Christmas Stinks!

grinchChristmas stinks! Or, so would say the Grinch who stole Christmas. You remember the Grinch? The slinky, green ogre of a character created by Dr. Seuss whose heart was too small to love and appreciate Christmas? We know the story. All the Who’s down in Whoville make the Grinch cringe with all their joy and happiness, and so the Grinch does his best to literally steal the joy of the holiday.

Click here to watch the original version of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

There was probably not much the Grinch was right about, but I will say that Christmas stinks. Before you call me the Grinch, I ask you to think about this with me for a moment. In your mind’s eye, see if you can go back a little over 2,000 years to a tiny village in the Judean wilderness. We have such a quaint picture in our minds of what that first Christmas was like. Most of our greeting cards and nativity scenes are populated with colorful flowing robes and pristine figures so it fools us into believing that it was a quaint, pristine time. Well, folks, it stunk! Remember that Christmas came in a barn.

There were basically two ways people kept their livestock in those days. First, there was the inner room of the home. On the interior of the home was a large room full of straw, mangers and other necessities for keeping the animals. Most people weren’t rich, and their homes were very modest, and they didn’t own much livestock anyway. You might be interested to know the Paschal Lamb (the lamb used for the Passover meal) was actually a family pet that had been raised IN the home. People didn’t own barns, so their homes were constructed so that their animals were kept on the very interior of the home, and the living quarters ringed the stable. I’m not sure if you know it or not, but sheep stink!

The other type of stable was generally a cave, and this is most likely where those who came to Bethlehem on that first Christmas would find Joseph and Mary. They had gone to the innkeeper to find a room, but all he had to offer was a stable, probably behind the inn or down the street, or even on the edge of town. A cave–dark, damp, and musty. Add to the damp, musty smell of the cave some really smelly sheep, a few lowing cattle, and who knows, a few chickens (there probably weren’t any pigs—they were Jews, you know?) and you have all the makings for a really stinky place to have a baby. Yeah, let’s not even talk about the smell of that! We must not forget, either, that there was a cast of characters who came to the cave that night who were quite smelly in their own right—the shepherds. Keeping smelly sheep out in the fields of Palestine was not conducive to bathing on a regular basis. It’s highly unlikely these shepherds would have stopped by the local bathhouse before making their way to the grotto that day. Put all these elements together and we have a recipe for one malodorous mixture. Let’s just say, this was not your mother’s Jean Nate.

What an image! What a breathtakingly beautiful image! Beautiful because we know it was God entering this world. It was God taking on human flesh. It was God coming to show us what He looks like, and when God showed up, He showed up in the smelliest, lowliest place on earth. It was the most beautifully rancid place on earth, and it changed the world. The presence of Jesus transformed the dank, dark, smelly confines of a cave into a place of light, and life and love. That’s what Christmas did. That’s what Christmas does.

Christmas means God is with us—Immanuel! God is still invading this smelly old world of ours. We know that God has come in Jesus to transform our dark hearts made rancid by the stink of sin in our lives. We need transformation—all of us—all the time. I am reminded of Scottish pastor Alexander Whyte. He faithfully served his congregation in the Scottish countryside for over 40 years, and was known by all in the community as a saintly man. One day a parishioner came to Rev. Whyte and exclaimed, “Oh, Rev. Whyte, we’re so blessed to have you as our pastor. You’re such a saint!”

Rev. Whyte looked at the parishioner and replied, “Madam, if you could see my heart you’d spit in my face.”

None of us is exempt from the stinkiness that is sin in our lives. Hatred, greed, pride, arrogance, apathy and jealousy are just a few of the sins that we battle almost daily, and let’s not even get into some of those “gray” areas that we like to debate these days. Yes, it stinks, I tell you, but Christmas reminds me that the Christ who was born in a stinky barn desires to be born in me, and the same Christ who transformed that stinky old cave can transform stinky old me.

I am reminded, too, that the stink of sin, while even being transformed in me still captures much of this world. It stinks that we live in a world where war continues to take innocent lives and force refugees to flee homes and families and livelihoods. It stinks that there are children this night who will go to bed hungry, and that in a world where there is such abundance that anyone should starve. Some starve because there aren’t resources to feed them, and others starve because people withhold resources as a show of power, or as punitive action against a rival. It stinks that we live in a political climate that is so deeply divided that the good that could be done so rarely gets done because of personal agendas and desire for control. It stinks that we live in a world where our children are no longer safe from predators who would rob them of their innocence. It stinks that we live in a world where young women are kidnapped and forced into the slavery of the sex trafficking business that will be flourishing over the next several weeks as playoffs and national championships and Super Bowls will be going full blast. It stinks that in the next twelve months there will be 40 million abortions worldwide. It stinks that over the next twelve months it is projected that substance abuse and other addictive behaviors will have over a 600 BILLION dollar impact on the economy, not to mention the destruction to families, the loss of jobs, the failures in school, the domestic violence and child abuse. It stinks, I tell you, but Christmas reminds me that God is still with us, and that He seeks to be born in us to transform the darkness and the dankness and the smelliness of this broken world. Yes, those are stinky places, but if we will take the time to get out of our comfortable little worlds, we just might discover that God is there because Christmas reminds us that God is born in the stinky places of this world, born to bring light and life and love. As Christ is born in us, we can bring the sweet aroma of his presence into those terribly smelly places.

It’s certainly not in the way the Grinch meant, but yes, Christmas stinks. But isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it sweet? Isn’t it good?

Merry Christmas!

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…