Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Watch Night

Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis
 This morning I was reading a devotional from the book Lighten the Darkness: An Advent Journey through Hope.  In it, the author, Dena Douglas Hobbs, was discussing her memories and experiences with Watch Night worship services.  Imagine for a moment a worship service on New Year's Eve filled with prayer, confession and celebration of the changing of the year.  I think it would be a great way to enter the new year, releasing the burdens of the previous year - the sins, regrets and worries of one year - so as to enter the next year free and ready for the coming of Christ.
A friend on Facebook posted a graphic that says, "I can't believe it's been a year since I didn't become a better person."  The graphic was meant as a joke, but I think it is a joke with some teeth.  We feel that way - we are weighed down with the guilt of regrets and sins, and it doesn't leave much room for hope.

Watch night is the time when we watch for Christ to enter our lives.  Hobbs talked about a tradition in an AME church.  As the people are praying and the year is changing, the pastor yells, "Watch!  Waaaatch!"  I think to experience that might be overly frightening for me, but there is truth in it.  Watch.  Jesus is coming into your life, into your new year, if you will allow it.  Watch, the next year is full of hope and grace, if you will make room for it.  Watch!

Watch!  Christ is coming.  Christ is here, and come every day.

Watch!  And have a grace-filled, hopeful, new year.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Design and Intention

If you have a chance, go watch this video.  It's about Apple -- design and intention.

After you watch it, think about these questions:

  1. When we craft ministry, do we start with our intention?  Do we outline the purpose of what we are doing?  
  2. What about God do we want people to know after the experience of the ministry?  Will something about God be revealed?  Will something about the person be discovered?  Will the person grow closer to God? Will calls be answered through what we are doing?  Would Jesus take part in the ministry we design?
  3. Do we craft around our intention?  Does the intention serve as motivation for what we are doing?  Or are we just doing it?
  4. Do we confuse convenience with joy?  Do we confusion abundance with choice?
  5. Are we willing to invest time to create something worthwhile?
  6. Does the ministry we craft touch people?  Are their lives enhanced?  Does God reach people through what we do?
  7. Is God involved in our ministry?


Friday, December 27, 2013

Chains forged in life

In the book A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Scrooge is haunted by ghosts (Is that sentence redundant?).  The first ghost is Jacob Marley.  Marley had been Scrooge's business partner.  When he appears in the book as a ghost, he is dragging chains made of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds and heavy purses wrought in steel."  His chain is made of all the tools of his profession.  Marley says, "I wear the chain I forged in life...I made it link by link and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

What an vivid picture.  I heard that quote on the radio while we were traveling one day.  It made me wonder what chains we forge for ourselves in life, through our own free will.  In what ways to we imprison ourselves?  If you had to describe the chain you wear, what would it be made of?

Once again I hear the phrase I love from the United Methodist Communion ritual -- "free us for joyful obedience."

May it be so.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Christmas Card

Merry Christmas to you, 
your family and friends.
I appreciate all of you
and pray for God's blessings of grace
on your lives.
Thank you for the moments you spend 
reading my thoughts; 
I hope God works through them somehow 
so that in the space between what I write 
and what you read, 
he is at work, 
revealing himself to you.

In the coming year, 
I pray we all grow in grace
and move closer to God.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Eve Devotional

Luke 22:50-51:  Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear.  But
Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.  

On Christmas Eve, we close our eyes, and we can imagine what it would have been like to have been standing in a stable, in a dark corner, watching as Mary held her newborn son.  Perhaps Joseph kneels near them, held speechless in the amazement that parents feel when a child arrives. We can imagine the love shared between the three of them, and it surrounds us, filling us with joy. As we watch, we are humbled by the realization that God has come into the world because of that love.  What have we done to earn this love?  It is no wonder that grace is described as amazing.

Then we read the words of Luke 22:50-51.  Even in the moment of betrayal, the love expressed in a stable is made evident.   In the slice of the sword, can we hear the echo of the weapons used to kill the young infant sons in the time of Jesus’ birth?  In Jesus’ gentle touch to restore the slave, can we feel the brush of a father’s hand against his son’s newborn cheek?  In the power of healing, can we remember Jesus love made manifest in his incarnation?   Jesus not only loves us, but he also models for us what love is, and how love acts.

