Archive for the 'Holiday' Category



Herdmans, herdsmen and me

“What do you want for Christmas, Dad?” my six-year-old asked. “Maybe some floss?”

“Some what?!?” I replied, hoping I had misheard him. Surely he thinks I have more compelling Christmas wishes than dental floss! Full disclosure: As a 15-year-old I did request a file cabinet from jolly old and organized Saint Nicholas.

To my chagrin, I had heard my son right. (At least my hearing’s not going!) He actually asked me if I wanted floss for Christmas. Woe is me. My offspring thinks I’m mind-numbingly boring or that I have really bad teeth. Or worse, both.

Later that day, our family attended a heartwarming holiday classic in the league of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. A story of hygiene-free rugrats who commandeer an annual Christmas tradition: the church Christmas pageant.

Barbara Robinson’s comedy The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has been a favorite of mine since I saw it performed in a community playhouse in the mid-1980s. It probably sparked my love of redemption stories.

By way of review if you haven’t read or seen it in a while, the Herdman kids are a ragtag, uncouth, welfare-dependent bunch of bullies. Their parents are nowhere to be found. A social worker attempts to bring order to their chaos.

When the oldest, Leroy Herdman, is tipped off that Twinkies are served at the local Sunday School, the scraggly siblings suddenly find their religion. In Sunday School they hear about auditions for the church Christmas pageant.

“That sounds interesting,” they think.

After intimidating the buttoned-up church kids into relinquishing their starring roles, the Herdmans secure lead parts. Ralph is Joseph. Imogene plays Mary. Gladys gets her wings.

Church members are appalled:

“How could such riffraff be let into God’s house to perform God’s sacred nativity?”

“Mary and Joseph will look like poor travellers looking for a place to stay!” (Heaven forbid.)

“No one will come to the pageant!”

In fact, everyone came to the pageant – to see what the Herdmans would do.

The play unfolds as a story of redemption within a story of redemption. The Herdmans get swept up into the remote possibility that an all-powerful God just might care about them.

“Magi” Leroy Herdman offers a canned ham to the newborn king out of the family’s welfare box. Angel Gladys Herdman announces Christ’s arrival with “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” The story even broke through the hardened Imogene Herdman.

After the play and the crowd disperses, Imogene returns to the stage alone to take in the events that just occurred, to treasure them up in her heart, if you will. In tears, she clings to the swaddled savior of the world.

Imogene was as unlikely a carrier of the baby Jesus as the mother of Jesus herself. And therein lies the glory of the story of stories: God, acting in the lives of ordinary people – people who get dental floss and file cabinets for Christmas.

Just like the Herdmans on stage, the story of Christmas is equally unpredictable. From virgin birth to shepherds witnessing history to a daring midnight escape…nothing is as you or I would have drawn it up.

And how relieving is that? If a saving, gracing Creator can break through to the Herdmans and the herdsmen, just maybe he can break through to me.

Merry Christmas, 2014.

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Contact him at kevin@kwt.info.

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A Holy House of Horrors

For good or bad, Halloween strikes at children’s imaginations (and taste buds) like no other holiday can. Think about it: You get to dress up like something you’ve always wanted to be, run around the neighborhood after dark with your friends and eat as much candy as you want.

Not even Santa can match those specs.

Halloween wasn’t perfect. There were inefficiencies, such as the houses that gave out raisins or pennies or pencils. Sometimes Mom insisted on driving along the street as we went door to door. But for the most part it was – and is – a kid’s dream.

My earliest Halloween memories occurred at church youth group parties. As a grade schooler, I blindly stuck my hand through holes labeled “Eyeballs” and “Brains.” Wet grapes and cooked pasta noodles never tasted the same.

Plenty of innocuous fun filled those parties: bobbing for apples, scarecrow dressing, pin the tail on the skeleton. But there was a next level that I couldn’t wait to experience.

A visionary youth minister (with perhaps a few skeletons in his closet) dreamed up the attraction. High schoolers would concoct and conduct a haunted house for the middle schoolers. Except for the fellowship hall where the G-rated party was held, the high school students had free reign on the entire church building.

Now when I say church building, please don’t picture a 10,000 square foot metal building with a few offices attached.

Picture a 3-story, red-bricked, multi-columned, fully-steepled, 60,000 square foot urban fortress on a 2-acre spread. Built in the Sunday School heydays of the 1950s, it was an imposing monstrosity and an ideal place for monsters.

The building had plenty of spookiness without the high schoolers’ help, especially since declining attendance left many sections minimally utilized.

