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

Grace and Second Chances in 2013

New-Year-2013-Celebration-Wallpaper-600x450I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for all of the year-end festivities. Yes, I watch Barbara Walters’ “Most Fascinating People of the Year” with great excitement. I also enjoy reading and watching every “Best Of” collection I can find – you know, the sort of mish-mash collection of remembrances of the previous year and predictions for the year ahead that floods the Internet every December.

New Year’s is just a wonderfully nostalgic time of the year.

There’s a scene in the movie Forrest Gump where Forrest and Lt. Dan are in a bar celebrating on New Year’s Eve watching the ball drop at midnight. One of the ladies with them looks at Forrest and says, “Don’t you just love New Years, it’s like you can just start all over and everyone gets a second chance.”

So what is your “second chance” in the coming year?

Maybe 2012 was a year you’re hoping to forget. My grandmother used to say that if we knew what the coming year had in store, we’d never get out of the bed on New Year’s Day. Maybe this past year was a year marked by struggle or hardship? Maybe it was a year marked by hurt and heartache? Life has a way that when it starts raining it begins to pour before we can even reach for our umbrella. So maybe you’re reading this column in the hopes that 2012 will soon be a distant memory and you can have a second chance in 2013?

I think we need a second chance as a society. 2012 was a year marked by ill-will, anxiety, and down right hatred. Presidential politics has a way of bringing out the absolute worst in us, but I think this election cycle was especially bad. We thrived on conflict fueled by the disinformation of mass media, pundits, and non-stop political commercials. The election is over and we have a government in place until the next cycle. Lord knows we need 2013 to be a year of reconciliation and peace – and that begins with each of us, not politicians.

Maybe 2012 was an amazing year? Maybe it was a year you’re hoping to repeat in 2013? Maybe you had a major life event that made 2012 a year you’ll never forget? Sometimes it’s good to take a few moments in the lull that follows Christmas just to reflect on the previous year. It’s a good and holy thing to sit and remember and be thankful. So I hope you’ll find a moment or two just for that – especially if 2012 was a year marked by joy.

Or maybe 2012 was just another year – nothing too good and nothing too bad? Maybe you’re so caught up in the routine of life you can’t even remember the major events of the year. It’s hard to stop and be thankful when life is moving full-steam ahead. But I do hope you’ll take just a moment to consider the grace that’s found in the seemingly boring and routine parts of life.

The ancient story is told that some disciples were sitting around questioning their elder hoping to gain some insight into the meaning of life.

“Where shall I find God in life?” the disciples ask the elder.

“God is with you everywhere,” the wise elder replied.

“But if that is true,” the disciples asked, “Why can I not see this presence of God?”

“Because,” said the elder, “you are like the fish who, when in the ocean, never notice the water.”

No matter what your 2012 was made up of – good, bad, or in-between – I hope you’ll remember that the God who was with you over the previous year has been with you since the very beginning of your life. And that same God is with you today and will be with you in the days ahead, no matter what. Thanks be to God and Happy New Year!

[This column originally appeared in the Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013 issue of Macon Magazine]

Christmas Eve Liturgy

christmascandle

Well it’s that time of year for pastors. Somewhere in the chaos of parties and special events you have to find time to plan multiple worship services. With Christmas Eve on a Monday this year it makes for a lot of printing to be done this week. For those who are still looking for liturgy for Christmas Eve, I wanted to share some liturgy we’ll be using in our Christmas Eve service this year at Mulberry.

Opening Prayer

O God our Father, you have brought us again to the glad season when we celebrate the birth of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant that his Spirit may be born anew in our hearts this day and that we may joyfully welcome him to reign over us. Open our ears that we may hear again the angelic chorus of old. Open our lips that we, too, may sing with uplifted hearts. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward all; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lighting of the Christ Candle

Good news, you who are weary and heavy burdened! Sing for great joy, you who are tired and shackled with pain! For the Lord, our Redeemer, has come!

            Light the Christ Candle

We light the Christ candle as a sign to the world that today, in the City of David, a Savior is born, who is Christ the Lord. We no longer have to fear the darkness for our Light has come. That light that enlightens all people has broken into our world. And the world will never be the same again.

