{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

What Role Does the Bible Play in Our Lives?

Bible-Light1What does the Bible mean to you?

I asked this question in a Sunday School setting this past week and we launched into a pretty neat discussion. For starters, we mentioned some of the typical answers: “Scripture is God-breathed,” “The Bible is God’s holy word for God’s people,” “For many the Bible is without errors or contradiction” — you know, the typical Sunday School answers.

It was interesting to ask this in a group setting because we all tend to have our own bias ways of reading the Bible that we pretend aren’t bias at all. We gave space to admit our biases and even laugh at them a little.

Have you ever heard or uttered phrases like, “a plain reading of Scripture” or “a biblical view on marriage, parenting, relationships, sexuality, creation, science, war, etc.? The funny thing is that we can all come up with different and even conflicting answers when we approach the Bible in this kind of way. We all have our ways of twisting and turning the words of Scripture to say or support pretty much whatever we want. And more times that not, we do this in order to strengthen an argument and prove someone else wrong. But we rob the Bible of its enormous richness whenever we use it as a means to attack others or just to prove them wrong. After all, the Bible is not an encyclopedia or dictionary. All of the answers to every question ever asked cannot be found in the back of the book.

Now John Wesley saw the Bible as very authoritative and even the final word of authority. But he was honest enough to admit that we bring so much to the Bible whenever we read it. We cannot divorce ourselves from the traditions we’ve been formed in, the contexts we live in, or the biases we cling to whenever we read the Bible. So Wesley saw tradition, reason, and experience as important authorities with which to engage Scripture as we read and seek to be transformed by the text. Scripture may be the final authority but it is certainly not the only authority.

This is why we find ourselves living in a constant tension between the way(s) we read the Bible, the biases we cannot shake ourselves from, and the challenge to live in such a way that we continually seek to make God’s story our story. So let me offer a couple of ways we can faithfully delve into the Bible in (hopefully) new and exciting ways:

  • Read together — Personal Scripture reading is a great way to use time for devotion. But it is NOT the only way we should read the Bible. Instead of doing the latest, greatest book study on 7 Ways to Live a Happier Life, why not read the Bible together in your small group, house group, accountability group, or Sunday School class. Take turns reading aloud and leave time to stop and ask each other questions. Say out loud when you struggle with what the text might say and see if others share in your struggle.
  • Read slowly — I’m a fan of the read the Bible in a year stuff and I know many who make that a personal practice every year. Great! But maybe there are times when we should slow down our reading and not just plow through it in order to complete it? Maybe we need to spend some extra time with a particular verse, chapter, or book of the Bible? If reading the Bible is to be a transformative experience, then we must allow time for the text to seep down into our bones.
  • Just read — Too often we find that we would rather cherry-pick our favorite passages. And way too often we hear preaching that does the same. Instead of dealing with a chunk of the text in order to get a little depth and context, we prefer to extract whatever verse(s) fit whatever little problem we might have or point we’re trying to make and we neglect the more full reading of the Bible. Stop. Just stop it. Read more than just your favorite parts.

Here’s a question our group got back to that I think is a great question and reveals a lot about us: How do you use the Bible in your life?

How we answer that question will reveal a lot about what we believe about the Bible. We might call it sacred but if we never read it, is it actually that sacred? We might say we believe God speaks through it, but if we’re too busy finding evidence to support our own opinions when we read it, are we giving God a chance to speak? And if we only see it as a weapon to exclude or prove wrong or hurt others, then surely we aren’t being changed by the wonderful mystery of the gospel revealed most fully in Jesus Christ and found within the pages of this amazingly complex and life-giving book.

Prayer for Christmas Eve’s Eve


This will be the final post this Advent season so I wanted to finally share a prayer for the day — Christmas Eve’s Eve.

O come, O come, Emmanuel…

We are a people who live in captivity. We find ourselves captive to sin, whether it’s in the form of bad choices or decisions we make or the power that keeps us from living into the full freedom of life with you. We are lost without you.

