Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent Crash

I had the best of intentions. I even managed to keep it together until one week before Christmas. Then I realized that it was only one week before Christmas. It felt a lot like that moment when, after running off a cliff and through thin air for several yards, Wile E. Coyote looks down, realizes that he's run off a cliff, and goes plummeting down, leaving a terrified thought bubble in his wake and creating a coyote-shaped crater at the bottom of the ravine. All of a sudden I realized that I needed to write prayers, write a sermon, clean my apartment, finish my shopping, send all of my Christmas cards, make food for three upcoming events, prepare for my trip, and get everything finished for the rest of 2012. Panic set in. And instead of attempting eloquent prayers on my blog, I prayed a lot of, "God, HELP!" and saved all of my theological language for worship.

So, here I am on Christmas Eve Eve, six days behind on sharing prayers with you. My apologies. I wish I were the sort of person who could keep absolutely everything going under pressure. But I'm not. I'm a person who juggles as much as possible at once and occasionally drops something. This got dropped. I am sorry for that.

In lieu of prayers for the last six days, which I just don't have in my head after three drafts toward a Christmas Eve sermon, I will offer you this, my Prayer for Candlelighting for worship tomorrow:

God, our Light,
We are amazed that you have come in Christ to dwell with us.
The radiance of your presence dazzles us
as it breaks through the darkness of the world.
Bring the spark of your Spirit to live in our hearts,
Driving away the shadows of doubt and sin.
That we may show forth your glory
Not only today, as we celebrate your birth among us,
But throughout our lives.
Let us bear this light forth into the world,
That, through us, you might kindle the flame of your presence throughout the world,
And inspire all creation to serve Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Advent, Day 16

Isaiah 11:1-9; Numbers 16:1-19; Hebrews 13:7-17

Creating and Re-creating God,
You promised that a shoot would grow up from the stump of Jesse,
That a great leader would come from a dying family line,
that new life would appear where previous generations had been cut down.
Restore hope where desolation reigns.
Re-create our hearts,
that instead of being broken by sin
we may be mended and re-formed into your good creatures.
You promise that the wolf will live with the lamb,
prey and predator will dwell together in safely.
What a peace, what a transformation that assures!
What a turning of hearts and habits it must require for the predator to stop hunting!
What a growth must take place for the prey to have courage to take its place beside the hunter!
God, if you can work this transformation, if you can bring this growth, there is nothing you cannot do.
Transform our human hearts as you transform the animals.
Soften the hard hearts of the cruel, teach them to act with gentleness,
Put kindness and compassion in the hearts of bullies.
Embolden the victims: Heal their perspective, fill them with confidence,
turn them into survivors who can stand strong.
Bring an end to persecution and abuse of all forms.
You promise safety for even the most helpless creatures.
Empower us to build a world that is safe for all your children.
Guide us to create systems of care for those who live with mental illness.
Mend our ways, that instead of weapons plants we build hospitals,
instead of shooting ranges, mental health clinics.
Reshape our world, that there will be no harm or destruction,
in this, your holy creation.
Replace our hate with knowledge of your love.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent, Day 15

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

God of All,
You call all your children to serve, each with different tasks before us.
But you also lay upon all of our hearts one mission:
To prepare the way of the Lord, motivated by love for you.
You call us to prepare our hearts
through prayer, worship, and study.
You call us to prepare those around us
by sharing your promise of grace and forgiveness.
You call us to prepare the world
by working for your justice and peace and caring for all of your creation.
You call us to prepare, for you are coming.
Open our hearts and minds today,
And fill us with anticipation as we prepare to welcome you,
Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Advent, Day 14

Isaiah 12:2-6; Amos 9:8-15; Luke 1:57-66

Holy One,
We carry the weight of pain and sadness. We suffer with illness, broken relationships, hurtful memories, and the loss of loved ones. We have moments of loneliness and self-doubt, moments when we are overwhelmed by stress or hardship. We bear one another’s burdens as we pray for those in our community and those in our lives who are undergoing difficult times. Help us to turn our concerns over to you, gracious God, that by trusting in you we might be released from our burdens.

Christ, Prince of Peace,
You came to a broken world, a world divided by the fences and walls that we build to protect us from things that scare us. Help us to see that the people on the other side of our fences and walls are your beloved children, just as we are. Help people on both sides of every wall, fence, and barrier, from the fence separating Mexico and the U.S. to the walls dividing Palestine from Israel to the demilitarized zone that splits North and South Korea to seek the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Come, God, and bring freedom to this world that is enslaved by inequality, oppression, hatred, and violence.