Our world is not a quiet stable.  It is more like the world of the garden, when betrayal and fear threatened to overcome love.  What is our response in a world such as this?  Will we respond to hatred with hatred?  Violence with violence?  Or will we offer what has been offered to us?  Will we offer what Jesus offered to the slave of the high priest?  When we respond with healing – the love of Christ – all of us are made whole.  Consider today who in your life needs the healing touch of Christ through you.

Prayer:  Creating God, we thank you that you give us grace enough to love each other.  Amen.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

St. Nicholas, Part 2

To continue the discussion from yesterday about St. Nicholas...  First, I found this painting, which I share today instead of an image.

To learn more about the painting, click this link. 

The artist is Gentile da Fabriano, and the painting is the Dowry of Three Virgins. Remember the story from yesterday?  This is his artistic interpretation of the story, painted about 1425.

Continuing my thoughts about St. Nicholas....

Did you know circumstances suggest that he was one of those present at the Council of Nicea, and perhaps one of the the signers of the Nicene Creed (per Hobbs)?  This statement of doctrine has shaped the faith of billions of people over the years.  Through the work that was done to shape this Statement of Faith, we have come to understand the idea of the Trinity.

I love the idea that Bishop Nicholas of Myra, said, in effect, "This is what I believe.  Here is my faith."

Then, he took his beliefs and lived them out in generosity.  What he believed about Christ shaped how he lived his life.  We should follow that example.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

St. Nicholas, Part 1

December 6 was St. Nicholas Day.  Do you know much about St. Nicholas?  I don't.  My assumption is that he is one of the inspirations for Santa Claus.  The devotional book I'm reading during Advent, "Lighten the Darkness" by Dena Douglas Hobbs, talked about St. Nicholas on December 6.

He is known for his generosity.  The most famous story about him is that he supplied dowry money for three daughters in a family where there was no money for dowries. Without dowries, the women couldn't get married, and would have no real life.  Depending on the story you read, Nicholas threw money over a fence, or down the chimney, or even into the girls' stockings so that they could start their lives.  Light, in darkness, supplied through generosity.

Light - that's why people put oranges in stockings.  They represented balls of light.

Anyway, think of Nicholas giving money to this family.  He redeemed the daughters from what would have been lives of poverty or prostitution, for in that society, that would have been all that would be open to them.  Through his generosity, he gave gifts of grace that let them live a redeemed life.  Christ does the same for us.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christ Coming

During Advent, I'm reading a devotional book called "Lighten the Darkness: An Advent Journey through Hope" by Dena Douglas Hobbs.  A friend of mine who works in the the Kentucky Annual Conference recommended it on Facebook.   I'm reading the Kindle version.

Today the devotional was about being ready.  So often, I think, we read apocalyptic writing such as the story of the 10 bridesmaids, and the message we hear is this:  Christ is coming, and some of you won't be ready.  Is that the message?

Hobbs talking about a different message, and I think it is one we should hear today - right now - because it can make an immediate difference in our lives today.  Christ is coming today.  He is already here, trying to break into your day.  Are you watching?  Are you ready?  Are you going to miss him (like the people yesterday who have misplaced Jesus from their nativity scenes?) or will you notice Christ in your day.

What kind of difference will it make in the day, in the way you live these 24 hours, if you saw Christ?  Would your life be different?  Would the lives of the people around you be different because of how you are living?

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Lost Jesus

I was in a church meeting yesterday.  Several of the people in the meeting were discussing the nativity scenes in their homes or at the church. I heard more than once that the baby from the nativity was missing.  In one case, the woman's young daughter had taken it to play with, thinking it was a doll.  In another household, the missing Jesus had been replaced with a snow baby.  In one case, someone was piling hay around the manger to keep the baby warm (that one must have been outside - at least, I hope so).

As I was listening, I was thinking -- surely in this there is a blog post!  We talk a lot about missing out on Christmas because we miss its purpose.  Jesus is missing from our own nativity scenes. Beyond that, though, I was interested in the rest of it.  Do we substitute something else to replace Jesus?  Like the snow baby?  Does it work?  Do we sometimes take Jesus out and play with him, like a toy?  Are we so busy piling up the hay that we fail to even see Jesus?

So what do we do?  What is the solution?  I think it's something beyond being less busy and turning on the Christmas carols.  What is Christ calling us to do that we are just playing at, or ignoring or substituting with something else?

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Monday, December 16, 2013


I am a knitter.  The project I am currently working to finish (there comes a time when the knitting is not "process" any more; it's project -- the end must come soon) is done in linen stitch, which requires a knit/slip pattern on the front and a purl/slip pattern on the back.  Stick with me...

