Easter at Home

I’m 56 years old. I’ve probably celebrated Easter in a church for 55 of those years. I figure, somewhere along the line, I had to miss one. For 33 of those 55 Easters, I’ve been leading worship in one form or another. In public, in front of hundreds of people. Not today.

April 12, 2020. Easter at home. Not by choice but by necessity.

I just watched my church’s online worship service. Aside from the strange feeling of watching yourself talk to yourself on a computer screen, I was moved to tears. Each of us who would normally be in front of a gathering, did their part from their home. Through the magic of video, it was edited into a coherent whole. Butterflies flew. Candles were lit. Guitars played. A sermon was preached. Scripture was read. Prayers were said. A virtual choir (little individual pictures of people singing and playing brass instrument) ended to service with that familiar “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

I can’t believe it, but I finished the service with a lump in my throat. A lump of longing. I long to be back together – singing, worshiping, hugging, praying!

This Easter morning I feel like one of those early disciples. They were apart. They were sequestered in the upper room. They didn’t know if they’d ever celebrate again. Then . . .

A voice. Mary, one of them, breathlessly panting, “Somebody took his body!” Peter, always Peter, must have cursed, “What now? Could this day get any worse?!?” It wasn’t until he and John arrived at the tomb that the evidence convinced them of the opposite – this day could not get any better!

I awoke this morning to storm warnings and messed up Facebook videos (ask me about the valiant attempt at a Sunrise Service and how Facebook creepily knows what is playing and who owns 58 seconds of out of 90 minutes of video). Could this day get any worse?

Then, a voice. Some music. Some butterflies. By the end, I had seen the evidence of resurrection. Through it all, in spite of all difficulty, this day could not get any better!!

Thank you, church!

You Never Forget Your First Easter

I guess that all good preachers remember their first Easter at a new church. For me, though, they all run together. That Sunrise Service where it was so cold I had to play guitar with numb fingers? Could have been Carbon Hill, could have been Reform. The time I got a phone call complaining that our Sunrise Service was a pagan celebration because we were worshiping the sun? Definitely Carbon Hill. You don’t forget something that unusual.

Plus, I have Belinda’s services in my memory, too. When was it she got the real donkey to come to church? Or was that Christmas? It all runs together.

But, I will never forget my first Easter at Aldersgate.

Sure, Coronavirus, quarantine, and all that stuff . . .

The real reason I will never forget this Easter? This is the first Easter when I have spent Lent truly pondering what is essential to my faith. Not just “ponder,” I lived it! I’ve come to realize what is absolutely necessary – while I was giving it up. That’s a first for me.

I don’t like to deny myself any pleasure. Family members have been much more into self-denial during Lent (soft drinks, sweets, etc.). I tried to add disciplines to my life, like letter writing, more scripture reading. During this season of Lent, I have been forced to give up what is most important to me.

I imagine that in 2021, someone will ask, “What did you give up for Lent last year?”  Where in the world would I begin?

  • Gathering weekly with my fellow believers and singing hymns and songs of praise.
  • The rush of adrenaline I feel when I stand up to preach
  • Hugging, shaking hands, real connection – computer screens will have to do, I guess. For now.

Lord, let me never take those things for granted again.

I know how the disciples felt while Jesus was in the tomb. Those three days must have felt like an eternity. I don’t know how long all of my essentials will be “in the tomb,” but on the day when they spring forth anew – what an Easter that will be!

I will definitely never forget my first Easter at Aldersgate – when we all gather together once again and laugh and hug and pray live and in person!

24/7 Discipleship

If someone were to tell you they were a football fan, how would you know?

  • They would likely know something about the sport, understand certain terms, have a favorite team or player that they like.
  • They might wear certain clothes – a t-shirt, hat, jersey – of their favorite team.
  • They would watch football games whenever they could, even attend those games in person.

If they said they were a fan, but didn’t show any evidence of that fact, we would doubt their word. We might even call them a liar.

If someone were to tell you they were a Christian, how would you know? Some of the evidence might be similar:

  • They would likely know something about the faith, understand certain terms, have a favorite church.
  • They might wear certain clothes – t-shirts or a hat – that expresses something about their belief. Depending on the particular form of Christianity they claim, they might even have certain styles of dress that are required of them.
  • They might even attend worship services, or church gatherings, whenever they can, even watching some on TV or the internet.

If they claimed to be a Christian, but showed no evidence of that claim, we might doubt their claim. We might even call them a liar.