Emmanuel, free us from all those obstacles that prevent us from seeking you or feeling your presence. Free us from the barriers that divide us that we might be one in Christ. Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Advent, Day 13

Isaiah 12:2-6; Amos 8:4-12; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15

"Will not the land tremble on this account, and all who live in it mourn?" - Amos 8:8

How long, O Lord?
How long before humans stop killing one another?
How long before we root out the hate that lives in our hearts?
How long before we stop shedding the blood of your children,
your precious ones, whom you hold in your hand?
Our hearts are broken.
We cry out for the lives lost;
we feel powerless before the evil, the violence,
the incomprehensible rage that leads humans to kill.
We grieve today for lives lost:
for 28 people murdered in Connecticut today,
for 40,000 people killed in violence in Syria in the last 24 months,
for the countless victims of violence and terrorism in Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine.
We acknowledge with remorse the many other people we kill each day
through our unjust economic systems and our apathy:
the thousands of people who die each day from disease, hunger, and exposure.
And we ask again: How long?
How long before we allow your transformation to change our hearts and lives?
How long before you come and put a stop to all evil?
How long before you wipe every tear from our eyes,
and establish your kingdom of justice and peace?
We know, O Lord, that you weep over your children;
you mourn when one of your beloved ones takes the life of another.
We trust, O Lord, that you are coming to put an end to all this horror.
On this dark day, we ask you to come and bring your light.
Drive out the shadows of evil, hate, and sadness with the brightness of your presence.
Restore our hope, and grant us your peace, which passes all understanding.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent, Day 12

Isaiah 12:2-6; Amos 6:1-8; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

I sing your praise, O God, for you have done marvelous things!
Today, though, I praise you for the small blessings you have given:
For friends who bring laughter and wisdom;
For the freedom of hours to spend as I wish;
For the joy of giving to those I love;
For the wonders of technology and storytelling;
For shooting stars that light the sky;
For a warm dog cuddled by my side;
For opportunities to rest in the assurance of your care.
For all these things, O God, I give you thanks.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Advent, Day 11

Psalm 126; Isaiah 35:3-7; Luke 7:18-30

God who spoke the world into being,
I am out of words.
I have used up all of my energy to create.
You created for six days, nonstop,
your creative energy overflowing.
I spent all day shaping words,
composing liturgy,
preparing to preach.
And now I have nothing left to say,
no more creative energy to expend.
Give me rest, O Lord.
Lift me up in your strong hands.
Breathe your Spirit into me again.
Refill my soul with your Living Water.
Pour out your grace, Creating God,
and renew my heart. Amen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Advent, Day 10

Psalm 126; Isaiah 19:18-25; 2 Peter 1:2-15

Bear fruit in me, O Lord.
Help me to walk in your ways.
Guide me on the paths of knowledge and wisdom,
that my thoughts may glorify you.
Teach me self-control,
that my behavior might follow your commandments.
Grant me the strength to endure all things,
that I may outlast struggles and glimpse your promises fulfilled.
Purify my heart,
that I may grow toward you.
Pour your love into my heart,
that my words and actions may show my affection for others.
Help me to love,
in all times and circumstances,
loving all your people and all your creation,
and growing in depth of love for you,
today and always.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent, Day 9

Psalm 126; Isaiah 40:1-11; Romans 8:22-25

I am so impatient, O God.
I want to know what will happen, what joy you will bring.
It was a heavy weekend, with a memorial service for one,
and a service of remembrance for many.
Now it is Monday,
and I am greeted by messages of stress and strain,
words that challenge and bear down on my heart.
The tasks to do are numerous,
and I long to crawl back into bed and ignore them.
But the Psalms speak of joy.
They speak of laughter and joy to come.
And so I pray, with them:
"Lord, change our circumstances for the better."
Bind up my broken places.
Breathe your Spirit of inspiration and strength
into my downtrodden and weary soul.
Give me hope in you,
so that, while I go out lamenting and carrying my to-do list,
I will come home with joyful exclamations and completed tasks,
enjoying the fruits you have borne in my ministry. Amen.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Advent, Day 8

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Gracious God,
We are filled with anticipation at the promise of your arrival.
Prepare us to receive you.
Straighten out our words and smooth over our rough edges;
Purify our hearts and refine our lives,
That we may be ready for the transformation you will bring
To us, and to the world.
Awaken us to your presence,
That we may hear your Word anew.
Fill us up that we might overflow with knowledge, insight, compassion,
and, above all, with love for you and for our neighbors,
According to the example of Christ. Amen.