I noticed as I was knitting this weekend that several rows back, I had reversed the pattern for about four inches of a row.  That's about thirty or forty stitches.  The problem was that the mistake was at least eight rows back.  The project is a scarf, knit the "long" way, meaning from end to end, not from side to side.  And it's knit with fingering weight yarn -- small yarn.  Each row is 450 stitches.

So I was left with three choices -- ignore the mistake and keep knitting, unravel about 3,600 stitches, fix the mistake and reknit 3,600 stitches, or unknit each column, letting the stitches in that column run down the mistake, fix the mistake, and then reknit the column.  I couldn't ignore the mistake, and I didn't have the heart to rip-out and re-knit 3,600 stitches, so I spent a day with my magnifying light, fixing each mistake by the column method.  It's painstaking, and hard to do, because it isn't how one normally knits.  It's hard to see, and hard to fix.

But the process reminded me of the necessity of patience.  Sometimes fixing what has gone wrong requires magnifying the mistake, carefully teasing out the right stitches to get to the wrong ones, and then reworking what needs done so as to leave no scar.  In relationships, this requires love and grace.

Thank God God has these qualities in abundance.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Passover Freedom

This morning I read Luke 22:1-13.  In these paragraphs, Judas plots with the chief priests and the officers of the temple police to betray Jesus.  Following that is the paragraph about the preparation for the Passover meal, and Jesus' instructions concerning it.

The study Bible I read makes a point to emphasize that this meal is Passover, "with its emphasis on the exodus as liberation for the marginalized and oppressed..."  Remember when Passover was established in the book of Exodus, during the time when the Israelites were freed from the control of Pharaoh in Egypt.

I remember when I was taking the Bethel Teacher's class.  Chuck Echols (the minister who was teaching it) and the curriculum reminded us that Jesus came to the world when the time was right -- in God's time.  There has to be some link in the timing of the crucifixion for it to fall right at Passover.  This act of God frees his people, once again.  We are freed from the bondage of our sin. There is a line in the United Methodist Communion ritual that says, "free us for joyful obedience." It is at the end of a confession.  Through our communion with Christ, we are freed from our sins.

Considering that I read today from Luke, with his emphasis on the fact that salvation is for everyone, and that Christ came for the oppressed, it's no wonder that he makes it perfectly clear to us that this last meal will be Passover.

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sacred Places vs Sacred Journeys

I talked yesterday about the generation changes that are happening in the society around us. One of them is that the generation of the 50's and 60's found a sacredness in space.  The sanctuary is a sacred place, where God was found.  I come to church -- the sacred place -- to find God.

The newer generation finds sacredness in the journey.  It is a sacredness not of place, but of movement.  I am on a journey to find God, and God can be found regardless of location.

I was thinking about that during Sunday school last Sunday.  It was a lesson about the tabernacle -- the "sanctuary" that traveled with the Israelites from Egypt to the promised land.  In order to apply the lesson to the modern time, the teacher asked several questions about worship.  Questions like:

* What symbols in worship remind you of God's presence?
* What is most important in the worship space?
* How is worship centered?

A lot of the answers given were about the physical space that is where our church worships.  The stained glass windows reminded people of the sacred.  Silence is what made a space holy.  It was interesting to me that many of the items and symbols that were mentioned were permanent parts of the sanctuary worship space.  If the church wanted to worship somewhere else, they couldn't take these items with them.

During the evolution of our less-traditional worship -- alternative, contemporary -- whatever you want to call it -- we spent a few months worshiping in the Fellowship Hall.  There were some who were uncomfortable with that, because it was like trying to worship in the kitchen to them.  It did not have a sense of sacred space.

I just find that interesting in the light of what Gil Rendle told us.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Old Buildings, New Church

There is a building in Charleston near where I work that looks like a building that you would see in a movie made in the 50's.  As I walk down the corridors of this building, I see the old thick doors, the glass venting windows opening into the hallway above each entrance.  The elevator is tiny and the stairs are ornate.  Walking through this building to an office is like taking a step back in time.  It is clean and very well maintained, but not at all modern.

There is a certain charm to it, but there is also a feeling of disconnection.  This might not be a place I would want to work.  What about air conditioning?  What about wireless internet and energy efficient lighting? What about accessibility?   The building is old, comfortable and well maintained, but seems stuck in a previous decade.

