Archive for December 2014

Ephesians 1:3-14

Today, we have a problem with Time. Not just the lack of it, or our capacity to waste it in trivial TV watching, but in our very understanding of it. Today, we process Time in very short chunks. We abbreviate it, as we cook our food in the microwave. We truncate it, forsaking even the dumbed-down daily half-hour news show (17 minutes when you take out the commercials and feel-good fluff), for Facebook posts and Twitter-feeds. We rape Time by our reluctance to ask the big question about how history is shaped, and where it all will end. Apocalypse is not just a prelude to Zombies, it is one answer to the vital question, How will Time end?


We care so little for Time that we have stopped asking about it. Not so, the people of the Bible. John takes us back to the beginning, before the big bang, when the word was with God and was God. Later, John will take us to the end. Paul, in Ephesians 1:3-14, gives us the long-view on Time. In the beginning, God had a plan. Here and now, we experience Jesus as the mysterious manifestation of that plan. In the end, we will all share in God’s Glory as Time comes to its resting place.


Failing to yield to the awesomeness of this revelation, we have settled for a hurried and ho-hum experience of the Glory of God. I think that people like Stephen Hawking have done a good thing in giving us a glimpse into the awe that those who study time for a living experience. I may never understand black holes, but I can, and should, ponder the Lord of Time and the fact that his love for me and all frail humans, will manifest itself in Time, and at the end of Time. Paul writes:


[God has] a plan for the fullness of time, 

to gather up all things in [Christ], 

things in heaven and things on earth.

Postmodern Christians yawn when they see timelines like this
Christmas 2
1st Sunday of New Year
Luke 2:22-40

We have this image as we face the New Year of an old man being pushed off of life’s stage by an infant. Meanwhile, in the Bible, we find the baby, Jesus, being brought by his parents to the temple on the first Sunday after Christmas and there are these two old geezers blocking the way to the altar. Simeon and Anna, both older than eight track tapes, have to say their bit before we can get on with the story of the incarnation. And we say, ‘Oh I get it. Everything new gets old real quick.’ But we don’t get it. The exact opposite is being spoken by the Holy Spirit. God has intruded into our cycle of birth - innocence - rebellion - maturity - midlife - old age - and death. He has given us something eternal. What we see is not a generational division, but a timeless unity.


So when Simeon says, “Now dismiss your servant in peace,” he is not giving up. He not passing the baton to Jesus because this child represents the next generation. He is instead speaking about how this God-man is the fulfillment of the hopes of all humankind, old and young. He is thankful that he has been able to remain in the temple throughout his elder hood, because his meditation on the Torah has enabled him to bring truth to those who were seeking, no matter what their age. Now the truth that the ancients scrolls spoke hesitantly about, and the prophets only saw dimly, has become flesh and blood.


Anna also, is not notable for her great age, but for her consistent witness to the fact that spiritual things matter. If a person feels called to a religious life, they are neither a nutcase nor a saint. They are merely a person acting out on the fact that all of us should be set-apart for God. Having Anna in the temple, or an ordained person in the pulpit, doesn’t dismiss anyone from pursuing their own spiritual truth.

A candle gives out the same light when it is old as when it is new
Christmas 1
Sunday between Christmas & New Year's
Churches, like phones, look different to different generations

“Surprise! I’m not going to church right now.” Recently I gave a fellow struggling Christian author a complimentary copy of my Reality Check book for her review and asked her to pass it on to her pastor when she was though with it. She looked embarrassed and confessed that she wasn’t going to church right now. She had moved across town a few years back and not found a place that she was at home in. This is someone whose day job involved handling difficult people and doing boring repetitive things because you are responsible for getting it done. She wasn’t someone who flaked out on her commitments. She was committed to Christ. Finding a new church, however, had become a chore she didn’t feel like tackling.


There is a wonderful article at Ministry Matters comparing the declining participation in mainline denominational churches with the problem MacDonald's is having attracting millennials (the current generation of young adults, who came of age after Y2K). Many churches are in decline because are not only failing to reach this generation, but they also have very few busters (34 to 50 year olds), and only half of the boomers.


My writer friend, a boomer, was willing to accept the frailties of the church that she attended as a young adult, but having moved to a new location, she hasn’t reconnected. I offered her the name of a local church in her denomination (not mine) that I knew to be ‘high quality’ and currently free of obvious problems. These must-haves are hard to find and even harder to produce when you are responsible for fixing your own.


Later, I found myself wondering how to provide what she really needed; a reason to return to church. In her case, there was a interest group (writers), that if a church sponsored, she would attend. In my own situation, as someone who spends about a quarter of the Sundays on the road each year, having churches provide better information about their services for strangers on their websites would increase my attendance. Better yet, I wish someone would make an app that connected travelers with worship services, as Urban Spoon does for restaurants. 


I imagine that there are a variety of reasons Christians aren’t in church this Sunday. It is worth it for those in church leadership to listen to individual stories. There are many that we can’t help. But, if we train our hearts to be service oriented we might find the Holy Spirit using us.

How do we picture Christmas?

The holiday season is filled with teachable moments. As you prepare for the children’s Christmas pageant and approve various images for advertisements and to placed on the worship screen, have you exercised care to represent the diversity of the world that Emmanuel entered into? We might have a black wiseman in our nativity set, or at Easter, make mention of Simon of Cyrene’s race, but is this mere tokenism? What about wrestling with the exclusivity of our approach to the holiday season?


If the people inside your church building look different from their neighbors, the holiday season is a critical time to represent yourself as a church seeking to reconnect with its context. This requires brainstorming and blunt honesty with your leadership about the problem. 


