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.