Advent, Day 7

Luke 1:68-79; Malachi 4:1-6; Luke 9:1-6

God of our Journeys,
You called your disciples and sent them out to proclaim the good news
with the instruction to take nothing for the journey.
You told them to pack nothing:
No extra clothes,
no walking stick,
no food,
no money,
no baggage at all.
But we are a people obsessed with our stuff.
We never leave home without keys, cell phone, wallet or purse.
And in this season we are focused on things:
We're focused on gifts and wrapping paper and bows,
we're focused on baked goods and festive drinks,
we're focused on what to pack for the trip and what to bring to the party.
Remind us that, in the journey of our lives, there are no tangible "essentials".
Remind us of your provision that fills our hearts and our minds with what we truly need.
Remind us of your Spirit that goes before to prepare the way for our arrival.
Help us to think of Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem,
carrying with them few possessions,
but bearing what was truly essential: Christ, God-with-us.
Just as they transported the good news,
teach us to bear your good news to a world filled with stuff,
but in need of your love and truth.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Advent, Day 6

Luke 1:68-79; Malachi 3:13-18; Philippians 1:18b-26

Reading these passages today, I'm struck by this verse from Paul's letter to the church at Philippi: "Since Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether from dishonest or true motives, I'm glad and I'll continue to be glad."

God of Glory,
May Christ be proclaimed in this season of celebration!
May Christ be proclaimed in Christmas carols sung in cathedrals
   and in carols played in coffee shops.
May Christ be proclaimed in the glow of Advent wreath candles
   and in the glow of tacky light displays.
May Christ be proclaimed by evergreens in the forest
   and by artificial trees in department stores.
May Christ be proclaimed by handbells in worship
   and by jingling bells of Salvation Army ringers.
May Christ be proclaimed in homes and neighborhoods,
   in chapels and shopping malls.
May Christ be proclaimed in candy canes for children
   and in meals for the hungry.
May Christ be proclaimed in homes shared with relatives
   and in shelter given to the homeless.
May the Word of God be proclaimed at all times and all places,
   that all may know the love, the joy, and the grace of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Advent, Day 5

Luke 1:68-79; Malachi 3:5-12; Philippians 1:12-18a

God of All,
You call all your children to serve,
each with different tasks before us,
each with a unique path of service before us.
But you also lay upon all of our hearts one mission:
To prepare the way of the Lord,
motivated by love for you.
You call us to prepare our hearts
through prayer, worship, and study.
You call us to prepare those around us
by sharing your promise of grace and forgiveness.
You call us to prepare the world
by working for your justice and peace and caring for all of your creation.
You call us to prepare, for you are coming.
Because of your deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us.
You are coming to give light to those who are in darkness and the shadow of death.
you are coming to guide us on the path of peace.
Teach us to prepare for the joy of your arrival.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Advent, Day 4

Psalm 90; Isaiah 1:24-31; Luke 11:29-32

I fear your justice,
O God of All Knowledge.
I fear your justice, for my stomach is full
and my kitchen is filled with more good things than I can eat,
while others of your children go hungry.
I fear your justice, for my home is warm,
and my walls and my roof are solid,
while others of your children have no safe shelter from the elements.
I fear your justice, for I have so many possessions,
many more things than I truly need,
while others of your children have nothing.
I fear your justice, O Lord, for I know that I am guilty.
I have such abundance while allowing others to live in scarcity.
When I worry, it is about how I will pay for car repairs and Christmas gifts.
Others worry about whether they will have food and shelter to survive the night.
I have not done all I could to help them.
I have not shared my abundance with those in need.
I have enjoyed so many gifts while doing so little to share those gifts with others.
I have seen your children hungry and imprisoned and I have not cared for them.
I have not loved my neighbors, your children, as I have loved myself.
Have mercy on me, O Lord.
Forgive my selfishness and my greed.
Forgive my apathy and inaction.
Transform me, Holy One.
Move my heart with compassion so that my actions follow your commands.
Give me eyes to see the injustice and inequality in the world,
and strength and courage to remedy it.
Teach me to recognize the difference between my selfish desires and real need,
and to work to meet real need wherever I encounter it.
Help me to follow more closely each day
the footsteps of Christ,
who had possession and dominion over the universe,
yet chose to become a lowly infant, born in a barn,
out of compassion for a world in need. Amen.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Advent, Day 3

