”
  • When frustrated with himself: “I swanee!” (Pronounced like the river and perhaps a permissible substitute for “I swear,” that he and his brothers could slip past their mother without having to suck on a bar of soap.)
  • What no one should act like: “North end of a Southbound mule . . . “
  • When it rained and the sun was out: “I reckon the devil’s beating his wife.”
  • When he’s ready to go: “If you’re waiting on me, you’re backing up.”
  • On his way out: “Kids, I’m gonna do for you what the devil won’t.” (Meaning, “Leave you.”)
  • When befuddled: “I ain’t got no more idea than a billy goat what that thing is.”
  • When a bug hits the windshield: “Whoa. He won’t do that again.”
  • Every Sunday after preaching: “Kids, I looked all over that whole church this morning and I didn’t see a single woman as pretty as your mama.”
  • On decision making and life in general: “Everything of value requires some sacrifice.”

What are some things your dad says or said?

 

 

Children’s Ministry: A Moment of Discovery

Every Wednesday, students get off the bus at our church so they can participate in our ministry for children called KFC (Kids for Christ). The children are with us from about 2:30 until 7:15. During that time, they play outside; have a snack and later a full dinner; do their homework (with help from volunteer tutors as needed); and participate in choir, Bible study, and missions education.

Children's Ministry KFCI lead the Bible study and often start with a song that goes with the day’s lesson. Recently, we began by singing “Jesus Loves Me.” The children sang the chorus through once or twice and then we added the American Sign Language to go with the lyrics.

“Touch your left palm with the middle finger of your right hand, and then reverse that, touching your right palm with the middle finger of your left hand. Like this,” I said, showing them the sign. We went through the rest of the signs quickly. “Cross your arms over your heart for ‘love,’ point to yourself for ‘me,’” and so on.

“Hey guys, do you know why the sign for Jesus is this?” I asked them, doing the sign again for them. They mimicked me, studying their hands as if trying to figure it out.

“Oh I know,” one little girl offered. “It’s because of the cross! Jesus had nails in his hands on the cross!”

“That’s right. The sign represents the nail-scarred hands of Jesus.”

As I affirmed the answer, another child said, “Oh! I thought it meant something else.”

“Oh? What were you thinking?”Jesus bridges the gap between God and humanity

His hands formed the sign again. “See how it kind of looks like a bridge from one hand to the other?”

We did.

“I thought maybe this was the sign for Jesus, because Jesus is our bridge to God.”

Well, yeah, there’s also that . . . .

What I Love about Elections

It’s Election Day 2014!

A lot of folk fought and died for this right we enjoy. Make sure you thank them by voting today!

Published initially on: Nov 10, 2012

Top 10: Things I Love about Elections in the USA

  1. I can vote for whomever I choose. I can vote for the Democrat, the Republican, the Independent or the Communist. I can vote Green. I can vote Libertarian. If I lived in Alaska, I could vote for the Alaska Independence party. If I lived in New York, I could vote for the Marijuana Reform party. And wherever I am, I can write in my daddy’s name if I want. I love that.
  2. I’ve never feared for my life when I voted.
  3. No one has ever shot at me when I went to vote.
  4. I love that I can say whatever I want about candidates. And no matter how idiotic, unfair, or uninformed my comments, no one will be dispatched to my door from the US Armed Forces.
  5. I can take underaged future voters to the polls and they can practice voting. That’s just how much we value voting in this nation: there’s a system to educate our children on the process. I love that.
  6. I have a choice. I can vote or not vote. Either way, it’s my choice, not the government’s.
  7. My candidates have won, and my candidates have lost. Laws I disagree with have passed; Laws I believe in have failed. Yet, I still have hope. Sweet.
  8. I could picket elections sites carrying “How Dare You Vote?” signs. As long as I follow laws that protect the rights of the voters, I could do that. The government will not harm me or my family because of my actions.
  9. I love that I don’t always get my way. I love that, because I’m not always right. I love that my voice is not the only voice that is heard. Takes the pressure off, don’t you think?
  10. And I love, I totally love, that nothing is permanent. I get to vote for my governors and presidents every four years, my senators every six, and my representatives every 24 months. Local elections happen even more often than that. So what if I lost this go around? I get another chance. And I just really, really love second chances.

