Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Finding our Way: Tools for Travel

As we live this thing called the Christian life, we are on a spiritual journey.
I have heard many people say that the important thing is the journey, not the destination. I believe the destination because if it is all about the journey without the destination in mind, that is called being lost. Jesus said that he came to seek and to save the lost. We can’t be on a journey with Jesus and still be lost.

We must keep in mind that there is a DESTINATION. Sometime we act as if our journey ends at accepting Christ. But this is be beginning point of our spiritual journey. The apostle Peter put it like this. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Contrary to popular thought, our destination it is not heaven only. We have been called out of darkness into His WONDERFUL LIGHT. We live in a very dark world (spiritually) that could be called the Kingdom of Darkness. We are moving into the Kingdom of God. As we respond to that call, we must now journey out of that darkness.

We can make the journey because we are now children of God. We are people who have received God’s mercy.

The journey before us is a process to conform us to the image of Christ. The journey may not be easy, convenient or without huge challenges. But whatever we must endure it is worth it to become the people wants us to be. We read of this in Ephesians. “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13)

In Ephesians Paul tells us what God’s plan is. We exist as a church in order that believers can grow up, become mature and attaining the full measure of Christ. In Colossians he speaks more to the practicalities of this change, this journey.Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Colossians 3:5-10)

We must gather some tools for traveling on our journey. When we take a trip we gather what we need. When I was young we made sure we had a map and compass. Now we program our GPS device, make sure the car is in good shape, stash away some money, pack what we will need and load up the car.

Preparing for our spiritual journey we gather a Bible, some prayer, the Holy Spirit, load up with the family of God.

I believe we see some best practices to move toward spiritual maturity in looking at what the early church did. “They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.  They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)

I learned several year ago that a healthy Christian does the following things consistently: Worship; Personal Quiet Time & Bible Study; participation in a Life Group; involvement in an ongoing Ministry.

In his writings Andy Stanley tells us that research has shown that there are Five Things God Uses to Grow Our Faith.

  1. Practical Teaching – Teaching that shows in practical ways how to apply God’s word and God’s spiritual values to the living of our daily lives. These are taught from the pulpit, in Sunday School Classes and in our Life Groups.
  2. Private Disciplines – Learning to practice personal spiritual disciplines on a regular basis. Some of these disciplines are: Prayer; Scripture Reading, Study and Meditation; Solitude; Silence; Fasting;
  3. Personal Ministry – Being involved in a hands-on, consistent, practical ministry that impacts those who are seeking to grow with the faith community and for those who presently reside outside of the influence of the church. Some of these would be: working with the church’s youth; leading a small group; serving on a church Ministry Team; feeding the hungry; working in homeless shelters; handing out water to people walking; supporting out ministries in Memphis; giving rides to appointments;
  4. Providential Relationships – These are relationships with Godly people who can and will be available to us for support and counsel when difficulties arise in our lives. These relationships are developed and nurtured in the context of our Life Groups.
  5. Pivotal Circumstances – Life provides these. Every life, if we live long enough, has challenges, disappointments, traumas and heartaches. How we respond to them will either draw us closer to God or turn us away from God.

If you will actively and consistently do these five things I can just about guarantee you will grow spiritually.

Copyright © 2015, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Bill McConnell is Senior Minister at Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee and is a Church Transformation consultant and a Christian Leadership Coach. He is a frequent speaker at Church Transformation events. His latest book on church transformation is DEVELOPING A SIGNIFICANT CHURCH and is available at Westbow Press. He can be contacted @ Connect with him on Facebook @ William T. McConnell or on Twitter @billmc45053 or visit his Amazon Author Page @ Amazon.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Finding Our Way: Finding a Guide

Let us begin with the basic truth that The Christian Life is a JOURNEY. It is a journey toward spiritual maturity. It begins with our spiritual birth. Much as we do in our physical lives, we grow and develop as Christians. That growth can be done well and produce a healthy, mature believer – or not. It won’t just happen. If we don’t work toward maturity we just grow old. Unfortunately, in my lifetime I have seen more old Christians than I have encountered mature Christians. Not a judgment; just an observation.