Psalm 90; 2 Samuel 7:18-29; Revelation 22:12-16

Holy God,
You are alpha and omega,
the first and the last,
the beginning and the end.
You are eternal, omnipotent, limitless.
Who am I that you pay attention to me?
I am human, mortal, limited.
I am dust, a temporary speck in the enormity of the universe.
I am not as large as the whale or the elephant.
I am not as old as the mountains or the oceans.
I am not as bright as the stars, nor as powerful as the winds.
I am not as wise as the sages, nor as pure of heart as the children.
I am mere flesh and bone.
I am ordinary.
But still you, Creator of All, Eternal God, Cosmic Lord, make note of me.
You listen to my voice, you know my thoughts,
you reach out to me with grace.
That is the joy of the incarnation.
That is what we anticipate in this Advent season.
That is what we celebrate at Christmas.
We give thanks because
You are Emmanuel, God-with-us.

You became limited, mortal, flesh and bone,
to reach out to all humanity with your love.
I stand in awe because

You are Jesus Christ, God-with-me.
You became limited, mortal, flesh and bone,
to reach out to me, even me, with your love.
Remind me, O Lord, of who you are.
Turn my heart,
so that instead of asking, "Who am I that you pay attention to me?"
I will sing, "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation!"
Teach me, each day, to praise You,
Almighty God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Advent, Day 2

Psalm 90; Numbers 17:1-11; 2 Peter 3:1-18

Almighty God,
You birthed all creation.
Before your Spirit swept over the waters,
before your hands sculpted the mountains,
before you breathed life into your creatures,
you were there, whole and holy unto yourself.
You drum your own beat,
and you do not function according to mortals' sense of time.
In your own season you created all that exists,
in your own season you were born into the world you created,
and in your own season, you will return to redeem the universe.
But we wait impatiently.
We count days, hours, minutes,
tapping our feet, drumming our fingers,
alternately hoping to hasten your coming
and wondering if you are going to arrive at all.
Give us patience in this holy season.
Remind us that, to you, a thousand years is but a moment.
In your eternal gaze, our lives are but the blink of an eye.
Open our eyes to look for your coming.
Open our ears to listen for your footsteps.
Open our hearts to welcome your arrival.
Prepare us to stand in your presence.
Give us holy hearts and godly lives,
and grant that our works might all be praise,
glorifying your holy name every moment until you come. Amen.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Advent: Day 1

Advent begins today! So, in keeping with my Advent covenant, here are the Scriptures, and my prayer for the day:

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Hope of the World,
You are everlasting light, and in you there is no darkness at all.
In this season of long nights and dim, cold days, we wait for your coming.
We wait for your dazzling truth to break into our consciousness,
for your light to illuminate our ways.
Give light to our paths.
Make your ways known to us, and lead us in your truth.
Let your brightness drive away the shadows of sin
that haunt our steps as we journey toward Bethlehem.
Breathe your holiness into our hearts, that we may stand blameless in your presence.
Give us strength for the journey as we seek your face.
Guide us on our way to you, that we may see Emmanuel, God with us,
and through his grace ever increase in love for you and one another.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bonus Week!

Welcome to BONUS WEEK! This is not a recognized holiday, season, feast, or celebration in the real world, so don't worry if you didn't pick out the red dates in your calendar. But it's a time that just about everyone I know who works in a church is celebrating. This year, because of a quirk in the way the dates fall out, Advent doesn't begin the Sunday right after Thanksgiving. This year we have an extra week between Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent. It seems like a very small thing, but the extra week is HUGE. It meant that last week, during the three-day holiday week of Thanksgiving, we didn't have to squeeze in Advent preparation as well. It means that we have extra time this week to iron out the details of our Advent worship and seasonal church programs before the hustle begins. 

This is really exciting for me because Advent is one of my favorite seasons. I love the intentional way that we prepare for Jesus' birth. I love the return to praying and striving for the kingdom of God. I love the way our worship builds up toward the celebrations on Christmas Eve. And this year I have extra time to get ready for this, my favorite time of year. This week I have an opportunity to take a deep breath before the plunge into the season. 

