Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Work of Christmas

For many of us, Christmas is now long gone. Kids are back in school. Work has resumed. The routine has cranked back up. And we are now planning another year. But the Christmas season (the 12 days of Christmas) actually lasts until tomorrow, January 6, when we celebrate Epiphany. Epiphany reminds us about the wisemen who followed a star to worship the newborn King. But what happens after Epiphany? What lasting impact does Christmas have on us the rest of the year?

I am reminded of a wonderful poem by theologian Howard Thurman. This time of the year I lift up this poem as a way to celebrate and live Christmas the whole year through. May we each engage in the work of Christmas every day.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Christmas Is About...

   
As I reflect on the meaning of Christmas for me, I recall these words from Matthew 1:22-25 “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” 
    What is Christmas all about? What is the significance of this whole season? As I reflected on these questions, I felt led to write this. 

Christmas Is About…
Christmas is about God breaking into human history in a way
never done before.
Christmas is about God doing a new thing in our midst.
Christmas is about Emmanuel, “God with us,”
Christmas is about love coming down to earth.
Christmas is about Jesus knocking on the door of our inn,
asking if there’s any room in our hearts.
Christmas is about interrupting our plans and our festivities
to marvel at a child born 2,000 years ago.
Christmas is about children who love to tell the birth story,
and sing carols, and lead God’s people in worship.
Christmas is about evening services, Christ’s body broken,
Christ’s light multiplied and carried out into the world.
Christmas is about you and me and God and love and faith
and hope and peace.
Christmas is today…and every day.

     If you answered the question, "What is Christmas truly about for you?" what would you write. Perhaps in some quiet or devotional time, you might start to ask that question for yourself. In the meantime, may you have a truly blessed and joy filled Christmas! Merry Christmas to each of you!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Giving Thanks in All Circumstances

    One thing I have always struggled with is knowing when to give thanks. At first that may sound silly. It's really not hard. I give thanks when life is good. I ask for help and prayers when life is hard. When something happens in my life that I like, I give thanks. When something happens that is unfortunate, I pray for what I need to get through it.
     But I Thessalonians 5:18 says, "give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." How in the world can we give thanks in ALL circumstances? I can't give thanks when a child gets sick, or violence is happening in the world, or a loved one is unemployed! I can't give thanks for all the wrong and evil and misfortune in this world! So how can I give thanks in ALL circumstances?!?
     Basing our thanks on whether or not something is what we want or we think is good at the time is very limiting and short sighted. One of my favorite stories about our limited nature of knowing what is ultimately beneficial for us is the ancient Eastern story below.
     “Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “We’ll see,” the farmer replied.
     The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “We’ll see,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “We’ll see,” answered the farmer.
     The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “We’ll see,” said the farmer.”
     What should we consider a blessing? What do we call misfortune? An event that seems awful, like a horse running away, just might be blessing when it comes back with three more. That simple problem that led you to get the CAT scan may be the reason they caught that blood clot before it gave you a heart attack. Do we see the larger picture? How do we know what events will lead to positive or negative outcomes? Is what is going on in your life wonderful? Or awful? We’ll see.
     When we lose our health, we sure appreciate the little things we can do and we rejoice in what we used to take for granted. When we lose our material wealth, we learn that our security, our trust, our faith is not in money or possessions. When we fail or make a mistake, we learn from it, we grow, we change for the better. That which we might consider an unfortunate event, may just be a blessing. Maybe that’s why Thessalonians says to give thanks in all circumstances. Because you never know when a circumstance will become a blessing down the road.
     How do you know what to be thankful for? Are we only thankful for that which makes us happy at the moment? For what we want here and now? For what answers our prayers momentarily? What about the big picture? Only God knows. Only God knows what is to be praised, what is to be lamented. Only God has the wisdom to see all things, all times, all circumstances. We see only one step at a time. Only God sees the big picture.
     So when you are gathered around the Thanksgiving table tomorrow, some may have many obvious reasons to celebrate while others have many obvious reasons to lament. Cultivate an attitude and prayer life of thanksgiving. Giving thanks to a God that loves you unconditionally. Giving thanks to a God who gave his only Son that we might have abundant life. Giving thanks to a God who is always with us granting us undeserved forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Giving thanks to a God whose will is "peace on earth" and asks us to be involved in making it so. Giving thanks is not dependent on our circumstances. Thanks giving is dependent upon a loving, faithful, eternal God that desperately desires to be in an intimate relationship with us. And that's something to give thanks for no matter what we are going through. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Difficult Decisions: Thoughts about Coffee (but not really)