How do we – the church – know who we are when we cannot do the things we are accustomed to doing? “I’m a Christian because I go to church every Sunday!” Not this week! Not next week, not Easter. How will people know I’m a Christian?!?

We can’t go to church but we can still be the church!

Through all this COVID-chaos, we are learning what Christians have known since the beginnings of the movement. Christians were first called people of “the Way” (see Acts 9:1-2). You know when scripture first calls them that? When we learn that Saul was chasing them down to arrest them. Even under great persecution, those who believed in Christ had a distinct way of life.

How do folks know we are Christians if we can’t do the things we normally do to show our faith?

In a time of limited activity, limited connection, the way we perform those small acts of connection matter tremendously. The qualities of faith, hope, and love become even more important than they were pre-COVID.

I do not know when this will end; but, I do know that whatever I am able to do amid this isolation – walking around my neighborhood, conducting Zoom meetings with my congregation, patronizing a local restaurant by ordering take-out, handing out food at my church, or taping a worship service to be broadcast later – I will do everything with an extra dose of faith, hope, and love.

A New World?

I just watched Aldersgate’s first online worship service. Life in the times of COVID-19! As the clock counted down, I was as nervous as I have ever been; my knees were bouncing as I was poised over the laptop to reply to comments. We taped it on Thursday (3 days ago – interestingly symbolic at almost-Easter time), so I knew how it went. But still, technology is technology and sometimes glitches.

A quick scroll down Facebook when it was all over showed me TONS of people doing the same. Big churches, small churches, praise bands, and preachers alone in front of their phones. God help us as we try to stay connected while our bodies can’t be in the same room!

I’ve heard lots of people predict that things will never be the same after this experience. I think they’re right. Once we realize the power of social media worship, will we ever go back? Our service connected to 983 people, according to Facebook. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds pretty wonderful! We “talked” during church. We offered prayer requests and commented on the sermon. Nobody looked disapprovingly and shushed us.

The first time we are all together again, I hope we value the time so much more! I can’t wait for the next time I get to hug someone. I’ll never take it for granted again.

Here is the link to the service – CLICK HERE

It is also on our YouTube channel

Keep talking. Keep connecting. We will survive! I love you all!

In Honor of Aldersgate Sunday

I wrote this in May of 2019, but never posted. I knew that I was moving to Aldersgate UMC. What I didn’t know was how appropriate the message of peace would be almost a year later.

The year, 1736. The place was Oxford University. John Wesley and his brother Charles left England for “The Colonies;” Governor James Oglethorpe needed religion in Georgia. Being loyal members of the Church of England, the Wesley brothers answered the call. Truth be known, they might have been tiring of their routine. John, Charles, and their friends were so rigorously devout, so bound by routine, that others had taken to derisively calling their little group “Methodists.”

For whatever reason (Why is it that young men seek adventure?), the two felt called to the frontier of Savannah, Georgia. Imagine the 4,000 mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Benjamin Franklin reportedly made the trip in six weeks, while it took the Mayflower two months (over a hundred years earlier). The Wesleys were not likely to be first class passengers. It was not a luxurious passage. Rough seas, seasickness, disease, bad food, all were possibilities.

As was common in such a long voyage, a storm hit. It was so strong that the decks flooded and the main sail ripped. The English passengers, John and Charles included were terrified. John writes in his journal:

“At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before. At seven I went to the [Moravians].

During the voyage, Wesley had noticed their humility. They would do jobs no one else would do, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts . . . Their loving Savior had done more for them.” As the storm raged, Wesley says he was curious to see if they dealt with fear as well as they dealt with pride. He continued:

“In the midst of the Psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The [Moravians] calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterward, “Were you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.”

Wesley concludes:

“I went to their crying, trembling neighbors, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial, between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not.”

When his life felt threatened, Wesley’s faith was found wanting; yet, he found faithful men and women who were not afraid. These Moravians knew how to survive a storm that threatened their bodies and their souls. It is a lesson that John would need to remember during his professional struggles in Savannah and his spiritual struggles when he got home.

Today’s scripture was spoken by Jesus to the disciples in the Upper Room, where they spent their last hours together. Their storm was about to begin. Jesus knew that. At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus spoke those famous words that we hear at so many funerals – “Do not be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions . . .”

