The Evidence of Bethlehem

My wife, Vanessa, and I like to get away to L. A. as often as we can. No, I’m not talking about Lost Angeles. I’m talking about lower Alabama. Driving across southern Mississippi when we go we go through a lot of little towns on Highway 49. One in particular is Mt. Olive, Mississippi. Driving into town there is a prominent sign that says “Birthplace of Steve McNair.” Steve McNair was a professional football player who played quarterback, and spent most of his career with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans. A little further down Highway 49, you enter Collins, Mississippi, and again, at the entrance of town there’s a sign that says “Birthplace of Gerald McRaney.” Gerald McRaney is an actor who played in series such as Simon & Simon, House of Cards and currently, This Is Us. I don’t know how many of you have driven through Mt. Olive or Collins, Mississippi, but there isn’t much happening in either of those places. They are simply little towns nestled between the bigger cities of Jackson and Hattiesburg. Their claim to fame is who was born there.

An Ancient Journey

star-of-bethlehemNow, picture in your mind, riding your camel across the Judean desert southward out of Jerusalem in the first century. About five miles out of Jerusalem, you start to enter a sleepy little town called Bethlehem, and as your camel glides into town you see a sign that says, “Birthplace of King David.”  Bethlehem’s claim to fame was that it was the birthplace of the nation’s most famous and popular king. One scholar says, “’At the beginning of the first century AD, Bethlehem was a village with not more than a thousand inhabitants: a small set of houses scattered along the side of a ridge and protected by a wall that was in a bad state of repair.” We sing the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem with the emphasis on “little.” It was not where anyone was expecting anything special to happen. It certainly wasn’t where anyone was expecting God to show up. Sure, there had been this prophecy from Micah that said,

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel,
whose origins are in the distant past,
will come from you on my behalf.” (Micah 5:2 NLT),

but that prophecy was long since buried in the recesses of the nation’s mind. Even the nation’s king, Herod, had to call on the experts to be reminded of Micah’s prophecy when the wise men showed up looking for this “new” king that was born.

Nobody really expected God to show up, or for God to do anything special in Bethlehem. If God was going to show up, God was going to show up in Jerusalem. That was the happening place for the nation of Israel. Of course, God might show up in Rome, or even Athens, Greece. Those places were the center of first century culture, politics and power. If something is going to happen, it would surely happen in one of those places, not sleepy little Bethlehem.

That’s what we expect, too, and we have the benefit of bible stories and an annual celebration to remind us that God shows up in unexpected places. What do I mean? God is a big God, and if God is going to make a difference, it’s because He’s going to do it in a big way. Right? Sure, like in New York City or Washington, D. C., or maybe even Paris or London. Those are the seats of power. We certainly don’t expect God to show up in Monroe. But, He does, and isn’t that Good News? Sure, it is preacher…sort of…

God Gets Close

If God shows up in Monroe, that brings Him awfully close to home, and we’re just not sure we want God that close. We like having a little space between God and us. You know how we like our space. Don’t get too close. Don’t believe it? Notice what you do next time you’re waiting on the elevator and the doors open and it’s got more than four people on it. Most of us will wait on the next one. And, let’s face it, there’s more than a little discomfort here tonight. We’re a lot closer than many of us really like, but I suppose we can endure it for an hour once a year. Let me tell you, Bethlehem is evidence that God doesn’t really respect our space, and we don’t quite know what to do with a God like that.

What do we do with a God like that? What do we do with a God who shows up in the most unexpected places? I tell you what we do—we build places where we will COME and meet God. We’ll come, sit down, listen for an hour or so, get our God fix, talk a little bit about how it’s been going for the last week, be reminded of the things we need to work on, resolve to do better and ask God to help us out. Most of the time we’ll leave saying, “Hey, this has been a good session. We’ll do this again.” We leave and we expect that God stays, but…that’s not the evidence of Bethlehem. That’s not Emmanuel—God with us. That’s not the point of Christmas at all!

The point of Christmas is that God is with us in all the unexpected ways and all the unexpected places of our lives. That’s what we sing in the words to the third verse of the song Phillips Brooks wrote in O Little Town of Bethlehem:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

Born in Us

God imparts to human hearts. God is born in us. Christmas is God being born in us—you and me! And, that is an even more unexpected place than Bethlehem. Christmas means that God goes with us to work. When we’re standing on Monday morning at that blasted copy machine that never works the way it was designed to work. God is with us at home with our families, around the dinner table, and God is with us when we’re living at the homeless shelter. God is with us when we’re going through the divorce and when we’re battling the addiction. God is with us when we’re shopping at Wal-Mart and when we’re driving our cars. God goes with us on vacation. God is right there with us when we’re confronted with choices that challenge our values, and God is right there when our co-workers, or friends, or children make lifestyle choices that challenge our sensibilities, and who don’t understand who Christ is because we’re the only definition of him they see.

