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

New Year’s Resolutions…2014 edition

year-2014-tags It’s a new year. We’ve come through the season of Advent. We’ve celebrated the coming of the Christ child in the manger. We’ve thrown away our old calendars and hung new empty ones showcasing a year full of promise. So how are you going to fill that new, empty calendar? Better yet, how are you different in this new year? I’m not a huge fan of making New Year’s resolutions. I confess that it’s largely due to the fact that I have a hard time keeping the resolutions I make. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not a big fan of enduring a self-defeating process every year.

But I thought I’d give it another shot this year to see what happens. After all, that empty calendar reminds me that there’s always hope for things to be different. I’m going to make a public declaration, too, right here in this column. After all, accountability is a big part of taking on new disciplines. And since we’re all Methodists, I figure it’s in our DNA to watch over one another in mutual love and accountability.

So here it is … This year I resolve to look for the beauty of God more. And when I find it, I resolve to tell someone about it. In his book, “The Beauty of the Word,” James Howell writes, “preaching does not depend on the cleverness, intelligence, or preparation of the preacher, but solely on the beauty, in inherent persuasiveness, of the One we proclaim.”

I think our hope to live a faithful life also depends on this beauty. We can do a lot to distract ourselves from making God’s beauty central in our lives. We can convince ourselves that things like politics, stances on issues, the reduction of districts, apportionment dollars, clergy defrocking, membership numbers, wars over worship styles, building programs, committee meetings, and whether or not we agree with others are central to our lives with God and one another when they certainly are not. What is first and foremost in our lives is the beauty of God and how we see it and experience it all around us and in others. Nothing else is more important and everything else follows this.

And when we focus on God’s beauty, a wonderful thing happens – we stop being so negative. A sad fact in our world is that industries are built on keeping people angry. Cable news networks make millions knowing that we watch them, get angry, and stay that way. But they’re simply capitalizing on the fact that we like getting angry and we love it when we can do it with others. So what if we resolved to look for God’s beauty all around us and in other people more this coming year? What if we resolved to be less negative about everything? What if we griped less? What if we loved and appreciated beauty more? What if instead of arguing or resenting each other, we sought to appreciate the beauty of God in one another (and especially in those we might not always agree with)? I don’t entirely know what might happen if we tried this resolution but I hope you’ll join me in finding out. Make this your resolution for the coming year. And maybe, just maybe, we can fill our calendars and our lives with really good things.

[This column originally ran in The South Georgia Advocate on Jan. 6, 2014]

A Prayer for the Sunday After Christmas…Feast of Holy Innocents

Peter Paul Rubens "Massacre of the Innocents" (1636)

Peter Paul Rubens
“Massacre of the Innocents” (1636)

Today is the 4th Day of Christmas where we remember the children Herod slaughtered at the news of a newborn savior. And many are preaching on this story for the Sunday following Christmas Day. So here is a prayer for the Feast of Holy Innocents:

 

 

 

Merciful God,
We come to this fourth day of celebration with full bellies and rich spirits. Our children have had their stockings hung by chimneys and filled to over flowing with material riches. Frankly it is hard for us to fathom a world where children can go hungry, live in the harsh coldness of the streets, and die in poverty. We confess that while this happens all around us, we are often too busy with our own self-interests to be bothered. Forgive us, we pray. Help us not only to be more personally mindful of the needs around us, but help us also to teach our own children of privilege how to care for those in need even when it means putting the needs of others ahead of their own accumulation of wealth. And may we be faithful in our service until the day comes when your kingdom is fully present among us — when guns will be beat into instruments of peace and no longer used to inflict pain on school campuses; when children will play on playgrounds that once were battlefields; and when your table of peace and abundance will be extended so that all may come and find something to eat. We pray through the one who came among us, to save us, as an innocent and vulnerable child in a world where children were also unnecessarily slaughtered; even Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Prayer for Christmas Eve’s Eve

Advent

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.

Christmas Eve Liturgy 2013

christmascandleWell 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. – See more at: http://mastersdust.com/2012/12/#sthash.F2IpAx39.dpuf

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! Good news! Our hopes and fears and all of years have met in this place tonight. And we have beheld the glory of the coming of God’s Messiah. Sing for joy! Salvation 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.

Glory to God in the highest heaven! And on earth, peace to all of God’s children! 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.

Just a quick note: If you offer a morning or midday service, why not instead of singing “Silent Night” you sing “Joy to the World”? Context is important and it is a bit awkward to sing about what a holy night it is at 11 in the morning.

Also, here’s a poem we’ll read this year. I’m a big, big fan of incorporating poetry into corporate worship and this is a real gem from Madeleine L’Engle

“First Coming”

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.
He did not wait till hearts were pure.

In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

I hope this series of worship planning ideas have helped your planning this season. Most of all, I hope through the singing and praying and preaching and sharing of the bread and cup you have experienced and helped others experience the power and grace of Emmanuel, God with us.

Advent Week 4 Worship Planning

AdventIt’s hard to believe we’re almost to the end of Advent in our worship planning. Below are some ideas for Advent 4 (Dec. 22). As always, feel free to use and/or adapt these ideas as needed for your context. Also, if you have not done so already, introduce some Christmas carols on this Sunday. A great practice is to sing the 3rd verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as an introduction to the time of morning prayer.

 

 

 

Lighting of the Advent Wreath

Do not be afraid, salvation is at hand.

God is about to do a mighty thing.

Joseph’s dream of God’s promise

will soon be our reality.

God’s promised Messiah will be none other than Emmanuel,

God with us.

We light the fourth Advent candle

in hope of the coming of Emmanuel,

God in the flesh.

God’s healing of human brokenness

comes by way of God taking on human flesh.

Light the candle

Come, Lord Jesus.

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

Opening Prayer

Holy God, with expectant hearts we your people await Christ’s coming. As once he came in humility, so now may he come in glory, that he may make all things perfect in your everlasting kingdom. For he is Lord for ever and ever. Amen.

Benediction

Go forth now having heard the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Go forth to serve God and each other. May the glory of Emmanuel, God with us, be made known in your life now and forever. Amen.

Now we are doing our annual Children’s Nativity as part of the worship service on this day so the liturgy is a bit slack. Below are some additional suggestions if your service is not as tight as ours on this day. Remember that our texts serve to bridge the gap between the hopeful waiting of Advent and the wonder of the Christmas miracle of Emmanual, God with us, coming among us.

  • Canticle of Light and Darkness (United Methodist Hymnal #205)
  • Canticle of Zechariah (United Methodist Hymnal #208)
  • A poem:

“First Coming”

by Madeliene L’Engle

 

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.


He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait


till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.


In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Begin the celebration but do so slowly. The coming of the Christ-child is a miracle marked by wonder and amazement. Resist the urge as best you can to be too boisterous this week — save some anticipation and celebration for Christmas Eve. I hope your Advent continues to be a time of blessed waiting.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving for Nelson Mandela

nelson mandela

Merciful God,

Author of salvation, Giver of every gracious gift,

we give thanks for the life and witness of your servant, Nelson Mandela.

His quest for freedom was was a witness to your saving power in our world

— a power that can break the shackles of sin and oppression and hatred.

And his commitment to justice gave us a glimpse of what your kingdom should look like

— a place where swords of war can actually be traded for the plowshares of peace;

a place where bitter enemies can, by your grace, become friends.

Receive your servant, Mandiba, and grant him the eternal rest of your saints.

May he rest in your mercy and rise in your glory.

And may we, your Church, follow his witness of peace and justice marked by reconciliation.

For when we do, we know we are also following the ways of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,

who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns now and forevermore. Amen.

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