We are a people captive to burdens. Loneliness, despair, heartache, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness – these are just a few of the shackles we drag behind us daily. The weight of which grows heavier with each passing day.

We are captive to the ways of this world. We spend our time and energy seeking to consume and help others consume in the hope that somehow a gift — or two, or ten — wrapped in a package with a nice bow on it can somehow be our ultimate source of joy. We confess that we live by the ritual rhythms of the consumer calendar and we forget that as your people, we are called to a different sense of time and space and rhythm. Help us to slow down, consume less, and seek to love and give in more meaningful ways.

O come, O come, Emmanuel and free us from the burdens that hold us captive. Grant that we might live as a people free to joyfully follow you and love one another. May we sift through the empty promises and glitzy, tinsel laced facades of this season in order to truly find you – coming among us in poverty and obscurity as a light that shines in the darkest places in our world. Save us to be a people who live in hopeful and humble expectation for your coming. Grant that we may not be lured into notions of exceptionalism, superiority, or arrogance just because we dare to call ourselves Christian this season. Lead us down the humble road to Bethlehem that we might find you in a manger – cold, fragile, vulnerable, truly human, yet truly God in human flesh.

We pray all of this in the hope of your coming Messiah, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

May your Advent be a time where you find hope in waiting. And may your waiting be met tomorrow and the next day in the coming of God’s own Messiah.

Where Does the Church Fit at Christmas?

St. Edmunds Church Dolton, Devon England

St. Edmunds Church
Dolton, Devon England

I know it sounds like a crazy question, but where does the Church fit into the Christmas season?

On the one hand, we can be the people who get all fired up and crazy whenever people take nativity scenes off of public squares or tell us, “Happy Holidays,” when we’re out shopping. We can commit ourselves to fighting an imaginary “war on Christmas” and seek to snuff out any hints religious diversity during the season (never mind the fact that we do so while also observing pagan rituals like putting trees up in our homes, offices, and churches). We can get our blood pressure up anytime we see someone write “Xmas” instead of Christmas and accuse them of somehow “leaving the Christ out of Christmas” (never mind the fact that X is the Greek reference to how you spell Christ). Yes, we can spend the whole season with a burr in our saddle over the encroaching threat we perceive happening to the spirit and meaning of the season.

On the other hand, we can be the kind of people who gripe about the over-commercialization of the season and how Christmas has successfully swallowed up any notion of Advent and even Thanksgiving. For all we know the mammoth consumer holiday might have Halloween in its sights next. We can complain about how consumerism and secularism has ruined what should be a perfectly solemn season. And we can dig our heels in whenever people tire of singing Advent hymns by the middle of December and start requesting the carols they’ve heard 24 hours a day since November 1st. We can throw Rudolph, the Elf on the Shelf, and even Santa under the bus as we try to usher in the season of Advent and Christmas as the season of peace on earth and goodwill toward others.

But what if there’s a different, less antagonistic place for the Church?

What if instead of complaining, we welcomed the idea of being pushed out of the center of the culture? What if instead of being antagonistic and vowing to wage war on anyone who dares to question the superiority of Christmas, we humbly and faithfully found our place on the margins of the season? You see, when you get pushed out of the center of Main Street in society, you’re able to find those who are also struggling to find their place in this season. While the world is marching toward yet another tinsel-stuffed, holly, jolly exercise in indulgence, the Church could be seeking out the people and circumstances that don’t quite fit into a Norman Rockwell scene. We can look in the dark places that might otherwise go unnoticed this season to find those who long for hope. And we can offer them a story and a witness to the sheer power of what “God with us” truly means.

