It was not until mid-day that I realized the day was Christmas Eve. It’s hard to keep track when traditions are set aside, and there are no “house and home” visits, and no Church with Children’s Service in the afternoon, and a 5:00 Faith Service, and an evening of 7:00, 9:00, and midnight Candlelight Services.
The silver tea set was out, in the Ann Bradstreet Hearth Room in those days, between the candlelight services. All sorts of people showed up. We got to embrace so many who were “home for the holidays.”
A year ago, I sat in the box pew for the Candlelight Service. Several women friends were just in front of me. In the closing “Silent Night” and passing of candlelight down the rows, I realized that one of the women in that row before me was a dear friend with whom I’d had a painful falling out over a decade ago. As the benediction came, the woman in front of me turned around and passed a message from the other friend: “She wants a have a hug, Arthur,” she said. Immediately, that dear one stood up, turned around and we embraced, and blessed each other – with tears. So tender. So unexpected. So healing. We both were overcome. That Christmas blessing was worthy of Bethlehem itself.
Suddenly, looming from the crowd was a young family, mothered by a “Confo kid” of 25 years before who introduced me to the tall handsome children that had grown from the smiling couple whose wedding I had done a generation ago. They wanted me to know that they lived in the Massachusetts town in whose hospital our first three children were born, and that the mother in question is the Nursing Director of the work of 100 people in that same hospital. Such a happy reunion, there in the candlelight of Christmas Eve.
Things happen when people of faith come together to draw close to each other, and close to Jesus in the spirit of that starlit night of His Divine coming from heaven to save us all.
How much we need each other: To be together week after week, and day after day, in surrounding prayer, in encouraging conversation in the wonderful work of witnessing, of telling the story.
It’s called “presence.” Our ministry of presence to each other – and the world around us.
Of course, Christmas Day bid fair to be a different story. No church. Until Our Lady of Grace came on the television a little after noon. People there, socially distanced, and all. With a lovely, free-style sermon about Jesus coming to us, and being near. Reminding us of the Lord’s great promise.
For me, after a lifetime of preaching on “the Day itself,” Christmas morning, it was a huge change, not being part of the great Good News story, on the day itself.
Late Christmas Eve, Molly presented me with her Message Bible and asked me to read Luke 2:1-20 and I did, and we prayed. A high point of Christmas Eve was the late afternoon arrival of a daughter and her family to sing us Christmas carols in the setting of the sun, as the cold came on. They were angel voices – the real meaning of Bethlehem, and the wondrous star. It was sobering to know that now Molly and I were the ones being caroled, when in the many years before, it was the other way around.
I’m embarrassed at the difference with Christmas itself. I slept in. No preaching, but a simple Christmas breakfast – eggs and toast, almond torte, bacon and potatoes, juice and milk. Then calls to our own children, to cheer them on, or in one case, to comfort them. Surrounded in all cases by words of love and thanks for who they are to all of us who love them.
Just some thoughts in being old at Christmas, and learning to celebrate in a new, but faithful, way. And, how to take the chance when it comes, to being a reconciler, a bringer of peace wherever we go, and in whatever season it may be.
Follow the star, folks, and let Jesus’ Light shine through you at whatever unexpected opportunity. We enter now the season of Light of Epiphany. Shine on.
On some days it seems there could not be a wilder clash of stories being told for our consumption, our persuasion, our conviction, our world view, our personal passion.
Reporters are passionate about the strange turns of our politics. A great silence had settled over certain stories in the news – which contained information that we might all have wanted to know for our decision-making about who should lead our country.
Now that the election has happened, and the electors have spoken, the curtain is being lifted about things we’d like to have known months earlier.
There are real questions of truth and falsehood that emerge. But, it’s too late to look at them calmly and together. The deed is done. Some kinds of pursuit would only lead to war, something none of us who care for our country, want to see. The time comes when, with grace and forgiveness, we need to choose ways that bring us together, taking hands, making the best of what is.
And one way to do that is to go deeper. To find elemental things that have the ring of eternity to them. That reach for the Divine. That are seen in acts of truth and humility.