Are our churches sometimes like this?  I don't mean the buildings, although since I serve on the Finance Committee, I know how much money is spent maintaining our old building.  I'm talking about our faith.  Do we, as a church, have a faith that is old, comfortable and well maintained, but disconnected from the present time?

I know God is eternal and unchanging, but our faith, and the way we live it out is not God.  It must change.  Christianity is all about change.  We are in the business of transformation.

At NAUMF this year, Gil Rendle spoke about the changing culture and how the church is not changing in order to continue to be a relevant force in society.  The GI generation - the time in the 20th century when the church was "booming" -- shared an idea of group identification.  There was a sense of sameness, deferred pleasure and stewardship.  Those in the church were part of a group, and that membership defined them.  To these people, space had a sense of spirituality.  In comparison, the generation today is an generation of individuals.  The culture no longer asks where people belong, but instead asks who we are.  Instead of sacrificial giving, stewardship is about generosity -- how do I apply myself to make a difference?  There is a spirituality associated with journey instead of space.  The basic model of discipleship asks the question, "How will my engagement with Christ and the church change my life and other people's lives?"

Before you start thinking thoughts like "this generation today; what's up with them" stop and consider that this generation today is correcting the one before it.  All of our generations do that. So be open to the idea that this is something new and might have many wonderful things to offer in the way of faith.

Aside from that, if we continue to try to maintain what is comfortable for us -- if we fail to maintain relevancy to the present day generation, then the church will fail in its purpose.  We will not change people's lives. We will not be a force for God to use to bring about his kingdom.

We'll be comfortable, but we won't be a church.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013


What is Saturday like?  For me, the best Saturdays are often the ones that aren't planned out.  Those are the Saturdays when I can sleep late, or I can get up before the rest of the family, knit and watch reruns on TV.  The best Saturdays are the ones when we wonder around and dream, thinking about the possibilities of what might be.  How would we redecorate the family room?  When we have the time to redo the bathroom, how will we do it?  Saturdays with a movie thrown in are great.  Saturdays with dinner out, maybe with some friends, are a bonus.

But that's not the kind of Saturday I mean.

What about the Saturdays between Good Friday and Easter?  I'm (still) reading "Who is this man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus" by John Ortberg.  The chapter I read this morning was called Saturday.  He says:  "On Saturday, in addition to the pain of Friday, there is the silence and absence of God."  What about those kind of Saturdays?  What about the time of grief when God seems absent?

He goes on to say:
The Apostle's Creed says Jesus descended into hell.  Somehow no suffering you go through is suffering Jesus will not endure in order to save you.
Ortberg asks if we can see the miracle of Saturday in the bright brilliance of the miracle of Resurrection Sunday.
Now on Saturday the angels look down and see what?  God in a tomb.  The miracle of Sunday is that a dead man lives.  The miracle of Saturday is that the eternal Son of God lies dead.
Prevenient grace is such that even when we don't realize the presence of God, even when we would swear God is absent, God is there.


Monday, December 09, 2013

Prayer as Service

There was a gentleman who belonged to my church named Jim Ray.  Jim's gift was service to others, and that is the way he lived his life.  I've written about him before.

He came to mind today because I read this in my study bible, referencing Luke 18 and the story of the persistent widow:  "To grasp the way in which the widow is a model of prayer, it is important to realize how this parable expands the idea of prayer to include the whole life of believers in their crying out in the midst of and their protesting against injustice."

Jim's life, lived in service, was in some ways a  cry out against injustice.  Isn't that what service is, sometimes?  In a discussion at church about what prayer is, I mentioned that Jim's service was an example of prayer. Everyone looked at me as if I wasn't making sense, and maybe I wasn't, but I still see a connection between what you do and what you pray.  Service is a kind of prayer.  It is communicating with God.  It is responding to God's love with love and obedience -- to God and to other people.  It is a kind of prayer.

Think about how you pray beyond the expected way you pray.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013


More about gratitude from my email box (via SoundBytes):
Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly.   -- Henri Nouwen
The nasty, terrible truth is that sometimes complaint, bitterness and ugly thoughts seem to be more comforting that gratitude.  Don't misread that -- I don't mean that they ARE more comforting.  I just think that sometimes we don't want to let go of the hurt and the anger -- we want to wallow in it.  We can't have it both ways.  It seems impossible to me to be grateful while at the same time, bitter.