     Recently, the question has been asked at the church I serve, "Should we prohibit drinking coffee during worship?" As you might imagine there are people passionate on both sides  of this question and a vast majority somewhere in the middle. I've wrestled with the question, "What is my role in this discussion?" Some believe being a spiritual leader means guiding and influencing others to the answer s/he believes is best. Others believe a leader simply moderates the discussion with no bias. I've come to the conclusion, my role is to lay the ground work and provide a framework in which to have the discussion. As I gathered my thoughts on what to say tomorrow night at the Session meeting, I realized this framework is really applicable to any difficult decision we may face in the church or in our lives. I humbly offer them and welcome ways to improve this approach to making hard choices.
     First, as a Christian, I strive to follow in Jesus' footsteps and live into God's will for my life. My basis for a decision should not be self focused but God focused. "Not my will but thy will be done, O Lord." So I constantly ask, what is God's will? What does scripture say that might shed light on what God's will is? I may WANT to cheat on a test in high school so I can get a better grade and get into a better college, but I know that's not what God would want me to do nor is it what scripture condones. True, many times it's hard to know what God's will is. But at least asking the question and consulting scripture puts us on the right path.
     Second, what is at stake here? What are the deeper issues? Back to the coffee example. The real issue isn't coffee. The deeper issue is stewardship of property as we take good care of the pews, carpets, and sanctuary entrusted to us. The deeper issue is hospitality in how we make members and visitors feel welcome in worship. The deeper issue is worship and respect and reverence for an Almighty God. In every mundane decision, there are deeper issues of ethics, morals, trust, and integrity. I alway ask myself, "What issues does this question really speak to and what is at stake in this decision?"
     Third, there is a cost and  benefit to any decision we make. What is the cost and benefit to saying yes to the idea? What is the cost and benefit to saying no? What is the cost and benefit to an alternative? Let's be honest. Everything has an upside and downside. We may simply prefer different costs and benefits, but no one answer will be perfect. That' why the decision is difficult in the first place. 
     Fourth, I always wonder and ask, "Is there an alternative?" Does it have to be all yes or no to a certain issue or question? Is there a compromise? In the past the compromise to the coffee issue has been to ask people to put lids on drinks to reduce the possibility of spills and damage. Sometimes there is no compromise but I continue to seek creative solutions or alternatives to issues that may cause disagreement. 
     Fifth, I also ask myself, "Do we need more information to make a decision? Do we have to make it now? Is there a benefit in waiting? Do we need to see how others have handled a similar question? Who else will be effected by this decision? Who could I talk to for wisdom or advice? These are also important questions to ask ourselves as we take time to consider the impact our decisions make on not just our own lives but the lives of others.
     Of course this is not a fool proof, step by step, easy to follow instruction manual for how to make difficult decisions. But it may perhaps shed some light on a few ways to approach hard choices we are faced with and some helpful questions we might ask ourselves. Don't underestimate prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. With God all things are possible. Study, ask, reflect, be honest, seek God's will, and pray. More times than not, the path will become clear.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Going Back Down the Mountain

          As I sit in the airport once again ready to return home, I am now better equipped to enter the whirlwind of packing up all my worldly belongings and moving to our new house in Virginia Beach next weekend. I am better equipped to learn from and lead the congregation I serve. I am better equipped to feed myself and others with God's Word through the preaching moment. 
          Why? Because I have taken the time to sit at the feet of some of the greatest preachers of our time. Because I have set aside time to be nurtured by family. Because I carved out time to take a deep breath, slow down my frantic pace, and rediscover my center once again. 
          After all, that's why I come to these conferences.  That's why I miss moments like Alex losing his first tooth and Christian trying out for soccer. That's why I make the sacrifice. To be the best pastor, mom, wife I can be, I need to retreat at times and renew my passion for who I am and what I'm called to do. 
          Jesus needed some time away to reconnect with God and his purpose. It's a healthy rhythm we all need. I am grateful for a congregation that understands and supports this need. I am grateful to a husband willing to "hold down the fort" while I'm gone. I am grateful to a God who is always faithful to meet me where I am and give me what I need to do what God asks me to do. Deep breath. Time to go back down the mountain. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Preaching That Works

          Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection, gave a lecture that was by far the most practical and helpful of the week. He called it, "Preaching That Works" and gave several suggestions on how to improve our preaching. I resonated with almost all of them. Just in case they are helpful to anyone else, here's what I learned from Adam Hamilton (which I'm sure can be found in some of the many books he's written but it was easier to learn these in a one hour lecture than in reading a book.)
          Kierkegaard the philosopher said we should preach with fear and trembling, but that shouldn't paralyze us. If God can speak through Balaam's ass, God can speak through you and me. The Spirit works despite those Sundays we feel completely inadequate or unprepared. Preaching is about giving it our all, our best, and then leaving the rest to God. When we don't spend enough time in prayer, we can often feel the difference in our preaching. We know how to write a sermon, but it's not about our work or our word in the end so we rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit.
          The sermon we live is the most important one of all. Be authentic. Be vulnerable. Be honest about your struggles and fears. Don't use preaching for self-therapy but also don't act like you are any better than anyone else. After all, we wouldn't need the gospel if we were perfect.
          Be clear about your MVP: mission, vision, and plan. Make sure the church is clear about its MVP and then allow the preaching moment to reinforce the direction the church is going in. Have a one or two year preaching plan. Hamilton takes one week a year away to plan out the next year's worth of sermons with input from the congregation. What are you trying to accomplish through your preaching? Be clear about your goals and create a long term plan.
          Every sermon should have 3 aims: the head, the heart, the hands. We should be biblically informed, spiritually transformed, and serving God in the world. Make sure they learn at least one thing through every sermon. Make sure they feel inspired, motivated, uplifted. Make sure they are challenged to do something specific as a result of the message, living it out in their own lives.
          Keep in mind the 5 categories of sermons. 1. Fishing sermons geared toward seekers. 2. Discipleship sermons helping people go deeper in their faith. 3. Pastoral Care sermons to care for and nurture people. 4. Equipping and Sending sermons to encourage people to share God's love with others. 5. Strengthening the Church sermons that focus more on the church itself. Try to keep a good balance of all five of these different kinds of sermon series throughout the year.
          Preaching on difficult subjects: be faithful to each side. Carefully articulate each side of an issue and respect those who differ. Share your perspective with humility and love. Begin with, "This is where I am today on this topic." or "I may be wrong but..." Keep in balance the prophetic and the pastoral when preaching on controversial issues.
          My hope is that people leave more authentically human than when they came.
          Preaching can begin with a text and apply it to life today. Another way is to start with a life question and then apply the biblical witness to it. Both are effective ways to preach, although Jesus seemed to lean toward the latter in his preaching and many in our culture today do also.
          Understand where people are on the discipleship pyramid. If Christ is at the top of the pyramid and is our aim in the Christian life, about 10% of the congregation has almost reached it. These are the saints, the ones who are the closest to living like Jesus. The next 20% are the leaders. They are always at the church, giving of their time, talent, and treasure, and are invested in the church. The next tier down makes up 30% of the people, people who are trying but still struggle. They come to worship most of the time but might not be involved in anything else. The bottom of the pyramid makes up 40% of the congregation, the people that come three or four times a year or when it's convenient. We have to preach to all four levels, but mostly to the 40%. We can't assume they know scripture or the context or history of biblical stories. We must preach with a heavy teaching component so many can get caught up in their biblical background knowledge. Don't just preach to the top one or two tiers of Christians. Make your preaching accessible to all. 
          Capitalize on special holidays like Mother's and Father's Day with a special sermon, give away, or personal invitation to a special activity during or after church.
          Illustrations and stories are your bread and butter. It's the stories that make the sermon. Spend time looking for powerful and compelling illustrations for the message. Your own family, people in the congregation, and every day life are great places to look. Be on the look out constantly for great stories/examples.
          Give aways are an effective way of reinforcing the sermon and helping people put it into action. A magnet, memory card, coin, rock, or shower tag are all ways that people can take something tangible with them to remember the point of the sermon and to encourage them to live the message. These give aways become a reminder of the message so it stays with them longer.
          Of course there are no magic answers or formulas to great sermons, but I found all of these tips and suggestions to be helpful as I look forward to my next preaching opportunity. There is always room to grow and improve upon one's gifts. I'm thankful for these tidbits of wisdom as I continually and intentional seek to grow in my preaching abilities.

