FINDING HUMOR, FAITH & JOY IN UNEXPECTED PLACES

SOCKS, CATS & CALIFORNIA GREYBACKS ~ 12/26/09

They fell from the trees like over-ripe fruit, sodden with the juices of life. The wind did not fell them, or the rain. Instead, they let go their lofty lookouts at the report of a fine .410 gauge Winchester Model 37— and as they dropped, so did the barometer of pent-up tensions I‘d smuggled with me into the leafless woods that Christmas Eve day. I knew a doctor once, a friend of a friend really, who I overheard saying that after a long day of life-saving, it felt good to kill something. I’m sure he didn’t mean it to sound that sadistic. Still… there’s nothing I quite look forward to like my annual pilgrimage to the in-laws house each Christmas, to bask in the glow of extended family and— to launch expeditions in search of the venerable California Greyback.

I’ve recently discovered that to find the best sermon illustrations, all one has to do is get a large family together for at least two days. After that, the stories take care of themselves. I can prove this. One of my sisters-in-law, Debbie, while running up to surprise my wife from behind in a Walmart parking lot, inexplicably ran straight into a parked car. I could tell she hoped no one had noticed. I tried to convey a look that said ‘keep dreaming.’ Later that weekend, I watched again in my plaid bathrobe from the living room gliding rocker as she almost fell backwards off the couch. She was apparently trying to sit on the arm to get a better view into the kitchen. Getting up, she turned around to see me smiling at her. She sighed in despair.

There was a time at the Payne home (my in-laws) when the children woke before the sun did Christmas mornings. Those were the days I slept alone in a sleeping bag on the floor, still a guest of the family, an outsider on probational status. In those days, the kids (all 9 of them) would hover and perch around the mouth of the staircase like ticklish angelic vultures, waiting for word to float up that the feast of fun was made ready. Their parents, in turn, initiated this welcome only when it was certain enough caffeine had been consumed downstairs to sustain them through the coming ordeal. I call this state ‘the fullness of time.’

It was fun to compare how different this Christmas morning was from those gone by. Most of the ‘kids’ are married now, with children of their own. The human multiplication in our clan is such that we now divvy ourselves up between houses for the nights. In the morning, while my own children made sure I continued to observe the pre-dawn traditions of Christmas past, most other family members didn’t shuffle into the living room until about nine-ish. Even then, the boarding situation made it necessary to wait on the arrival of other households for the festivities to began. The flip side of this small delay was an increased opportunity for the development of that charming kind of chaos.

Like not knowing where to expect the next wrapping paper snowball to come from, craziness at the Payne house can originate in any number of unlikely sources. In this case, one of several nameless housecats came streaking out from under the Christmas tree, dragging a slashed baggie of homemade venison jerky in its wake. Clearly convinced it’s pursuer was actually a very good smelling, though cat-eating monster, freaked-out kitty stumbled over a coffee table, dashed around a jumble of boxes and finally was tackled after emerging, nerves raw, from under a string of mismatched chairs. If sports fans in football stadiums attempted to execute ‘the wave’ with their feet, it would closely mimic the spontaneous calisthenics I observed in those moments. Cheering may also have been involved.

Later that morning, in a conversation I’ll treasure forever, the talk turned especially deep.

ESTHER (My wife): “I couldn’t buy new wrapping paper this year because I had to use up what I got last year.”

RUTH (Esther’s sister): “Ooh, I LOVE buying wrapping paper!”

JOSH (with unveiled disgust): “Loving to buy wrapping paper is like loving to buy socks.”

MARGIE (Mother-in-law, from the kitchen): “What are you guys talking about?”

ESTHER: “That loving wrapping paper is like loving socks.”

MARGIE (Still in kitchen): “Ooh, I LOVE socks!” [much laughter from the living room.]

POST SCRIPT: Later that Christmas morning, yet another sister-in-law opened a beautifully wrapped box to find in it a pair of brand new socks. They were, of course, from Margie. You can’t make this stuff up.

The fun did not end with the socks. Like dutiful members of a survivalist commune, our family displays a knack for homemade goods. Mother-in-law Margie makes soap that smells like strawberries. This is essential for personal hygiene. Sister-in-law Ruth makes jam from the fruit of trees in her back yard. This is essential for having tasty toast. My wife Esther makes rice-filled bean bags. These are essential as heat pads, to treat the aches and pains derived from working the land on our hypothetical commune. Brother-in-law Will makes beer. This is essential in cases, err… in case of a return to the bartering system for procuring basic goods (due again to the hypothetical inflation of the national currency). And I, of course, make knives. Which, lets face it, as mankind’s oldest tools, are basically essential for everything. There were probably other homemade gifts exchanged as well but, as it was my turn to stand watch in our hpothetical commune lookout tower, I couldn’t document them.

