the people along the sand all turn and look one way;
they turn their back on the land, they look at the sea all day.

as long as it takes to pass a ship keeps raising its hull;
the wetter ground like glass reflects a standing gull.

the land may vary more, but wherever the truth may be -
the water comes ashore and people look at the sea.

they cannot look out far, they cannot see in deep -
but when was that ever a bar for any watch they keep.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Ain't Nobody Got Time For Dat" - Why She Left

As I said I would, I had a conversation with a millennial about why she left the church, and the Christian religion (as defined by said church).

Here are the pertinent "facts" about her:  
- she's 27
- she graduated with a BBA from a local state university, in 2008  
- she hit the job market right when things went KABLOOEY!   She could not find a job in her chosen field, so today she works as a full-time server at a semi-upscale restaurant  in a "cool" part of town, and she works part-time in a bakery
- she is not married, but she does live with a significant other

Here's the really important stuff:  she grew up in a Christian family who were ardent church-goers.  She "got saved" when she was 7; went through a "rebellious" stage as an early teen; came back to church with an "exploratory" faith when she was 19...and left again - this time "for good" (she says) - six years later, when she was 25.  

"Why did you leave?" I asked her.  

It was horrible, she said.  I actually visited several churches - from the "charismatic" church that my parents attended to a very liberal UCC (United Church of Christ) church in town.  The charismatic and evangelical churches were all about "defending marriage from the gays", and the UCC - which openly embraced gay people - was so boring due to hyper-liturgical services and sermons that were just bad.  There was no in-between.  Plus...I was searching in my faith, searching how to believe, what to believe.  There was no place I found that welcomed true searchers.  You had to search in ways that they endorsed.  

Here are five things we "distilled" together from her sometimes rambling screed against church and Christian religion (BTW - as a "seeker" she was better-read in current theology and biblical exegesis than many pastors I have known).

1.  They don't care about me or what I believe...they want me to believe what THEY believe.

2.  Any variation from the established doctrine, style or "norm" is greeted with suspicion at best.

3.  In both liberal and conservative churches, the "enemy" was clearly was not the devil, it was people who did not believe as they believed.  This was repugnant to me.

4.  There were very few people my age in the churches I attended, and two of those churches had more than 500 people in attendance.  I just did not connect.

5.  Honestly...the sermons were horrible.  Every church I attended focused on the preaching of the preacher...whoever he (or she in one church) was.  And they were all irrelevant, boring and almost embarrassing.  

One more thing she added - many people greeted her on her church visits, but she never felt genuine interest or connection.  "They were predators, I was prey."

Her conclusion:  I have more friends on facebook than any church I attended has members.  I go out with friends 3 or 4 times a week, and friends visit me at home at twice a week.  I help a friend do a garden; I help a friend with childcare.  When I was sick recently...I had tons of people bring me food, visit, call, check in with me.  

Seriously...why in the world would I want to go to church, or embrace a religion that says "you must believe what we say, or else go to hell."  Don't want it, don't need it...ain't nobody got time for that."

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Moonlight Through The Pines

Years ago, I was lost in the deep, dark woods.  Really.  I was on a camping trip, and had wandered away to look at the moon rising over a lake.  I stayed longer than I should, and before I knew it, the woods had grown dark and I was a long way from camp.  I had "bushwhacked" my way to the lake, which meant there was no trail.  And I had forgotten to bring a flashlight, because I was young and stupid.  

I had to get back to camp, but was not even certain of the direction in which to go...except, in a general way, away from the lake.  So, I turned around and took my first step.  Not having a trail to follow, I was really concerned about how to find my way through the woods.  There were trees, brush, briars, poison ivy, bears, snakes and probably a wild cat or two.  

As I stood looking into the darkness...I saw a light.  It was moonlight, shining through the trees and illuminating a patch of forest about 15 feet away.  The light was bright enough that I could see the area being moonlit, and I could pretty  much figure out how to get to it without hitting a tree or falling in a hole.  

So, I took a step...then another...all the while, keeping my eye on the patch of moonlit forest.  I made it.  I stopped, looked up at the moon through the pine branches, then turned my eyes to the forest again.  There, about 10 or 15 feet away, was another patch of forest washed in moon light.  Away I went.