For instance, the “Room in the Inn” homeless ministry took over the west wing of the 3rd floor once a week. Sleeping cots filled the rooms. An eery plastic molded shower was installed in the hallway.

Legend had it that a man simply known as “George” lived in the building for months, maybe years, without ever being caught. How else could the empty cans of beanie weenies in the church’s commercial kitchen be explained?

All this provided more than a fair share of fodder to freak out ‘tweenagers and early teenagers. The 20-minute tour of terror wound its way from the fellowship hall, through the industrial boiler room in the basement and past the baptistry, dyed red for the occasion.

Limp bodies hung from chandeliers. Masked monsters filled Sunday School rooms otherwise home to flannel board Bible characters. The haunted house was as good as any commercial attraction I ever saw.

Before I got to do my share of scaring, a more mature church leader nixed the annual Halloween party and haunted house tradition. Better to leave seldom-used adult education classrooms boringly neutral than to formally commit them to the dark side, I suppose.

But it was too late for me. Evil had already taken root. My best friend and I began building our own house of horrors in his attic each October. We eventually added a haunted woods.

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. He can be reached at kevin@kwt.info.

Summer memories last a lifetime

Blessing to educators, bane to stay-at-home moms, summer is in full swing. With its long days and warm weather, summer arguably makes more memories than all the other seasons combined. Here are some of mine.

***

Nothing spells summer like VBS (Vacation Bible School). Before the days of VBS-in-a-box complete with soundtracks and t-shirts, a plump preacher conducted “sword drills” in a stuffy auditorium. John 7:37? I got it! “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” Yes!

Drink we did on those humid middle Tennessee mornings: McDonald’s orange drink by the yellow cooler full.

VBS is where I first learned the meaning of JOY (Jesus – Others – You), an acronym only recently challenged by the Christian Web site: I Am Second.org.

Our kids will attend three VBSes this summer. My kindergartener wants to add a fourth: “VBS-ta Texas.” He really wants to learn that God stays with us through the ups and downs of life.

***

We weren’t members, but someone invited us to a private pool tucked in the trees of a manicured south Nashville neighborhood.

Mom’s car must have been in the shop, because we took Dad’s extra work truck, a 1976 Ford. No AC, no power steering, no power brakes, no fun. The flatbed had wooden sides that barricaded the indiscriminately dumped trash Dad cleared from behind shopping centers.

Swimming must have been a non-negotiable on the day Mom agreed to wrestle the beast to the water source. I’m sure our arrival caused the cosmopolitans to rethink their commitment to diversity. I didn’t notice. I simply swam up a huge appetite.

At the poolside snack bar, I learned that nothing satisfies post-swimming hunger like a sandwich, an ice cream sandwich.

My kids will learn some things at the pool this summer. Someone will teach my pre-schooler that the game is Marco Polo, not Marco “Pillow.” It’s not going to be me.

***

For several summers, Mom borrowed an Apple II computer from the school where she taught. Our family rarely adventured beyond a Motel 6, so Oregon Trail became my gateway to the frontier.

An educational computer game, Oregon Trail taught children the realities of 19th century pioneer life. It mainly taught me worst-case scenarios:

1. A wheel could come off your wagon. 2. Your kids could starve because you can’t hunt worth a darn. 3. Your wife may drown while fording a river. 4. You could die of dysentery. Crap.

***

Oregon Trail prepared me for our church camp located in the shadow of the tallest waterfall south of Niagara, Fall Creek Falls in east Tennessee. The falls were fatal to go over but a rush to swim under.

The waterfall wasn’t the only water that washed over me at that camp. At age eleven, I was baptized into Christ after a campfire devotional on the last night of camp. A great cloud of witnesses consisting of seventy-five campers and thirty staff members surrounded the swimming hole.

Thirty minutes later I was filling water balloons in preparation for a midnight raid of a rival cabin. Salvation is instant. Sanctification takes time.

In retrospect, it was a night for obeying Jesus, including Matthew 18:3 – “Unless you change and become like little children, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Kevin Thompson writes a weekly column for The Boerne Star in the Texas Hill Country. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.

Suffering can lead to doubt or faith

“I can’t believe in God when there’s so much suffering in the world.”

If you talk to enough people about religion, you will inevitably hear this line. And it is understandable. Human anguish, brought to us in ever-increasing color by digital technologies, can be a major roadblock to faith.

“How can an all-powerful, supposedly compassionate God not intervene in the face of such misery? That’s not love; that’s hate.”

Yes, we’re in a mess. We’ve always been in a mess. The pages of history read like a CNN ticker. Tragedy runs throughout. But while suffering drives some to doubt, it drives me to faith.

