When the 25th is over
And all the kin are gone,
When you’ve packed away the tinsel,
The lights and all the songs…
When you’ve paid the bills for all the frills
And feel your ample girth,
Will you gaze upon your bottom line
And find your peace on earth?
When the 25th is over
And you’re standing in a line
Returning gifts you didn’t like,
But that you said were, “Fine.’
Will you run a tab on your whole life
To see just what it’s worth?
Will you ask yourself, “What must I do
To find some peace on earth?”
As crabby girls and sulking boys
Cry over broken brand-new toys,
When the 25th is over
And you’re taking down the tree,
Can you tell them the irony
Of that tree with lights so bright?
T’will stand for a cross on Calvary
On a darker silent night?
Yes, the 25th is over
And life is back to normal.
You’ve tossed your cookies
And squeezed the candies
(to find the one that’s caramel)
You’re feeling glad Christmas is gone
With all its hype and prices…
Yet, deep inside remains this thought:
“I wonder who this Christ is?”
Then simply search, and simply ask
And think of His good news.
Then simply make His sacrifice
An offer you can’t refuse.
For if you do, He’ll give to you
Peace on earth so strong…
You won’t have Christmas on the 25th
You’ll live it…all year long.
— (c) Michael Edgar Myers, 2002. All Rights Reserved. Use granted through written permission of the author only. Cover photo (c) Michael Edgar Myers, 2014. All Rights Reserved
Says the Lord: “My ways are far beyond anything you could imagine…and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” — Isaiah 55:8, 9 (New Living Translation)
The piano player phoned about 10 minutes before the call time.
“I just wanted to make sure I’m at the right place,” he said. “All I see is a barn.”
“You’re in the right place.”
The actors arrived at the big red barn about 15 minutes later, in time to see The Pianist at work. He grabbed a snow shovel and joined two other men, who may or may not have been attached to The Barn, clearing the sidewalks. Not because he had to. It’s just who he is. The extra hands were helpful because the temperature promised to only become more sub-zero, although no more snow as anticipated.
Except for the eye-watering atmosphere, the scene was picturesque: The fresh white covering over acres of woods made isolated crimson structure and its attached beige silo more robust. A Courier & Ives card-in-waiting.
That The Pianist pitched in reflected the aura emanating from The Barn, manifested in the two men who were already at work when The Pianist parked. The manifestation continued through Shoveler No. 1, George, who stopped shoveling to greet and hold The Barn door for the entering cast. He was especially elated to meet The Singer, who would be presenting a solo during the Service of Worship. He had heard a recording of the song she’d selected and made an offer.
“I play drums,” he said. “May I sit in?”
While The Singer, The Pianist and George The Drummer entered The Barn to rehearse, stabilizing harmonies in the sanctuary; The Director climbed into the loft of The Barn for an overview of staging and recording possibilities. Ten minutes later, as George The Drummer assumed his mile-mannered George The Shoveler identity, The Director descended the loft and went to talk with The Pastor in another part of The Barn, the silo — The Pastor’s oval office.
“Lark (n): A lighthearted, fun, carefree episode. Often unplanned, a lark can happen when you are feeling adventurous.” — vocabulary.com
Atop the circular stairs, The Director gazed out the window into the white field glimmering under the eastern rising sun. The view was pastoral. Placing himself where The Pastor studies at his desk, it was easy — and helpful — to envision the serenity and inspiration of this view on a lush, green day. At -6 outside, this was not that day.
Yet Minus-6 or 98.6, that the view exists is a miracle. The Pastor, Lamarr Lark, is not the first of many connected to The Barn, who will use that phrase, “a miracle.”
“I remember standing out in the field,” NOW he could flash the smile that rivals the snow for gleam. “I was…I was crying…and I was…..”
Mad at God?
“I couldn’t understand.”
During this brief chat at the top of the winding staircase that supplanted an office door, Pastor Lark recounted the short, intense history of Connection Church, the church he had been working to plant in the country – farmland – an hour north of Chicago. He had no idea how apt “planting a church in the country” would be.
Lark and the team had purchased a large acreage of farmland, the centerpiece of which was a rickety building slightly older than Abraham: a 136-year-old barn.
“You would not believe what it looked like. I said, ‘God, what are you doing?’ ”
RAISE THE ROOF
Lark had a vision for a church. This wasn’t it. When a real estate developer offered cash for the property and a quick closing date, the complex Lark envisioned sharpened. “I had the spot and the property all picked,” he said. Something sleek and modern. Custom-made. Something economically feasible with bells and whistles to intrigue families of the Media Age, families with whom he interacted when working in corporate America nearby, families curious about The Word but scattered about where it’s hard to meet new neighbors. This vision was clear.
Before closing occurred, village officials nixed the deal. The developer’s plan for a new multi-house residential complex was incompatible with zoning guidelines. No sale. The Barn became a white elephant. Lamarr wept.