I remember one Christmas with this special family when I pitched in to buy my brother-in-law Cody his first bb-gun. We shot old soda cans in the backyard with his brothers and showed him how to hold it properly, safely. I remember not too many Christmases later, supervising as he brought down his first California Greyback with an old, single-shot .22. He was so proud of himself. I was pretty darn proud too. This Christmas I listen with amazement as that same little boy now tells his brothers all the weapons he’s qualified to use when he deploys this August. Suddenly it’s his turn to open a present, and he lifts up and out a folded American flag. Jim, his dad, explains that this flag used to belong to his own father, Cody’s grandfather; he was a soldier too. Jim goes on to say the flag was given to Cody’s grandfather by President Reagan. I find myself listening, trying not to show how moved I am when Jim explains that they will fly this flag from the day he deploys until the day he comes home. Cody, who’s been jaunty and distracted all morning, pauses for a moment, and I think he gets it, the significance of all this. Then the moment is gone, the camera that takes moving pictures engages, and it’s time to see what’s in the next box.

That afternoon I knelt in the cold grass of my in-laws front yard and taught my 5-year old son Nathan how to hold and aim his new rubber-band gun properly, safely. It was his favorite present this Christmas, and it’s a gift from his uncle Cody. I carefully loaded the rubber bands for him, one at a time, smiling as he eagerly took the gun from me, laughing and clapping him on the back for the first of many times as his rubber bullets knocked over our thin plastic targets, a handful of stained dominoes, falling on Christmas morning.

CHRISTMAS LIVES! ~ 12/23/09


I have a horrible time letting go of Christmas each year. Funny thing-- as I write this-- THE DAY is still two more earth revolutions away. And yet, already I have begun to feel the effects of post-Christmas melancholy. Don't worry, I'll get over it.

Below is something I wrote a couple years back in the throes of one such dark mood. Oddly enough, when I read it now each Christmas, it always cheers me up. May it be the same for you (in case you're an Eeyore like me). Christmas lives because Jesus lives!

Surrounded By Grace,
Josh

CHRISTMAS LIVES (December, 2006)
I'm standing at a crossroads
Where the world commits its treason
Tossing out an old year's dregs
To brew a different season

It's countdown to another start
It's hunger always famished
But where does Christmas live
I wonder, once it has been banished?

Does Christmas live in TV screens
and split the rent with classics?
Or do the toy stores harbor it
to make their sales dramatic?

Does Christmas live in Christmas trees?
If so they die together...
Or maybe it's within the snow?
They say God's in the weather.

Does Christmas live in comfort foods,
In feasts and pot-luck dinners?
Do we crusade for fullness
as do saints, or empty sinners?

Does Christmas live in hymnbooks
Dozing soft in dusty pews?
Do carols get a second look?
I doubt they're good reviews

Maybe Christmas lives in family?
They fill rooms and shopping carts ~
Does it percolate to children
Who grow up to play our parts?

I ask ~
Does Christmas live
If breathing takes place once a year?
When mothballs guard the cardboard vaults
Which store our Christmas cheer?

Does Christmas live outside the womb
That is the Christmas Season?
And if not is it viable
To preach hope without reason?

No ~
Christmas deals in Life, not death
Hope has a destination
'Fore time's beginning Word had breath
And then it had a nation...

That nation clutched 'seed' to its chest
Preserving words of solace
And in these strands of stubborn faith
God incubated promise.

The Great Magician tipped His hat
The Dealer showed His hand
And wide the eyes of history grew
While gasping grasped His plan

He knew the limits of the law
That rules we'd break was certain
And knew, He did, what prophets saw ~
That hope must be a person.

This person came, the Christmas reason
Son of God above ~
And Son of Man, the Christmas season
Birthed to us in love

He came to live within us
Check the label on the package
The Chief Postmaster mailed Hope thus
To heal our hearts of baggage

And so it is if shun we must
the past in such short order
Let's smuggle Christmas with us
As we cross the New Years border!

THE CEASEFIRE OF HEAVEN ~ 12/18/09

In the story I remember, a fierce conflict rages between two Ace pilot adversaries of the first World War. One of these pilots is Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, the “Bloody Red Baron” of Germany. The other pilot… is Snoopy. The Red Baron has decimated all other pilots in his path, leaving only this one valiant beagle, flying his trusty Sopwith Camel, to endure the deadly aerial onslaught. But at some point in the ensuing… um, dogfight, Baron von Richthofen gains the tactical advantage. Plunging out of nowhere, sun at his back, props screaming, The Red Baron settles his Fokker Dr.I triplane in behind the frantic Snoopy in perfect kill position—only to hesitate at the faint sound of church bells, joyfully announcing the arrival of Christmas day. Forcing Snoopy’s plane to the ground, the suddenly jovial Baron leaps from his plane, claps him on the back and announces “Merry Christmas, my friend!”

