Foiled by a Cardboard Santa

Santa Ho Ho HoI remember Donald because he used to run across the playground with his arms rotating like the blades of a windmill, because he once tried to flush his leg down the toilet, because he regularly chased little girls around Miss Cherry’s first grade classroom. I remember Donald because of something that happened in 1965.


Every time Miss Cherry left the classroom she would leave with strict instructions for us to behave while she was gone, and she would ask Leonard to write down the names of those who didn’t.  Leonard was an owlish boy with horn-rimmed glasses and fat, pink hearing aids behind each ear. He was the teacher’s pet, but he was also Donald’s reluctant accomplice; Leonard feared him more than he feared her.


As soon as Miss Cherry was safely out the door, Donald would leap to his feet and point to Leonard: “Go!” he would yell, and Leonard would dutifully push his chair over to the door where he served as a lookout, standing on the chair and squinting out the square glass window, strategically positioned at adult eye-level. When Leonard was in place Donald would pick out his victim, point to a timid girl in pigtails and shout, “I’m a gonna get you!” She would scream and run around the room, obligingly, while Donald windmilled along behind her, huffing and puffing. Eventually Leonard would call from the window, “Here she comes!” and Donald would skid to a stop in front of the class, catch his breath, and say, “Now y’all be quiet, chaldren!” and then sit down quickly.


When Miss Cherry walked in seconds later things would be quiet—too quiet. She would glare suspiciously at Donald and he would grin back, red-faced, innocent until proven guilty.


But on the Monday after Thanksgiving Miss Cherry put up a huge cardboard Santa on the door of her classroom, and the next time she left the room Leonard pushed his chair over, climbed up on it, and found to his surprise that the view from the window was completely blocked. Donald was on his second lap around the room when Leonard got his attention, pointed to the window, and held out his hands, palms up. What could Donald do? With a look of utter bewilderment on his face he wandered back to his chair and sat down, waiting glumly for Miss Cherry’s return. 


She came into her silent classroom a full five minutes later, unable to resist one brief, triumphant smile flashed in Donald’s direction.


She was wiser than we knew.


I remember that incident each year at the beginning of Advent because this is that season of the year in which the church emphasizes constant readiness for the coming of Christ. I am reminded, again and again in these days, that behind all the cardboard Santas of the secular Christmas season stands the One with his hand on the doorknob, ready to make an entrance. So I watch.


And I wait.

Fifty Years from Now, Will We Still Be Doing This?

image1On this day after Thanksgiving, I’m reading a book called Quitting Church by Julia Duin, Religion Editor for the Washington Times.  Here’s what the book jacket says:

Recent studes show that churches across the country are seeing once-faithful members disappear from their midst.  Why are so many Christians remaining committed to the faith yet dissatisfied with and disconnected from the established church?

Religion reporter Julia Duin has collected the research and added insights from her own interviews with disillusioned followers and visits to numerous churches.  She reveals and explores a number of crucial factors underlying this shift, including irrelevant teaching, the neglect of singles, the marginalization of women, and a lack of authentic spiritual power.  She also delves into trends such as house churches and postmodern or emergent congregations.  Her careful analysis and thoughtful reflection will help church leaders examine how they can better serve those in their congregations and communities who are struggling to find a spiritual home.

So, here’s the question I’ve been asking friends, colleagues, and church members for the past few weeks:  Fifty years from now, will we still be getting up on Sunday mornings, knotting our neckties, getting into our cars, and driving to some central location to sit in a pew, say our prayers, sing some hymns, and hear a sermon, or will church either a) evolve into something else or b) disappear altogether?

I’d be interested to hear your responses, especially if you think church will evolve into something else.  What will it evolve into, and how can we anticipate that and get there ahead of the curve?  You can either vote by clicking one of the boxes on the poll below, or share your thoughts by clicking on the word “comments” just beneath that.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving—I’d be grateful.