Starting close at hand. Working with a friend. A different friend, who is of a different race. One who has suffered in ways we haven’t. Something some of us are trying to do through going to church to enter into the great tradition of the black churches. Ways that open our hearts to the avenues of the Spirit that have been the mark of the free-singing, body-swaying worship of the black churches of America.
Another way is to heed the gifts of the ordinary, of, if you will, the simple folk all around us.
There’s a man whose path crosses mine every day or two. He is an unprepossessing man of quiet demeanor. He wears cowboy boots and jeans. A plastic tube gives extra oxygen to his nostrils, rising from a thin box that hangs by a strap from his shoulder. He never comments on it, nor explains it.
He greets me by name whenever we pass each other in the halls. We wish each other well, and bless each other. I ask him about his wife whom he has usually been to visit across the street at our infirmary. She is there for memory loss. He is walking a lonely road, slowly losing the vibrant erect woman he has loved and served in a lifetime ministry of Christian faith.
He greeted me last week after chapel. We had both been touched by the contribution of two old men who had brought us THE WORD, one in scripture, the other in profoundly Christian poetry.
The first man is 100 years old. His wife of 75 years of marriage died two years ago. He carries on, reading the lessons to us in chapel once a week. He gives a little background first, then reads with clear voice and emphasis. His life was as a college professor of Rhetoric. He rings the bell of the Bible to us at chapel every Wednesday.
But, an added feature that day was another old man with generally wild white hair, who also had been a college professor. His wife had been the college chaplain. Our chaplain had invited him to read to us some of the poems he had written about PEACE for Christmas. With strong voice and gesture, he held forth. His too, was a deep, dramatic, stirring rendition.
His wife also, is across the street in memory care. In the elevator her husband tells me how it is. All three of these are men “of sorrow and acquainted with grief.”
This afternoon we watched, for a while, a recommended Christmas music program. Young men gave thoughtful, gospel words, related to a Christmas carol. They were young and bearded. They were photographed in Bethlehem alleyways and on Judean hillsides. Clever, fast-moving photography typified each scene, and the singing, and even the piano-playing on apparently, a plain of Bethlehem.
The enterprise must have cost the producers a fortune. The theme was to reach the growing young skeptics of our cynical age. It was too much.
At 91, I confess I am biased. I am skeptical that the arch photoshots, and impassioned expressions rendered by the young, black clothed, cool young people, playing their banjos and looking to the sky in the land of Jesus, would persuade the generation they purport to represent, to take up their cross, and follow Jesus.
Nor do their emotion-filled faces convince me that they have offered a saving answer to the Way of Truth, in our apparent age of too many lies.
Give me rather, the way of those simple but eloquent men who dare to walk the way they had never planned, of grief and loss, to find comfort and utter truth in the eternal WORD that was in the beginning and still rings true today, and sings a song from their own hearts of a truth and love that is the authentically “real thing” for a young generation seeking exactly authenticity of the kind that comes from a cross borne by a Babe of Bethlehem Who came to die for us all.
Love to you, my pals,
The news of last Thursday seemed to be bringing the latest shocking stories to a head. But then, a video appeared of Rush Limbaugh, in headphones in his studio seeming to despair of America’s ever uniting and going forward together. This political division is impossible to live with. It is going to lead to “secession” – states separating from each other.
The fact is, we live two lives – a political life as a nation and personal lives as people. We care about out country deeply. We have a sense of what it means to be an American. And, believe it or not, it is still a great dream. It moves our heart and soul.
Time and again, we have come together to go forward – the Civil War, after Pearl Harbor, after the Second World War. After 9/11’s attack on the World Trade Towers by commercial airline planes. Someone rises. A President speaks eternal words of truth. It is an amazing phenomenon.
Even now, with the death of George Floyd, and the burning and the rioting – even the calls to “Defund the Police.” Earnest people who care demand a right way. Crime rises and we know we need the police. We need to teach and change the police.
Many of us have some who went into policing to be “Peace Officers.” For 25 years my son went out into the streets to stand for justice, to make things right. His wife believed he would always come home again. But she knew that some night he might have to sacrifice his life. But he lives, and did, honorably and faithfully. As did so many young men.