Each time I made it to a section of moonlit forest, I looked around and found another several steps away.  I kept track of myself, to insure that I was moving away from the lake.  I did not know where I was going, but I just kept going, certain that if I went away from the lake, I would find something.

This went on for about an hour.  Trek for a bit towards moonlit forest, stop, wait, look, see the moon shining through the branches in another part of the woods...and take off.

Eventually, I saw another orange flicker through the trees.  I listened, and could hear laughter and talking. I went to towards the orange light, and walked right in to the campsite.  Everybody was having a good time - nobody seemed to have missed me, and no one noticed I had arrived at the camp by blundering in through the woods without a flashlight.

Right this point in my life...I am wandering through the woods in the dark.  Every once in a while, whatever the spiritual equivalent is to moonlight, finds it way through the trees and illuminates a section of forest.  I head there.  I do not know where I am going.  I do not know where I am.  But the moon keeps marking a place..and I keep moving. day...I will stumble towards the fire.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Kind of Coming Out

I am coming out.  I am haunted by God.  I cannot get past it.  I am yet uncertain about what I believe about God...I am certain about one thing - I will never BE certain.  I am as close to a process theologian as one can get and still not be willing to say I am one.  

I cannot deny my sense of calling.  Believe me, I have tried.  Atheism. Agnosticism (which still holds my membership dues), new age woowoo, quantum mysticism (which is another way of saying that I have used drugs to crack open  my head and see what was inside).  

I am all over the place in my Christology.  My eschatology can be summed up in one word...death.  I hopefully believe in Tielhard's Omega Point.  

Down at the core, my obsessions are Grace, Love and Power.  I don't even know what I mean by that...except to say that I am obsessed with knowing.  

My big discovery...after some recent events that have helped me define and understand myself to this:  

My passion and purpose is to defeat my enemy, and my enemy is the church...not genuine, humble, loving Christian people (of any theological persuasion)...but the religious system that is about money, political power, cultural preservation rather than transformation, comfort rather than justice, consumption rather than servanthood. This "church" exists in every is a mindset, not a place or a person. It has been tolerated in the name of niceness, fellowship, acceptance of imperfection - but in tolerating it, we have given it permission to destroy lives, damage credibility and weaken the power of the gospel (which means "good news"). At its is the continuation of Pharisee-ism...that is, having a "tribal, my god is the true god" belief system based on self-perceived notions of righteousness, correctness and authority. It reeks...and it is one of the things that Jesus came to confront and destroy. 

For reasons I don't have to explain (thankfully, because I probably couldn't if I tried), I feel "called" to confront religion and to challenge its place in the lives of people. My doing this makes them mad, confused and distant from me. That's OK...I have my chickens. I am an only child...loneliness is something I know well. 

I just want you to is not personal. In fact, I believe I have your best interests in mind. You don't need religion. You need grace, and love, and power. You don't need the church to discover or experience grace, love and power. You don't need the church to put friends around you who can help you in your journey to the discovery of grace, love and power. I will keep ranting and raving about the church...I am not here to tell you why you should go to church, but to tell you why you should not. I hope to cause one of three things (1) a desire in you to leave the church, or never go (2) anger at the way the religious church destroys lives and impedes the advance of grace, and/or (3) enough anger at me that it keeps you troubled, stewing over the things I have said.

There...I am out of the closet.  Smells funny out here.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Millenials And Church (A Response to Rachel Held Evans and The Virus!) Rachel is 32.  I think she has some good insights about why millenials are leaving church.  I am 56.  I am NOT a millenial...but I have three!  Kids, that is, who are millenials.  And ALL OF THEM have left church...even though they were raised in church and - along with their mom - had the misfortune of being family members of the SENIOR PASTOR (me!) of every church they ever attended.

I know millenials.  All of my kids friends are millenials.  And most of them have left the church.  But let's not freak out.  Millenials have always left the church.  Yes, there have been "millenials" before this current crop of "millenials" - that is, there have always been people who are in their late teens to late twenties (which is what the current crop of millenials is) and they have always left church.

