Ground Pine and Hope

ground pineOnce a year my Mom would send my Dad and my brothers and I out in the woods in search of ground pine. It was almost always in November and through the years, Dad became so used to the different areas where it grew that it was less searching for ground pine as it was picking it up from the woods. This interesting little plant – or weed, some would say – was a needed ingredient in our annual Advent Wreath creation in the Sears home.

I remember several wreaths. There was one that was made out of an old piece of a stump. There was one created in Cub Scouts with acorns arranged as candle holders. There was one that was made of metal one year, but that one didn’t last. I don’t think any of us liked it.

It was the tradition in the home of my youth together on the Sunday evenings of Advent to light our candle for that week, read Scripture and pray together as a family. Most of the time, I must admit, I was just praying that we would be done in time for us to watch “The Wonderful World of Disney.” And yet, despite the lack of attention that I gave to the whole ritual, something about it stuck with me.

Maybe it was the fresh smell of the ground pine. (I don’t think I mentioned that we would pick enough of this stuff so that mom could keep some “wet” and change it out each week.) Perhaps it was the flicker of the flame on the candles. It might even have been the way that my two brothers and I would fight with one another over the right to light the candles or better yet to blow them out and let the hot wax “accidentally” drip into our hands as we did so.

Something stuck about Advent because this is the time of the year when I become my most hopeful.

I look at the headlines of a burning city in Missouri. I realize that I will never see the world, never understand power, never truly grasp what justice means to someone of a different race than my own. I watch our nation grapple with figuring out how to handle such things and I hear so many voices crying out “doom”. But not me. I remember the evergreen of Advent and know that somewhere in the presence of Jesus there is hope.

I look at the area I live in – Southern West Virginia – and I listen to so many people talk about how we are losing everything because Coal is no long King. I wish I could buy into that message and join the war against the war against coal. But I don’t. This time of year, I see the evergreen and I can’t help but think that there is a greater King than Coal. Sure, he was born in a stable. He was one of the poor. But maybe why that is why we should hold him as our King even more. He truly is one of us.

I look at mainline churches and notice the struggle that so many are having. Some are fighting within about beliefs and doctrines. Others are the ever present worship war. Some are watching their average attendance plummet because members do not commit themselves to attending as often. Some of them, like the church I serve, are watching budget shortfalls eat away at the hope people have for continuing to do the ministry we already have and the flame of any new idea for ministry and mission.

But folks…to me…this season of Advent is the greatest season of Hope that I know.

I believe we will find some way to balance justice and power in a world that has for so long ignored the voices of minorities.

I believe the King will show us a new way to power our economy in Southern West Virginia.

And I believe that church’s will find peace, they will grow committed disciples, and they will even find people who can give the money needed to grow ministry into the next year.

It’s Advent folks…and I am full of hope.

Perhaps it time to go ground pine hunting!!

Sarah’s Story

By Scott Sears

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:7b NIV)

Sarah sat in the dust and dirt that had collected in the front room of her family home drawing with her fingers in the dirt.  At times, when she didn’t like the way a picture looked, she would rub it out of existence with her heel.

“How much longer, Daddy?” she said to one of the two men standing near the doorway.  The boredom in her voice was both evident and intentional.

“Not long, little Sar,” her father said.  “Not long at all.  Keep quiet or you can go and help your mother in the kitchen.”  Sarah frowned and went back to her drawing.

Sarah had seen people coming and going for most of the past week.  Some stayed as they proved to her father and mother that they were indeed relatives.  “Some are so distantly related they might as well be Gentiles,” her mother said more than once.  Some stayed even if they weren’t related.

Many of these strangers brought food or other items to share with Sarah’s family.  That was good.  Bread, salted fish and even the rare sweet were shared among the lodgers and the family.  Some of the travelers had nothing to share and relied totally upon her family’s ability to provide.  Sarah’s father gained more energy with each new visitor, each new person lodging in their home.

Her mother, however, was tired.  Sarah saw it in her eyes. And Sarah could definitely hear it in her mother’s voice.  She also saw it in the way her mother held her stomach where Sarah’s new baby brother or sister was growing each day.  It wouldn’t be long now.  And Sarah so hoped for a little brother around the house.