I will be reminded over these next 7 days that the miracle of the real nativity did not happen on Main Street with fanfare, public displays of affection, or joyful adherence from the culture. It happened in the throes of terrible labor pains and a baby crying at the top of his lungs. It happened in the darkness of the night where some farm animals and peasants were the only witnesses. The religious people might have missed it but those we would call secular didn’t. How could they? Angels chose them to be the recipients of the heavenly news.

I suppose that’s the funny thing about this season — God chooses the most surprising people from the most unexpected places to be a part of the story. While the rest of us wage wars on secularism or religious diversity, God is busy in the dark places calling those who might otherwise go unnoticed to be a part of the miracle. And if we’re smart in the Church, we’ll find ways to be in those dark places too and we’ll quit our fighting with, well, everything. Lord knows we don’t want to miss out on God’s surprising work among us.

O Come, O Come Emmanual: Advent 2013 (Week 1)


Over the coming days and weeks I’ll be sharing liturgy, prayers, and ideas for worship planning during Advent. I will note the source of things I will borrow and what is original. Please note: Anything that is original from me is available to be used and/or adapted without citation. Please do not worry about citing me if you use a piece of liturgy because all of my personal work is to the glory of God and for the benefit of the Church (and I don’t have publishers or copyrights to worry about).

The readings for Advent Week 1 are:

Isaiah 2:1-5

Psalm 122

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

We will be mainly focusing on the Isaiah and Matthew readings throughout the season. This week, Isaiah points to a grand vision — a vision of God’s holy mountain — where nations will all come to be judged. We see images of light and peace give shape to what God’s righteousness looks like. In Matthew’s text, we see a particular event break into  ordinary life. We are told to stay alert because this event will happen at a moment’s notice. God will break into our lives when we least expect it so we must stand watch and be prepared at all times.

We begin the active waiting of Advent by beginning at the end — the culmination of God’s justice and final glory. But this ending helps to prepare us for the agent who will embody this justice and righteousness — Emmanuel.

Below is some liturgy for Sunday, December 1.


On this day we begin the season of Advent in the life of the Church.

This is the time when we gather together

to wait and watch and prepare for the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.

May our worship guide our hearts and orient our lives

that we may truly be prepared for the coming of God’s Messiah.

Let us worship God!


Lighting of the Advent Wreath

Keep awake! Be watchful!

The Son of Man is coming with great power and glory.

He shall judge the nations;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore.

We light the first Advent candle reminding us that God’s promised Messiah

will break into our time and space

to teach us his ways

that we may walk in his paths of righteousness and peace.

May we stay alert for his coming.

               Light the candle

Come, Lord Jesus.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.

Maybe sing a verse or two of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to follow this act.

Opening Prayer

Ever present God,

you taught us that the night is far spent

and the day is at hand.

Grant that we may ever be found watching for the coming of your Son.

Save us from undue love of the world,

give us eyes to look and wait

with patient hope for the day of the Lord,

that when he shall appear, we may not be ashamed;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[United Methodist Book of Worship #254]


Invitation to the Table

Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.

Let us prepare our hearts for his coming by confessing our sins together.


Confession and Pardon

Lord Jesus Christ, you have promised to come again

            as one breaking through the clouds

with great power and glory.

We confess that we get lost in trivial matters.

We do not love our neighbors

because our personal ambitions are more important.

We do not hear the cry of the needy

because we are busy accumulating wealth.

We have become drunk with the pursuit of power

            because we fail to put our trust in your power.

Forgive us, we pray.

Free us that we may have eyes to see your glory,

            ears to hear your voice,

            and lives to devote to the service of your kingdom;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  


Hear the Good News:

Emmanuel, God with us, is coming

that we might live our lives

in the grace that frees us from the bondage of sin.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

Thanks be to God! Amen.


Prayer after Communion

Holy God,

we thank you for this holy mystery

            in which you have given yourself to us.

Grant that we may go into the world

            as a people with eyes to see your presence

            as we serve one another;

through Christ our Lord. Amen.



Go forth now from this place in hopeful anticipation

for the glorious work God is about to do.