Our spiritual journey could be an impossible journey. It is impossible to complete if we do not begin. It is impossible if we do not first know where we are and then know where we are going. Jesus put it like this: You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5)

We are on a very simple yet very difficult journey. Don’t confuse the two. Simple doesn’t always mean easy. Especially when it comes to following God. One of my favorite preachers is Charles Swindoll. Several years ago, referring to the Christian life, he said when he first entered the Christian Life: “Gee, this is easy.” About a year into it he said: “Wow, this is difficult.” In the next year he said, “This is impossible.” And it was at this point that he felt God answered him and said, “Yes it is and I have just where I want you.” We don’t decide to be a Christian and then make it a do-it-yourself project. If we do we will invariably screw it up. We are warned in this short piece of scripture. “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

To begin and complete this journey we must first get on the path. We will never grow spiritually if you are not born spiritually. One must be born before one can grow. Jesus gave this advice. “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’” (John 3:5-8)

As we take this journey we discover that it is dark and there are many hazards in our way. We live in the Kingdom of Darkness and are traveling into the Kingdom of God. The church serves as outposts of love and life in this present darkness. Travel in the dark is difficult and dangerous. For centuries nocturnal travel was rare.

Many things and people call us off the path. “Before every man there lies a wide and pleasant road that seems right but ends in death.” (Proverbs 14:12) We find that it is easy to get off that track. Many things sidetrack us: We get busy; We pursue a life of comfort and ease; We are comfortable adopting a worldly world view and value system – a common but ungodly value system.

To avoid this and to stay on the path we would do well to engage a Guide. Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6) Many theologians don’t like this statement. They are uncomfortable because in our multicultural world, it makes Christians seem narrow-minded. (And there is no greater sin than narrow-mindedness.) I don’t believe it is a theological statement: I believe it is a practical statement. Sometimes when giving directions we realize there is only one way to go from here to there. I can tell you from experience that if you want to get to Wilmore, Kentucky, there is only one way. You don’t go through Wilmore on the way to someplace else. There is one road in. Take that or go cross country. And what better guide than someone who has walked the path before us? Who better to show us the way to God than God’s own Son?

Too often we think we have arrived when we have only arrived at the starting point. Christianity is a growing relationship with God, not a religion designed to get us to heaven. Heaven is a bonus. Christianity is about living life in the here and now. Jesus put it like this: “I have come that you might have life and have that life to the fullest.”

My reading of the New Testament tells me that Jesus is not interested in or impressed by religious people. He did not hang out with religious people. He did not seem to get along well with the religious people of his time. Looking at religious people throughout history tells us that religious people can be misled and can even be dangerous.  In our time we have proof of this by being exposed to radical Christians and Muslims. God talk is not the same as following God and growing spiritually. Again looking at the words of Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Christianity is more than accepting Jesus and getting our ticket punched to go to heaven. This limited concept of Christianity leads to some sadly shallow and almost silly discussions of the concept of salvation. I have heard questions like, “What about my Uncle Ray who accepted Christ but still beats Aunt Mary?  Is he still going to heaven?” What do you think? But what about us church people? We may no longer blatantly sin, but is it obvious to the casual and not so casual observer that you and I are children of God? Our Religiousness doesn’t necessarily move us forward on the pathway to life and spiritual maturity.

The key is to get to know Jesus and letting Jesus get to know us. It is a relationship. His ultimate criticism of what seem to be some very religious people is “I NEVER KNEW YOU.” What will Jesus say when he sees you? My hope is that he says, “Hi Bill. I’ve been expecting you.”

Copyright © 2015, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Bill McConnell is Senior Minister at Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee and is a Church Transformation consultant and a Christian Leadership Coach. He is a frequent speaker at Church Transformation events. His latest book on church transformation is DEVELOPING A SIGNIFICANT CHURCH and is available at Westbow Press. He can be contacted @ Connect with him on Facebook @ William T. McConnell or on Twitter @billmc45053 or visit his Amazon Author Page @ Amazon

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The REAL Reasons People Don’t Attend Church

Over the past few months I have been reading many articles and blogs on the subject of why people don’t go to church. It is a popular subject for those of us who are concerned with dwindling attendance at Sunday worship in our churches.