Thanksgiving Dinner at Dorothy’s House

Editor’s Note: I shared this story as part of the sermon at last night’s Thanksgiving service.  Several people have suggested that I post it here so others could enjoy it.  So, here it is, with every good wish for a happy Thanksgiving.  –Jim



shackI lived in Wise County, Virginia, from 1961 to 1966.  I was just a kid at the time.  My dad was a Presbyterian minister, the pastor of Gladeville Presbyterian Church in Wise.  But then he accepted a call to a special ministry among the poor in Boone County, West Virginia—one of the poorest counties in the country—and took what amounted to a vow of poverty to do it.  I don’t remember him ever asking my permission.  If he had I probably would have said no.  But that’s how I ended up in Boone County, West Virginia and that’s where this story takes place.


My family was living in Bloomingrose, one of the most inappropriately named towns in America.  There was nothing about it that suggested a rose in bloom.  I was enrolled at Comfort Elementary School a few miles down the river—one of the most inappropriately named schools in America.  There was nothing about it to suggest comfort.  I was in the fourth grade, trying to adapt to the culture of a new school.  Very quickly I learned that one of the worst things anybody could say about you was to say that you were “a Dotson.” 


The Dotson clan lived a couple of miles up Joe’s Creek from where the elementary school stood.  Howard Dotson, the patriarch, was one generation removed from living under a rock cliff.  With a lot of hard work and perseverance he had been able to move into a tumbledown shack near the creek where he and his wife Susan had brought five or six children into the world.  All of these children shared the same characteristic:  a head full of stiff, blonde hair that stuck out in every direction.  Howard Junior, Ricky, Stoney, Vicky, Dorothy (there might have been one or two more), all had this same, wild hair.  I don’t think it would have stayed down if they had tried to comb it, but I’m not sure they ever had. 


Dorothy was in my class at school.  I used to glance at her in the next row over, clutching a pencil in her grubby fist and trying to write in her notebook.  I saw that her knuckles were skinned up, probably from hitting boys, and probably the boys she hit deserved it.  Because the worst thing you could say to anybody at Comfort Elementary School is to say that they liked Dorothy.  You would hear it on the playground from time to time: some boy pointing at another boy and jeering, “You like Dor-thy!”  To which the only appropriate response was categorical denial, and maybe a punch in the nose.


So you can imagine how excited I was when my dad told us that we were going to be having Thanksgiving dinner at the Dotson’s house.  It seems the ladies at the Methodist church had given them a huge turkey and they wanted to share it with us.  I tried to talk Dad out of it, tried to explain to him that if I went to Dorothy Dotson’s house for Thanksgiving I could never show my face at Comfort Elementary School again.  But Dad said we had to go, that it would be rude not to, and although I didn’t say so I was thinking being rude to the Dotsons wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.  Going to their house for Thanksgiving might be.


But we went anyway.  We pulled into that wide spot by the road where they parked and then went down the creek bank, across a rickety, homemade bridge, and up the other side into their front yard, which was mostly dirt.  They had a wide front porch on their house, with a ratty-looking sofa and a recliner on it.  A washing machine.  Off to one side of the house were three old cars in various states of repair.  One of them had a tripod over it where Junior was pulling out a bad engine.  Another had a small tree growing up through the place where the engine used to be.  There were black, plastic garbage bags full of trash in the back yard, some that had been ripped open by dogs.  I took a deep breath before going inside.


But inside the house smelled wonderful.  Susan was putting the finishing touches on the turkey and I saw that she had borrowed some chairs to put around the table.  When we all sat down we were shoulder to shoulder and my shoulder was right next to…Dorothy’s.  She had dressed up for the occasion, put on a pale blue dress and some shockingly red lipstick.  It looked like she had even tried to comb her hair down, although without much success.  It was her mother who put her there beside me, thinking that since we were in the same class we would have a lot to talk about.  We didn’t.  I dug into my dinner and tried to finish as quickly as possible so I could excuse myself and go outside.