The extra time has allowed me to get my heart in order. This year has been busy and full of transitions, and amid all of the activity I've slipped a bit in my spiritual disciplines. So this year I've decided to really rededicate myself to spiritual growth during Advent. And I'm going to use this blog to do it. 

In years past I've utilized this blog to observe Advent in a variety of ways. In 2009, my first year as a full-time pastor, I posted a picture each day of Advent to remind myself of the joy of the season in the midst of all of the busyness. In 2010, I wrote a brief reflection each day. In 2011 I forgot my blog completely in my focus on ordination papers. But this year I'm back, and with a new plan. 

Beginning on the first Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2012, I'm joining with my congregation in engaging daily readings for the season. My lead pastor put together a compilation of daily Scriptures for every day of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. I'm going to read those texts each day and write a prayer based upon those passages. I hope to post the prayers here, along with the text citations. As much as I'd like to say this is my Advent gift to you, it isn't. This is not an altruistic gesture. This is accountability. I hope that, by posting the prayers here, I'll have a measure of accountability to make sure that I read the texts and pray over them deeply. And I hope you'll pray for me, and with me, as I refocus on what's really important in this season: getting ready for the Emmanuel to arrive.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


"You can be overwhelmed and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?"
"I think you can in Europe." - Dialogue from the movie "10 Things I Hate About You"

I find the English language fascinating. I am amazed at the relationship between words like flammable, inflammable, and noninflammable. I was discussing our linguistic oddities with a friend today, when I brought up the overwhelmed/underwhelmed/whelmed situation. And on this Thanksgiving day, I began to wonder: What does it say about our American culture that there's no such word as whelmed in our vocabulary?

Our culture is full of things that are overwhelming. We're overwhelmed with work and stress. We're constantly bombarded with noise and color that assault our senses. We're focused on a sort of arrogant overabundance, where we always want more, more, more of everything. We want bigger houses, bigger meals, more possessions, more money... We always seem to want more than enough.

And yet, even with all of that abundance, we are often unhappy. The constant barrage of sensory experiences is so great that we're never really impressed or satisfied by much of anything. We are unimpressed by the world, by what we see and hear. Our desires and expectations have such a high threshold that nothing seems to meet them. There's never enough for us to be satisfied, and we find ourselves underwhelmed.

It seems that what we really need, what we should really be striving for, is to be whelmed. It seems to me that becoming whelmed involves two parts. The first is stepping down from the pursuit of the overwhelming. We need to reset our expectations. We need to focus on simplicity. What do we really need? What are our genuine necessities? When is enough truly enough? As a pastor colleague reminded us in worship this morning, the three things we really need are food, shelter, and companionship. I'm assuming that most of you who are reading this blog have at least two of those three, since technology like computers and wireless routers usually follows after those two on Mazlo's hierarchy of needs.) We all have what we really need. So why are we looking for more?

That's the other step in becoming whelmed: learning to recognize all that we do have. We have so much to be thankful for. We have food, and not just a single serving per day of food that is bland but meets our nutritional requirements, but a variety of abundant, delicious, healthy (and not so healthy) foods from which we can choose. We have shelters with indoor plumbing, climate control, storage space, and creature comforts. And we have companionship. We have the companionship of family, friends, coworkers, colleagues, congregations, and even acquaintances and beloved ones who are far away, yet connected to us through various forms of technology. How GREAT is that? Seriously, aren't all of our food options wondrous? Aren't our homes amazing? And what greater blessing could there be than the relationships we enjoy with one another?

Friends, I believe what we really need to do is learn to be whelmed. We need to overcome the social pressure for more, bigger, better and instead seek enough. If we can reduce our needs and find joy in what we have instead of constantly striving for more, I think we can find deep contentment and happiness. Plus that will leave us a lot more time, energy, and resources to share with others, so that maybe everyone can be whelmed. And that's really the goal, right? The goal is for the striving and fighting to cease and everyone to have enough. That sounds a lot like the kingdom of God. And it could start with all of us becoming whelmed.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Preach This?

Ecclesiastes 3 promises that there are seasons for everything. A season for mourning and a season for laughing. A season for peace and a season for war. A season for casting away stones and a season for gathering stones together, whatever that means. There are also, apparently, season for blogging and seasons for forgetting to blog. After a very long season of forgetting to blog, I'm back. I hope this will be a season for blogging. 

I will say, though, that my season of not blogging was not a season of not writing. In fact, I've been doing some of the most challenging writing I've done in a long time. Just not in this medium. 