And submitted. Rather than a barn razing, there was a barn raising.
“God’s plans are not our plans!” Lark’s smile was praiseworthy.
IF GOD WERE A CARPENTER
As God unveiled His plan — in His time — He provided new vision, blueprints, capital, partners, and workers. Like George the Shoveling-Drummer. Like Brenda Lark, The Pastor’s Wife (First Lady of the Oval Office Silo). Like Mike the Carpenter. Lamarr preaches from the pulpit. Mike preaches from the carpet. (Or, he would if there were any. The floors are hardwood. So are the walls. And the beams. Almost everything.)
“We didn’t want any drywall upstairs,” said the soft-spoken Mike. “We had to shore up the beams, keep the wood. We didn’t want any pressed wood. I’m a carpenter. Carpenters are craftsmen. I always wanted to pass what I know on to someone else. God made that happen.”
Among the volunteers was a college-age lad, a medical student who latched on to the intricacies of carpentry.
“Carpentry is one of those professions that used to have prestige, like the pastor was saying. Sometimes people see me and ask, ‘Are you still pounding nails?’ They don’t mean it bad, I’m not somebody to make an issue, so I say, ‘Yeah, I’m still pounding nails.’ But it means something to be a carpenter.”
He didn’t say so, but like any good preacher, he left room for interpretation and personal application. On this last Sunday before Christmas, standing in the middle of a rehabbed barn with a nail-pounder gave new insight into the fact that Mary’s husband from the line of David the Shepherd was a carpenter who taught the craft to his son.
“Carpenters are creative. Everything was created through Jesus.”
The Barn has endless sermon possibilities.
IF WALLS COULD TALK
“Somebody was telling me that the walls could preach a sermon,” Pastor Lark interjected into his message. He continued noting that the whisper of the walls remembering the process of cleaning the building in preparation for the carpenters. “Some of you remember. When we dug out the downstairs, the SMELL from the horses! Imagine…THAT is the barn where Jesus was born…”
Cleansed of its horse dung, porous rafters, and unstable foundation, the remodeled basement is the Connection connection. The drywall is painted stark white, offset by hand-crafted wood trim. It’s an adaptable open, modern space where children play, teaching may occur, food consumed, TV viewed over the fireplace.
“That wasn’t supposed to be there,” said Pastor Lark. Then came Mike, who added two other places that weren’t “supposed to be there:” the kitchen and, upstairs, an entry hall into the worship space.
“You know, it’s easier for some people to come to ‘The Barn’ than to come to ‘church,’ “ says Mike the Carpenter, who moved from a church he had been attending for almost 20 years to answer a cry he heard in a message by Pastor Lark. “People have baggage about ‘church,’ but when they come here, and get to see what we’ve done they’re more open to hear The Word.”
Although weekly services began in September 2016, the official grand opening won’t be until Spring 2017 as Easter approaches. Until then, building within the building continues. The building of relationships — among the members and within growing local communities in Lake County and across the county lines.
Crossing county lines doesn’t mean just across the road into Cook County. The mission of Connection to be a multi-cultural church is more than an advertisement on a side of a barn which is why Lark – an African-American leading a small, mostly Caucasian congregation – is partnering with Rodney Patterson, also African-American and pastor of historic Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, a predominately black congregation, to worship and study Scripture together. The fellowship hall is the workshop for building that relationship. It’s a room of transformation– a carpenter’s 2 Corinthians 5:17.
HANDWRITING ON THE WALLS
The fellowship hall walls are covered with poster-sized sticky notes, the residue of brainstorming sessions. They are a blueprint teaching the members how to interact and engage with people who drive from nearby communities, who have different church experiences or Bible knowledge. To emphasize the teaching, the sticky-noted mission statement discusses an edit between “A diverse community” to “an inclusive and equitable” community. That vision, Lark said, is not his, but His. “We want Connection to reflect a heaven that says ‘every tribe and nation.’ ”
At the same time, he knows he is dealing with humans — real people, sinners, who have personal issues that must be addressed, Biblically. Like Paul’s church epistles, these sticky notes have specific instructions. One challenge is developing a corporate, proactive sense of serving as exhibited by The Carpenter and The Drummer (who not only played drums on the rehearsed special song, but unexpectedly — miraculously? intuitively? Spirit-fully? — provided improvised drum underscore in the scene performed before the sermon). Part of overcoming the challenge is discipling through action and language.