Laugh all you like at the absurdity of this story. That won’t make the inspirational and historical event it’s based on go away. No, although the Red Baron was a real and deadly fighter pilot for the German Luftstreitkr√§fte during WWI, he never actually engaged in mortal combat with Charlie Brown’s empathetic canine—sorry to burst your bubble. There was however, during the brutally harsh winter of 1914, a Christmas ceasefire so moving and unusual that books are still being written in an attempt to capture and preserve its power.

According to various eyewitness accounts, the wartime miracle in question took place on Christmas Eve, along the 27-mile stretch of roughly parallel trenches “that began at the edge of the English Channel and continued to the border of Switzerland” (www.eyewitnesstohistory.com). In most places, these trenches were 60-100 yards apart. In other spots, machine gunners and snipers faced-off at a distance of no more than 30 yards. On this day, however, instead of flaming bursts from protruding gun barrels, tiny Christmas trees with lit candles suddenly began to appear along the top of the German trench walls. Later that

day, a chocolate cake was mysteriously delivered to the British lines from the Germans with a note, requesting a ceasefire the following day (Christmas). Frank Richards was a British soldier who experienced this "Christmas Truce". "On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with 'A Merry Christmas' on it,” He writes—“The enemy had stuck up a similar one… Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.” For the rest of that Christmas day and through most of the next, British and German soldiers openly swapped gifts, sang songs about the birth of Christ and played soccer games (they also drank watered down beer). Though it was a Holiday ceasefire never again to be repeated throughout the rest of the war, it remained, for those who experienced it, a moment of peace that would likewise never be forgotten.

Of course, there are many historians that look back on this event with the sour eye of cynicism. I was amazed at the number of demoralizing theories posited for the unusual day of peace—‘both sides were just tired of the trenches,’ ‘they were in a good mood because it stopped raining that day,’ and my personal favorite—‘they were just trying to gain a tactical advantage by looking into each other’s trenches.’ While snippets of these grinchy theories may have been true of some individuals, I believe the soldiers on that day, by and large, laid down their guns because they caught a lingering echo of the angels’ announcement to humble shepherds long ago and grasped a glimpse of the power behind heaven’s ceasefire. So that, at the words “Peace on earth, good will towards men,” Germans and British alike were compelled to emulate towards each other God’s goodwill towards them.

It's understandable that, for the sake of teaching our children Jesus’ example of unselfish love, we rightly repeat His own words each Christmas—“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This is right, good, True, and when it comes to giving to and receiving from one another, there really is a greater blessing in the giving than in the receiving. But what I think ends up happening sometimes is that, in all the frenzied pressure to find enough gifts, ‘the best gift,’ or simply something worthwhile to give to one another during the Christmas season, we neglect to first receive from God. We end up giving ourselves empty and forget to receive ourselves full, of the triumphant announcement—of peace.

Christmas is the announcement of a peace offering from God to all people, a divine treaty born in human flesh, a holy ceasefire initiated by God to end and mend the rebellious conflict raging between His holy standards and humanity’s willful sin that He did not incite. And the design of this announcement, its intent—was that heaven’s offering of peace would be received by humankind and accepted. That’s all God wanted for Christmas.

You know, there were some soldiers during the ceasefire of 1914 that hung back while others scrambled to climb out of the trenches. Some of these who remained behind were too angry. Some were too afraid. Some simply couldn’t trust what seemed too good to be true. And as long as they remained in their trenches, they were still at war. As long as they stayed in their trenches, they missed out on the experience of peace. So here's my question to you; will you acknowledge heaven’s ceasefire this year? Before you worry one more wart onto the face of Christmas because of any giving you still have to do, will you first receive the gift that heaven gave? Because when it comes right down to it, all the secondhand blessings in the world find their source in one truth: It’s more blessed that God gives and you receive. And until you come out from your muddy trench to do so, you’ll remain unable to offer anything to anyone of lasting value this Christmas.

10 Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

14 “ Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!(Luke 2)

For Emmanuel’s sake— un-trench.

Surrounded By Grace,
Josh

THE REAL ST. NICK (Christmas Re-Post) ~ 12/10/09

My mom used to tell us about an uncle that would occasionally visit their family during the holidays and suck the living joy out of their Christmas fun. How? Two words: “Satan Claus.” “Don’t you know,” he would say, “that all you have to do is move two letters and 'Santa' becomes 'Satan?' Satan Claus.