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

Invitation to the Table

Christ our Lord invites all – all who wait for the coming of Emmanuel with hopeful expectation; all who repent of their sin; all who long for peace on earth. Let that peace begin with us as we confess our sins together.

Confession and Assurance of Pardon

When we allow darkness to overcome the light,

        forgive us, Lord.

When we reduce Christmas to plastic and tinsel,

        have mercy on us, Father.

When hardness of heart keeps us from seeing

        and hearing and touching the needs of others,

        let your grace consume us, O God.

When the wars around us are of no concern,

        forgive us, Lord, and move us to compassion

        for those who suffer.

When our caring is not extended to action,

       move us to seek justice for our brothers and sisters.

We come to confess our sinfulness

      before you and before each other.

Remove all barriers that divide us,

      and let there be no obstacle to our love for you

      and for one another. Amen.

            All pray in silence.

People of God, through the coming of Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate, the Lord has comforted and redeemed us!

Recall the words of the angels: Good news…Great joy…All people…

In Christ we receive the salvation of our God. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Glory to God in the highest!

Benediction

May the peace of Christ be with you all both this night and forevermore.

Alleluia! Amen.

Here’s an interesting piece we’ll be using this year. If your church is one where you can read poetry as a part of the service this is a wonderful poem to use (it’s also good if you can’t do poetry as part of the service but would like to use it in a Christmas Eve message)

“Hush”

By Lucinda Hynett

Sssh.
Can you hear it?
An expectant silence,
a hushed anticipation,
as if the very galaxy
is holding its breath.
There are some truths
even the stars know,
like darkness,
like loneliness
and how the night
can be a living thing.
And how once, long ago,
the night waited in wonder
along with the darkness
and the loneliness,
for the sound of a baby’s cry,
for the miraculous
to come down
to the earth mundane.

When Violence Strikes And There’s Nowhere to Turn

Advent

My house is quiet right now. I put my daughter down for bed about 90 minutes ago. It occurs to me that there are homes in Connecticut tonight that are not as quiet as mine. Those homes are filled with tears and the cries of moms and dads who will never again be able to say they “put their kids to be about 90 minutes ago.”

For the last 8 hours or so I’ve been captivated by the reports coming out of Newtown, CT. A lone gunman entered an elementary school today and killed 20 kids and 6 adults (at least that’s what the most recent updates report). I’ve watched the still pictures of parents racing through police baracades to locate their kids. I’ve seen news reporters pause due to a lump in their throat at the very mention of kindergartners being among the slain. I’ve watched the President of the United States wipe tears away during a news conference because simply reading the words of today’s events would bring most anyone to tears. All of this — the chaos, the evil, the lack of meaning, and reason — can leave you feeling lost.

I suppose it’s natural that we search for answers: Was he mentally ill? Did he have a motive? Who owned the guns used for this massacre?

It’s also normal to plot a proper response: Write your congressman and tell them you want stricter gun laws! We need more security in our schools! Someone needs to champion better healthcare for the mentally ill!

If Advent teaches us anything, it’s that One is promised to us who will bring salvation to the world. And if this tragic event teaches us anything, it’s that we are NOT the authors of our own salvation. It’s hard to admit that we cannot save ourselves no matter how hard we try. 

Frankly we need to begin the tough discussion about guns and violence in our society. We need to find ways to talk about these things outside of partisan politics. We need to have a cultural debate about the place of violence in our society when it’s becoming commonplace for people to solve their problems through violent means. We also need to talk about caring for the mentally ill among us. And we need to talk about law and order and securing those who are most vulnerable among us — like children. These are all very important debates to be had.

I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned these debates can take place first thing tomorrow.

Today families are hurting because their babies didn’t come home from school. Today children are without parents and spouses are left without partners. Today a nation is crying out for salvation from the evil that is all too real among us. The time for abstract discussion about policies can wait until tomorrow. Today God is busy weeping with us. Our congressmen and senators cannot save us. President Obama cannot save us. Only God can save us — and we have to come to terms with that.

