My Miracle on 34th Street

December 24, 2012

Please excuse the ALL CAPS.  What follows is the exact transcript of a sermon for Christmas Eve 2012…

NORMALLY I WOULD KNOW THIS, BUT I CAN’T SAY EXACTLY WHAT YEAR IT WAS…

PROBABLY 1971…  MAYBE ’72.

I HAD SAVED ALL MY CHRISTMAS SHOPPING TO BE DONE IN ONE FELL SWOOP AND THESE WERE THE DAYS WHEN WE HAD REAL WINTERS WITH BITING COLD AND SEARING WIND.

BECAUSE I WENT TO SCHOOL IN NEW YORK, I DECIDED TO DO MY SHOPPING AT GIMBEL’S UP ON 34TH STREET.

THIS WOULD BE MY LAST OPPORTUNITY BECAUSE IT WAS THE 23RD – AND THE LAST SCHOOL DAY BEFORE VACATION.

GIMBEL’S IS NOW OUT OF BUSINESS, BUT IN THEIR HEY DAY THEY WERE THE CHIEF COMPETITION TO MACY’S.

AS I RECOLLECT THIS WAS THE FIRST YEAR I EVER HAD ANY REAL MONEY TO SPEND ON ANYTHING…

IN MY POCKET I HELD ABOUT $50.00 – SO WHEN I CAME UP FROM THE SUBWAY AND WALKED IN THROUGH THE MAIN ENTRANCE I FELT LIKE A PRETTY BIG MAN.

NOW, TO ME THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH DOING ALL OF YOUR SHOPPING AT THE LAST MINUTE.

THAT’S WHY 8 MILLION NEW YORKERS AGREED, AND DECIDED TO VISIT GIMBLE’S THE VERY SAME DAY I WAS THERE.

PUSHING THROUGH THE REVOLVING DOOR I ENTERED A SEA OF PEOPLE REMINISCENT OF THE STOCK MARKET CRASH IN ‘29.

THE TEMPERATURE INSIDE WAS ABOUT 89 AND IT WAS AN ABSOLUTE MAD HOUSE – PEOPLE SCREAMING AND HOLDING MERCHANDISE UP IN THE AIR TRYING TO GET THE ATTENTION OF A STORE CLERK BEHIND THE OLD MECHANICAL REGISTERS THAT WENT – “CHCK-CHCK, KACHIGADINK – CHCK-CHCK, KACHIGADINK.”

THE MODERN DAY BAR-CODE LASER “BEEP-BEEP” IS OK, BUT IT’S NOT AS WARM AS “CHCK-CHCK, KACHIGADINK.”

IMMEDIATELY I MADE MY WAY TO THE ESCALATOR, NOT SO MUCH TO GO ANYWHERE, EXCEPT AWAY FROM WHERE I WAS…

IT WAS THE ONE OF THE ORIGINAL KIND WITH THE NARROW WIDTH AND THE WOODEN SLATS.

TO A GREAT EXTENT MY GIVING THAT YEAR WAS DETERMINED AS MUCH BY THE WILL OF THE CROWD AS BY ANY PLAN I HAD.

PUSHED AND PULLED FROM DEPARTMENT TO DEPARTMENT, AS I UNPEELED THE MONEY CRUMPLED IN MY POCKET THE BUNDLES UNDER MY ARMS GREW.

SINCE THEN I’M CERTAIN THE PRESENTS I’VE GIVEN HAVE MADE MORE PRACTICAL SENSE AND THEY’VE DEFINITELY BEEN MORE EXPENSIVE.

BUT I THINK THERE IS A PURITY OF HEART THAT GOES WITH THE GIFTS WE GIVE WHEN WE’RE KIDS THAT’S NEVER QUITE THE SAME LATER ON.

OVER THE YEARS I PROBABLY GAVE MY DAD ENOUGH PAPER WEIGHTS TO COLLAPSE HIS DESK.

BUT THEY WERE ALL WRAPPED WITH LOVE AND EXCITEMENT.

IN A FEW HOURS I WAS ALL FINISHED AND MAKING MY WAY DOWN TO THE GROUND FLOOR I FOUND MYSELF COMPLETELY SURROUNDED AND CRUSHED BY THE SAME MOB OF PEOPLE ALL LEAVING VIA THE SAME EXIT AT THE SAME TIME.