We had turkey, canned green beans, slices of white bread, and RC Cola.  That was it.  And when I was finished I pushed my chair back and asked if I could be excused.  That’s when Dorothy asked me if I wanted to play horseshoes and, because I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, I said yes.  She put on a coat and some rubber boots and we went out to the front yard where they had a horseshoe pit.  She looked kind of funny, wearing that old coat over her pale blue dress, with those shocking red lips and that wild blonde hair, but when it came to pitching horseshoes she was all business.  She beat me three games in a row and then I think she let me win one out of pity.  We played most of the rest of the afternoon and even talked a little bit.


On the way home I sat in the back seat of the station wagon, reflecting on the experience.  At some point I caught my dad looking at me in the rearview mirror.  He had that look on his face, you know?  The one that says, “See?  That wasn’t so bad.”  It really wasn’t, but it left me wondering what I would say if anyone at Comfort Elementary School ever accused me of liking Dorothy.  In a way I did like her.  She wasn’t so bad…


…for a girl.

Is It You, Again?

homeless-billYesterday’s sermon from Matthew 25 hinted at the idea that Christ is in every hungry, thirsty, shivering, lonely, sick, or imprisoned person we encounter.  It reminded me of a paragraph from Kathleen Norris’s book Dakota that has brought a smile to my face over and over again through the years.  Let me share it with you here:

Visits to monasteries are as old as monasteries themselves.  We think of monks as being remote from the world, but Saint Benedict, writing in the sixth century, notes that a monastery is never without guests, and admonishes monks to “receive all guests as Christ.”   Monks have been quick to recognize that such hospitality, while undoubtedly a blessing, can also create burdens for them.  A story said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery has an older monk telling a younger one: “I have finally learned to accept people as they are.  Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me.  But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?'”

If you say it with just the right inflection, it sums up everything we often feel when we are confronted with the needs of the world.  But if you say it often enough it will also remind you of who is watching and why it matters that we respond with compassion.

Coffee with Cathy

I don’t even know her last name.  I only know that when I sat down at a table in Community Missions on Wednesday morning she was there, stirring sugar into a styrofoam cup full of creamy coffee.  I watched her take the first sip and saw her face relax into a smile.

“That’s good, isn’t it?” I said.  “I love that first sip of coffee.”

“Oh, yes,” she said.  “It warms me all the way down.”  There was a moment’s pause while she took another sip and then she said, “Except my feet.”

“Your feet?” I asked.

“I can’t feel my feet,” she said.

My thermometer read 24 degrees when I got up on Wednesday morning.  It had warmed up a little since then, but not much, and Cathy (bless her heart) had been standing outside with the others, waiting till we opened our doors, till she could come in and get a cup of hot coffee and a pastry. 

Oh, and one other thing: a shower.

“My feet will be all right when that warm water hits them,” she said, “but right now I can’t feel them.  It was cold last night.”  And then she took another sip of her coffee and left me to wonder: When was the last time I had stood outside in the cold till my feet went numb, and when had I ever been as grateful for a cup of coffee, or a hot shower?

I don’t want to take those things for granted as I approach Thanksgiving this year, and this year, especially, I want to be thankful for a church that provides hot showers for the homeless.

I know Cathy is.

I’m Not the Only One!

I’ve been talking about the mission and purpose of the local church lately and saying that at its simplest it seems to be a matter of “bringing heaven to earth.”  I get some blank looks when I say that.  People have heard other things.  So, it was reassuring to hear someone saying the same things I’ve been talking about as I read the testimony of a California pastor named Denny Bellesi in a book called “The Kingdom Assignment.” 

9“Like many of you, I was raised in the church and grew up believing the Christian faith was only about getting to heaven,” Bellesi writes.  “As an active child, I had no interest in death and dying, let alone heaven.  I pictured clouds, harps, angels, that kind of thing, and believed it held no relevance whatsover to my life.

“No surprise that church attendance was not a priority for me back then.  it was boring and irrelevant.  As a young teenager, I remember waking up early on Sunday morning and doing all I could to keep my sister quiet and the television sound turned down low.  I even tried setting all the clocks back in hope my parents would oversleep and forget about the whole thing.

“Heaven could wait, as far as I was concerned. There were many more important things to do.  It wasn’t until my high school years that Jesus Christ had any real impact on my life.  Even then, heaven wasn’t the driving motivation.  Heaven was just the frosting on the cake.