He follows that up with the equally famous, “I am the way, the truth, the life . . .” Through all the chapters of 13 – 17, Jesus clearly states that he is leaving. He is equally clear that he “will not leave them as orphans,” that God, the Father, will be sending the Holy Spirit, The Companion, the Advocate, to be with his followers.

Jesus knew that his twelve disciples would not be able to weather the storm alone. The Holy Spirit would help them. During the coming storm, they would need Jesus’ presence and peace most of all.

23 Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home (abide) with them.24 Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me.

25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.

27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled (worried) or afraid. 28 You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ If you loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than me. 29 I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe.

In Jesus’ absence, the disciples will feel his presence. How’s that for a contradiction? They will feel Jesus beside them because the Spirit will be near.

That happens when we love Jesus; and when we love him, we keep Christ’s commands. We usually boil all his commands down to two: love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. In chapter 13 (just a few “minutes” earlier), Jesus makes it even simpler:

“I give you a new commandment: love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

It’s easy to love Jesus. The picture we have of him is holy and kind and loving. It’s easy to love God – big, gentle God up in heaven, made the world, all that stuff. But loving the mean, nasty, smelly, argumentative, conceited, judgmental loser sitting next to you? See what I mean?

But, if we love Jesus (really love him, not just “saying words”), we will do what he tells us to do. What he tells us to do is LOVE EACH OTHER. When we do that, Jesus will “make his home” with us. Some translations say “abide with us.” In The Message, Jesus says, “we’ll move right in to the neighborhood!”

How do we feel Jesus’ presence in the midst of chaos and turmoil? We keep his commandments. We love one another.

Take Wesley’s example. He knew that these Moravians had something that he needed. They sang Psalms while the mainsail shredded and the boat was swamped. Rather than laugh, rather than act tough, rather than act like he didn’t need anybody of anything, he went to them, during the storm. He reached out to strangers, people who were different, who might have more faith than he did.

When we get bounced around by life’s winds, reach out! Too many of us isolate ourselves when trouble comes. We don’t want people to know and think we are weak. We pretend there is no problem, that we can handle it. What if we can’t? What if someone else has the answer? The arms to open in welcome? What if you don’t have to be alone?

Christ commands us to love one another. We should even do so when there is chaos all around us. When we love one another is when we feel the presence of Christ, abiding, living with us!

We have divine help. The Holy Spirit, the Companion, will teach us and remind us when we forget. Don’t be afraid of the Holy Spirit. In my experience, the Spirit has whispered Jesus’ words in my ear at just the moment I need them the most. The Spirit might make me cry, but they have always been tears of Joy.

Stereotypes would relegate the work of the Holy Spirit to people “speaking in tongues,” or dancing some ecstatic dance in a worship service. For me, the Spirit has been more like Jesus’ loving arm around my shoulder. That’s how we feel Jesus’ presence when he is absent.

Along with his presence, Jesus brings peace to our storms. Peace, “not as the world gives,” but a peace straight from Jesus. By “peace that the world gives,” Jesus meant the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Rome created peace by enforcing order. Under Roman rule, life was peaceful because any behavior other than total compliance was punished! They were afraid to do anything else!

The peace of which Jesus speaks does not mean the absence of conflict or suffering. It didn’t mean that for Jesus and the Twelve; it certainly doesn’t mean that for us. The peace of which he speaks wells up from within, and will go with us in any situation.

Wesley never forgot his experience with the Moravians. They seemed to enjoy the peace that Jesus gave, but he didn’t! After returning to London as a failed missionary, he confessed his doubts to Peter Bohler, a Moravian leader. On March 4, 1738, Wesley records that he had considered leaving the ministry and even doubted his own salvation. Bohler encouraged him to continue.

A little over two month later, on May 24, 1738, at 8:45 in the evening, Wesley discovered the peace that only Christ can give:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Storms will occur. Turmoil comes. Change must happen if we are to live. Knowing and Loving Christ, following his commandments, leads to a never-ending presence and an ever-lasting peace. I pray we all feel such presence and peace in the coming weeks and months.

How Will They Know? – John 13 and 17

God is at work in our lives before we even realize it. God has placed a longing for the eternal in each of us – a longing for meaning, for answers, for a way to “make sense” of this world. 

This is true for all of us, because we are God’s children – just because we are blind or deaf to God’s work in our lives, doesn’t mean he is absent!  