AS WE GOT CLOSER TO THE DOORWAY THE PRESSURE OF ALL THE PEOPLE GOT GREATER AND GREATER, TILL I COULD BARELY BREATHE.

FOR A YARD AT LEAST MY FEET NEVER TOUCHED THE GROUND AND I WAS STRUCK BY RAW TERROR WHEN I STARTED TO FALL DOWN AND I COULDN’T STOP.

FOR CERTAIN I’D HAVE BEEN TRAMPLED IF SOME GUY HADN’T GRABBED MY COAT AND PULLED ME UP STRAIGHT…

EVEN SO, THE SURGE CONTINUED RELENTLESSLY TO THE EXIT, UNTIL, IN A MOMENT NOT UNLIKE BIRTH, WHEN I THOUGHT I COULD STAND THE PRESSURE NO LONGER I WAS SPEWED OUT ONTO THE SIDEWALK.

AT FIRST FEELING TREMENDOUS RELIEF FROM WHAT I HAD JUST EXPERIENCED, I GOT A SHOCK WHEN I STEPPED IN A PUDDLE AND ICY SLUSH GOT INTO MY SHOE AND STUNG MY FEET.

BUT THAT WAS THE LEAST OF MY CONCERNS BECAUSE ALL OF A SUDDEN IN FRONT OF MY EYES I SAW SOMETHING I WILL NEVER FORGET.

IT’S A SIGHT THAT STILL REMAINS FOREVER ETCHED IN MY MEMORY.

THERE BESIDE AND AGAINST THE GRAY CONCRETE DEPARTMENT STORE I HAD JUST LEFT, A MAN WITH A BOTTLE WAS LYING ON THE GROUND, ASLEEP ON TOP OF THE SUBWAY STEAM GRATE – SURROUNDED BY A TREMENDOUS CROWD, YET COMPLETELY ALONE.

IN THE BACKGROUND, ABOUT 10 FEET AWAY A SMALL SALVATION ARMY QUARTET PLAYED A CAROL IN THAT SLIGHTLY OFF KEY MANNER THAT NOW THAT NOW SEEMS FITTING…

WHITE VAPOR FROM THE HEATING PIPES BELOW THE STREET WAFTED UP AND AROUND THE TREMBLING MAN AND BECAME ILLUMINATED BY THE NEON LIGHTS OF RED AND GREEN.

WITH THE RELIGIOUS MUSIC ECHOING FROM BEHIND, IT WAS LIKE THE HOLY SMOKE OF A TWISTED OFFERING MADE TO GOD.

THE INCENSE OF OUR INIQUITY BILLOWING AROUND A FELLOW FOR WHOM IT WAS OBVIOUS, WE HAD NO ROOM.

PERHAPS IT WAS THE FUMES THAT STUNG THE LORD’S EYES, OR THE SCENE ITSELF, FOR IN THAT MOMENT IT BEGAN TO RAIN UPON US ALL.

AS QUICKLY AS IT CONFRONTED ME WITH THIS AWFUL VISION THE CROWD PUSHED ME ONWARD TO THE SUBWAY ON 33RD STREET, BUT IN MY MIND, THE NAMELESS MAN CAME WITH ME.

I COULD BARELY SEE, LET ALONE REMEMBER HIS FACE, BUT I COULDN’T LEAVE HIM BEHIND.

AND FOR AS LONG AS HE REMAINED, THE PACKAGES I FAITHFULLY CARRIED IN THEIR CRINKLY COLORED PAPER MADE NO SENSE.

FOR HOW COULD CHRISTMAS BE GOOD, WHEN FOR THIS MAN IT WAS DESTINED TO BE SO BAD?

AS WAS MY CUSTOM, I GOT ON THE LEAD CAR OF THE SUBWAY, SO I COULD SEE OUT THE FRONT WINDOW INTO THE TUNNEL.

BUT THIS TIME AS I STARED OUT INTO THE BLACKNESS, I FOUND MYSELF DESPERATE TO SEE THE MEANING OF CHRIST’S BIRTH IN SUCH A MESSED UP WORLD.

UP TO THAT POINT I HAD BEEN TRAINED WELL BY A SOCIETY THAT TRIES TO FIND THE JOY OF CHRISTMAS BY IGNORING THE WORLD.