Yes, Sarah enjoyed the treats she got at times and had even found herself entertained by some of the stories the travelers told, but for the most part she was bored and Sarah could tell that many of the travelers were bored with her as well.

She thought about going in and lying down on her parents mat in their room.  She knew she would be sleeping there again tonight.  Between her father’s exhausted snores waking her, and her mother’s ever growing belly taking up space on the mat, Sarah had found it was better to go to sleep early.  But Sarah really wanted to wait and see what strangers would be sharing their home this night.

Bored or not, she listened and continued to play in the dirt on the floor.  She made a star, which she kept, a bird which she erased and several very passable sheep.

“It’s only me.  Just one person!  That is all, my cousin.  I brought my own mat and I have food for myself.  I just need a place to shelter after my journey.  Even a corner in this room would be a palace compared to sleeping on the streets.”

Sarah’s father shook his head, “I hate offering such meager lodgings to my kin.  Have you checked with everyone else?”

“Every one.  No one has any room nearly as nice as your floor.”

Sarah stopped her drawing long enough to look at the floor and wondered if these works of art were what made this cold, hard floor seem nice to the stranger.  It was a floor to her.  It was a very boring place to be.  She certainly didn’t yearn for the floor like the traveler and she thought the crowded mat with her parents a much more comfortable place.

“Look!  I even have a gift to offer.”

Sarah looked up again at this possibility and saw the man reach outside the door and bring in a small, sad looking table.  Yes, it had four legs like a table should but when he sat it on the floor it wobbled back and forth.  The top of the table was not solid but had five pieces of old weathered wood across it giving it some use, although Sarah couldn’t imagine what.

“There, there, my kinsman,” her father said, “gifts are not necessary.  My home is always open to those who need a place.  I could not bear to have you part with any possession for the lousy accommodation of a corner in my front room.”

“You will let me stay, then!” the stranger laughed as he said it.  He kissed her father on both cheeks and worked his way into the room before her father could object again.  He set down his bedroll and the meager belongings he had with him and immediately knelt in prayer.

Her father shook his head and sighed and laughed.  He looked to the ceiling and said, “Hospitality.  Addonai, I bring these people into my home because you have blessed me with it.  May we all be a blessing to one another.”

Sarah watched as her father moved towards the door to close it for the night.  Her room, the roof and now the very front room were all filled with people.  She was certain there would be no more strangers this night.  Yet, as he removed the table from the path of the door, another stranger appeared.

Her father paused just long enough to make out the man’s face.  “Joseph?  Joseph of Nazareth?  I believe I recognize the face of my sister’s son.”

“It is I,” the new stranger replied, “and I have my wife, Mary, with me as well.  She is, well, with child and it is very close to her time.”

Frowning, her father sat the table down in front of the window and patted Sarah on the head.  “You: my little Sar.  I think we might make this a stool for you to look out the window and keep an eye out for more travelers.  Perhaps you can say we are full before they darken the door.  If they think a little one has taken residence in a window, they may well believe!”

Sarah wasted no time in climbing up on the table, listening to the boards creek as she did so.  She then hoisted herself into the window.  Though it was late and dark, she could see from the lights of many lamps in neighboring houses that her town of Bethlehem was bustling with activity.  For a moment, her boredom was gone.  She even noticed the young woman belonging with this new stranger standing in the shadows. Even at her young age of six, Sarah knew that Mary was closer to having her baby than Sarah’s mother.  She certainly did not want to share a mat with that woman!  But Sarah knew she needed some lodging.  She must have shelter.

“Joseph, I am so very sorry my kinsman.  My house is yours, but there is simply no place for the two of you.  My last spot on the floor has been taken.  I am so very sorry.”  Sarah’s father said with sadness.

“I see,” said Joseph.  “The peace of the Lord be with you.” And he bowed to leave.

Sarah wanted to tell her father about the very pregnant woman waiting outside.  She knew she wanted to do this even as she watched her father begin to close the door on Joseph and his wife.

But she never uttered any words to her father.  She jumped from the window ledge to the table and then all kinds of other sounds muffled the words.  Either the sound of the center board of the table breaking, or the sound of her own cries, or her father shouting her name as she fell to the floor drowned out even the thought of what she wanted to say.