Everyone, whether they know it or not, is waiting to hear more about God. We all need a spiritual dimension to our life to be whole. Some people may only understand “God” as “something more to life,” or “some unknown force in the universe” or a vague feeling that they are “a religious kind-of-person.” According to UMC.org, about 32% of people seeking deeper meaning in life are looking for a welcoming church. 

That means every third person who is looking for meaning in life will find it in a church with open, and welcoming arms.  

People are looking for God (God is placing that need within them – if they realize it or not). People don’t know God until they see Jesus; people don’t see Jesus until they see him in us! 

Guess what? Jesus knew this. He taught this when he had “saved the best for last” in the gospel of John.  

In his last hours with his disciples, he showed them humility and service by washing their feet. He warned them of the troubles that were about to come – through the betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. Then he said to his disciples, his. closest friends: 

34 I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35) 

How will people know disciples of Jesus are indeed disciples of Jesus? How will people know they have found the answers they seek? How will they know it is Jesus that provides those answers?  

By watching us love each other.  

Some church leaders, teachers, or preachers may favor outreach over “inside the walls” relationships, but if we – within these walls – don’t love one another, then no one is ever going to believe we love Jesus. And they’ll never believe Jesus loves them, if they don’t see it in us! 

 Relationships are built as we express God’s grace by accepting all people (because God loves them) and inviting them to discover the fullness of God’s love for themselves. 

This is more than just “getting along” with each other; more than just “liking each other,” or “being happy where we are.” This kind of relationship takes work – prayerful work! We pray for the grace to accept and invite; we pray that when people accept our invitation, they see Jesus among our relationships with one another.  

Jesus prayed for that, too, in his last meal with the disciples (John 17:20-23): 

“I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word.21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one.23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me. 

Jesus prays that we (the ones who believe because of the words of the disciples in that room): 

  • will be one – just as he and God are one.
  • Will be “in us” – that our closeness with God will grow, and become Jesus’ closeness to his Father; with the goal of “being one as they are one.”
  • Will, by our unity with God and one another, show the world that God loves them just as he loves his own Son.  

Phil Maynard, in his book Shift: Helping Congregations Back into the Game of Effective Ministry, lists three specific ways that our relationships can help people know Jesus.  

Forgiveness: we can’t go through life without messing it up from time to time. We hurt others. We get hurt b others. How do we respond when we get hurt? How do we respond when we do the hurting? 

When others hurt him, Jesus responded with forgiveness. Daily, he was persecuted. Daily, he forgave that persecution and kept going. He held no grudges. Can we say that about our relationships?  

The very last earthly thing he did for us was to forgive. From the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  

We are constantly challenged with opportunities to forgive. Yet, many times we allow hurt to fester. Little slights grow into relationship-destroying barriers. One of the ways sin works in our lives is to cause us to ruminate on small hurts, hurts that might be a result of miscommunication or mistake. We add other hurts to it, ascribing conspiracies where there are none. Have you ever had a problem arise in one relationship and start to look at everybody suspiciously? Assume that they’re all “talking about you,” that the first person has “turned them all against me!”? 

Don’t let the little slights destroy relationships.  

There are bigger injuries that take long, arduous work to forgive. I am, by no means, insinuating that we need to ignore abuse. God doesn’t want any of us to suffer like that. Some relationships need to end for the health and safety of one, or both, partners. But most of our relationships get torn apart by the little things.  

The relationships that show Jesus to the world happen in this room, between church members. Don’t let our witness be destroyed because a small hurt became a gaping wound. 

Acceptance: day after day, in every interaction, Jesus exhibited acceptance. 

All four gospels tell us that Jesus accepted and welcomed the outcasts of his world. The handicapped. The sinners. Those excluded by religion or race – Samaritans and Gentiles. He consistently welcomed and ministered to all.  

When he met a woman with a questionable reputation, who was a member of a different branch of his religion – the “Woman at the Well” – he talked to her like a friend. He treated her with respect. He showed love to her.  

Jesus famously “ate with sinners” because he knew that they needed his love, too. He didn’t close off his heart to them.  

The least amount of tolerance Jesus ever showed was with religious people who didn’t accept and love. He condemned those who should have known better, who should have “loved because God first loved them,” but insisted on judging and condemning and casting out.  

Then, the Holy Spirit exploded on the scene and that acceptance only increased. The Book of Acts is full of examples – Peter preaching to Gentiles; Paul being chosen; the Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch; Peter and Cornelius. One barrier after another was torn down by the Holy Spirit.  

Look around. Do we show that same kind of acceptance? Look around. Who, in our lives, might not feel welcome here?  

