Sometimes, I Just Need Reminding…

The holidays are upon us yet again, and for that I am grateful. Not only is it the best time of the year, but this year, it indicates that 2020 is almost over! If there’s ever been a time when I couldn’t wait for a year to be over it’s this year. Of course, there is no way I’m going to say 2021 has to be a better year. That will jinx it for sure, so I’ll just stick with “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over!”

The holidays usually have their own unique stressors, but 2020 (as with everything else) will be unique in that the usual stress will be compounded by the added stress of Covid-19. Rather than the stress of parties and plans, it will be the stress (depression?) of canceled plans. If we follow the “guidelines,” we’ll all have a Zoom Christmas this year. I must confess that I’m grateful to not have the stress of making decisions about Christmas Eve services. I pray for my colleagues who are!

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on

So, I’m taking a little time this morning to remind myself of advice I’ve offered believers almost every year for the past twenty years. I find the advice in Paul’s love letter to the Church at Philippi. The encouragement he offers the Church there is encouragement to me as we head into the holiday season, and it actually works pretty well the rest of the year, too.


Paul begins his letter to Philippi with gratitude: “Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God” (Phil. 1:3). Gratitude seems like an appropriate place to begin the holiday season. If you’ve been in the local stores, you would think that Thanksgiving has been skipped this year. Hey? We’re doing it at home, too. People put up their Christmas trees and lights in October in an effort to hasten the year’s end. Trust me! It didn’t get here any quicker.

Let’s not forget to be thankful…even for the year 2020. Gratitude can set the tone (change the tone?) for all that is happening in our lives. Even in the midst of a pandemic there is much for which to be grateful. What can we be grateful fo? I’m glad you asked. We can look to Paul for an answer.

First, we can be grateful that we are not alone (even though “officials” are encouraging limited gatherings). Paul called the Philippians “partners in spreading the Good News” (v. 5). We need to acknowledge and express our gratitude for those who share the life of Christian faith with us. We, indeed, are not alone.

One of the buzz phrases of the pandemic (although we don’t hear it as much lately) has been “We’re all in this together” (though an argument could be made that we’re not “together” [see here]). We all do share the same stress of the pandemic, that much is true, so in that regard we are not alone. But, as believers in Jesus Christ, our faith journey is shared with other believers, and there is hope in that for us, and we should be grateful.

Ironically, the holidays are the loneliest time of the year for many people. Whether the death of a loved one, a divorce or the empty nest syndrome, a first holiday season with changed circumstances can create its own type of loneliness (and it will be made worse by the pandemic). We are the body of Christ, and we have the body of Christ (even in a pandemic) to share life with. We are not alone!

Of course, that means we shouldn’t let others be alone either. We should look for ways to reach out to those who may be experiencing loneliness this holiday season. Perhaps it’s the neighbor who lost a spouse this year. Perhaps it’s a friend who has gone through a divorce, or a parent who lost a child. Whoever it may be, discover ways (yes, even in a pandemic) to reach out to share hope and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Another thing for which I can be grateful is that God is still working on me. Paul writes to the Philippians, “And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again” (v. 6). That’s Good News! I can’t read this verse and not consider a Wesleyan understanding of “sanctifying” grace. It simply means “God is still working on me!” (Some would say He’s got a lot of work to do, but that’s another blog!)

Here’s something I consider, too. If God is not done with me yet, then there’s a better than even chance that He’s not done with whomever I encounter this holiday season. When I’m impatient with a cashier, I need remember that they are in need of grace, too. Why shouldn’t it be me who will extend them that grace, and in the process the Lord may teach us both something?

Yes, I need to think to thank…


Paul’s love for the Philippian Church was evident in his letter. He writes:  God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus. I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding (v. 8-9).

I am reminded of the Christmas hymn Love Came Down at Christmas. It was love that came down so that Jesus could give his disciples a new commandment–love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12). The point is made vividly in a prayer I came across some time ago:

Heavenly  Father, Help us remember that the jerk who cut  us off in traffic last night is a single mother who worked nine hours that day and is rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the  laundry and spend a few precious moments with  her children.