And more than just millenials are leaving church.  When I was a pastor (from 1978-2004 - 26 years!!! longer than most millenials are old) I saw people leaving the church in busloads.  And not just my church!  :)
People have been leaving church for years.

Rachel got one thing very right...the BS factor is strong among the millenials.  In fact, I might say that the BS factor is the Number One reason millenials are leaving the church - along with all the others who have left.  But I am referring to BS that is not about style over substance...I am talking about the BS of Christian religion.

Today, there is a resurgence of intellectual skepticism that is sweeping the planet.  Fundamentalism of any and every stripe is falling apart under the steamroller of skepticism, fueled by greater access (through the internet) than ever before to academic and scholarly and just plain OTHER resources that challenge the traditional narrative of Christian religion.

For centuries, the church has prospered by controlling thought and limiting access to resources that challenge the traditional, orthodox doctrines of Christianity.  As in all propaganda-driven systems, this is crumbling in the face of internet access to thoughts, ideas, research and scholarship that is outside the norm and the narrative.  It is creating cultural and social upheaval (witness the Arab Spring of 2012), and it is empowering people to think differently about the Old Gospel Story.

Sound scholarship is instantly available and interpreted for the interested reader, just by clicking on a link.  Church-goers (especially millenials, who are adept at living in the new paradigm created by the internet) can discover that the majority of biblical and historical scholars do not endorse the inerrancy of Scripture, or even the historicity of Jesus (at most - and at least question the meaning of his life).  They are discovering that other religions and thought streams possess insights to the nature of spiritual truth and community that are just as valid, and ultimately healthy, as Christianity, perhaps even more so.  They understand through their own social media experience that atheists have values (gasp!), community can happen better around a beer in a pub than in a church pew staring at the back of a stranger's head and listening to a man who has been shouting for the past twenty minutes, and that you don't have to be religious to help the homeless.

On top of all of this is the fact that millenials GET science...they recognize how science and technology have brought incredible expansion, well-being and growth to our planet.  Unfortunately, Christianity and the church have been slow to recognize the value of science...and some religious groups just flat-out call science the tool of the Devil, mainly because it promotes evolution rather than creationism.

And to millenials, who know better...this is embarrassing at best and absolutely repulsive at worst.  To call science the work of the Devil when everyone you know is benefiting from it and using it without question is hypocritical and least that is what the millenials are saying.

Rachel notes that sex is an issue.  OK...maybe.  Though my kids are far less concerned about what the church says about sex (if it says anything at all, except that maybe it is bad outside of marriage) and far more ANGERED that the mainline/conservative/evangelical church (which seems to get an inordinate amount of attention) is so dead-set in making GAY people live as second-class citizens with limited rights.  Millenials know all too well how the Christian church did NOT support equal rights for women, and was uncomfortable with granting equal rights for blacks.  And they correctly conclude that the church is more about SAYING NO to people than it is about understanding how the old gospel story may actually be relevant today.

I could go on...but I can summarize everything by saying...Millenials (and others) have left the church because they see better options out here in the unchurched world.  Even faith in Jesus does not necessitate involvement with the Church of the Religious System.  Why waste that time on Sunday morning...and any other day of the week...when so many incredible options exist, most of which make better sense and bear better fruit in enriching life and transforming society?

How do I know these things?  Because this is what my millenial kids and their friends have told me.  I did something Rachel suggested any one in the church should do...I asked, then I listened.  Amazing.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Welcome the Home Invader

The conflict of Kingdoms has always been a central one to Christianity.  Who is our King?  Jesus...or Caesar?  We know Paul (or whoever) said that we are to be subject to the ruling authorities, because they represent God or some such nonsense.  But, let us remember that Paul (or whoever) did NOT obey ruling authorities when it came to his preaching the gospel and declaring the Lordship of Jesus.

Let's make a foundational statement, and assume we all agree.  If Jesus is our King, then we place the priorities of his kingdom above our identity as citizens of a particular nation-state.  That means that if Jesus says "blue" and our Senate says "red"...we go with blue (if we identify ourselves as Christians)...and we willingly face the consequences (all the while, at least in our governmental system, trying to get the Senate to say "blue").