“What captivated me was the everyday practicality of trying to live like Jesus.

“I began noticing how often the Kingdom was mentioned in the Gospels.  How people related and worked and played and loved one another in the Kingdom.  And eventually I began to realize that the kingdom Jesus was referring to wasn’t some faraway heavenly place. 

“It was right here, right now.

“Suddenly, everything became clear.  Being a Christian wasn’t about getting to heaven, although that was a benefit.  It was about becoming part of the Kingdom among us, the one that is far too easy to miss unless we’re looking.  I understood for the first time that the Kingdom of God wasn’t a place in the clouds or a dot on a map, but a reality that begins deep within us as we give our lives over to Jesus” (The Kingdom Assignment, Denny and Leesa Bellesi, Zondervan, 2001).

What if heaven could be more than “pie in the sky, by and by,” as the old preachers used to say.  What if it could be “something sound, on the ground, while we’re still around”?  Wouldn’t you do anything you could to bring heaven to earth?  And what’s keeping you?

Savior, Like a Shepherd, Lead Me

Hear or download this post (mp3 file – 3:45): Savior, Like A Shepherd, Lead Me

jesus_lamb_brownYesterday, between the 8:30 and 11:00 worship services, I climbed the stairs to the second floor of the church and knocked on the door of the Lambs Sunday school class.  “May I come in?” I asked.  I hadn’t made an appointment, and I hadn’t been invited, but I thought if anyone would let the pastor drop in unannounced it would be the Lambs. 

I was right.

This is a class for developmentally delayed adults, and when I went in on Sunday I found four students and three helpers working at a table in the middle of the room.  Three of these students are brothers, born into the same family.  And while the doctors would tell you that it’s rare to have a developmentally delayed child they would also tell you it’s impossible to have three.  But there they were on Sunday—the Haymans brothers: Joe, Chris, and Bruce.  They seemed glad to see me.  Thrilled, actually.  I can’t remember when I’ve had a more enthusiastic welcome. 

I sat down next to Bruce and tried to help him find “Joshua” in a word search.  The class was studying leaders and they had talked about the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua.  Bruce was looking for the letter “J” on the page and marking it carefully each time he found one.  With a little help he was able to see how some of those J’s connected to O-S-H-U and A.  As I looked around the table I could see that all of the students were being helped by patient and gentle volunteers. 

While we were working Chris told me it was his birthday, and when I congratulated him and asked him how old he was he held up five fingers.  Chris is a good bit older than that, but he seemed as excited about his birthday as any five-year-old.  He went over to the table against the wall to show me the birthday cake someone had brought, and when I left a little while later he was still staring at it like you might stare at your true love, his elbows propped up on the table, his face in his hands.

Later that day I drove out to Midlothian to visit with Bruce and Debbie Leary, and to meet Jeffrey, someone I’d been hearing about for weeks.  Jeffrey has special needs of his own.  The doctors said he wouldn’t live to be 20 but here he is, nearly twice that, thanks to the round-the-clock care, the obvious affection, and the loud, smacking kisses of his loving family.  Jeffrey seemed to recognize me right away from seeing me on television and insisted that I “talk” while I was there, which I did, just enough to satisfy him that I was the same person he had been hearing on Sunday mornings.  Later the Learys told me Jeffrey’s whole story, and while it was clear that caring for him wasn’t always easy, it was also clear that caring for him was one of the greatest joys of their lives.

Before I left, Bruce gave me a framed drawing of Jesus holding a lamb in his arms.  He said it was his favorite picture of Jesus, and I could see why.  There was our Lord and Savior, burying his face in the soft wool of a helpless lamb, holding it close, as if nothing were more precious to him.  And I thought about those “lambs” I had met that day—Joe and Bruce and Chris and Jeffrey—and how precious they are to Jesus, too. 

I hadn’t really planned to visit that Sunday school class yesterday, on the same day I was visiting the Learys.  I don’t know what moved me to do it.  But if I had to guess I would guess it was Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leading me to look in on some of his lambs.