Some people can’t believe in God because of the hurt they see in the world. I have to believe in God because of the hurt I see in the world. Belief in a suffering savior is the only way much of this makes sense.

But that doesn’t make suffering any easier to bear. We all dread pain. Even Christ.

“If it be your will, take this cup from me,” he prayed the night before his torturous death. A part of him wanted no part of it. Yet his willingness to endure suffering opened the tomb door to joy.

“To the extent a man can experience pain, that is the extent to which he can experience joy,” a sage once told me.

It is true. Easter Sunday came after Death Friday, not before. The path to resurrection always goes through the cross.

It’s hard to argue that our sufferings in 21st century America measure up to the travesties we hear about from around the world. And it’s hard to argue that my sufferings compare with those of the family with the sick child, the man with the deformity, the woman in the shelter.

They don’t, but they don’t have to. Suffering comes with the human condition and takes many forms. It’s life in a world where the Supreme Being refuses to dictate tranquility. Dictating tranquility would weaken our constitution.

So the question is not “Will I suffer?” The question is “How will suffering shape me?”

Will I harden in the belief that God could have stopped my suffering and didn’t?Will I assume he couldn’t care less for me?

Or will I consider that he didn’t stop my suffering for a similar reason he didn’t stop Christ’s? That he’s about something greater than a pain-free earthly existence. That he’s after resurrection joy and reconciliation.

I’ve come to believe that in the midst of pain, God strengthens the sufferer. He helps break harmful cycles. He comforts and consoles and suffers alongside.

“For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses…”

On the cross, Jesus questioned the faithfulness of God. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

At that moment he faced the same crossroads of faith and doubt that comes with any suffering, whether local and personal or distant and universal.

By Friday night, he fell to the side of faith. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And with that, Easter was just two days away.

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.

Hating well this Valentine’s weekend

In his readable book, 9 Things You Simply Must Do to Succeed in Love and Life, psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud examines the lives of successful people he’s known. “Success” is defined by each person individually, not necessarily by fame or fortune.

Dr. Cloud usually writes books about mental and emotional pathology. However, 9 Things is about mental and emotional paths to healthy living, all trodden by the successful people he studied. Dr. Cloud devotes one chapter to the concept of hating the right things.

Like a strong immune system for the body, a fortress of the right kind of hate will protect body and soul from destruction. Proverbs 6 gives an example of good hating.

“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”

Most of us were raised to love all people and to overlook fault. We were trained to give people the benefit of the doubt. We’re all humans, after all. As a child, I even recall exploring the moral quandary, “Is it okay to hate the devil?”

While well-meaning, a one-sided approach to navigating life and relationships makes for a porous immunity.

Reality is we SHOULD hate evil and things that deserve a solid damning. For example, a manipulative spirit, self-centered instincts, the pursuit of ill-gotten gain or pleasure.

We may have to build this hate wall from scratch. And it won’t necessarily be easy. A lot of what we should hate is wrapped up in the misunderstood concept of love.

No word is more misused in modern culture than “love.” The hip hop artist veils his lust for the female form as a ballad of “love.” The college students think they’ve “made love” during a drunken escapade. Adulterers justify their behavior because they “love” each other.

After nearly thirteen years of marriage, I can assure you that if “feelings” are coming that “easy”, it’s probably not love. Love takes time and patience and commitment. Oh, yes, and a unilateral concern for the well-being of another.

Most modern love talk has a surplus of “my” language: my feelings, my desires, my happiness. In contrast, the “my’s” of a healthy marriage have a different focus: my selfishness, my insecurities, my need to grow.

To grow in authentic love we must hate the things that divide us. Things like: a sense of entitlement, an air of superiority, a critical spirit, worry about what other people think, fear of not measuring up or letting people down, an overextended schedule.

If I passionately hate the intruders that drive us apart, I will passionately love the things that attracted me in the first place: purity, loyalty, dignity and vitality.

These are what love is really made of, made possible by the hating of what it’s not.

Follow Kevin Thompson at http://www.kwt.info.

Both poor and rich find place at Christ’s birth

Rich and poor don’t always get along. One can be skeptical; the other envious. One questions motives; the other questions motivations. Both can be all stars in the blame game. Both find contentment elusive.

Ninety-nine percenters long for the Top 1%. “I know money won’t make me happy, but I sure would like to try!”

And the Top 1%? Some of them would rather be in the middle. Currency complicates. Dollars bring dysfunction.

Our system of haves and have-nots has been around for ages. This season, we recollect a story of a have-not family who had no hotel reservation. They had no rich relative with a spacious backhouse. They had a donkey – maybe.

Was there really no room in the inn, or was there just no room for them in the inn?