Recently, a Facebook friend, Mark Van Steenwyck, brought this issue into keen relief for me when he said "when enforcement of borders trumps show hospitiality to strangers  then it is clear that one's religion is Americanism, not Christianity." "Enforcement of borders" is a nation-state issue.  "Show hospitality to strangers" is a Kingdom of God issue.  He is right in pointing out that if "enforcement of borders" gets the highest priority...then the loyalty being shown is not loyalty to the Kingdom of God.

Jesus said "if your ENEMY takes your coat, give him your cloak as well."  And...yeh, turn the other cheek.  And...yeh, walk the extra mile.

If we are going to identify ourselves as Christians, with Jesus as our King and the Kingdom of God our homeland...then we have to welcome the home invader.

Ouch.  That hurts.  I don't mean it, do I?  I certainly don't like it.  I cannot imagine what I would do if at this very moment I heard the front door explode open, the voices of strangers yelling at my wife and daughter and me to get on the floor, hands behind our heads or we die...and begin to ransack our house, making veiled threats about tapping some female ass before they head out.

If I had a rocket launcher...some son-of-a-bitch would die.  (Bruce Cockburn said it, not me).

At that point, I would be thankful for grace and forgiveness.  But even that sword cuts both ways.  God will forgive me for protecting  my family, right?  Only if I forgive my home invaders...according to the Lord's Prayer, which says...(you know, don't you) "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others who trespass against us."

I am beginning to like the Nation-State better and better.  The way of the Kingdom...?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Jesus The Indicant Bellwether

bellwether - a person or thing that shows the existence or direction of a trend

Recently, I had a fascinating discussion with some friends about Jesus.  The very first question - who was Jesus? - was pretty much the last question of the night, because it fomented such a vigorous discussion that we were all swept up and carried away.

I think we live in a time when nobody really knows much of anything about Jesus.   We have access to more facts and opinions about him, or ideas about him, or doctrines about him...but in terms of really knowing who he was, or why he was important...that kind of shrivels when we turn a microscope on it.

Overall, the conversation about Jesus (the other night, with my friends) went this way:
- Who was Jesus?
- I don't think he was anybody, i.e., he did not exist, but was a myth created by...
- I am not sure it matters if he existed or not...
- Jesus was just a person; his importance to us is that he was the Christ...
- The Christ is a spiritual entity, or force, that has been throughout history...
- Jesus was just one of the Christs who have worked among us...
- So, the birth of Jesus, death, resurrection of Jesus...
- Those things don't really matter...
- It is his teaching that matters...
- What did he teach?

And on and on...

It occurred to me that Jesus - as I was seeing it at that moment, after a couple of shots of whiskey - was a bellwether, and more specifically, an indicant bellwether.

In the old days, a bellwether was a male sheep or ram that led the flock; he wore a bell around his neck, and wherever he went, the little flock would follow.  Over the centuries, the word came to be understood as referring to someone (or something) that either lead a direction or trend, or as something that had no value in and of itself, but only as people interpreted it and by their interpretation demonstrated what the trend or direction of their thinking was.  An indicator, so to speak...or an indicant.

I am thinking that interpreting Jesus is far more important than any historical fact about Jesus, even whether or not he existed.  As an individual, or a religious group, or a culture looks at Jesus...and begins to say something about is they who are defined, clarified and indicated by the process.  Not Jesus.  Not really.

For example:  my group said - kind of - that the historical person of Jesus does not matter.  What matters is the justice he taught, what his stories (or stories about him) reveal about life and the intersection of real life and spirit.

But it also occurred to us that other groups may say that the historical person of Jesus, and what he did...or what they believe he did, i.e., birth, death, resurrection...ARE what matters.  His birth demonstrated that he was both man and God; his death was atonement for sin; his resurrection was overcoming death and therefore abolishing the penalty for sin.

Worlds apart.  Who is right?  Who is wrong?  Who is closer to the Truth...the "capital T truth"?