If this season of Advent means anything, it means we are preparing for the coming of a Messiah — one who will save us — in the form of a helpless and vulnerable baby. And that baby is to be found lying in a manger. Or maybe nursing at the loving bosom of his mother. This mother will tenderly hold that baby not knowing that one day she will also lose him to the violence of this world. And we cannot explain the mystery of why this event is so beautiful, but it just is. Maybe it’s because if violence, tears, and heartache are to be defeated, then they will be defeated by One who knows all too well the consequences of such evil realities.

In the meantime, we grieve with those who are grieving this day. And in our grief we sing the words of the carol when it says says: And in despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We need you more now than ever. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Hope in the Darkness: An Advent Reflection for Those Struggling With the Holiday Season

Sometimes life just hurts. I wish there were a more delicate way to say that. I wish there were a clever way to explain this fact away – maybe some whimsical cliché that we can all have a chuckle over? But I’ve got nothing. The truth is there are days when the burdens of life can weigh on us so heavy that we’re not sure how we’ll lift it, much less carry it around.

Around the middle of December it can be easy to be swept up in the holly, jolly tide of Christmas cheer. If life has dealt you a good hand, it’s a quite enjoyable time of the year. But if life has dealt you a bad hand, then that tide of Christmas joy can feel like it’s drowning you.

What are we to do as faithful Christians?

 For starters, we can call to mind that Advent is a season for people who are in darkness waiting for the sort of light that will save them. You can’t commercialize or turn a profit on this sort of thing. Living in darkness and waiting for a great light isn’t very easy to market either. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to forget (or avoid) this reality when we’re rushing through the season’s numerous to-do lists.

Author Taylor Caldwell writes, “I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.”

This season is still the time God chooses to bring the world’s greatest hope into the very darkness of life that can seemingly weigh us down every day. There is, indeed, hope for those who live in darkness. May we stand in solidarity with those for whom darkness is an all too familiar reality this season. And may we all experience the Light of hope together. Amen.

Liturgy for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (2 directions)

[Just a quick note of apology: We had our big music Sunday on the 2nd Sunday of Advent and I didn't do any original liturgy because the music was the bulk of our service. Sorry about that!]

To make up for that mistake, I want to offer 2 possible liturgical routes for this coming Sunday with a little rationale.

On the 2nd Sunday of Advent we were offered two choices from Luke’s gospel. One was introducing John the Baptist and his role as the “voice crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord.” The second choice was from Luke 1:68-79 — the Canticle of Zechariah. If you chose the Luke 3 John the Baptist text, I think you have an interesting opportunity this week in worship.

Is Advent a Season for Lament?

A growing trend is churches who observe a Service of the Longest Night around the date of the Winter Solstice. The Christmas season can be a tough time for lots of people. The previous year could have been wrought with loss and heartache. So the holiday season only reminds them of that loss when placed in context with the joy of the season. It’s vitally important that churches remember how important pastoral care is in Advent because it can be all too easy to get caught up in Christmas parties, traditions, and celebrations.

I think worship is a perfect place to bring the baggage of a tough year. If we Christians want to be faithful, then we must remember we are a people formed by good times and bad times. It’s a holy act to allow people time and space to grieve and mourn at the holidays.

So what if the 3rd Sunday of Advent were a Sunday to highlight these needs for pastoral care?

My friend, Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards makes a great case for why we should not create a new service to address pastoral care needs during the holidays when the season of Advent makes room for this in our regular Sunday morning worship time. Read his article here

Here’s my 2 cents worth on why the 3rd Sunday of Advent is a great time to address these needs:

The 4th Sunday of Advent is the day before Christmas Eve and if you’re like us, that will be the Sunday when people decide they can no longer stand Advent hymns and insist on a carol or two. Maybe that’s the Sunday where other Christmas traditions become front and center as well. Like it or not, December 23rd is close enough to Christmas that Advent will probably be a fading memory for many on that day.

The 3rd Sunday of Advent, Dec. 16, is far enough away from Christmas that Advent is still a reality. It’s also far enough into the season that early pomp and circumstance can give way to a much-needed change in tone.