We (Church lay leaders and pastors) think people should come to church for several reasons.

  • It is what we do. If it is important to me, it should be important to you.
  • We like the people in our churches.
  • When people don’t show up, we feel like failures.
  • When people don’t show up we think they don’t like our preaching. (We preachers have rather fragile egos.)
  • We really do think church attendance can have a positive effect on your life and is good for you.
  • Churches spend most of their energies, time and resources preparing for Sunday worship so small attendance figures are disappointing.
  • Attendance on Sunday mornings is one of the basic ways we measure success.

So we church leaders are very concerned when you don’t show up to worship. We worry about it. We study the phenomenon. We talk at length about it. It is the central topic of discussion at our staff meetings. Articles and blogs are written on the subject every week. Why, we want to know, are fewer and fewer people attending church worship services?

The answer is easy. People don’t go to church because they don’t want to. I’m sure there are many reasons for them to feel this way.

  • Non churchgoers believe they have better things to do than spend most of Sunday morning sitting in a church worship service. It looks like a waste of time.
  • They believe church sounds boring.
  • Church people sound like they would be no fun to be around – serious and more interested in rules than people.
  • There are some pretty interesting news programs on Sunday morning television.
  • We are watching the Breaking Bad marathon this weekend.
  • Taking up Sunday morning with church shoots a hole in the day.
  • The family wants to go away for the weekend.
  • Living the Christian life (really living it) is very difficult.
  • If church is so unattractive perhaps heaven is too.
  • It’s a whole lot easier to make up my own God and worship him, her or it at my convenience.

I can understand why the self-made God many in our culture choose to worship is so alluring. Allow me to share an email from an old friend that speaks to this allure.

Dear Bill,

Just a thought I want to share.

So I heard some woman the other day say:

"Oh I took a walk in the woods and I just felt so close to God and it was wonderful and warm feelings and happy and fuzzy and nice things and smile" and so forth and so on.

After a moment I thought "What the heck?  When I feel close to God....He tells me to do stuff!  And it's usually stuff I don't want to do.  I mean stuff like "Get involved more"  "What have you been doing lately?"  "You haven't read your Bible much lately...but you've got time for Facebook, I see"  "Some kids need a scholarship for Bible camp"  "Have you been praying for your guys in your Men’s Group?"

God is not always warm and fuzzy and surrounded by flowers.

There are many reasons that I attend church on Sundays. Central to them all is a belief that it is where God wants me to be.

Copyright © 2015, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Bill McConnell is Senior Minister at Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee and is a Church Transformation consultant and a Christian Leadership Coach. He is a frequent speaker at Church Transformation events. His latest book on church transformation is DEVELOPING A SIGNIFICANT CHURCH and is available at Westbow Press.

He can be contacted @ Connect with him on Facebook @ William T. McConnell or on Twitter @billmc45053 or visit his Amazon Author Page @ Amazon