THAT’S WHY SOMETIMES WE EAT TOO MUCH, AND DRINK TOO MUCH.

INSTEAD OF GLORIA IN EXCELSIS, WE JUST HAVE GLORIA IN EXCESS.

WITH THE TRAIN CREAKING THROUGH THE TUNNEL, IT SEEMED CLEAR TO ME THAT CHRISTMAS HAD TO INCLUDE THAT MAN, OR SOMETHING WAS AMISS.

TO ME, IT DIDN’T MATTER HOW THE MAN GOT TO WHERE HE WAS, WHETHER TRIPPED UP BY HIS OWN HAND, OR PUSHED DOWN…

PERHAPS IN HIM I SAW MY OWN SIN AND STUPIDITY…

EITHER CHRISTMAS SPOKE FOR HIM OR IT SAID NOTHING OF VALUE FOR ME, AND I KNEW I HAD TO TALK TO GOD ABOUT IT.

BY THIS TIME IN MY LIFE’S JOURNEY, GOD AND ME WERE PRETTY TIGHT.

NOW EVEN IN THE EARLY ’70′S KNEELING DOWN ON A SUBWAY TRAIN AND SPEAKING TO SOMEONE WHO DIDN’T SEEM TO BE THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN PERCEIVED TO BE MOST UNUSUAL BEHAVIOR.

SO KNOWING GOD WAS LISTENING, I CLOSED MY EYES AND OPENED MY HEART.

THIS WAS PERHAPS MY FIRST EXPERIENCE IN FINDING OUT THAT THE QUICKEST WAY TO DEEPEN YOUR FAITH IS TO EXPRESS YOUR DOUBTS.

NOW IT’S NOT THE LORD’S CUSTOM TO SPEAK OUT LOUD ON TRAINS EITHER, BUT IN MY HEART I HEARD WHAT HE HAD TO SAY…

AT FIRST IT WAS, “YOU REALLY DON’T GET IT, DO YOU BILL…”

I SAID, “NO…”  (AND I DIDN’T)

HE SAID, “LOOK BILL.  LOOK AT THE DARKNESS IN THE TUNNEL.  DON’T TURN AWAY.  LOOK AT THE MAN.”

AT FIRST I RESISTED…

BUT THE INSTANT I RELENTED, IN SEEING THE MAN I HEARD GOD SAY IT WAS PARTICULARLY FOR HIM THAT HE CAME.

NO WONDER THERE WAS NO ROOM IN THE INN, NO WONDER FOR MARY AND JOSEPH AND JESUS, THERE WERE NO FAMILY, NO FRIENDS!

I REALIZED THAT NO MATTER HOW HARD WE TRY, AND TRY WE MUST, BUT EVEN SUPPORTED BY THE STURDIEST STEAM GRATE, EVENTUALLY ALL OF US FALL THROUGH THE CRACKS.

SOME MUCH SOONER THAN OTHERS.

SOME WHO NEVER REALLY HAD A CHANCE.

THE SECURITY IS NEVER PERFECT, THE SHELTERS ARE NEVER ENOUGH, THE FOOD DOESN’T ALWAYS GET TO WHERE IT SHOULD – THE ANTIBIOTICS DON’T ALWAYS WORK – THE SURGERY IS NOT ALWAYS SUCCESSFUL.

WHEN I LOOKED AT THIS DYING MAN I SAW HE REPRESENTED BILLIONS OF OTHERS, FOR WHICH, LIKE JESUS, THE WORLD HAS NO ROOM, BUT FOR WHICH GOD HAS COME, AND GOD HAS A PLACE.

I DON’T THINK THE POOR MAN MADE IT TO CHRISTMAS THAT YEAR, BUT I’M CONVINCED HE WAS HEADED FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD.

I’VE NEVER HAD ANY INTEREST IN THE MOVIE, BECAUSE FOR ME, THAT’S THE REAL MIRACLE OF 34TH STREET, WHERE A STEAM GRATE GIVES WAY TO SALVATION AND GRACE.

EVERY YEAR I REMEMBER THAT MAN, AND I FULLY EXPECT TO MEET HIM AGAIN, AND GIVE THANKS, BECAUSE HE GAVE ME A CHRISTMAS THAT’S LASTED OVER 40 YEARS, THROUGH GOOD TIMES AND TIMES REALLY, REALLY BAD.