We think of Jesus being born inside of a barn. That may be too glorious. Scripture only says he was placed in a feed trough. It could have been out in the open. The shepherds “living in the fields nearby” felt right at home by the manger. It could have even been theirs.

The shepherds were blue collar boys accustomed to following directives. When an angel appeared to others in the Christmas story (Mary, Zechariah), they asked, “How can this be?” Not the shepherds. They asked no questions. They simply “hurried off” to find Salvation.

The poor shepherds greeted the poor baby. Then, they spread the news of what they saw. People were amazed by the news and by the smelly news bearers, no doubt.

The poor must have been particularly enthused. Poor shepherds telling the story of a poor infant messiah. “Yes! God has seen our plight,” they might have said.

It would have been simpler had God concluded Christmas here. We would have our marching orders: God is a god of the poor. So, be poor and please him.

But Christmas continues. In from the east come the rich. Call them what you wish – Magi, Wise Men, Foreign Dignitaries – they were people of influence (King Herod tuned in to what they said) and they were people of means.

The distinguished guests were likely rulers in their homeland. They had resources to travel long distances. They brought precious metals and rare perfumes.

They were rich, but they were also humble (“they bowed down”) and generous (“they opened their treasures”). Mary may have traded the manger for an ornate bassinet.

At Christmas and in Christendom, rich and poor bow down together. They worship together in an upside-down kingdom. First are last. Poor are rich. What’s on the inside counts.

As Mary sang while pregnant with Jesus, “God has brought down rulers … and lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” But not the rich from the east who laid their treasures at his feet. He invited them into his story. With God all things are possible.

It must all depend on where your trust lies. If you’re poor and you trust in yourself, you’re in peril. If you’re rich and you trust in yourself, you’re equally in trouble.

The Old Testament prophet Micah testified that Bethlehem would produce “a ruler who will be the shepherd.” ‘Twas fitting that rulers and shepherds welcomed him to earth.

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.

Joseph offers a model of faithfulness

A son nestled against his mother. A daughter rested across her lap. The mother’s unadorned left hand caressed the girl’s back.

The boy looked ten. The girl, seven. The woman was in her mid-thirties. An empty chair sat next to them, the lone vacancy in an otherwise full row of churchgoers.

The children’s father may have been working. He may have been sick. He may have religious convictions that took him to another place of worship. Not all married women wear wedding bands.

He may have given his life in service to us all. My hunch? He was AWOL, missing in action in a widespread war on the nuclear family.

I hear frequently of families’ succumbing to the divisive pressures of the age. Some you expect. Others come out of the blue. None are pretty.

The parties usually believe they are minimizing the effects on the children. I’m sure that’s what my friend’s parents thought.

Years after his parents split, while in his twenties, he faced anger and depression. A counselor’s touch pointed him to the root. He grew beyond the pain of the divorce. Today, he has a joy-filled wife and two handsome sons.

Most people are not so fortunate, or willing. They struggle through life from habit to habit, between relationship and loneliness. They never grasp how an early earthquake rocked a foundation on which their life was intended to build.

Another friend tells a story from his childhood. He travelled with nine other public school honor roll students to a prestigious academic contest in Boston. As they were touring some sites in a 15-passenger van, they attempted to identify things they all had in common. The most prominent commonality? They all came from intact families.

We all know half of marriages end in divorce. The federal government’s National Center for Health Statistics gives more detail.

According to its National Survey of Family Growth, 20 per cent of first marriages end in their first 5 years. Thirty-two per cent end by year 10, and 40 per cent fail by year 15.

So, it’s not just that marriages are failing; it’s that they are falling apart at a time when children need their stability the most.

Some will argue two peaceful homes are better than one filled with discord. I do not disagree when the choice is presented so simply. I do believe, with a little divine help, we humans are capable of more elaborate options.

Who should take the lead in finding better ways to resolve differences that can lead to divorce? I’ll go out on a limb: the man. God has placed a certain mantle of leadership on the masculine gender. It has been used at times to harm. It is intended to mend, bind up, protect, provide.

I know each circumstance is different. Emotional wounds, mental illness and substance abuse can wreak havoc not easily repaired no matter how capable the leadership.

But many situations are no more bizarre than one in Judea twenty centuries ago.

Joseph had reasons to take a pass. His fiancé? Prematurely pregnant. The baby? Not his. His young family? Virtually homeless, forced into two years of exile by a mad king.

But with strong trust and tender strength, Joseph, “a righteous man” (Matt. 1:19), led the family that housed the child that would one day overcome the Great Divorce. Let us follow his faithful lead.

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.


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