So, is gratitude a choice?  Can we choose to let go of the resentment and take hold of gratitude? When we are criticized, can we let go of the hurt of that and be grateful for the existence of the criticism?  I don't know if I can.  Can we be grateful for someone when all we see in them in mistakes and a poor attitude?  Can we see beauty in something when all we see is its ugliness.

There is a twist in those questions.  I'm not asking if we can see something ugly and look beyond the ugliness to the beauty that lies within.  I'm asking if we can be grateful for the ugliness.  Can we be grateful to have been criticized?  Can we give thanksgiving for the pain of rejection?

Nouwen says it is a choice.  Is it one we can make?  If we do, what is the result?  In our gratitude, does God transform the ugly, the critical, the pain into something else?

Rambling thoughts today without much cohesion.


Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Already Forgiven

One of my roles at my church is to coordinate a devotional ministry.  Member of the church write devotionals.  Each week we email them out to over 200 people.  In Advent, the devotionals are written for daily distribution.  I also compile them into a printed devotional book.

As I was assembling the booklet today and proofreading the texts, I was struck by something.  One of the writers, who was writing a devotional for the last week of Advent, wrote a prayer that begins, "We ask once again for you to have patience with us.  We have been ignoring your messages this season.  We've tried, but we have allowed the busyness and worldly distractions to draw us away form the light."  (Hat-tip to Chyrl Budd).  She wrote this sometime in November as a prayer of confession for close to Christmas.  She knows that we will try, and that we will not fulling reach our potential in Advent, and that we will need forgiveness.

God knew we would need forgiveness, too.  Two thousand years before our birth, our sins were forgiven.  How wonderful is that?

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The 99, the 9, the one lost

Our topic for Bible Study a few weeks ago was Luke 15.  Luke 15 is a great chapter.  It contains the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons.  In it is much to learn and much fodder for discussion.

We were talking about the Lost Sheep.  One person remarked that if she had been the shepherd, she would never have left the 99 to go find the one.  Why risk the 99 and leave them undefended? I switched the question -- what if you were responsible for 100 children, and one of them got lost? What would you do?

Another person in the class remarked that the story isn't about the 99 sheep -- it's about the one sheep.  It's a parable about how precious the one sheep is to the shepherd.  The other 99 sheep aren't important to the story.

Do you agree with that?

I don't think I do.  I think the story is about the one sheep, and it is about the 99 sheep.  It's about the one lost coin and the 9 other coins.  I think we learn that when we read the last parable in the chapter -- the one about the two sons.  One son knows he is lost, and he makes a decision to come back home.  He is welcomed.  It's a wonderful, tidy story.  The other son doesn't realize he is lost, but even so, the father comes out to him to find him.  There is no satisfying ending to that part of the story.  What does that older son decide to do?

I think it parallels the people who are surrounding Jesus.  The "sinners" -- the tax collectors and outcasts -- are lost, and they are coming to Jesus.  The Pharisees don't know they are lost, and still the father comes to them.  What will they decide?  The story must be open ended because they Pharisees have not yet decided what to do.

Which are we?  Are we lost, and we realize it?  Do we experience the joy of the younger son, returning to a forgiving father?  Or are we the older son, not even realizing our need for redemption.  What will we decide?

The 99 sheep, the 9 coins and the older son are important to the story because they are important to God.  All are loved.


Monday, December 02, 2013

Flying Ducks

Once again, today, I was listening to What you Missed in History Class.  The podcast was about Sophie Blanchard and her life as the first female career balloonist.  It was an interesting story, but what first caught my attention was the work of her husband, Jean-Pierre Blanchard.

King Louis XIV was interested in flight.  When it became known that it might be possible for people to fly in a balloon using hydrogen as a "lifting agent" (my term), Louis was ready.  He proposed to Jean-Pierre that criminals be used as "guinea pigs" (again, my term) in flight.  Not liking that idea, Jean-Pierre used three farm animals instead.  The tethered flight, witnessed by the king, was a success, and led to more tests and to balloon flights by people.  Everyone, including the king, was very excited.

What struck me, though, were the three farm animals -- a duck, a rooster and a sheep -- the first three animals to fly.  It just made me laugh that everyone was so excited that Jean-Pierre had made a duck and a rooster fly.  The sheep I give him credit for, and maybe the rooster flew higher than it ever had before, but come-on -- ducks already fly.

Just a small laugh in my morning.