The following carol written by Alfred Burt in 1951. As a WASP child, growing up in a white suburb, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s recording of this made an impression on me. It was for me a teachable moment:


Some children see Him lily white,

The baby Jesus born this night.

Some children see Him lily white,

With tresses soft and fair.

Some children see Him bronzed and brown,

The Lord of heav'n to earth come down.

Some children see Him bronzed and brown,

With dark and heavy hair.


Some children see Him almond-eyed,

This Savior whom we kneel beside.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,

With skin of yellow hue.

Some children see Him dark as they,

Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.

Some children see him dark as they,

And, ah! they love Him, too!


The children in each different place

Will see the baby Jesus' face

Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,

And filled with holy light.

O lay aside each earthly thing

And with thy heart as offering,

Come worship now the infant King.

'Tis love that's born tonight.

additional author: 
Alfred Burt, Freedom Theater - Philadelphia
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Isaiah 40:1-11

TLC does a bit of fluff called “Say Yes to the Dress.” It shows brides arguing with their mothers as they choose a dress for her to wear for three hours on one day and costs — well, if you have to ask the price you’re not really putting yourself into their demographic. It’s Queen for the Day, remade for today’s cable channel surfer, minus the backstory of how miserable the woman’s life was before this moment and how much she needs to feel special for an hour. My hatred of Say Yes…  may be why Isaiah 62:10 popped out a me this week. The bridal dress is cultural shorthand for the way certain transitional moments can be riveting. The bride focuses on buying the right dress, because when she wears it next, her life will take a radical turn into the unknown. Isaiah describes the salvation we receive from the coming messiah:


I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.


We have a hard time reading this without wincing at the cost of a modern wedding. Perhaps we have forgotten the backstory of the second half of Isaiah. People are in exile. They are facing cultural extinction in Babylon. They have no hope. They grieve as their children leave the faith and stop practicing the rituals and morality that underpins Jewish life. When suddenly, there comes a message of salvation:


Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God… A voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (40:1-3)


These people in their poverty have been given the opportunity to pick out an expensive bridal dress and wear it before God and experience the transforming power of his salvation. For them, the miracle of being able to cross the desert and return home is like a wedding. It is costly, sure to create family turmoil, and filled with all the uncertainty major change brings, but it is also pure joy. 


We can marvel at how this older generation of Israel, living in Babylon before Zillow or GPS, said yes to the dress of God’s salvation. It involved great hardship for them, but they accepted it with joy. 


So, there are two lessons to be learned. The first is that modern materialism and the accompanying unwillingness to hear the stories of those in poverty, often gives us amnesia about the deep significance of our richest symbols, such as, the special dress, a golden ring, a meal of reconciliation (fatted calf), etc. Second, is that salvation is at hand and we may be saying No.

We dress in special ways in order to see ourselves differently
Advent 3
Simony - the word for today

The recent brouhaha over President Obama appointing a soap opera producer as ambassador to Hungary reminds me of the way congregations choose their leaders. There is a word for when  nomination committees give out church offices as rewards for financial or political gifts. It’s the sin of simony, much protested by Martin Luther.  But, I wish there was a word for doing the opposite. Too often, nominating committees beg people who work 9 to 5 at finances or in the building trades, to serve on the stewardship committee or as trustees. The resulting leadership is articulate and knowledgable, but lacks passion.


I’ve always labored and prayed to build diversity into all governing committees. The membership of Trustees, Paster-Parish, Church Council, Nominations, and especially, any vision seeking group, should be chosen to represent every age and strata of the congregation. Pastors are often stumped, when after loading a lower committee with people who all think alike, every program the group develops is shot down by the more diverse council or the church at large. Diverse groups have been shown to be smarter, because they accumulate life experiences instead of narrowing their considerations to a few standard practices.


Further, the whole process of participating in church governance is supposed to be educational and useful in making disciples. Youth need to serve, and should always be a part of Trustees, Finances, and Pastor-parish, because they both teach adults to behave better and learn the practical aspects of Christianity. A church unwilling to take this risk, will soon die.

Mark 1:1-8
Psalm 85

I’ve learned a trick from Sci-Fi guru Orson Scott Card, when I’m at the bookstore, looking for a novel, I always read the first 13 lines of the book. If the author doesn’t nail it in the first half a page, the book isn’t likely to be worth it. Mark’s gospel is a good read. He begins with ordinary folk flocking out into the wilderness to hear a prophet. What would make them do that? They have a need to know that life will turn out Okay. Some of them have lost children to malnutrition. Others are struggling through failed marriages. Everyone is caught in the cross-fire between the zealot terrorists and the oppressive Roman government, with their congress of Sadducee stooges. The people need to hear a good word. We share that need with them.


We read on about Jesus because our life involves suffering. A famous painting by the 17th century Catholic artist, Salvator Rosa, shows an infant, on his mother’s lap, writing on a scroll. He writes his first words, miraculously as a babe in arms, “Conception is sinful, life is suffering, death inevitable.” This is the voice of the honest world. It reminds me of the four noble truths that the Buddha discovered, or the wisdom of Scott Peck concerning how life is painful and that mental illness rooted in avoiding that pain. We go out into wilderness, hoping to hear something different.


Psalm 85 says, “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts (v8).” 

This is the thing that needs to be nailed in the preaching this week:

+  Life is painful

+  Dishonest people will tell you it ain’t so

+  Only God can give us a real word of comfort and peace.


With this message comes a great responsibility; week by week in the year ahead, we must show the Jesus of Mark’s gospel to be the good news that is promised.

S.Rosa L'umana Fragilita 1656
Advent 2