SOMETIMES, MORE THAN OTHERS, WE’RE ESPECIALLY FACED WITH AN AWARENESS OF DEEPLY NEEDING A SAVIOR.

BUT IF WE’RE FAITHFUL TO LOOK INTO THE DARKNESS, AND FEEL THE ANGUISH OF TRULY NEEDING TO BE SAVED, THEN, WE MAY JUST FIND THE REAL JOY OF KNOWING THAT FULLY, AND ETERNALLY, A SAVIOR HAS COME.

CHRIST THE LORD.

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Newtown, Gun control and a “Culture of Violence”

December 20, 2012

The loss of life in Newtown, CT is a horrible blight on the landscape of our national history.  One cannot exhaust the supply of the most extreme hyperbole in describing the evil befalling that community, and the deep anguish visited upon so many parents, loved ones and friends.  The collective sorrow we all feel will always hold space in our hearts long after the media moves on to the next major story.

Yet, right now, our focus must also be, not simply on the horrific action, but also on the character traits that gave rise to the instantaneous heroism displayed at the Sandy Hook School.

So much attention has been given to the mindset of the assailant, and much has to be done in that regard.  Yes.

But we need also to fully explore and examine the motives of those who stepped in front of bullets, knowingly sacrificing themselves and sparing us all even more despicable damage.  Yes, we need to see and understand how our culture inculcates incredible bravery as well as how it may encourage inhuman, depersonalized murder.  Our fixation, to be fair and healthy, must be directed at the good immediately stepping up to stop evil.  That is how we survive this tragedy and enable it to be redemptive, for the sake of those who died and those who must now live.

Beyond this, without attacking and castigating, and in effect, dehumanizing those who disagree, now is the time to reason together.  Now is the time to ask if the 2nd Amendment was intended to afford the general population direct access to and ownership of high-power, military grade weaponry.

The people I know who own guns are great individuals.  They’re responsible, upstanding, quality folks.  I do not own a firearm, but I’m a good shot, and my 3 kids are too.

Yet, none of us should be able to possess an assault rifle, suited for a war zone, and not for a Newtown, or Anytown.  I am hard pressed to see how any civilian should be able to have an arsenal one might find in a rack at the FBI.

Personally, I don’t buy into the “culture of violence” philosophy.  It’s too easy.  My heavens, we in this country killed 600,000 souls in 4 years of the Civil War.  Kids, adults, brother killing brother.

I wouldn’t choose to raise children anywhere else, at any other time, than right here, right now.  I’m not nearly ready to cash in my American chips.

But we must show ourselves to be a culture of common sense.

Weapons will only get more powerful and sophisticated.

Our ability to responsibly reason and debate must rise to the level of our technology or we will run the risk of ruining the gift of personal rights by reducing them into being an expression of mindless irresponsibility.


When rote religion obscures the Living God

December 8, 2012

My mother passed away a week ago.  She had battled cancer, and finally succumbed.

Just a few hours ago, I received a call from an associate priest at the St. Cassian Church, Upper Montclair, NJ, saying a family request that I do the homily (sermon eulogy) for my mother could not be approved because I am not Catholic.  Relative to being “alive in the love of the Lord and each other”, this is a church that claims to “have a responsibility to be a sign of this love in the world around us, to express this love through our teaching, worshipping, and service to others.” 

Indeed.

While he is not bureaucratically in control of the parish, this fellow needed to be the bearer of the bad news.  He was very polite, deeply apologetic, and denominationally correct.  I am not a Roman Catholic.  I used to be, serving for a time as an altar boy in the parish where my mother will be buried.

Because God touched my life many years ago, my sense of Church expanded greatly, and immediately.  That’s why, in due course, I chose to worship in, and eventually find ordination through a Protestant denomination.  I did not so much reject Roman Catholicism.  I just found that Jesus wasn’t confined there.

For just on 30 years I have been an American Baptist minister, working here and abroad, presiding at hundreds and hundreds of funerals for all sorts of people, churched and unchurched — people I knew and loved, and people I never knew at all.

Not too long ago, in 2009, I preached at my mother-in-law’s Catholic funeral Mass in Stafford Springs, CT.  She had requested I do so.  It was an honor, and it transpired because the priest in charge was a decent man.