Help  us to remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young man who can’t make change  correctly is a worried 19-year-old college student, balancing his apprehension over final exams with his fear of not getting his student loans for next semester.

Remind us, Lord, that the scary looking bum, begging  for money in the same spot every day (who really ought to get a job!) is a slave to addiction that we can only imagine in our worst  nightmares.

Help  us to remember that the old couple walking  annoyingly slow through the store aisles and  blocking our shopping progress are savoring this moment, knowing that, based on the biopsy report she got back last week, this will be the last  year that they go shopping together.

Heavenly  Father, remind us each day that, of all the  gifts you give us, the greatest gift is love. It is not enough to share that love with those we hold dear. Open our hearts not to just those who are close to us, but to all humanity. Let us be slow to judge and quick to forgive, show patience, empathy and love.

May I live to love this holiday season.


For the believer in Jesus Christ, character matters. Paul reminds the Philippians (and us) “what really matters, so that we may live pure and blameless lives” (v. 10). Lord knows, we are not perfect, but that should not preclude our continuing pursuit of perfection as we grow in Christ-likeness. I remind us that Paul was writing to a young church that had few examples. We have over 2,000 years of church history and faithful saints. We are without excuse in pursuing holiness–not always attaining, yet always pursuing.

Paul says we should “filled with the fruit” (v. 10) of our salvation. We know that fruit, right? Love, joy, peach, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). We should bear the characteristics of a Christ-like life. Otherwise, the world will never know the grace of salvation that comes in Jesus Christ.

Our commitment to live the Christ-like life comes before we enter the fray. Commitment comes before engagement. We begin every day with the end of the day in sight. Jesus came, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Long before that first Christmas, the commitment to the cross had been made. Long before the cross, God the Father made the commitment to forgive the sins of the world through His Son, Jesus Christ.

If we are not committed to Christ-likeness before the holidays begin, it is not likely we will live in Christ-likeness through the holidays. If we were not committed to the Christ-like life before the pandemic, it is not likely that we’ve exhibited much Christ-like behavior during the pandemic. I must commit to live like Christ this morning if I expect to model Christ this afternoon.

One way I can do that is to focus on the person who is behind any behavior I encounter throughout each and every day. Focus on people over behavior–not that behavior doesn’t matter, but it is the person Christ died to save, and by grace behaviors can change. I must know what’s important and I must value love, mercy and grace over impatience and inconvenience.

We are called to gratitude, love and grace. I need that reminder heading into the holiday season. Perhaps you do, too.

Until next time, keep looking up…

On Christmas Eve and Super Bowls…

Okay, so I know there are some pastors who use sports analogies ad nauseam (I’ve been known to make reference to the New Orleans Saints often), but permit me to make one more as I reflect on Christmas Eve. You see, Christmas Eve for pastors is like the Super Bowl for football coaches. There are two times each year when all the preparation, anticipation and expectation are heightened for pastors and church staff–Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve. At least it’s that way for most United Methodists. I suppose I could say if Christmas Eve is the Super Bowl, then Easter Sunday would be game seven of the World Series.

To watch our 6 p.m., Christmas Eve worship service, click here!

Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve are the two largest attendance days in our church year. For years, I didn’t have a Christmas Eve service in the small churches I pastored. It wasn’t a tradition I grew up with, so when I entered ministry, I didn’t have a model to base a service on, so I never pushed the issue. I must confess when I went to seminary, the student appointment I served did have the tradition of Christmas Eve worship, but I nixed it in favor of returning to Louisiana to be with family (we were homesick–don’t judge me!). But, when I returned to Louisiana permanently, we moved to Morgan City, and Christmas Eve was THE worship service that everything pointed toward. There was no way I was touching that one! It was my first experience with Christmas Eve worship, and it was wonderful (and yes, it was the largest attendance of the year–even larger than Easter).