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Theology-lite Church

I make it a policy to avoid negativity. One of the factors that dictate the content of my sermons is that they should not speak of other faith traditions in disparaging way. I have had other preachers in my pulpit who only lasted one out of three services. That was because they didn’t believe me when I said, “We don’t talk badly about any other church.” They either failed to believe me or they just could not help themselves.
But over the past years as I have served a church in Memphis, something has been happening on Sunday mornings that is driving me nuts. As I prepare for worship I leave the radio on to the same station that was the alarm that woke me. On this particular station, which I chose because it is a strong signal and doesn’t fade, there is a fundamentalist preacher on (Same one every week) who is preaching against something. He is preaching against people who disagree with his theology, his view of science and his world view. I find it interesting because I have yet to hear what he is in favor of. And he rarely mentions Jesus. If one is going to be a fundamentalist at least preach about Jesus. He is my role model (Bad example) to keep me positive.
This poor guy is so tied up in his theology and rules and defending them against all comers that he doesn’t have the time to talk about Jesus and love and grace and forgiveness. This guy is the poster child for not being a fundamentalist.
My particular brand of protestant Christianity (Read denomination) proudly proclaims that we are not encumbered by doctrine or a doctrinal statement. That should work well in our current culture where being a “none” is very popular. A “none” is a person who describes him or herself as spiritual but not religious. A “none” is a spiritual person who is unencumbered by church theology and is making it up as they go. A great way to go since that way I can design my own God who approves of everything I do or fail to do. Instead of, as the Bible says, being created in God’s image, one is able to create a God in one’s own image.
Early in my life as a clergyperson I would occasionally field phone calls from people who, for varied reasons, wanted to know what my church believed about the second coming of Christ, or baptism or abortion or salvation and on and on. They would generally become hostile when I said we have no doctrine and no stated beliefs on any of those subjects. Before angrily hanging up on me, nost intimated that they thought me a gutless liar unwilling to stand up for what I believed. More than once I was told, “If you stand for nothing you will fall for anything.”
We say that we have no doctrine but when asked, the average clergy of my denomination will rattle off a pretty substantial list of the things one needs to believe or least accept. Unfortunately, like most groups who envision themselves as open and accepting, we tend to only be accepting of people who think like we do. Those other stupid people are, at best, to be tolerated. Like most groups the rule is: if you are smart you believe what we believe and if you don’t, you are stupid. We have an unwritten doctrinal statement and we are very protective of it.
I did attend a seminary (Not one of “ours”.) that taught systematic theology. They knew exactly what they believed and taught it well. Of course, me being me, I didn’t agree with their theology and spent much of my seminary class time arguing with my professors and classmates. It was very stimulating. And my professors were awesome Christian gentlemen who made such discussions a joy to engage in. (Yes I know about ending a sentence in a preposition. I just don’t care.) There is some things good to say about systematic theology. It helps one be consistent in one’s belief system. It causes one to have some foundational theology upon which to build a belief system. (That sentence could have been simpler but I didn’t want to end it in a preposition.)
Being a part of a doctrine-less church has its pitfalls and shortcomings. One is that we are inconsistent in our theology. We tend to believe things that, if true, are diametrically opposed to each other. Another is that we sometimes lack a foundation for our belief system and that causes us to wander and be open to believe the next best thing that comes down the pike. We lack a systematic method to measure and filter a new thought or theological concept. We lack a measuring stick, a foundation, when we see the Bible as a book that can be discounted when it fails to agree with what we choose to believe on this particular day.
It seems to me that if we have any basic and foundational theological concept it is that we have to be nice, agreeable and accommodating. Several decades ago we dropped any reference to sin and canceled hell around that same time. Our theology is constantly in flux; God is ever changing and right and wrong is a matter of opinion. As one very popular author said, love wins. That conclusion is based on a rather shallow and syrupy concept of love. Love, when seen through the lens of the God of the Bible, is a love that challenges and disciplines. It is not always nice but it is always loving.
I like being a part of a theology-lite church. But it is a dangerous place to hang out. One must really pay attention if one is to survive as a part of this church.
Copyright © 2015, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved
Bill McConnell is Senior Minister at Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee and is a Church Transformation consultant and a Christian Leadership Coach. He is a frequent speaker at Church Transformation events. His latest book on church transformation is DEVELOPING A SIGNIFICANT CHURCH and is available at Westbow Press.
He can be contacted @ Connect with him on Facebook @ William T. McConnell or on Twitter @billmc45053 or visit his Amazon Author Page @ Amazon.