It all began in the spring, when our church staff got together for a planning day. As we discussed plans for fall classes and themes for the upcoming school year, our minister of youth and young adults came up with a brilliant suggestion. "Why don't we have an emphasis on the Hebrew Bible throughout the fall? We could focus all of our classes on the Hebrew Scriptures and preach on the Old Testament lectionary texts in worship. We could tell the stories people aren't familiar with and look at the texts we usually skip over in favor of the gospels and epistles." The light of excitement went around the staff room. Yes! We could tell the stories from the Hebrew Bible, build Biblical literacy, deepen the Scriptural knowledge of the congregation! I threw myself into planning a Bible Study based on the idea of a road trip through Genesis. We dove into Hebrew Bible preparations with great enthusiasm. 

Then the other shoe dropped: I decided to plan worship for the fall. I purchased the lectionary worship planner for the year (September-to-September... why isn't it structured for either the secular calendar or the church calendar?) and took a look at the assigned texts for the coming months. And there they were, those passages that preachers fear to face. I had expected the stories from children's Sunday School: Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham & Sarah & Hagar, Moses, Joshua, Deborah. I had expected readings from the prophets, the dense imagery of Ezekiel or perhaps the dense imagery of Isaiah. But what I found in that worship planner wasn't any of those things. What I found was wisdom literature. I discovered that in September I'd be preaching on the Song of Solomon, the Proverbs 31 woman, and Esther. In October I'd have to tackle Job. And in November, the story of Ruth. I had to preach on all of them. I didn't get the classic stories, no. The Hebrew Scriptures in this lectionary cycle had enough sex to put thirteen-year-old boys in fits of giggles for months, enough philosophical thought to satisfy a classics major at a liberal arts college, and enough gender trouble to make the feminist in me scream with rage. 

Somewhere in my panic, I'm fairly certain I heard the Almighty chuckle. 

So I put on my newly-bestowed stole and my big-girl-pastor-heels and got to work. I prayed for wisdom. I dug into passages I hadn't wrestled with since my seminary classes with Dr. Petersen. I exegeted. I pored over commentaries. I prayed some more. I wrote sermons, then called my Catholic, Brethren, and Baptist advisers (thanks, family!) and ran ideas past them. I prayed for courage. And I preached. 

With the help of the Holy Spirit, I talked about sex from the pulpit without blushing. I remembered God's wisdom imparted through the words of my seminary classmates and clergy colleagues as I tried to cut away the pink-covered expectation baggage from the Proverbs 31-woman. I taught my congregation about the traditions of Purim and we all booed at Haman. I poked a stick at the pinata of Biblical literalism that was hanging over Job. And I endeavored to preach prose interpreting the poetry of the Psalms. They were not all great sermons. But they were genuine attempts to delve into the challenging parts of our sacred book. I figured that if I, with some serious theological training, had difficulty with these passages, my congregation might, too. And I felt the Spirit challenging us to gird our congregational loins and wrestle with the passages God placed before us.

By the time I got to planning November, I was looking for trouble. After preaching some of the most terrifying passages in the Bible, my attitude had shifted from, "Oh, no! Another hard passage!" to "Troubling text? BRING IT ON!" That's when I decided to put a cherry on the top of this Old-Testament-Worship-Sundae. After praying about it for a while, I decided to do a pre-Advent series focused on some more hard texts. Inspired by the challenging stories we'd been looking at throughout the fall, I decided to plan a sermon series on the "black sheep" in Jesus' genealogy. So for four weeks, I'm taking on the stories of: 1) Tamar and Judah, 2) Rahab and Salmon, 3&4) Naomi, Ruth, & Boaz. That's right. We're getting ready for Advent by talking about sex, prostitution, fidelity, family, and tradition. Some days I shake my head and wonder what I was thinking in choosing this path. But other days I feel blessed. I feel blessed by the challenge of God's Word and passages that I cannot address comfortably. I feel blessed that God is disturbing my assumptions and pushing me to go deeper. And I feel abundantly blessed that I have friends, colleagues, family members, and a congregation who are willing to engage the questions and go deeper with me. 

Talking with my sister this afternoon, I expressed relief that once Advent begins I'll return to the New Testament Scriptures. She said, "So, away from the challenges of the Old Testament." I replied, "Yes, back to something fluffy, like the gospels." Laughing, she replied, "I don't think you can describe the gospels as fluffy. Is any part of the Bible fluffy?" We both pondered this for a moment, then concluded that, apart from the occasional Psalm, none of the Bible is fluffy. None of it is easy. It isn't meant to be. 