So without further adieu, below is some liturgy and hymn selections for a Sunday worship service geared around themes of light/darkness as well as care/hope in the midst of despair:

Advent Wreath Liturgy

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming Messiah. When darkness surrounds us, we are reminded that God’s Messiah is the Light of the world. This Light is the light of hope, and darkness does not overcome it. We light the third Advent candle in preparation for the coming of God’s Messiah. We stand in solidarity with those for whom this is a difficult season. And we boldly proclaim that salvation for all is at hand.

               Light the candle

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

Opening Prayer

Holy God, we gather with expectation and hope as we approach the advent of your Son, Jesus of Nazareth, whose coming was foretold by prophets of old. Grant that through the singing of your praise, and hearing of your Word, we may be prepared for another encounter with the Living Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

[from "Prayers for the Seasons of God's People Year C" p. 16]

Litany For Those In Need This Season

O God, we come to you in prayer this day:

For all who have a song they cannot sing,

For all who have a burden they cannot bear,

For all who live in chains they cannot break,

For all who wander homeless and cannot return,

For those who are sick, and for those who supply care to them,

For those who wait for loved ones, and wait in vain,

For those who live in hunger, and for those who will not share their bread,

For those who are misunderstood, and for those who misunderstand,

For those whose words of love are locked within their hearts, and for those who yearn to hear those words.

Show us the Way, O God, for we your people walk in darkness. Amen.

Suggested Additional Items:

Canticle of Light and Darkness (UMH #205)

Hymn No. 218 “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”   **sing verse 3**

Hymn No. 211 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”   **sing verses 1, 5, 6, and 7**

Hymn No. 209 “Blessed Be the God of Israel”

 

If you do not want to go this route, I suggest the following pieces of liturgy keeping with the lectionary for the 3rd Sunday of Advent:

Advent Wreath Liturgy

The prophet reminds us that we are to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
The Messiah is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire
and all flesh shall see his glory.

We light the third Advent candle in preparation
for the coming of God’s Messiah.
We prepare by repenting of our sins,
and living lives devoted to loving God and serving our neighbor.

                Light the candle.

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

Opening Prayer

             **same as above**

Prayer of Confession/Assurance of Pardon

   **Use UMH #366 as a unison prayer of confession**

Hear the Good News: Our Advent hope is that God’s Messiah will come to baptize us with fire and the Holy Spirit. By the power of God, we will bear fruits of transformation. All of this proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Liturgy for the 1st Sunday of Advent

This Advent I’ve decided to post our seasonal prayers and  liturgy on a weekly basis. It’s a special time of the year and liturgy plays a very important part in making the season meaningful. So I’ll be posting our weekly liturgy and readers can feel free to borrow and/or edit as you please. I will note where I have borrowed prayers. If there is not a note of citation, you can assume it’s mine and feel free to use it in your context. When I write liturgy, I do so for the Church — so feel free not to cite me as an author. The important part is to make this liturgy contextually appropriate so that it may add the meaning of this very special season of the Christian year.

First Sunday of Advent

Lectionary Readings:

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Lighting of the Advent Wreath

Keep awake! Be watchful! The Son of Man is coming with great power and glory. Hold your heads high, for your salvation is near.

We light the first Advent candle reminding us how God’s promised Messiah will break into our time and space to show us the way of salvation. 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.

 

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)

 

Invtitation to Holy Communion

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 hide our heads in trivial matters. We do not love our neighbors because our 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 liberating gospel, and lives to devote to the service of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

            Silence

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.

Sabermetrics: If It’s Worth Counting in the Church, It’s Worth Counting Right

There’s a growing discussion in the church these days over whether or not we should use statistics as a tool to evaluate ministry. One side says “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth counting” (to paraphrase Will Willimon) while the other side argues that we should prioritize the subjective over the objective — after all, how can you measure spiritual transformation.