Monday, January 5, 2015

My White Privilege

Whenever racial issues become the news of the day, I am always surprised by the number of educated white people who go online on Facebook, Twitter or blogs to talk about and apologize for their “white privilege.” For those not familiar with the concept, it has been defined like this: “White privilege (or white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people in western countries beyond what is commonly experienced by the non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. These privileges are unearned and are distributed based on values of the dominant group, which in the west is white people.”
I fully realize that I will be attacked as ill informed, ignorant, unrealistic or even racist. But I will not fall in line to apologize for being white – worse yet, a white male. It is who I am and I am okay with that. There are many things I should and have apologized for but that is not one of them.
In my opinion our culture has collectively lost its mind. Most of us are victims. We are victims of crime, abuse, being mistreated, having our feelings hurt, not being given a fair shake, failing, lacking an education, being passed over for promotions, not being given what we are entitled to, and the list is endless. Those of us who not victims, we are the perpetrators. Whatever injustice or pain the victims in our society have suffered is our fault. And when looking for the guilty I find, being an old white male, there is a huge target on my back. We are responsible for every wrong anyone is suffering or ever has suffered in the past. Tag, we’re it. So, of course, I am the poster child for white privilege.
And I will certainly own that. I am very much aware of my white privilege. Let me tell you about it.
I was brought up by a father who was the fourth generation of our family in America. Like lots of the Irish, my kin came to America to find relief from the potato famine. My branch of the family (Yes I am from Kentucky and yes my family tree does have branches.) settled in around eastern Kentucky. Like many from Ireland, my family knew how to live off the land so they looked for a rural area and started farming. My father was from a family of eight who grew up scratching a living from the land in Robertson County, Kentucky. The family owned very little land, rented a house, a few farm animals and no slaves. There was no electricity in the house until my father was almost grown. They had no tractors but, instead, did farm work with horses and mules. Tillable land was in short supply; most of it was bottom land near creeks and the Licking River. They had little cash but ate well. My grandmother cooked on a wood stove her entire life. Wood stoves also heated the house.
My father, the youngest of his siblings, was the first and only family member to go to college. He worked on the college farm to pay for his education. After graduating and marrying my mother he worked for a few years and started his family. Like most young men of the time, his life was put on hold so he could serve his country in World War II. After the war, he went back to work and put himself through law school at night. With that degree under his belt, he went to work for an insurance company.
He made a good living so I and my siblings lived a good life. Many consider that my white privilege. But this is what I consider my white privilege. I was raised in an intact family by two loving parents who insisted I toe the line. Their expectations were high and consistent. They cracked the whip. Some of the things they taught me and some of their expectations of me were:
Priorities: God, family, others, job.
Be respectful of my elders and people in authority – teachers, coaches, police, and pastors.
No matter what I attempted (school, sports, friendships, dating) I was expected to put in my best effort.
If you start something, finish it.
Any grade less than a B resulted in being grounded.
Loving my siblings was not an option.
Never raise your hand to a woman.
Do not go in debt for something that does not increase in value.
Follow the Ten Commandments. All of them. Period. End of story.
Never lie. You can’t do business with a liar.
Give generously.
If you can’t like someone, at least be kind and pleasant.
Get enough education to enable you to support yourself and your family.
You don’t have a sense of humor until you can laugh at yourself.
By many standards I have lived a full and successful life. I have a great job I love doing. I have a great wife, awesome kids and many precious grandchildren. I am not rich by any way you want to measure it. But we are comfortable. And I attribute much of my success to my white privilege.
Also, I have been hearing about African American parents having to have a conversation with their children about interacting with the police. I thought all parents had those conversations. My parents certainly did. Theirs went something like this. “Don’t break the law in the first place and you won’t have to fear people in law enforcement. If a policeman attempts to pull you over, stop as soon as possible. If a police officer addresses you, do what they tell you to do and be respectful. Don’t talk back. If you are wrongfully accused, that will be worked out in the court system. Be careful who you hang out with. Make sure they can see your hands. Call me if you need me.”
Again white privilege. It is really difficult to get crossways with the police if one follows my father’s advice. I feel certain his advice would work no matter what your ethnic background. In fact, my father’s advice sounds much like the advice given by Chris Rock in this video. NOTICE – DON’T WATCH THE VIDEO IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY FOUL LANGUAGE. I WARNED YOU.
There you have my white privilege. And I’m not going to apologize for it. Cause it’s not my fault. I am a victim of my childhood. My parents did it to me.
Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved
Bill McConnell is Senior Minister at Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee and is a Church Transformation consultant and a Christian Leadership Coach. He is a frequent speaker at Church Transformation events. His latest book on church transformation is DEVELOPING A SIGNIFICANT CHURCH and is available at Westbow Press. He can be contacted @ Connect with him on Facebook @ William T. McConnell or on Twitter @billmc45053 or visit his Amazon Author Page @ Amazon