I don't think it matters.  Jesus is the indicant bellwether, he whose very existence is meant to help us understand and perhaps even define who we are and where we are in our spiritual journey.  One of my friends at the discussion the other night said  - "When I look at Jesus, I see me.  I am a son of God."

Ding - and thus rings the bell of the bellwether.

Jesus asked "who do you say that I am?"  The answer may be the only thing about Jesus that really matters.


The stars are bright tonight,
In their places in the sky.
They sprinkle empty darkness
With their scattering of light.
They are silent as they roar
An unrelenting question
that presses down upon me
like a judgment out of heaven.
We turn our gazes upward
With scope, number and line.
They are what they are,
It is we who are defined.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

An Amazing Story!!

I wrote this story about ten years ago, back when I was a pastor.  Forgive the preachiness of it...that is what I did.  This story is 100% all happened.  Of course, I use poetic language to sweeten the narrative because...that is what I do!  I miss that God, in many ways.  This is what I know...I would love to hear that party horn, tooting in my ear again!

    What a magical time!
    What a wonder-filled time!
    What a...stress-filled, exhausting, overwhelming, frustrating,      demanding time!
Draw near, and allow me to tell you a story.
            For twenty-four days straight, starting the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my wife and I,  and our  poor, innocent (so to speak!) children were out of the house every night!  We barely had time to think about a Christmas tree, much less actually put one up and decorate it.  Holiday parties, special services at our church, Christmas productions, other family’s kids Christmas productions, more went on and on and on.  By the time Christmas actually arrived, we were too tired and stressed out to care. 
            And then...the day after Christmas, and the 14-hour drive to Atlanta to visit my parents.  Too exhausted to see straight, every one in the car ready to explode from Christmas stress and Christmas food and Christmas parties and too many Christmas gifts (most of them making the trip with us, which of course made the car uninhabitable unless one could perform the body contortions of Houdini).
            But, we made it safely to my parents, and instead of resting, we opened more gifts, ate more food, and made plans to see my wife’s relatives and celebrate Christmas with them the very next day (have you noticed how obligated we all feel to celebrate all this gift-giving-food-eating-indulgence as close as possible to December 25, regardless of the stress, sacrifice, and near-impossible strategic planning it requires?)
            So, the next day, we set out to meet her a resturant 30 miles away from where my parents live!   I admit it - when I learned where we were meeting them, I was not operating in the Spirit of Christ.  Scrooge had thoroughly possessed my soul, and our drive to the resturant was filled with my grumbling and complaining and working myself into a heart attack...all because, after driving 800 miles to come to Atlanta, now we had to drive another 30 miles to meet her family at a resturant and....get this...celebrate Christmas!!!   So, I wondered aloud to my wife and my three innocent (so to speak!) children...why could not her family have driven the 30 miles to see us, to eat a resturant close to my parents house?  After we had driven 800 miles to make all this possible?  And they never once, not once, came up north to visit us...for any reason?!?  Why, tell me?!
            So, we get to the resturant.  Her family is not there.  No one is there.  The resturant has gone out of business.  Boarded up.  Empty.  The sign is down.  Weeds in the parking lot.  I am ready to become a serial killer.  I have forsaken the faith...I am apostate.  I am in the parking lot of the now defunct eatery, turning redder than the Christmas bows that decorate my parents tree. 
            Did I tell you that I am a pastor?  Behold, the man of God!
            We call them on the cell phone, and they tell us they can meet us at another resturant, which is closer to their house, but another 40 miles from  where we are right now!!!   Now, we have to drive a total of 70 miles to meet them at a resturant - which has probably gone out of business - in the middle of nowhere, and all to...get this...celebrate Christmas!!!
            We made it.  I managed to drive the car while suffering a stroke, and blathering spittle all over the steering wheel. 
We met them (the place was open, and there was no wait...thank God for small miracles) and we were seated at our table. 
I shook hands all around perfunctorily, and then sat in a sulk, arms folded across my chest, refusing to even look at - much less talk to - my wife’s brother, his wife, and their three innocent (so to speak!) children, who had all greeted me with hugs and “Hey, Uncle Don!  Merry Christmas!”  
Yeh, yeh.  Whatever.
            I was ruminating to myself on how disastrous and idiotic this entire Christmas season had been, and was so throroughly making a fool out of myself in front of my family, that I completely missed our server asking me “are you Don Martin?”
            It slowly dawned on me that everyone was looking at me, waiting for an answer.  To what, I had no idea.
            I noticed the waitress, looking at me pleasantly, her eyebrows arched in anticipation, and I managed a very brilliant sounding “Huh?”, bovine intelligence shining in my eyes.
            “Are you Don Martin?” she asked again.
            “Uh, yeh,” I responded. 
             “The Don Martin?  That is, the Reverend Don Martin?”
            Okay - now my curiosity was piqued.  Here I was, by grand mistake, at a resturant I never knew existed, in the middle of God-forsaken nowhere, grumbling about this disastrous Christmas trip...and someone was asking me if I was who, it so happened, I was.
            “Uh, yeh, I’m a pastor,” I said, somewhat shamed by the glare I received from my wife and three innocent (so to speak!) children, who had just seen me acting like something more like a drunken sailor for the past hour. 
            “Well,” our server said sweetly, “there’s a young lady over at that table who asked me to tell you that - if you were the Rev. Don Martin - she wanted to say hello and speak with you for a moment.”
            OK - now, I am totally bamboozled.  We are 70 miles from my parents, eating at a roadside resturaunt, miles from anywhere I know anything about...and someone is sending me a message.  Someone wants to tell me hello. Someone wants to speak with me.  Someone recognizes me.  How can this be? 
What kind of trouble am I in?