America. It really is beautiful, isn’t it?

Growing in Faith

1604803_707148742686630_7665138068560416112_nChildren begin asking questions about faith at an early age. Three year olds wonder if Jesus ever got time-out. Six year olds ask, “If God made everything, who made God?” (I remember stumping my own first grade Sunday school teacher with that one.) Nine year olds might wonder how in the world polar bears and penguins managed to get from the Arctic Circle to the Fertile Crescent. The questions get tougher as the children get older. They have begun learning about bad things in the world and they wonder how a loving God can allow such injustices.1017748_719377274797110_4498633234385059846_n

These questions are hard–often impossible–to answer. But at church, we do our best to create an environment where kids can keep asking and thereby keep increasing in wisdom just as Jesus did. Typically, despite how inadequate we adults feel about our responses, by the end of elementary school and the beginning of middle school, most kids who have been raised in church have formed the fundamentals of faith that they will carry with them throughout life.

Think about it. How many times have we adults leaned into those basics that sustained us as children? We relax in the knowledge that God loves us even when we are disobedient. We still don’t understand the logistics of the Genesis stories, but we no longer need to; we trust the truths they teach us. And when we find ourselves distracted by life’s injustices, we remember, “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.”It’s these truths we trust. It’s the messages of VBS and Sunday school, of discipleship training and children’s sermons that we build upon as our faith deepens and our love for God grows.

When Jesus was a little boy, he himself learned about God in community with other believers in the local house of worship. Today’s kids have many distractions, many interests vying for their attention. None of them–none of us–have time for anything but our priorities. So we really must ask ourselves, “What is more important than the truths that God has given us in Holy Scripture? What is more important than church?”

Even with snow on the ground, I’ll be at church tomorrow morning. Will you?

And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. Luke 2:51-52

Guest Blogger: Music & Culture

Please welcome back to the blog my son Baker Lawrimore. Below is a piece he wrote for a class at UNCG. I thought you might enjoy his thoughts on how music and culture merge to create lessons greater than either could teach alone.

baker on organ

Church. School. Hometown. These are three of the things that make up my culture.

Back in Asheville, I was at church every Sunday and Wednesday. At First Baptist
Church of Asheville, music is an integral part of education, worship, and missions.
Church music is hard to do well because most groups only meet once, maybe twice a
week. I learned that in order to make church music work, rehearsals have to be
incredibly focused. By being in that church so many years, I experienced how a
director has to be well prepared so that rehearsal runs smoothly.

A.C. Reynolds High School loves the arts. It pursues musical excellence in the
classroom, on the stage, and on the field. Marching band requires a strict attendance
policy. When marchers are missing, rehearsal becomes much less effective. You can’t
make the show happen without everyone attending rehearsals, learning the music,
and learning the drill. By being in marching band, I saw how dedication of learners
orients a group towards excellence.

In Asheville, music is everywhere. It is a fundamental part of that weird Ashevillian
culture. Everyday you’ll hear an array of musical styles from the plethora of
musicians roaming the streets. Experiencing this exciting musical atmosphere
makes music a part of life. It’s always there, but it’s not something we take for
granted. The energy and passion that the city puts into its music moves its people to
have that energy too. I see this energy in teachers in the community, and in all of
their students.

I learned a lot in these different cultures. Church taught me that directors must be
prepared. School taught me that music requires dedication from all students. And,
Asheville taught me that music is passion. That’s not to say that in church, learners
weren’t dedicated, or that in school, teachers weren’t passionate. To an extent, all
three of these cultures influenced those beliefs I have about teaching and learning.
There is a sense of tradition, or even eternity, felt in these cultures. I know that
music will always be a part of those communities. It will never leave. When music
instruction is at its best, there is a deep connection between the musicians and with
the music. Without the sense of tradition and relationship, there is little meaning to
what we do as musicians. The dedication, passion, and preparation that those
communities have all help create that sense of meaning and make teaching and
learning music a vital part of life.

Bbaker drum majoraker is a freshman at UNCG majoring in Choral Music Education. He is also studying organ performance and plans to take additional courses in instrumental music as well. He makes a lot of noise.