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Christmas Story with a Disco Ball

People love doing youth ministry because kids are so much fun. They see things from a different viewpoint, with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
This past Sunday in the Sanctuary worship service (Read formal and high church) the children’s and youth choirs sang. They were great. They even did a different kind of call to worship using drums. On their way off the platform they walked past me. Each one looked at me and smiled. A couple of them had something to say. The first two boys looked me in the eye and said, “Boy, I’m glad that’s over.” I knew exactly how they felt. One little girl paused to fan herself announce that she was hot. The last girl in the row stopped and looked me over sitting there in my white robe with red trim, smiled and said, “Nice outfit.” I cracked up and had a difficult time getting it together to preach.
Tonight is Christmas Eve. At Lindenwood we have three Christmas Eve worship services. The family worship was at 5:15 in the Chapel, the contemporary service at 7:00 (It was moving and beautiful) and traditional at 11:00 (That one is still to come.) The kids and youth leaders were in charge of the first service. They were nice enough to invite me to do the benediction. I was the token preacher. They didn’t want to hurt the Senior Minister’s feelings. Two things happened to alert me to the fact that this was not going to be your “normal” Christmas play. First of all, when I entered the Chapel I noticed a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Hum. Then I received my instructions. My cue to stand up and do the benediction was when the music for the song, “We Are Family” was turned down. Hum. Something’s up.
The service was great and the nativity play was awesome. It was written, produced and directed by one of our lay youth leaders, Kris Walden. She is way beyond creative. And she loves kids. She is a treasure. So she puts the play together, following the Biblical story, with a mix of old and newer rock songs that provided musical dialogue for the cast. It was a modern musical. The songs were meaningful, funny, exciting and engaging. The costumes were wonderful and the children did a great job. Some of the older kids even ran the sound and lights. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a children’s Christmas play more. I have no doubt that it will win The People's Choice Award for "Funkiest Christmas Play" of 2014.
Oh, yes, the disco ball. It played the part of the Christmas star and was smashing in the role.
Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Bill McConnell is Senior Minister at Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee and is a Church Transformation consultant and a Christian Leadership Coach. He is a frequent speaker at Church Transformation events. His latest book on church transformation is DEVELOPING A SIGNIFICANT CHURCH and is available at Westbow Press.

He can be contacted @ Connect with him on Facebook @ William T. McConnell or on Twitter @billmc45053 or visit his Amazon Author Page @ Amazon

Monday, December 22, 2014

Is This Any Way to Spend Christmas?

How do you spend Christmas Eve and Christmas?

Our traditions are fun, often amazing and sometimes just a bit bizarre.  As a kid I remember our family went to visit some of my parent’s old friends, then gathered at home for a reading of the Christmas Story in Luke and went to bed. Each of us took a lit candle to our room and if it was out in the morning it meant Santa had come.

 In the name of family or tradition, we do some of the most irritating, tiring, counterproductive things without ever thinking about them. Rushing from house to house for gift opening, trying to wedge in a visit to church, eating huge meals at our house, the parents’ house and then at the in-laws. The adults are all tired and irritable and the kids more than cranky. Does your family take a family portrait each Christmas? We try. It sounds like a good idea, what with everyone there and dressed up. But in the rush of getting everything else we have on our agendas done, sometimes things just don’t work out. It is like herding cats. Most families cram in too much to do and too little time in which to do it.

 What is often designed to be fun ends up being a huge pain. Even in the church, often what is designed to be a blessing goes awry and ends up being a curse. I love the old story of the frustrated choir director who was preparing for the Christmas Cantata and dealing with veriy spotty attendance by the choir. At the final practice, in an attempt to reprimand the wayward choir members, he took a moment before the final practice to acknowledge the accompanist, who had been to every practice. She stood and thanked the choir director and then said, “I thought it was the least I could do since I can’t make to the performance.”