             I look around...and realized that I did not need the server to tell me who it was.  I recognized her immediately.
            Her name was Katie Wilson.
            Years ago, when I was still in college, my first ministry job was as a part-time youth pastor at Katie’s church.  I was a disaster (are you noticing a pattern?); the church had been sweet and gracious - they didn’t fire me. Katie, a leader in the youth group,  had been one of my biggest fans. 
            Several years after my embarrasing tour of duty as her youth pastor, I was invited back to the church to preach at a Homecoming Service.  Man, those people were sweet...and forgiving.  I was dumbfounded that they  invited me back at all, much less to preach.   But, by this time, I had grown up some, and could actually deliver a sermon without making a fool of myself or  embarrasing people in the congregation.  So, I accepted the invitation...and when I stood to preach that night, I saw Katie and her husband seated in the first row, grinning up at me. 
            After the service, they came to me, but this time they were not smiling...they had tears in their eyes.  They told me that for three years they had tried to conceive a child, but had been unable to do so.  They had been to eight doctors, had dozens of tests, done everything known to medical science to do.  Nothing.  Their personal physician told them to consider adoption if they wanted a child.  That’s what they were planning to do, but in the meantime, they had come to hear me preach.  They told me they did not attend that church anymore - but when they heard I would be there, they drove over 70 miles (I know, I know) to hear me.  To tell me their story.  To pray with me. 
            So, we prayed.  With a strange mix of audaciousness and humility, we asked God for a miracle.I hugged them goodbye, and with a lump in my throat told Katie how much I appreciated her trust in me, and her support and friendship. They walked down the aisle, out the door...and I did not see them again for more than ten years.
            Until this day, at a resturaunt 70 miles (I know, I know!) from my parent’s house, 870 miles from  my house in the tail-end of a very long and very frustrating Christmas season. 
            Katie and her husband were all hugs and grins.  We all expressed astonishment that we had met one another, out here in the middle of nowhere, two days after Christmas. 
As we were talking, I felt someone walk up behind me.  I turned, but no-one was there.  That’s when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up...because it occured to me  that maybe God was the one sneaking up behind me, about to pull one of His God-tricks.
            Katie and her husband kept grinning at me like they were in on the joke.  They asked me if I remembered the last time we had seen each other.  I assured them I did.  They told me how they had been praying for years that God would give them the opportunity to see me again.  I wondered aloud...why?
            In reply, without saying another word, they stepped aside...and I saw her.  A cute, 9-year old girl, sitting at the table, grinning up at me like she was in on the joke, too. 
            It seemed to me that the room grew silent, like in those old Merrill Lynch commericals. 
It seemed to me that the wind quit blowing, the earth quit spinning, the universe quit expanding...and everything focused on this crazy, unexpected moment. 
I felt God standing next to me, a mischevious glimmer in His eye, wearing a crazy party hat and about to blow on a party horn...He was just waiting for the right moment.
            Katie looked at me with tears in her eyes, this time tears of barely-restrained, crazy-joy...and with the sincere drama of a Broadway thespian, she said, “Don, I would  like to introduce to you my daughter, Rebecca.”  
            As a lump grew in my throat, and the meaning of God’s great joke swelled up underneath me, she leaned over and - her own, sweet voice thickening with love and hope and faith and grace - whispered in my ear in a conspirational tone - “she was conceived three days after we prayed together with you at Homecoming, all those years ago.” 
Her husband, grinning like the Cheshire cat,  winked at me.  
            God blew His horn. 
            The dinner with my wife’s relatives is lost in the haze of irrelevant memory.  I have no idea what I ate, what gifts were exchanged, what we said to each other. 
            The drive back to my parents’ house was one of the most incredible and memorable 70 miles I have ever travelled.   It was only 70 miles, but the distance I journeyed spiritually was light-years greater than the distance journeyed by the Magi in their search for the new born King.  I was grateful for the gave me the chance to:
            - repent
                        - wonder
                                    - weep
                                                - laugh
                                                            - repent
                                                                        - wonder...
             What a surprising God!
             What an unexpected epiphany!
            Despite my displeasure, my childish grumbling, my selfish sulking, God had managed to grab me by the nose and take me on a 70-mile detour to the middle of nowhere...just so that I could experience Christmas, and He could blow a party horn in my ear!
            Drama experts will tell us that place is as much a character in a film or theatrical production as any character. 
            How true!   I remember the desolate, empty fields; the trailer park communities and run down gas stations of rural Georgia...all symbols of the vacuous and inane Christmas I had just experienced.  I remember the stark, blue winter sky; the quietness of the country; the smell of the food at the resturaunt, the muted rumbling of the crowd of diners, the clank of plates and the tinkle of ice in the glass. 
            I remember the table, filled with food and drink, and the cardboard reminders about dessert; water rings on the table, and the reproduction of an old gas lamp burning dully as a centerpiece.  But all those images are like a wreath - or halo - surrounding the little 9-year old girl who was the miracle answer to a prayer prayed 10 years before ... and forgotten. 
            In the most remarkable way, in the most unexpected place...God stepped in and restored to me the magic and mystery and wonder of Christmas.
            I suspect that He had that meeting planned for a long, long time. 
            I am certain that He went to such great lengths to pull it off in exactly the way He did - being sovereign God, and all - so that I could learn something about  Him in the process.   And, about me. 
            And that, really, is what the unexpected places are all about.