Honestly, I can sympathize with both sides of the debate. Statistical data does help monitor health whether it’s taking one’s blood pressure or measuring the bottom line of an organization. Numbers may not give a complete story, but they can give indicators that help tell a larger story. On the other hand, numbers fail to tell certain parts of a story. My blood pressure say nothing about my personal character. Likewise, bottom-line numbers like profit margin say very little about overall working conditions and employee morale. We have to admit that while numbers do help us evaluate, they cannot be the sole tool for evaluation.

All of this begs the question: If we are moving to a culture where numbers are used more, can we figure out a way to use the right numbers in the right ways? In other words, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth counting — and if it’s worth counting, it’s worth counting right.

How Could We Count the Right Things the Right Way?

Sabermetrics is a new phenomenon in Major League Baseball. If you’re not a baseball fan, maybe you’ve seen the movie Moneyball with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill? That movie was the story of how the Oakland A’s used sabermetrics to field a playoff quality team full of relatively unknown players. The basic premise of sabermetrics says we can make better evaluations through the use of objective data. What makes sabermetrics unique is its use of complex formulas that offer a more complete composite report. For example, WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. This is an example of how sabermetrics thrives on using more than one metric at a time to make an evaluation.

So what does this have to do with the church?

What if we could create a sabermetrics system to aid in evaluating churches and clergy? 

The complaint over the current proposed set of metrics annual conferences and denominational leaders are using is that it’s too simplistic and doesn’t give a thorough enough analysis. I would agree. New members added cannot tell the whole story of growth in a congregation. Further, membership says very little about discipleship because membership and discipleship are often two very different tasks.

But what if we could employ a formula that could track new members for 3, 5, or even 10 years as they get plugged into the life of a local congregation? What if there was a composite formula for scoring local congregations on adding people to meaningful ministries after they join in membership? 

How could we measure missional activity? Is there a way to use the numbers provided in charge conference reports in such way as to score the overall missional activity of a congregation? Could baptisms play into the missional activity of a congregation instead of just growth numbers?

Could small groups be divided based on content so bible studies and practical theology affect different areas of analysis? What about Sunday School? How would long-term studies like Disciple be scored with multiple short-term studies?

How could average worship attendance be viewed as something more than just a means to track how many butts are in seats every Sunday?

The Big Question: How would these numbers be used?

In his book, The Sabermetric Manifesto, David Grabiner writes:

Bill James defined sabermetrics as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” Thus, sabermetrics attempts to answer objective questions about baseball, such as “which player on the Red Sox contributed the most to the team’s offense?” or “How many home runs will Ken Griffey hit next year?” It cannot deal with the subjective judgments which are also important to the game, such as “Who is your favorite player?” or “That was a great game.”

Therefore, sabermetrics cannot be expected to give subjective analysis. It is a means to put objective data up against a subjective story in the hopes of giving a more full narrative account. Obviously disciples of Jesus Christ cannot be mass-produced which is why sabermetrics could offer a more faithful way of monitoring growth and progress that is slow and very detailed in nature.

But what if sabermetrics can aid Bishops and Cabinets in appointment-making. Instead of using salary and tenure as the primary drivers for making appointments, what if complex data was available so that clergy strengths and church needs could be better matched up? How would our culture of salaries and entitlement need to change to allow this to happen?

Could sabermetrics offer a means to address missional concerns in appointment making? How would Bishops and Cabinets need to work with local churches so as to make room for longer pastoral appointments if that means missional needs are being met?

Likewise, could sabermetrics offer a more objective approach at defining ineffectiveness that takes into account a variety of concerns and does not favor unfair data like number of new members, avg. worship attendance, etc.? If sabermetrics could tell a more full story of ministry, surely it can also track ineffective ministry in a way that is less biased and more faithful to the overall health of the church.

I don’t know the answer to many of these questions — they’re above my pay grade and experience level. However I do think we should be asking tougher questions. If we’re in fact moving to a culture of more counting, then let’s count the right things the right way and use the data in a faithful way for the betterment of the Church and God’s mission.

Otherwise, we’re just creating ways to prop up a dying institution. Who wants to get excited about that?

What are your thoughts? Is there hope for using data in a healthy way that better tells the full story of ministry? 

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