Go forth in love that you may serve others.

And may the peace of Christ fill you and empower you

this day and forevermore. Amen.

I hope this helps you a bit in your worship planning. Please feel free to contact me directly with any questions (bgosden@mulberrymethodist.org).

Can Churches Ask Too Much?

stressed family  “Will you be loyal to the church and uphold it with your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness?”

These are the familiar vows of church membership in The United Methodist Church. Whenever you join a United Methodist Church, you affirm these vows of membership stating that you promise to give of yourself to the church in a holistic way.

But what if we expect too much from people? Worse yet, what if we expect the wrong things?

After 3+ years of ministry in a large, historic, urban church I’ve learned a lot not only from people who are faithful and active in the ministries of the local church — I’ve also learned a lot from the people who are no longer active. I’ve heard numerous stories, cautionary tales if you will, from people who were once active and slowly but surely were overworked and became burned out. They were asked to serve on or chair one too many committees. They were guilted into one too many pointless and unproductive meetings. They were pressured to join one too many bible study/community group/prayer group/Sunday School class. And now they’re out of the habit of attending worship regularly — they love the church and want to support it, but the seemingly never-ending work sucked too much life out of them.

Whenever I hear this story I can’t help but wonder — Do we emphasize church work in place of faithful living? When someone joins out church, are we quick to sign them up to serve on a committee or to volunteer for an activity because that’s the only way we know how to define discipleship?

Over the last 50 years, the Church has seen its place in society shift from the central station of life to just another outpost. It used to be you joined a church to make all of your social and business connections and you knew that your kids could be taught how to be decently well behaved and law-abiding people  to boot. You’d hear a sermon on Sunday and you knew the Bible was an important book whether you read it regularly or not.

But things are different now. In most towns or cities of any significant size, a person joining your church will likely have their closest friends in other areas of life. With social media and the Internet, business connections happen in less personal ways and coffee shops and restaurants have become a more casual, non-threatening meeting place to discuss business. Things like sports, scouts, dance, and other edifying activities have become just as central as youth groups and children’s choir. And people’s lives are too busy to locate its central point of existence in any one place.

In other words, people by and large do not consider the church the central station of their lives anymore. Gone are the days when you can say, “So and so is here at the church whenever the doors are open.” Here are the days of, “Well let me check my calendar and get back to you.”

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, people should prioritize their faith more. You can’t be a Christian by yourself and the rise of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” points to a shared belief that somehow you can be a Christian without the help of others. On the other hand, I’m a parent of a toddler and I know how ding dang hard it is to get anywhere. When two parents work full-time jobs the last thing they need is to be told they have to attend one more meeting or take their kid to one more practice. And church can become a life-sucking force like any other activity or commitment in life.

So is it possible to be active in the church and in your faith without being worked to death?

I think it could be.

For starters, pastors need to look long and hard at the committees that function in the local church. Do you really need all of them? Do they need to meet as often as they do? Could more work be accomplished by utilizing technology and not asking people to take 60-90 minutes out of a Tuesday evening to come to a meeting? Or better yet, can churches stop treating committee work and volunteerism as the totality of your discipleship?

Secondly, do we really need to programatize everything? Can we be a part of something without it being a weekly/monthly commitment from now until eternity? Can we be in ministry that is not so programmed and structured? Can the church find an important place in people’s lives without demanding a big chunk of a person’s schedule be devoted to whatever frivolous activity or program is going on in the church building?

Finally, Sunday morning matters a lot. Don’t let Sunday morning be a shallow, humdrum experience of worship and then tell people if they have deeper or more complicated questions, they need to join a weekly study or class. Give Sunday worship some depth. Remember that the purpose of Sunday worship is to glorify God and, in doing so, connect people with God. Life is too complicated for shallow messages and simplistic themes.

“Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” does not mean signing people up for every committee seat and program idea and we should really consider new and alternative ways of helping people grow in their faith. But if you do approach it that way, I’d be willing to bet you might lose as many potential disciples as you “make.”

Debt and Questions About Digital Giving

debt and givingIt seems like everything is moving into the digital world these days. The Internet has quickly become a world unto itself where we can share the highlights of our life, purchase gifts, and do a day’s worth of work all from the comfort of our favorite spot on the couch. Online banking, which was once a little-trusted novelty, has now become the norm for keeping track of purchases and paying bills.

So it only makes sense that the church consider ways to offer digital means for giving. After all, what church could afford to say they’re taking in so much money through traditional measures that they don’t need to worry with this new way of giving?

Insightful articles have been written and even published on this site encouraging churches to make the leap into the digital age when it comes to giving. I strongly encourage an article by Shane Raynor from April 2012 for starters.

I’ll even echo much of what the experts say about giving patterns in the 21st Century: I don’t carry cash; I pay all but two of my bills online (those two bills are local companies who refuse to get into the digital age); and I prefer electronic banking.

If churches want to keep up with the ways people manage their money, then they must consider digital methods for giving.

But this article is not another in the long stream of articles encouraging churches to offer digital giving opportunities. This article is intended to offer some questions we should ask before we implement digital giving as a norm in our churches.

What methods of giving should you encourage when considering digital giving?

Do you offer debit card-only giving or do you allow people to use credit cards as well? This may sound like a no-brainer but it’s much more complex than we might think.

A CNNMoney article says the average American household with at least one credit card has over $15,000 in credit card debt (in 2012). The average interest rate runs in the mid-to-high teens at any given moment. Those are staggering figures. Credit card debt should already carry with it ethical concerns for Christians considering the biblical admonitions against charging interest to debt (see Exod. 22:25 for example).

Debt is real and churches have a theological obligation to not encourage the incurring of more debt. This doesn’t even address the gray area created in giving through credit—is it really giving of ourselves to give money that we don’t have? So if you’re looking to set up digital giving, you should ask some hard questions about the idea of asking people to give via credit cards.

Many churches who offer digital giving only accept debit cards. This is a purposeful decision on the part of churches to say that while digital giving is accepted, not every means of giving is encouraged. Deciding on a “debit only” system is something churches should talk about before encouraging digital giving. It’s not for everyone but it should certainly be a part of the conversation.

What else should you consider when setting up digital giving?

Before you invest in new kiosks and software, you should also consider some other additions to your church life. Namely, plan to offer small group studies about money and debt management. I personally think this is an absolute necessity for churches whether you’re considering digital giving or not. Churches have an obligation to help people live into the wholeness of life God offers, and that wholeness can all too quickly get lost under a mountain of personal debt. Further, if churches want to encourage digital giving as a means of taking in more revenue, then we better offer a wholistic approach to managing money lest we become just another life-draining source of debt.

Some ideas for curriculum to offer include:

Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity by Adam Hamilton

  • The title gives away the premise — in a consumption society, we need to learn when enough is enough. Adam offers some great biblical insight and Wesleyan theological perspective to some very practical material on managing money and growing in generosity.

Financial Peace University

  • This one is very popular in local churches. It’s the Dave Ramsey program and it stresses very practical ways to address issues of debt and financial management.

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate by J. Clif Christopher

  • This book is a great resource for pastors, leaders, and anyone who works with church finances. It addresses the issue of trust between givers and organizations and offers some practical guidance for churches to become better at managing the gifts they receive while also doing a better job of capturing the imagination of the givers.

A friend recently told me, “digital giving is the new frontier for church stewardship and we better wake up to that reality.” And you know what, he’s absolutely right. But let’s boldly discover this new frontier with some caution and integrity. Jesus’ promise for abundant living and the coming of the kingdom means so much more than just taking in bigger weekly offerings.

[This article was originally published on Ministry Matters on Sept. 9, 2013]

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