Let’s take a look at the first Christmas as recorded by Luke.

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:1-20)

 I have heard that story all my life. And, like most, I have an unrealistic view of it that has been influenced by movies, paintings, Christmas cards and more. I have concluded that my view of this story is unrealistic. Let’s take a look at this story with fresh eyes and a little more reality.

Mary and Joseph were living through a difficult time and things went from bad to worse. First of all they had to deal with this wild story that she was pregnant but she was still a virgin. I am sure that went over real big in the old home village. There is little doubt that their families were angry and ashamed. Mary had to put up with the gossip and the looks people gave her. She decided to get out of town and go visit relatives. Joseph had to put up with the men of the village making crude jokes about his wife to be and the guys making fun of him for believing her story. No doubt they were social outcasts and the butt of lots of jokes. Life must have been pretty miserable.

 And then the government got involved. Life never gets easier when the government gets in the mix. Caesar decides he wants everyone counted to make sure all of the possible taxes were being collected. For us the census means that we have to deal with a stranger showing up at the door and being asked a few irritating, invasive questions. It was not that simple and easy for them. They had to travel to the town that their ancestors were from to be registered. Where would that be for you? In my case I would have to head to Robertson County, Kentucky, and try to find some lodging in Mt. Olivet. Mt. Olivet is about the same size as Bethlehem was then. Last time I visited there were no hotels or motels. There wasn’t even a gas station.

Things are not going real well and then on top of everything else, Mary and Joseph have to travel to Bethlehem. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 70 miles as the crow flies, but the winding mountain trails that Joseph and Mary had to travel made the trip about 90 miles, and the climb was about 1,300 feet up hill. At walking pace it would take them more than a week to cover that distance and height. Now there’s a great trip if you are on the verge of having a baby. I’ll bet Mary was horribly uncomfortable.

 After over a week on the road they finally got to their destination, hungry, tired, thirsty, sore, sunburned, and bloated beyond belief. And that was Joseph. I’ll bet Mary didn’t feel all that good either. The town was packed with tourists and they couldn’t find a room. I can’t believe Joseph didn’t call 1-800-Go-Judea and make some hotel reservations. He was checking at the front desk of every hotel, motel and bed and breakfast in town and getting the big NO. It must have been terribly frustrating for both of them when he went back to the donkey and to report his lack of success. It is a wonder this marriage hung together.

 Finally Joseph returned to the donkey overjoyed with the great news that they have permission from the innkeeper to sleep in his barn. If I had been in Mary’s shoes I would have said, “THE BARN!! You want me to sleep in a barn. I am about to drop a kid here and want me to try to sleep on straw with a bunch of animals?” Don’t you just know that both of them were thinking, “Is this any way to spend Christmas?”

 And then the baby decides to show up. They are both appalled and thrilled. There is nothing like a baby to make things better – NOT. Babies are wonderful but they do not make life easier. Then the shepherds show up. Of course, they had not planned on uninvited company. And then there was the Bris to plan, the people to invite, and a Rabbi to line up for the ceremony.

 Generally speaking it seems that Mary and Joseph didn’t have much say in how the first Christmas came to be. But as we study the prophecy surrounding the birth of the Messiah we can see that God’s plan was at work.

 Mary and Joseph seemed to have little choice, but when it comes to Christmas we really do have choices to make. I want to strongly encourage you to relax and enjoy the peace, wonder, joy and power of this season. Don’t let yourself get so busy that you miss the center of it all. Don’t let others set your agenda and your schedule and bully you out of being in the presence of God during this time of year that we celebrate God Himself coming to be with us.

 Don’t do Christmas in such a way that you catch yourself thinking, “Is this any way to spend Christmas?”

 Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

 Bill McConnell is Senior Minister at Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee and is a Church Transformation consultant and a Christian Leadership Coach. He is a frequent speaker at Church Transformation events. His latest book on church transformation is DEVELOPING A SIGNIFICANT CHURCH and is available at Westbow Press. He can be contacted @ Connect with him on Facebook @ William T. McConnell or on Twitter @billmc45053 or visit his Amazon Author Page @ Amazon