Illustration: “I don’t like the word ‘volunteer’ in a church setting,” said The Carpenter. “A ‘volunteer’ doesn’t have the same commitment. It’s about ‘servanthood.’ ”
Another illustration hangs on the walls of the oval office. Above The Pastor’s desk, the post-it note outlines guidelines for developing a Ministry Team proclaiming boldly: “Come and See Orientation Engaging a Non-Believer” leading to TEAM Time:
SHILOH IN THE SILO
On the opposite wall are outlines for practical application of TEAM Time. “The Worship Experience” speaks of “unity fellowship” an important element in a church culture where “worship” is often a synonym for “music.” (Toward this, Connection jobs-in musical ensembles or individual worship leaders rather than depending on a set musical team or style. Perhaps something else Pastor Lark had not planned.)
“The Worship Experience” plays out in the Sunday hour, however, it’s especially applicable as the guideline for the burgeoning relationship with Shiloh entitled, “Let’s Talk About Race,” a series of six dialogues including themes of socialization, reconciliation and transformation. Part of the process includes “unity fellowship” worship experiences in the home church’s neighborhood. Shiloh is scheduled to visit The Barn in February — African-American History Month. Among their collaborations is a semi-annual joint Service of Worship alternately hosted on their home sites, meaning – a trip to the South side and a trip to The Barn.
The idea, Lark explains, is that in an era of increasing racial tensions in the U.S., it’s important to demonstrate that the gospel of Christ is for all; that worship is more than musical style, but a place of preparation for regeneration; that Christ, more than the ballot, is the hope for the nation. Saying this in his message, The Pastor paraphrased a public official who had recently spoken of feeling without hope as the country changes leadership. The Pastor looked to the walls of the resurrected barn on which hung a symbolic cross of resurrection.
If the walls could preach, they’d say THAT resurrection was as likely as the expected Savior of Humanity being introduced to the world in the guise of a baby in the din of a stable. If walls could preach they’d say THAT birth was as likely as a dingy stable being resurrected into a chapel. If the walls could preach, they’d say either of the above would take a miracle.
If the walls could preach, they’s stay it was no lark that the The Pastor stood in the middle of The Barn talking about the birth in the dingy stable. They’d say it came from a silo mentality.
…and He explained all that was said about Him in The Scriptures. — Luke 24:27
In these last days God has spoken to us through His Son. — Hebrews 1:2
Pastor Brian Bill of Edgewood Baptist Church in Rock Island, IL, has a pet peeve he has shared with his family, and in a recent advent sermon, with his congregation. Bill toted a shopping bag to the stage to demonstrate his complaint about consumerism.
“Have you noticed how packaging gets smaller, but the price is going up?” he asked. His shopping bag examples included ice cream, bottled water, peanut butter and cereal.
“The boxes are hollow and shallow,” he said. “It kind of feels how Christmas feels in our society. The depth is gone.”
An “Amen!” moment.
“We can lament, and we should.”
Amen! And hallelujah! The Christmas Culture War truth is marching on!
The Christmas Culture Wars were hot and heavy in the last decade. You may remember, or have engaged in the battles: annual backlashes against companies — mostly department stores — that mandated employees not say, “Merry Christmas” in deference to expanding people groups celebrating end-of-the-year holidays. Christmas was too exclusive. Too offensive. Some even said, too “white.”
Offended Christians counter-punched:
“Happy holidays,” said the smiling cashier.
“Merry CHRISTMAS,” declared the dour deacon.
News outlets were replete with stories in communities going to court to remove nativity decorations from public view. “Church & State….!”
Christmas faithful protested. Onward Christian soldiers! To arms! To Shop-Mart! Store boycotts were enacted; headlines blared and pastors preached: “Let’s keep CHRIST in Christmas!”
AND THE SURVEY SAYS…
This battle is still fought on many fronts, though now they’re skirmishes. It’s not making headlines it seems, and that raises some questions:
Was the Christian counter-offensive victorious?
Is “Merry Christmas” making a cultural comeback as a less offensive phrase?
Are nativity scenes tolerated because when the nativity is put away – by choice or court order – in the eyes of many, Jesus also disappears?
And what of Christians lamentations?
Has Christmas become so homogenized that it’s just an adjective, even among Christians?
Have Christians become so accustomed to Christmas — so caught up in shopping, Christmas pageants and services at church that they, themselves, have minimized Christ in Christmas?
Are Christians more guilty of removing Christ from Christ-mas because Christians limit Christ to Christmas?
“We’re in danger of shrinking our depth,” Bill admonished. “Our danger is that Christians can shrink our understanding of Christmas as well.”
Pastor Bill showed his shopping bounty to prepare his listeners to receive the weapons of The Christmas Culture battle. These weapons, however, are in neither the courts nor bellicose retorts. As the Scriptures say, “The weapons of our warfare are not of this world…” They ARE however, IN this world, and were driven home in these quarters by three memorable pastoral encounters in three different communities during the week. Each is separately powerful. Taken collectively, however, they’re stunning Holy Spirit confirmations of how the victory over Christmas Culture Wars is literally in the our hands. That’s why they’re connected here.