Her father was there before she hit the ground and Joseph was right there beside him.  Both of them look at her, alarm on their faces and both sets of eyes scanned her from head to toe as if they were looking for some unknowable lost item.

“Your table!” Sarah said between tears.  “I broke your table!”

She buried her face in her father’s beard and her father patted her back and said, “Now, now little Sar.  Let’s be sure nothing important is broken – like you!”

Sarah’s cries died down as her father held her tighter and she was convinced that the most damaged item was the table.  She did notice the feeling of scrapes on her legs and she was aware of little pricks of pain as if something had stung her.

“A few scratches and splinters is all,” Joseph said to her father.  “If she will keep holding still while you hold her I will have the rest of them out before she knows.”

Sarah looked down toward her legs and saw that Joseph had two tiny splinters of wood on the tip of a calloused finger, while his other hand moved toward her leg.  She wanted to flinch but Joseph’s hands were quick and talented.  With caresses more than with tugging and pulling, he removed the rest of the stinging splinters even as Sarah’s tears dried in her father’s beard.

“Brave little girl you have there,” said Joseph.

“Yes.  Yes.  That’s my brave little Sar.”

“But Daddy…your table.”

“It is nothing, little one.” He said to her as he placed her on the floor.

Joseph had already moved to the remaining pieces of wood that had once been a table and began sorting them out on the floor.  The stranger who brought the table had stopped his prayer and come over to examine the damage as well and said, “It really was just cobbled together from old wood from a neighbor’s stable.  I am so very sorry of its terrible workmanship.”

“That too, is nothing,” said Sarah’s father.  “The gift was offered and received as a treasure.  We are sorry it did not last us longer.  We will remember the spirit of the giver nonetheless.”

“Old stable wood, you say?” asked Joseph.

“Yes.  It is from my neighbor’s home,” the lodger said.

Joseph pulled from his belt a little hammer and asked Sarah to come and be his helper.  He removed the nails even quicker than the splinters.  He had her hold two of the legs of the table together in an “X” on the floor.  Each set of legs was fastened together in this fashion and Joseph asked Sarah to stand them up and hold them apart from one another.  Joseph attached the slats that were the top of the table to the inner parts of each frame with the nails he had removed and a couple more that appeared from behind Sarah’s ears with a giggle.  He told Sarah to let go.

“Not perfect,” said Joseph, “but if you know anyone with a stable this old wood might make a good feeding trough, now.”

“The stable!” Sarah’s father exclaimed.  “I forgot about the stable.  Joseph…it is so very little for me to offer given your exceeding kindness, but we do have a stable that could be shelter of sorts.  And my wife has had one little one, should your Mary have need of her.  I know it is so little to offer, but, please accept what little hospitality I have left.”

“It is nothing,” remarked Joseph with a grin, “and it is everything.  We will accept what God has provided.  Thank-you, my kinsman.  And thank-you, little Sarah, for being such a fine helper.  Would you like to show Mary and me to our room?”

“Yes.” Sarah said.  And she was out the door to show Joseph and Mary their stable.  She proudly carried the manger she helped make.  She thought of how her accident had let to the manger’s creation.  She was in awe of Joseph’s hands which now held onto his wife as the traveled slowly to the stable.

She only went out to that stable one time while Mary and Joseph stayed there.  Sarah snuck out of the house early to see the family a couple of mornings after her mother had gone out in the middle of the night.  She had gone to assist Mary in the delivery of her first born son.  Mary was now asleep and so was the little baby boy.  Joseph, however, was up whittling something out of some wood he found somewhere.

“A fine bed you made, my little one.  A fine bed indeed.  Fit for a king, I would say,” Joseph said with a smile.  Sarah looked at the baby, the shattered table that became his bed and she joined Joseph in that smile.

manger

*Sarah did not see them or many of the other stranger leave.  In those very busy days, her mother’s time also came and while her mother was busy caring for her new baby brother, chores and cleaning kept Sarah more than busy.

The very next time she was in the stable was a time very near her own little brother’s second birthday.  It was also just a few days after her brother had been taken and killed by soldiers.  Sarah went to the stable this time for some time away from her mother’s cries and to find a place to shed a few tears of her own.  She found herself kneeling by the manger and holding its side only long enough to get a splinter in each palm.