Look, I dislike the bloated commercialism of Christmas as much as the next guy, but I’m sorry, that’s just extreme -- that’s downright “Grinchy.” As Bill (and probably Jesus) would lovingly admonish, “unclench!” I do, however, understand the frustration many Christians feel about the sly coup d’etat that’s taken place over the centuries to displace Jesus as the central Christ-mass theme. The image that comes to mind is the scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where Indiana Jones deftly exchanges the artifact of gold for a bag of worthless sand in the opening scene. Incidentally, the result of that movie switcheroo is a pretty good parallel to what has happened in reality – the pillars that hold up the meaning and purpose and wonder of Christmas have collapsed around us, to the point that even at this most magical of seasons, for many in America, “nothing tastes”—nothing is truly meaningful.

But is Santa really to blame? I don’t think so. “Guns don’t kill people” the saying goes – “People kill people.” In the same way, Santa hasn’t replaced Jesus; people have replaced Jesus with Santa. And honestly, I don’t think Santa is going away. So instead of sticking our heads in the sand and hoping the world will leave us alone, instead of telling our kids that Santa is evil and an abomination and probably the Antichrist too – maybe we can tell our kids about the real, historical, God-fearing man behind the mythology of Santa. Maybe we can tell our kids about “St. Nick.”

WHO WAS ST. NICK?

“The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325 (where we get “The Nicene Creed”).He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church.” -- www.stnicholascenter.org

After the Reformation, celebration of Nicholas as a ‘saint’ “died out in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where he was known as Sinterklaas. Dutch colonists brought the tradition to New Amsterdam (now New York City), and English-speaking Americans adopted him as Santa Claus, who is believed to live at the North Pole and to bring gifts to children at Christmas.” --www.biography.com

Should we allow Santa or “St. Nick” to displace Jesus in our Christian families? No; Jesus needs to be at the center of it all. But when little ones turn conversations to Santa, maybe it’s okay to tell them about his namesake, a man who loved Jesus, lived like Jesus, suffered for Jesus, and was part of a body of Christians that protected some of the most foundational doctrines of our faith through a creed that still speaks for us today. What do you say? I say, Merry Christmas.

Surrounded By Grace,
Josh

WHAT NORTHERN CA IS WAITING FOR...

Love this short video. This is the 'mood' we here in northern CA are all craving as we wait for Christmas. It's what I'm craving, anyway.

The First Snow, Canon 7D from Reid Carrescia on Vimeo.

DECEMBER FORECAST ~ 12/4/09

December is shaping up to be an interesting month, a unique Christmas season to say the least. I knew this immediately when I walked into the Outpost office yesterday morning and discovered that Ivan, the black bear 3/4-mount perched precariously over my desk, had absconded with the office Christmas wreath. His denials were of no help to him as a small twig of bright red holly berries still clung to the fir near the side of his mouth. Traitor.

There are other signs as well. Trusty Dusty, one of several, regular office visitors, informed me that El Nino will shortly be upon us once more. "Snow is coming," he sniffed prophetically. He also told me my coffee smelled bad, that he had thrown a pillow at his water glass during the night, and that he was mildly offended I wasn't displaying the porcelain nativity scene he had given me for Christmas last year. My excuses were of no help to me as a small twig of a smile still clung to the side of my mouth. "Traitor," said his eyes. Ivan snickered behind me.

But seriously, all weirdness aside ~ Christmas is a wonderful time of year, and this year I’m inviting you as part of The Outpost family to celebrate it as a family – a church family. So allow me the chance to give you something; some good news, some fun news, some family news – a “sneak peek” into a couple great December events I hope you will choose to be a part of this Christmas season:

1) The Outpost Christmas Party, next door to Main Street Shoes ~ Friday, Dec. 18th (6-8pm)

Open to the community! Think “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Christmas caroling, lots of good eats, music, a reading of the Christmas story and a chance to enrich friendships within the body of Christ!

2) Christmas ‘Eve-Eve’ event at Neighborhood in Redding ~ Wednesday, Dec. 23rd (6:30pm)

We don’t have to go as a group, but how fun would that be? Depending on your response, I can make arrangements to reserve a big section of seats during the 6:30pm service, so if you can, let me know that you'll be attending. Think “Christmas field trip to ‘the Mother Ship!’”

With all my heart, I hope to see you there; It just won’t be the same Christmas without you!

Surrounded By Grace,
Josh
*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~ 
WE ARE SURROUNDED BY GRACE!