            Unexpected places.  That is where God is.
            Unexpected places.  That is where He is discovered, and where He is known.
            Unexpected places.  That is where we learn about God...and perhaps learn even more about ourselves.

            Christmas is about unexpected places.  It is a true story, given to remind us that God is waiting for us in unexpected places.  If we pay close attention to what is told  us in the gospels about the birth of Jesus, we will find that it is a message that transcends Christmas and impacts every moment and season...and place!... of our lives.  Christmas is  a time to remind us that the message is given, and that this message is true.
            Unexpected places.  The Christmas story is filled with them.  Each one contains a strange, ephiphanous little event like the one I shared with you from my own life.  The human characters are not mighty people; the locale is not a place of majestic beauty and grandeur.  The human characters are shepherds, old people, poor people, disabled people.  The locales are bedrooms, desolate fields, stinking cow stalls, creosote-caked caves.  A twist of the tale, a mystery wrapped in an enigma and hidden within a wonderment...all things designed to grab our attention, pique our curiosity, open our eyes...and our hearts.
            Over the years, my life has been filled with those unexpected places.  Yours has, only have to look to see!   Some of those places are filled with laughter and wonderment; some are filled with awe and quiet celebration; some are filled with weeping and fear; some are filled with sadness and confusion.  But they all share something - they were, and are, unexpected; and God is  waiting for us there.