And my wife says we must stand with our fellow Christians of the black churches. And so, we’ve begun “Christian Visitors.” Small, but already touching and changing lives. And I will continue.
Friends on both sides emerge, and come together. There are ways. It will work.
Deep in our hearts, the call of our Lord is heard, to “follow Me.” And we will. It is not impossible. It is not hopeless.
Jesus asks for many simple things – not huge. He asks lives. He asks commitment. He asks love. He asks selfless service. He asks truth and justice. Doing the right. Many a Christian struggles to do just that.
To be writing. To love. To be true. We are living higher than the world realizes – even than we realize.
We need to know our history. To read the Bible’s story of God’s people. We need to read our family’s history, our church’s history. We need to be Pilgrims in our day. They sailed an ocean. We need to sail the waters of today. To clear the wilderness of our time. To think the best of each other. Like St. Joan of Arc said, “I will dare, and dare, and dare until I die.”
It is not all for nothing. It is for something, good and great. Keep that in our hearts. Keep hope alive. Keep believing. And so, doing. Let days of testing be a grand thing, by individual people who say, “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.”
Molly has proposed we get out and take a ride on occasional days when the sun is out and the sky is blue. The other day she took me along as she did errands. She parked in the Lund’s lot at 50th Street, and said, “You go into Starbucks and get the doppio macchiato that you love, and then come back and sit in the car, while I do some shopping.”
Well, why not? It turns out Starbucks allows five people in at a time – to buy coffee, but not to sit and schmooze. So back I came to sit in the sunny side of the car.
As usual, the people caught my eye. There wasn’t enough time to really read, so here I am, writing instead. In the very, “olden days,” this was “my” Starbucks. I met people here, both by appointment and chance. It was a comfortable conversation spot – usually by the windows looking out. Sometimes, in spring and fall, sitting outside, on just the other side of the glass at a little coffee table.
Now, as I pace the sidewalk, looking into Starbucks, and Breadsmith, I note that the people passing by – some going in – seemed younger than the crowd of two or three decades ago. They look as if their minds are on something else, as though they are not really there to shop, or even to meet others. They seem on their way to somewhere, and just “looking in” as they go by.
There’s a lad with hands stuffed in his jacket pockets, going who knows where.
Not many seemed ready to sit down, stay awhile, just talk. Of course, at Starbucks there was no sitting down. Just buy your coffee and leave.
“What’s the fun in that?” I wonder. For me, that had always been the purpose, to talk. About life. And its ups and downs. Its struggles. Now, you’re not invited to “sit down and stay awhile.” People coming now for coffee aren’t allowed to sit long enough to say, “Arthur, I need to talk to you – about this cancer thing. About whether to take the chemotherapy or not. I’m not sure I could really stand it.”
One of the last people I visited there, one of my dearest friends on earth, and not on the earth anymore. She has crossed over to heaven’s side. “I just don’t think I could take any more,” she said.
My choice might well have been the same. Yet, many needed her – for whom she’d been a tower of strength. We often don’t realize how much our lives count, with others.
The big thing is to remember how much they count with God. To realize how dearly He loves us, and how fully He’ll use us – right up to the end.
So wonderful is life. So hard it is to balance when we face ultimate things. And how important is every step in life. Even those that don’t seem so important.
We can all pray, and encourage those who need to be cheered, to fight on. Until Jesus says in His own way: “Come home with Me now.”
So good was that quiet time of sitting in a sunny parking lot, and watching the world go by.
Bless you, for every day that’s ahead, in this wonderful life God has given you.
Your friend on the Way,
So much of advertising these days, tells us we should treat ourselves to “what we deserve.” Of course, in fact, they have no idea what we deserve. They are appealing of course, to what people today may think we deserve.
We in our society have grown up on the teaching that we “deserve” the best of everything. And we have the right to fight for the best for ourselves, to boast of our accomplishments, to go out of our way to remind people around us of what we have done.