The Bible is dense and challenging, meant to be pondered and chewed on, wrestled with and rested in, doubted and trusted. If we're getting only reassurance from it and never struggling with it, we're probably not reading it right. 

So, on to a new season. A season of New Testament texts. A season of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany. But I hope all of them will be seasons of wrestling as this one has been. Maybe when I approach the Christmas texts, perhaps the most familiar, comforting texts of all, I'll read them with the same sense of challenge and prophetic discomfort that I've come to cherish in this season of learning. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Prophetic Voice

God created us to live in community, in relationships with people who love us, who challenge us, who hold us accountable. I am never more sure of that fact than when I work on sermons with one of my friends.

First, a confession: As a pastor, I tend to allow myself to get busy or distracted all week long, and I often find myself on Friday morning in a coffee shop trying to mix up a sermon with less preparation and less organization than the task requires. It's like going to the refrigerator at 6:00pm and pulling out whatever ingredients I can find, then trying to put together a healthy meal from whatever is in there. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, this occasionally works, but the sermons are a bit slapdash, and this gives the congregation and the worship less respect and attention than it deserves. The sermons start sounding too similar to one another, they start to reflect my own biases and laziness WAY more than any sermon ever should.

This is why, as a preacher, I need community. I need accountability. I need this friend. Because she will force me to work harder, to wrestle, to really engage with the text not only from my perspective but through the eyes of the many diverse folks in the pews. She pushes, prods, and pokes holes in what seem like brilliant ideas. She challenges easy theologies. She shakes metaphors and illustrations to see if they can withstand the reality of people's lived experience. She will not let me get away with easy answers. She is the prophetic voice that calls me, and often our whole congregation, to account for our words and our actions. It's uncomfortable, it's difficult, but it is often what I need most.

If not for this friend, my sermons would often be finished a little earlier. But they would also be weaker. They would be straw-man sermons that could not hold up to the scrutiny of real people living in the real world.

All of us need these prophetic voices. We need someone who will tell us, with love, that we need to look again at who we are, what we say, and how we live. We need someone who has the courage to speak up and who cares about us enough to help us be better. Individuals, churches, communities, nations need these voices: they wake us from our lethargy and hypocrisy and call us to do better.

Today, even though my sermon is far from finished, I am thankful for a friend who cares enough about me, about this congregation, to challenge me. And I wish there were more people in the world with the courage and care to be prophetic.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Up in Smoke

It's gone. Those were the only words I could come up with when, on Tuesday, I discovered that my home church in Ohio had burned to the ground. All I could think of were the things that had been lost: the site of so many memories, the items that held so much tradition, the sacred space that had been almost my home for the first seventeen years of my life had disappeared in a matter of hours.


I remember so many important moments in that church. The pews were the site of so many naps, so much coloring, so many childhood hours spent doing everything except paying attention. I went to Vacation Bible School in that church, eating snacks and playing games in the Fellowship Hall. I remember countless potlucks, Kiwanis Pancake Suppers, and Rotary Spaghetti Dinners, gathering around tables with community members of all ages. The classrooms were where I learned the Lord's Prayer, where I became acquainted with the books of the Bible, where I had Girl Scout meetings and MYF gatherings. I remember painting walls and pulling up carpets as training for mission trips. I played in the nursery for years, and can still picture the furniture and toys that had filled that room.

I used to go exploring through the church while my mom counted the offering. My sister and I discovered that, if you used the right pair of safety scissors, you could pick the lock and climb up to the bell tower. We figured out how to get into the organ pipe storage rooms, we crawled under pews and climbed secret back staircases. We uncovered the long-forgotten chair lift and we knew all of the best hiding places for Sardines.

But the Sanctuary... the Sanctuary was my favorite space. It always struck me as the place where God lived: a holy space, but a comfortable one, too. Over my 17 years there, I sat in just about every spot in that room, from the front-center pew as an acolyte to the back corner of the balcony as a youth. I remember going to children's time on the chancel steps and playing trumpet in the choir loft on Easter Sunday. The lectern there was the first place I ever read Scripture in public. I was baptized and confirmed in that Sanctuary, and I stood before the altar there to give the benediction just after I first announced that I was discerning a call to ministry. I learned to play the organ there, while bats flew laps around the ceiling above me.