Planning for Christmas Eve actually begins in the spring as I do sermon planning for the last half of the year. I suppose that’s one of the big differences in a pastor and a football coach. A football coach makes draft choices, prepares games plans, and goes through training camp all in the HOPE the team makes it to the playoffs, and if the team makes it to the playoffs, then game plans, defensive schemes and line ups are made based on the opponent in the HOPE the team wins the game and advances. Football coaches HOPE to make it to the Super Bowl, and usually have two weeks to prepare. Pastors KNOW Christmas Eve is coming. It’s not a matter of if we’ll make it to the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is coming. We know the date. We know we’ll be in the game. We know there’ll be a crowd. We only HOPE we’ll be ready. And, there’s no way we could prepare in two weeks.

What are some of the plans that have to be made? Hmmm? First, is the sermon. Yeah, I know. Most people come to Christmas Eve for the candlelight and Silent Night, so does it really matter what the preacher says? Why not just give a nice little homily about babies and starry nights…say something sweet about God’s love, and light the candles. It’ll be okay. I’m sorry! I just can’t do that! This is the most people I’ll speak to at one time all year long. I can’t not share the Gospel. I can’t not make it evangelistic in some way. I can’t not tell them why Christmas matters. It does matter what I (or any preacher) say, so it’s important that planning happens, and it starts for me usually in March or April. What’s more, it’s got to be a short sermon, and I don’t know about other pastors, but it takes more time to write a short sermon than a long one. There’s plenty to say, it’s knowing what not to say that’s so hard.

Next, is music planning, and it’s not just selecting the music. It’s rehearsing the choir. It’s chasing down and lining up orchestra members. Yes, it’s even finding money to pay orchestra members. All that starts early in the year, too, because rehearsal usually starts in September. I just thank God for music ministers who handle this endeavor. I guess I could compare a good music minister to an offensive coordinator. There’s consultation between the head coach and the coordinator, but it’s really the coordinator’s job to put the offensive game plan in motion. Trust me! Music is like going on offense. It will set the tone for the service. Music matters. Music matters a lot. It’s not just a matter of singing Silent NightSilent Night may the be crescendo, or the exclamation point, but everything must build up to that point in the worship.

christmas eve worshipThen, there are the visuals. Ours were spectacular this Christmas Eve (thank you, Kem Alexander!). The sanctuary of First United Methodist Church literally glowed with colorful lights this year. It was beautiful, but that, too, took planning, coordination and lots of hard work. There are poinsettias to be ordered. There are trees to be erected and decorated. In our case, there’s a stage to be put in, furniture to be moved, and an altar to be raised. It’s a lot of work. It begins weeks in advance.

Finally, there are tons of logistical issues to be worked out as the “big game” approaches. There are ushers to organize (in our case, ushers for three different services), communion servers to organize (again, for three different services), clean up staff between services to coordinate, and I’m sure I’m forgetting the minute details that our facilities staff coordinates of which I have no idea. That’s why it matters when you have a coach assembles a great staff. The staff knows their roles and the coach can depend on them to carry out their role. I have a great staff! I thank God for my staff. If I’m any good at all, it’s because they are better than me. Of course, I’ve always tried to have people around me who are a thousand times better at what they do than I am. I’ve achieved that.

Though there are many similarities, there are also some differences. For one, the Super Bowl is one game. For FUMC, MONROE, Christmas Eve is three services (4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.), so we have to be “on” our game three times. Another difference? In the grand scheme of things, the Super Bowl doesn’t really matter. In ten years, or twenty years, or a hundred years, the teams victory will be nothing more than blip on the radar of history. But, sharing the Gospel with someone on Christmas Eve who might not otherwise ever attend worship could have an eternal impact, and that’s a major difference, indeed. Oh, and there’s one other difference I can think of–the winner of the Super Bowl usually goes to Disney World. Pastors and church staff just want to go home and go to sleep. While many coaches, players and fans have a few months to savor their victory, pastors and church staff only have a few days. After all, Easter is right around the corner.

I’ve probably overplayed the Super Bowl analogy. Some may even think it blasphemous to compare the two, and perhaps they would be correct, but I know the hard work and effort that goes into Christmas Eve. There may be a better comparison, but I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it would be better to make no comparison at all.

Until next time, keep looking up…