Going Where No Preacher Has Gone Before

          OK, maybe it's an exaggeration to say "no preacher." But suffice it to say that very few preachers choose to preach on difficult texts and difficult topics. On Wednesday, the motif running through all 6 of the lectures and classes I attended was the encouragement to preach on those scriptures and themes that so many are afraid to speak about.
          Luke Powery, my Princeton Seminary classmate and now pastor at Duke Divinity School, highlighted the role of the wilderness and reclaimed the role of grief and groaning in preaching. Beginning with John the Baptist in Luke 3, Powery reminded us the word of God came to an unlikely person in an unlikely place. We avoid the difficult, anxiety infested wilderness yet that is all too often where the word of God can be found. Those words in the wilderness are powerful for they offer a "haunting echo of hope." We must seek out and preach from the wilderness in order to help our congregation find a way through it. Powery continued asking us if our Gospel groaned. Is there room for tears, and pain, and heartache in our preaching? Recovering the power of lament, Rachel weeping for her children, Jeremiah groaning for his people, the Spirit praying sighs too deep for words, scripture is full of lament. A Gospel who doesn't groan has not guts and no God. Preachers proclaim a wounded word. The Spirit is immersed in the messiness of life. You've got to go through the groans to get to the glory. Tears are rooted in hope. Hope comes despite grief but not without it. Don't underestimate the tears of grief. It's not popular, but it's what people are going through. It's the whole gospel.
          Walter Bruggeman, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary, reminded us that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is both a wonder and a vexation. God is not a God of certitude but rather a God of fidelity. A God of certitude is predictable, has no gray areas, no forgiveness, no need to listen to others, crushes all views but their own, seeks status quo. A God of fidelity has the freedom to respond to human existence, sometimes in surprising and unpredictable ways. God expresses anger, jealousy, violence, as well as forgiveness and grace. Preachers are called to preach a biblical God of fidelity in a world who wants a God of certitude.
          Anna Carter Florence, professor of preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, told us we need to tell the hard stories and it starts with us. Using Judges 19, the story of the unnamed concubine who was thrown out by her owner to a bunch of thugs who raped her all night and left her dead at the doorstep of the house, only to be taken by her owner and cut up and sent to the twelve tribes of Israel, is a true text of terror. And yet it is in our Bible, it is part of our Holy Scripture. It is also part of our congregation's lives, whether through domestic violence or human sex trafficking. Acknowledge and tell the hard stories because only then will we see ourselves in them and work to create a different ending to that story in the world today. Carter Florence in a subsequent lecture used the first three chapter of Ruth to encourage us to: 1. Cling like Ruth to the text even when others tell you to turn back to what is more comfortable. 2. Glean like Ruth in the fields of the text, as laborious and slow and difficult as it is at times. 3. Uncover like Ruth which is why we do all this gleaning. To tell the truth because something needs to be uncovered. Uncover racism, immigration injustice, hate crimes. Time to recognize each other as family and take care of one another. These are the gifts and the challenges of preaching.
          John Philip Newell, poet, peace activist, and leader of Iona community in Scotland,  invited us to learn from the Eastern faith traditions and to see God's wisdom and image in all people. In a world suspicious and afraid of faiths other than their own, in a world where we create divisions of us vs. them, Newell challenged us to appreciate and learn from the gifts Eastern traditions bring. Specifically, the East emphasizes the "withinness" of God, how the divine is in all of us. Jesus said, "I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you." (John 14:20) We must "strip Jesus of Western garb" and open ourselves to the beauty and the divine found in Eastern faith traditions. When was the last time we preached a sermon highlighting the gifts of Hinduism or Buddhism and how they shed light on our own Christian faith?
          Each of these four speakers challenged me to keep pushing the envelope, keep making myself uncomfortable, keep preaching the ENTIRE bible and not just the pretty or convenient or socially acceptable parts. Conferences like these jolt me out of my complacency and routine in sermon preparation and motivate me to commit once again to preaching the oftentimes uncomfortable Word of God. As the Star Trek introduction put it, "To go where no one has gone before." Or at least very, very few.