Yes, God is with us in the great, high and holy moments of our lives, but God is also with us when we’re struggling with the difficulties of life. Christmas is God giving Himself to us, to be with us, to invade our time and space for one purpose and one purpose only—to have a relationship with us, to save us from our sin, and to give us life through His Son, Jesus Christ. That’s the evidence of Bethlehem. That’s the point of Christmas!

That only leaves one question: Will we allow Him to be born in us tonight? The last verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem becomes our prayer this Christmas and every Christmas. Listen to Brooks’ prayer again:

O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;

cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;

O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel! Amen.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Malone Family Annual 2016

So…I haven’t been blogging, but I’m committed to changing that habit. Look for a post once a week with mostly random thoughts, but to get back in the “spirit” of things, here’s a Christmas season catch-up for anyone who is interested.

The Malone Family Annual 2016

I must confess that I took 2015 off from writing the Malone Family Annual. I don’t know why I did. There are no good excuses, but as someone once said, “When you’re looking for an excuse, any excuse will do.” I won’t make an excuse. I took the year off. Don’t think, however, that you’ll get two years’ worth of news. I’ll bring you up to date on the past year and if you want news from other years, well, get on Facebook!

The year started off with Vanessa and me doing one of the silliest things we’ve ever done. We bought a house in Alabama! I don’t know why we did. I’d like to say it was my great business acumen that convinced Vanessa it would be a great investment, but really it was our banker convincing her we could make money on it if we decided to sell it. Anyway…we bought it, and yes, it is for rent! If you’re looking for a beach vacation, give us a call. We’ll hook you up! (Click here to make a reservation!)

pushmataha2016 also afforded Vanessa and me the opportunity to be reality TV stars. That’s right! We appeared on an episode of Island Life on HGTV. Oddly enough, the episode aired on Easter Sunday, March 27th. Here’s what I learned about reality TV during that adventure:

  • There’s nothing real about reality TV (it’s all scripted).
  • Making a TV show is hard work (three 14-hour days to shoot 19 minutes of video).
  • When someone asks you “Would you like to be on a reality TV show?” your first question should be “How much are you going to pay me?” (Our 15 minutes of fame actually cost us money!).

gc2016-logo-color-hi-res-690x370I was blessed (if blessed is the right word) to spend two weeks in May in Portland, OR at the General Conference for the United Methodist Church. It was my first trip to the Pacific Northwest, and it is a breathtaking part of the country. I took a day trip to Seaside, WA and dipped my toes in the Pacific Ocean. It was on a Sunday. May I confess I DID NOT go to worship that day? May I ask your forgiveness? General Conference was a neat and interesting experience.

Vanessa and I spent four days in Wichita, KS in July for Jurisdictional Conference for the South Central Jurisdiction of the UMC. It was the culmination of what I call my “pseudo” candidacy for Bishop in the UMC. I thought I heard God’s call to offer myself for the Episcopal office. Well, after Jurisdictional Conference, I’m not certain what I heard, but it obviously wasn’t that! I continue (gladly) to serve as Pastor at FUMC, Monroe. But, enough about me…

Vanessa continues to spend her time taking care of me and taking care of our grandchildren (she much prefers taking care of the grandchildren). Of course, each of those tasks over the past year fell between the demands of the BIG news in the Malone family this year (more on that in a minute), but suffice it to say, she’s stayed as busy as she wanted to stay. She has stayed busy settling us into a new house. Yes, that’s right, we sold our house here in Monroe, and no, that’s not the BIG news. Why did we sell our house? Well, when someone knocks on your door and asks you how much it would take to buy your house, you throw out a number and they accept it, you tend to sell it. It only means one thing, though: we left money on the table. We’re in a rental and looking for a new one to buy. Check next year’s Annual for updates.

family-wedding-pic-2So, on to the BIG news. On December 3, 2016, Kelsey Malone became Kelsey Malone Ingram as she married Matthew Ingram. The couple are at home now in West Monroe, LA where she is a customer service representative with State Farm Insurance (and she continues to serve on staff at FUMC as contemporary worship leader) and Matthew is in computers with CenturyLink.

Brittney is at home in West Monroe and is a sales representative with Republic Beverage. Adam and his two boys (Kade and Kobyn) call West Monroe home but he works half the year in Malaysia. Josh, Piper and their brood (Peyton, Ryder and Skyler) still call Minden home. Not much news about the children this year. They don’t live at home anymore, so we don’t have nearly as much news as we once did.

Well, that’s certainly the Reader’s Digest version of the Malone family news for 2016. I’ll stop because I’m tired of writing, and I KNOW you’re tired of reading. I’ll simply say “Merry Christmas and Happy and Blessed New Year!”