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It is January and it is cold. The wind makes it feel even worse. Fortunately, I am a fan of layering. Base layer, fleece, and a down vest topped with an insulated barn coat is a good counter to January weather. Unfortunately, I have had a persistent itch that seems to crop up inside my right shoulder blade. Not only is it in one of the most inconvenient places imaginable (how can anyone reach that spot?), it seems to crop up at the most inconvenient times.

The Farm Show is a good way to get out of the cold. I walk through the indoor barns to see livestock and remember things that have happened here before. My daughter Karissa once hid from us and was found in the pig barn, snuggled up in a stall with a sow and piglets (perhaps a good way to stay warm in January). My daughter Keightley once fell asleep while on my shoulders and spilled her unfinished milk shake down the back of my neck (not a good way to stay warm in January). On this occasion I rode the mechanical bull and played tug of war with a Belgian. I ate rabbit, barbecued goat, and took home a quart of trout chowder. Some of that is more true than others, but I did stay warm.

In what might be another effort to stay warm, I have been reading books about cooking over fire. Weber’s Way to Grill and Around the Fire may not actually warm me up, but they do give me an urge to start a fire. Since an early age I have encountered the same problem. I couldn’t watch football on television without wanting to go out and play. I couldn’t read Old Man and the Sea without desiring to catch a Marlin. I watch The Revenant and want to fight a bear. I read Around the Fire and it makes me want to cook food over fire.

So I put on beef chunks to add to a minestrone soup. I put on potatoes with garlic and oil for mashing. I put on sausages and rib meats to add to a red sauce. I put on corn and black beans to add to a salsa. I put on venison backstrap to add straight into my mouth. As warm as the fire is, its warmth is only temporary.

So sometimes the best thing to do is start moving. To put on layers and get out for a hike. The energy of movement does its job and generates warmth that is trapped inside the layers. To make things even better, the chill on my face as I watch my breath go out into the sky reminds me that the rest of me is warm. This is my favorite way to stay warm in January. Everything is good, that is until I feel an unbearable itch inside my right shoulder blade. Four layers down and in the most difficult place to reach. At least I’m warm.

 

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Sports movies are a popular genre. Not only are there a mess of them, but everyone thinks they know what the best ones are. While I am not going to make a list for you, I will say that if your list does not include the following movies you probably do not know what a good sports movie is. Fact is, I can’t take full credit for this list. But, after a Thursday evening dinner conversation, a Saturday morning breakfast conversation, and a consult with my mom, here are some movies that should be on everyone’s list.

For starters, the following movies are acceptable on any list of twenty movies or more. Bull Durham, Leatherheads, Friday Night Lights, 42, A League of Their Own, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Tin Cup. If you want to include Rocky or Field of Dreams due to their classic Americana feel, I understand.

If your list is limited to fifteen, the following are pretty good choices. Major League, The Sandlot, The Rookie, Cool Runnings. If you include Caddy Shack or Chariots of Fire at this point for classic value, that makes sense to me.

If your list is a top ten and you want to include a classic, Pride of the Yankees is an excellent choice. But you have got to include the following. Remember the Titans (my mom insists this is the best sports movie), Hoosiers, The Natural. One more, if you do not include Miracle on your list, you don’t really know about sports or movies.

So, go ahead and make a list. You can use the above movies as a test. If your list includes five of the above movies, you are at least capable of recognizing a good sports movie when you see one. If your list includes ten of the above movies, consider yourself above average in your ability to make a good list. If your list includes them all, pat yourself on the back, you can consider yourself an expert.

 

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An Ally

I feel like a have a new friend. At least an ally in the mission we call church. Tish Harrison Warren, Anglican priest, writes “True Story” for The Point Magazine. And I am grateful.

Harrison Warren claims that Church pulls us into a story where we belong. We are included in a family, part of a forgiven people. In the church we find friends and food and ritual and meaning. But even more, she says, church is where we find mystery that cannot quite be described. A mystery of “the Trinity forming, humbling, remaking, and sustaining this creature called the church.”

Yes, the church does include pragmatic things like meetings and e-mail and budget and parking lots. But also mystery. As she says, Westerners tend to speak about mystery “as if it’s a code to crack, the true-crime novel we haven’t finished yet.” Instead, she says it is “crackling with possibility and saturated with God’s goodness.”

The church may be a place saturated with God’s goodness, but it is not a place we go to profess virtue. Instead it is a place to confess our lack of it. It is also a counter-cultural demonstration of serving others without expectation of anything in return. These are radical thoughts in today’s culture. She quotes her favorite headline from the Onion, “Local Church Full of Brainwashed Idiots Feeds Town’s Poor Every Week.” She enjoys the quiet, ordinary goodness, the silent ways we care for one another.

The church does not merely communicate information, the church creates the conditions for “personal and communal formation.” This is not a cognitive exercise but a story full of celestial wonder. The church is not part of some “divinely inspired game of telephone, where we simply whisper a message to the next generation.” It is a story that “comes to us through ordinary people over dinner tables, at work, in songs, through worship, conflict, failure, repentance, ritual, liturgy, art, work, and family.” It is a story that comes to us through sacraments where mystery is communicated through ordinary things like “water and skin, bread and teeth.”