She cried.  She thought of her little brother.  She imagined him now “resting with Abraham” as the grown-ups had told her.  She thought of all the other families in Bethlehem that were hurting.  She knelt by the manger and thought of the sleeping baby she had seen there and hoped and even prayed that the Lord would spare Joseph and Mary from the hurt she and her family were feeling.

After a while, when the tears were gone, she wiped her face with her hands.  She glanced down and saw that the splinters that had pierced her palms were now gone.  Somehow, she knew in that moment that the baby who used this bed was okay.  For now.  For now, he was just fine in the hands of Joseph and Mary.

Sarah walked back to her home, a place so quiet compared to those days two years before when they were overrun with strangers, but a place now filled with tears and wailing.  Sarah walked into her mother’s room and lay down beside her.  She placed her palms upon her mother’s cheeks and wiped the tears away with her own healed hands.  She whispered to her mother that the Lord would not let her cry forever.

And she didn’t.

© 2013 Scott Sears

* The following paragraphs were not included in a Christmas Eve reading of this story.

“Torn” – A Book Review

It is not very often that I come across a book that I feel compelled to both recommend and talk about, however, “Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gay v. Christian Debate” is one of those books.

I wrote my review on Goodreads…You are free to read it there if you so desire or just read it below.

I encourage your comments about the book and the topic, but please know that I will be moderating them to make sure they maintain a level of “love for neighbor” that comes close to Jesus’ love for us.

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians DebateTorn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are very few books on “current” theological debates that I have read in the last decade that have the power that this particular book brings. I truly believe that this one is a “world” changer.

Justin Lee enters into the fray of the most fractious debate among Christians from a narrative standpoint – his narrative. He openly shares his story, his struggles and his ultimate quiet triumph.

I do not believe Lee set out with an agenda in telling this story any more than he set out in life to be the person that he became. Therein lies the power of this book. He shares. He simply shares his story. The reader can respond but will have a very difficult time dismissing what Lee has to say. He is a person who has wrestled with his faith, his church and his Bible and came out of the struggle still able to love and be loved by God, still be in touch with a community of believers and above all else love those around him who will no doubt disagree with him and use that disagreement to fuel the fires of this debate.

As a United Methodist Elder, I know what my limits are and will uphold them based on our Book of Discipline, however, I do believe that this writer has brought us new light to shed upon the debate. The greatest part of that light I would paraphrase by saying, “Stop fighting and start loving one another as Jesus loves you.” It is an incredibly simple sentence but given the “heat” of the Gay v. Christian debate, it will be a very difficult task to carry out. Interestingly enough, this “light” does not, as far as I can tell, go against anything in our Discipline whatsoever.

If there is any one book I would recommend my friends to read…it is this one. Enjoy!

View all my reviews

A Week for Children…Wednesday (Another Prayer)

Okay…after yesterday’s LENGTHY and hopefully thought and action provoking post, I thought I would tame it down it a little bit again.

I first heard this prayer, written by Ina Hughes, shortly after one of the many school shootings that have plagued our country.  I have used it as a personal prayer, a blessing prayer for children in congregations and as a worship prayer.

This video does a pretty good job of capturing the spirit of the prayer, although with this particular prayer, I am happy with just the text.

Enjoy!

Home Away from Homes…

I am an avid reader.  If you have any doubts, check out my book list on Goodreads.  (One of these days I am actually going to scan in all the books in my library, go through my Kindle and list every book but the list their now shows that I just love to read.

My Newest Book

just waiting to be read!!

Today I got a new book.  Haven’t even had time to “break it in yet” but did take the time to make sure it is going on my “First Edition” shelf, probably right beside Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

I think that one of the main reasons that I like to read is that a good book will carry me someplace other than the place that I am in right at the moment.  Rowling’s books on Harry Potter did just that.  King’s “The Stand” is one that I re-read quite often because it can take my imagination places I can never get to on my own.

For me, reading is part of the creative process.  It helps me be creative in ministry but more importantly, it helps me be creative in life.

Sometime over the weekend…I don’t know when exactly…but sometime, this little gem will get in my hands and begin to carry me somewhere else.

But I know…it won’t be far from home.

PS – One of the readers of this blog sent me this picture.  LOVE it!!