IN THE BEGINNING…
The sequence began midweek. An item crawled on my Facebook timeline. It was from Jay Manguba, a pastor friend from across town. It’s rare that I stop to read timeline crawls, and rare for Jay to post, so when Manguba posts, it’s important:
“One of the coolest things I heard today,” he wrote, “ ‘I used to read a lot of books about the Bible but now I’m mainly reading the Bible.’ ”
MEANWHILE IN THE QUAD CITIES
Sunday I was visiting across state, listening to Pastor Bill, whom I’d never heard before, launch into his shopping sermon and remind the assembled congregation, “Christmas doesn’t begin with the manger and it doesn’t end with the wise men… “The best way to understand the Bible is not just looking at small sections but by seeing the overarching meta-narrative. God’s plan and the plotline of the Bible stretch from Genesis to Revelation.”
Ah, the Bible again.
“In the beginning, God…”
“In the beginning was The Word…”
A pattern is developing.
“How many of you have a Bible that has the words of Jesus in red? ” the pastor asked. “Imagine the Old Testament where every reference, every prophecy, every shadow, every image, every allusion to Jesus Christ appeared in red. One author has written that if such a red-letter Old Testament existed, it would glow in the dark.”
Returning to my home church Tuesday, the lead pastor (Curt Hansen), worship pastor (Andre de Mesquita) and I simultaneously arrived at our offices, and fell into a casual doorway debriefing about Sunday’s service. As in Rock Island, the Elk Grove Baptist First Sunday service had the additional communion and Advent celebration elements. Pastor Curt Hansen is a time-conscious man, often concerned whether additional elements (read: speakers) will affect his presentation (read: edit the sermon). This Sunday, he was elated. Without editing, speeding up or watching the clock, he was astounded to learn he finished at the exact time on the printed running order. Moreover, when Andre thanked him for the power of the words, Pastor Curt deferred, “It’s easy to preach when you preach the words of Jesus.”
Then to me: “The last half of the sermon, I just read the words of Jesus.”
The arsenal was loaded.
“For the remainder of my message,” I heard about 12:00 into the audio. “ I’m going to read the words of Jesus. If you have a red-letter Bible, everything I read is in red….” For the next 13 minutes, Pastor Curt let Jesus preach. Jesus finished with this: “If you hold to my teachings, if you obey me, you are really my disciples.”
From three seemingly disparate locales, God spoke clearly about the responsibility of Christ-followers responding to “The Christmas Culture War”:
Read the Scriptures
Seek Jesus in the Scriptures.
Pastor Hansen’s in-the-moment voicing of The Word has its own impact: a personal, verse-to-verse response: “If one speaks to you, jot it down. And when you listen, listen with the mindset of, ‘What do I need to do to obey this instruction.’ After all, obedience is the point of listening.”
At the same time, Pastor Bill offered different direct warnings and challenges to bring perspective on transformational impact of The Word in a homogenizing, downsizing Christmas culture.
“Do you lament how Christ has been taken out of Christmas in our culture?” he said. “As Christians, we’re in danger of shrinking Christmas as well when we focus only on the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke and then only during the month of December.”
Just as Jesus came as a baby, said his followers must come to Him as children, and asked that children be brought to Him, Pastor Bill highlighted a children’s reader to reinvigorate Scripture reading.
“One of the most helpful resources for children is “The Jesus Storybook Bible.” Here’s how it begins: “The Bible is most of all a Story…The Story of how God loves His children and comes to rescue them. It takes the whole Bible to tell His Story. And at the center of The Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers His name.”
“For many years I thought that Jesus got his start when He was born,” the Pastor articulated a confession no doubt others think even today. “Jesus didn’t begin when he was born,” the pastor noted, citing Christ’s words to the Pharisees (“Before Abraham was, I Am”) and the parallel between Genesis 1 and John 1. “Actually, Jesus Christ has always existed.”
Then what’s the point of the baby in the manger? Why does it matter whether or not a nativity scene is seen? The connection, says Bill, is not dissimilar to why crosses in public are troublesome. They’re reminders.
“Christmas is all about how Christ covers our curse by dying in our place on the cross. God was sinned against and so He provided a sacrifice for sinners. God made coats of skin to cover sin. Jesus is God with skin on…”
While the cultural Christmas War may not grasp this, Pastor Bill, Pastor Hansen, and Pastor Jesus say it’s imperative true Believers do. It’s these revelations that make Christmas personal, regardless of what’s said at the checkout line or the courthouse.
“Listen,” Bill concluded. “The way to keep Christ in Christmas is for us to let the light of Christ shine through us! We are containers for Christ! Let’s not become “cheater packages” filled with shrinking spirituality. It’s our job to not live lives of deception. We must avoid going shallow.”
If this all sounds a deep, it should. The answers, though, as Jay Manguba’s friend discovered, are in the book. Start with the red letters. They say, “Merry Christmas.”