Politicians are tempted into that trap. Sports stars, and people of stage and screen fall prey to self-promotion. Leaders of all kinds share this vulnerability.
We watched at our house, a very exciting football game. The Vikings had scored first against the Panthers. Back and forth it seemed to go, down to the closing minutes. And then the Panthers scored a lucky touchdown. It was one of those where the Vikings could say, “We wuz robbed!” But, with only seconds to go they marched down the field and scored. But, the Panthers got the ball and got close enough to attempt an almost 50-yard field goal. But, went shy of the goalposts. The Vikings had won. Either side could have felt the game was theirs, that they deserved the victory.
Before the game, our “church” was Joel Osteen, broadcasting from his arena in Texas. He spoke wholesome wisdom about our attitude. That we needed to remember that God is always planning the best for us. That we need to remind ourselves that He is in charge. That it is our constant reminder to be kind and good, to be helpful and encouraging to others – not critical or complaining. To keep our nose up, as a good pilot always does with the nose of his airplane. That attitude will help to bring the good that God is ever planning for us.
It’s an “attitude of altitude” that allows us to keep going forward, serving and encouraging others, not dwelling on bad, unfair things that have brought hurt and disappointment to us. A way to let disappointments go, and replace them with the positives God is wanting to shower upon us.
We don’t have to “toot our horn.” God will bring the recognition He wants us to have. What “we deserve” is always in His hands.
People don’t enjoy others bragging about themselves. But they are always blessed when we come along and lift them up, with kindness and encouragement.
So many want to help us in that way. Let’s resolve to let them.
Your friend of the Advent Journey,
Every once in a while, in a public place, an old Confirmation student of 50 years ago, or a friend of other decades ago, will approach me with head cocked in curiosity, and say: “Are you still Arthur?”
Ie: Are you still the person of that name, who meant something to me as a person of the community, or as a minister, or simply a friend?
I assure them I am the same guy, though much older, and inevitably changed in looks. There is something about the name that triggers for them memories – of a relationship we had, of a wedding I performed for them, even of a sermon they heard that helped.
The name is still there, in their memory. And so we talk, and recall, and rejoice, if you will, in “the tie that binds.”
The congregation I served the longest, from 1967- 1994, is struggling now with a sense that its name evokes a period in American history when slavery existed in America, and cordial relationships with the Indian first Americans sank into conflict and even warfare.
In its Thanksgiving issue of this year, even The New York Times referred to the story of the coming of the Pilgrims to Massachusetts shore as a “myth” which the Times chose to diminish and disparage.
Alas, many Americans do not have their history quite right, and indeed, have forgotten much of the history they once knew, leaving us vulnerable to reinterpretation of a provable precious heritage of vision, of legacy, of way of government, in freedom. The Mayflower Compact, of life together in community, and even of architecture (church and otherwise), that was itself part of their vision.
All of which has led me to think upon names that are important in my life and America’s life, like Washington, and Lincoln, and Roosevelt, among people – or Boston, and Philadelphia, and Chicago, and Minneapolis, among cities.
And, what of “The Name that is above every name” – the NAME OF JESUS. After 2,000 years, the child born in Bethlehem is remembered around the world as “Jesus Christ,” as “King Jesus,” as “Lord Jesus.”
It is such a simple name in Jewry – not dramatic or royal as Caesar, or other politically powerful names.
But Jesus’ Name is precious because of His ministry, His stories, His healing, His hope, His transformative power in the lives of people high and low today.
It is Who He was, and what He did, and whence He came, and whither He went, that lifts His Name above all names.
Churches, across the world, bear hundreds, probably millions of names. Cathedrals are named after great Christian leaders and saints.
Some are named for what they do, and how they live as congregations of God’s people. They are holy because of those associations, their histories, their affect on people and movements.
Churches are precious places to people who were part of their life, “came to Jesus” there, who formed their life there, who were healed, even “saved” there.
May the churches we name and love be important to us because of good and great things that happened there, that God through Jesus, did there.
May the names be changed by what God in Christ did there to change people and the world.
Bless you and your churches,
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
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ARTHUR ROUNER MINISTRIES