It’s funny, because I gave the homily for my Grandma Dastole in the St. Cassian Church, little more than a decade ago.  The priest then thought I’d done a rather good job and had invited me to take Communion from him at the altar.

But things have changed.

The old bigotry now holds sway once again.  At least in New Jersey.

In general, and in contrast, Protestant churches are relationship based Bodies of Christ.  It’s not about the “right ritual” done by the “rightly demarcated individual” in the “right space”.  It’s about a real relationship, with God and one another.

It matters more, in a Protestant scenario, if the presiding clergy actually knows, or gets to know about the guest of honor, than if they say the prescribed words in the designated order.  Interaction matters more than incense, and Protestants, informed by biblical Grace, understand that, in death, Resurrection depends on what God has done in Christ, not what the “official” clergy do in a human rite.

Beyond those facts, but also in direct reference to them, if a child of a deceased person might be capable of rendering meaningful words of tribute for their loved one, be they avowed atheist or presumed saint, in my sphere of influence they would likely be allowed, even encouraged.

When asked if a family member could speak at a funeral, I’ve never petitioned to see their religious affiliation.  It’s the familial thing that determines the result.  This is just basic humanity beyond pompous religiosity.

Some sectors of the Roman Catholic denomination don’t see it this way.  At least not in New Jersey.

Imagine the danger!

Who knows what might transpire if an articulate, non-abusive, non-Catholic clergyperson actually spoke in a Roman Catholic Church at his mother’s funeral!

Who knows…

Even so, in spite of her denomination’s paranoid biases and bigoted ignorance, my mother is still in heaven.

Because of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, she’s beyond the insensitive and patently silly regulations.

Saved by Grace, apart from law, and certainly beyond rote ritual, she’s dwelling with my dad in the Kingdom of God.

In the end, that’s the most important thing.


Fare Well Mom

December 1, 2012

For whatever reason, Holidays have always left me with the most enduring memories.  One year, with extended family all sitting round the table about to devour the blessed turkey, my mother inadvertently began grace by saying, “Bless me father, for I have sinned…”

This is the traditional start of making one’s confession to a priest, and while there were no clergy present at the time, all of us anxiously waited silently, more than willing to accept proximate ordination and stand in as substitutes.

Unfortunately, mom caught herself early, quickly diverting into the much more predictable, “Bless us O Lord, and these Thy gifts…”  Thus, the banquet continued, a good deal less eventfully than it initially seemed to promise.  The sweet potatoes were passed, and the turnip sat singularly unwanted until sufficient guilt was laid on those who eventually caved and took a portion.

Even so, over the years, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas has been increasingly promoted, and often seen, as a season of near hysteria.  The pressures of preparation are commonly talked about in the community, with some expressing regret that these days are upon us once again.  Alas, the moments set aside to extend gratitude and give glory to God have been refashioned into a commercial hassle; a juggernaut driven with no one at the wheel.

As Christians, whether as family or in friendship, when we commemorate the birth of the Savior, our job is to model an approach to Jesus, such that the Holiday we want is the celebration we create.  Christmas is many things, none of which are consistent with overdrawn credit, and heaping burdens upon ourselves that we are unable to bear.

In the end, it seems my mom stumbled on the core truth.  We have sinned.  All of us.  We’ve fallen from our trees and landed far apart from the Kingdom of God.

Every person, every season, we are reminded of our frailty and, try as we might, it becomes all too obvious that the Salvation we would attempt to supply from a store, while it can be paid for, cannot be sustained.  Eventually toys break, batteries run out, and even our most hallowed memories are tinged with the reality that our loved ones are getting older, and we must release and let go of those who once held us so close and so tight.

Yet, however we might like to avoid them, if we look through them, life’s struggles actually bring us to the stable, indeed, a Savior, born in Bethlehem.  Economically, spiritually and mortally, when we are willing to own what we cannot really provide, we become open to the wonder of what God in Christ has given.

This means that after all, Christmas is about gifts — grace, forgiveness, and eternal life, healing the brokenness that always attends our way.  It’s the arrival of a Presence in our lives, not presents under a tree.  And when parents and people keep proper perspective about the arrival and action of God in the world, then the gifts in the home will always make sense.

We have sinned, and fallen short, for sure, but just as definitively, it’s great to know and celebrate the foundational faith, and the fact, that forever in Christ, we have a Savior!