For seventeen years, that church building was my second home. It was familiar enough to walk in the dark; I knew every inch of the space, every smell, every shadow was as well-known to me as my own reflection. When I moved away to go to school, and then to take my first job, the church was always one of my first stops on my return. I longed to get back into my home church, back among my church family.


I always assumed that I'd be able to go back. And it was always my church home. When I went to college, that seemed a temporary relocation, and I always came home to my church. My seminary days were the same. When I moved to take my first church appointment, I knew the churches I served would never be my home. As a pastor, I'm a member of an Annual Conference, not a congregation. But in my heart, I never left. That big sandstone building was my sacred space, and the people within it were my family.

That is, until Wednesday. On Wednesday, that sacred space disappeared. In a matter of hours, flames destroyed all of those familiar items, all of the rooms I once wandered, until all that was left was a sandstone shell. After the fire, the pictures showed what looked like a ruined medieval castle with stone walls crumbling around a pile of ash and unrecognizable detritus.

I was devastated. I have grieved as though for a beloved friend. For that church building was a friend, in a way. It was a place that saw me through struggles and joys, the constant that allowed me to change and grow within it. There have been tears, and there will certainly be more as the days and weeks go on. There is a loss, not only of the past, but of the future. I will now never be able to be married in that place. I now no longer have the option of presiding at that table in the stole of an ordained elder. And that is difficult for me to accept.


But I am trying to give thanks, as well. I am trying to thank God for the gift that the building has been for me and for so many others in the congregation and the community.

I give thanks for those who, more than a century ago, gave funds and support for the building of a church. I give thanks for their vision, and for the way God worked through them to provide for generations to come.

I give thanks for a solid sandstone frame that withstood years of frigid winds, torrential storms, blizzards, and steamy summers, sheltering those within as they weathered physical, political, emotional, and spiritual storms.

I give thanks for old, stained carpets crossed by hundreds of feet as worshipers came forward to pray, to receive ashes, to be washed in baptismal waters, to be fed at the communion table, to light candles, and to sing God's praises.

I give thanks for carefully carved pews, worn smooth by countless hands and backsides, that supported worshipers of all ages and backgrounds. I also give thanks for pew cushions, added later, that made that support so much more comfortable.

I give thanks for dog-eared books, Bibles, and hymnals, from which generations of faithful, questioning, and doubting folks read words of theology, history, and praise.

I give thanks for paraments, altar cloths, and banners that displayed the liturgical year so that we could understand it.

I give thanks for stained glass windows with pictures of Bible stories and names of long-forgotten donors, windows that showed that the Light of Christ can be colorful and energizing.

I give thanks for the baptismal font, capped with a dove, which sat always in the chancel reminding us of the Holy Spirit's presence in our worship and, through baptism, in our lives.

I give thanks for the altar table, where so many holy feasts were blessed by Christ's presence and shared by God's people.

I give thanks for chipped dishes over which holy conversations were held and upon which delicious meals were served.

I give thanks for wrinkled choir robes and sheet music, from which songs of praise poured to praise and lift our souls to our Creator.

I give thanks for items now forgotten, and for a building that housed a century of activities both sacred and ordinary, people in all stages of saintliness and sinfulness, and moments of tradition and transformation. I give thanks for what the building that housed Ada First United Methodist Church was.

But I know that a church is not a building. I know that, even without that beautiful building to house their activities, the church will go on. They will heal. They will find hope. They will rebuild. They will thrive. They will grow. Through God's grace, they will continue to be the faithful, fruitful community I have known them to be. They will journey on with the guidance of the Spirit, and they will be in my prayers, as they always have been.

Friday, March 02, 2012

That's What I Said.

Matthew 16:15: "Jesus said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?'"
You are God in the flesh.
You are a human being who has experienced what I have experienced.
You are God seen face-to-face on earth.
You are a human being who laughed and cried and prayed with friends.
You are God who leaves fingerprints on our lives.
You are a human being who ate and drank and shared a table with strangers.
You are God who challenged the religious and political leaders.
You are a human being who embraced outcasts and sinners.
You are God who has existed through all time.
You are a human being who died a human death.
You are God who breathed life into creation.
You are a human being who rose from the dead.
You are God who reaches out with grace and mercy.
You are a human being who taught us to love and forgive.
You are God and human, the bridge between God's kingdom and fallen earth.
You are Creator and Savior.
You are Love Incarnate.