On the one hand, church looks like “God’s kingdom coming among a community of ordinary people: tax attorneys and auto mechanics, stay-at-home moms and the homeless.” Yet, on the other hand, she envisions the communion table as a place that stretches through time and space so we are eating and drinking with the family around the world and throughout history. Sharing bread and cup with the likes of Magdalene, Augustine, and Dad.

She does not go to church for the grape juice and fried chicken or the fellowships and potlucks or for the friends and community connections. Harrison Warren stays in the church because the church is still “making her.” Her understanding of the world is shaped by the story she has learned there.

She realizes that church history includes Crusades, colonialism, sex scandals, abuses, racism, oppression, power hungry pastors, and Christians who are simply downright mean. She knows that church has likely cost her some likability among people in educated, progressive circles. She understands that church has probably motivated some ethical decisions that delayed her immediate happiness. So, she asks “why not choose a different story?” Her answer? She actually believes Jesus rose from the dead. She believes the Christian story to be the “True Story.”

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“Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year old school girl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.”

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

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We can’t get to Christmas without traveling through Luke chapter one. And we can’t read Luke chapter one without noticing how active the Holy Spirit is. While preparing for Christmas we find that John the Baptizer, Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah are all interacting with the Spirit. In fact, Luke wants us to know they are filled with the Spirit. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is perhaps most interested in the Spirit. By the time we get to the book of Acts, it almost seems that the Spirit becomes his primary character in the narrative.

In contrast to Luke, Mark’s Gospel places some emphasis on darker spirits. Reading Mark, one is often in the company of evil spirits. It is interesting that the gospels suggest supernatural forces, both holy and evil, desire to inhabit humans. Perhaps a reading of the gospel should prompt the question, “Who will inhabit humans?” “Will it be evil forces or will it be the spirit of God?”

Evil spirits desire to inhabit humans. But it appears they have some problems with what they really want. In Mark five a man living among the tombs had an evil spirit and was constantly gashing himself with stones. In Mark nine it is an evil spirit that sometimes slams the host, a young boy, to the ground.  At other times it throws him into fire and the water to destroy him. It seems that evil spirits living in the host also have some desire to destroy the host. This may be the dilemma of evil spirits. They lack wisdom. They cannot become a unity and work with their host. They are fractured and foolish. They are far different from the spirit of God.

In contrast, the Holy Spirit also desires to dwell in humans. But here we find a different story. The spirit of God desires life. The spirit of God strengthens and nurtures. This becomes more obvious to us in Acts chapter two and afterward. Yet, here, chapters earlier, we find the Spirit entering humans. Luke chapter one tells of life entering a barren situation. Life enters where it is thought to be impossible. Before we get to Christmas. Before Mary gives birth and wraps Jesus in swaddling clothes. Before we learned that shepherds were watching flocks by night. Before we hear the angels sing Gloria in excelsis. Before we get to Luke chapter two and the birth of the newborn king, we find four people who are filled with the Holy Spirit.

This is no small thing. The story of Christmas is the story that history is changing. This is a story about God on the move. An announcement that a new kingdom is taking shape. There is a light in the darkness. God is bringing life into an arena where there was death. Christmas is coming. Hang onto your hat.

 

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In the days of Caesar Augustus

Joseph and Mary went to the city of David

Mary gave birth to a son

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes

She laid him in a manger

An angel came with good tidings

This child was Christ the Lord!

We light the first candle for the hope of the coming of the Lord. We light the second candle for the peace of knowing God has always wanted to be with us. We light the third candle for the joy of Jesus birth. We light the fourth candle for the love God showed us at Christmas!

Tonight, we light the Christ candle and we are reminded that he is still God with us!

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Our politics have little to do with whether retail stores allow employees to wish consumers a Merry Christmas or allow the Salvation Army to ring out front or whether the court house will permit a nativity scene on the premises. For the church to expect Target or the court house or the president to communicate Christmas for us is simply ridiculous. I suspect the principalities and powers are pleased when we become so dependent on them. And if our witness hinges on retailers or elected officials, we have bigger problems than we care to admit.

The politics of Christmas are much bigger than such things. The fifth verse of the Gospel of Luke starts it off. “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” So it begins. On the stage of local politics, John the Baptizer is conceived and born.

Meanwhile, there is something even bigger going on. Jesus is conceived and his mother Mary begins talking about politics. She tells us that when God’s kingdom promises are complete, people will have enough food. She tells us about a kingdom where the rich and powerful will no longer exploit the weak and poor. Mary makes claims of a new kingdom before the king is even born.

And then, on the stage of world politics where Caesar Augustus ruled, Jesus is born. Luke may be implying that while John was to have a significant local impact among Jews in Judea, Jesus will have a worldwide impact for all people.

And before we think the politics are out of the way, Luke chapter three begins with a list of politicians. It was “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” (Just an observation, Augustus didn’t last long). “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea… Herod was tetrarch of Galilee… Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitus… Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene” and the high priesthood included “Annas and Caiaphas.” Whew!

We can be certain that both local and worldwide politics provide settings for what follows. It also becomes obvious that wherever one turns they are faced with the politics of the world. Everyone in the story is surrounded by the world’s power. That is when “the word of God came to John.” And among the verbal clutter of all those political voices, came “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Its on. Luke wants to make sure we know early in the gospel story that our politics are counter to the politics of the world. So, we are told that one of those listed politicians, Herod, had enough of John’s counter political preaching and locked him in prison. If nothing else, this reminds us there is much more at stake than we may first suspect.

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