Accountability: even when Jesus condemned the behavior of another, he did so with the goal of repentance. With the “Woman at the Well” he knew all about her many husbands, and understood how that had made life difficult for her. He still offered her a chance at acceptance and forgiveness.  

When the “Rich Young Ruler” approached him, looking for meaning in life, Jesus held him accountable for his greed. He pointed out the sin in the young man’s life. It’s not enough to follow all the rules, Jesus said, you’ve got to rid your life of the things that get in the way of you approaching God; in this case, that would be your possessions.  

Wesley founded the Methodist movement with the same value on accountability. Examine our hearts, confess to one another, seek to grow closer in a relationship with God. Back then, Methodists would help one another do that.  

 People everywhere are looking for meaning in life. They might be watching us to see what life means to us. Do we, by our actions with each other, show what life means?  

When some people look for meaning, they look to Christians and the church to provide that meaning. Are we showing them Christ?

Coming Out

It’s time for me to “come out of the closet.” Not that closet. I’m not gay. And I would never pretend that I was even slightly as brave as the men and women that I know who are and are out.  No matter if I’m “in” or “out,” I’m still a white male in the South – and that’s a pretty privileged place to be. So, don’t for a minute think I am putting myself on their level.  

I’m coming out of a closet of fear. I’m sick of being afraid to tell you who I really am and what I really think. While I still care about your feelings, I’m through hiding mine to avoid hurting yours. I think you’ll survive. I think we’ll all survive.  

I know a lot about hiding. I’ve hidden a lot over the course my life. I grew up hiding. My father was an alcoholic; a high-functioning, successful business man, good provider for his family, but still an alcoholic. We had a code – TELL NO ONE. Its where I get my well-developed ability to catastrophize anything. “We can’t tell anybody,” my mother would say, “because they won’t buy groceries from us anymore.” Then, the end of the world would arrive – losing everything because PEOPLE WOULD KNOW.  

Looking back, people knew. They had to! Didn’t you have friends whose mom or dad drank? I did. Didn’t you know something was “a little off” about them sometimes? Sure. Did you stop hanging out with that friend? No.  

I’m sure people knew that Daddy “drank a little,” but they never worried that he was going to start spiking the Tro-Fe Dairy orange drink with vodka! The vodka stayed well-hidden. It was behind the firewood in the garage. It was in a filing cabinet in his private office at the store. It was in an old golf bag at home (that was fun to find when I was actually playing golf one day as a teenager!). The only thing that was more well-hidden was my fear and uncertainty.  

I know a lot about rushing headlong into situations where I have no clue about what to do. At a moment’s notice I could become my mother’s therapist or my dad’s rehab counselor. It really wasn’t a surprise that God called me to ministry; I’ve been in ministry since I was 11 years old. I was ordained in a Buick Electra (which was roughly the same size as the office in which I sit today) on the way home from school in about 1975 when Mama said, “Your daddy has a problem . . .”  

After that, any time there was an office to run for, an award to win, a team to make, I was there. I had really no idea what Class President, Student Body President, or Fraternity Rush Chairman was supposed to do, I just knew that if I won that office, no one would ever guess the truth – that my family was broken because my daddy was an alcoholic. I was the “Standard Bearer.” It was easy because I was tall, so I played basketball; I was white, intelligent, and well-mannered, so principals and teachers liked me.  

I know a lot about putting on a mask and playing a role. I was good at it – until I wasn’t good at it anymore. That happened about age 25, after college, after seminary. I couldn’t fake my way through real life (marriage, job, etc.) on my good looks and charm.  

Somewhere along that way, I realized I had to be real. I had to own up to the fear and uncertainty. I had to acknowledge when I didn’t know what to do next, when I wasn’t sure how an adult acted because I had been faking it for so long. Thanks to a really good Pastoral Counselor named Luther (No, really. Not the Luther-15th-century-reformer – a real man named Luther Kramer), I became real. 

I’ll resist the temptation to lapse into quotes from “The Velveteen Rabbit.” You’re welcome. 

I’ve come a long way to tell you that I am uniquely prepared for this slow-motion train wreck we call “General Conference.” I’m scared and worried (and believe me, I know the feeling!). I’m not sure what to do next. I am guilty of some catastrophizing, spending many hours worrying about not having a church to serve, or having to work at Wal-Mart (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  

I have survived enough “Ends of the World” to know – it’s never the end of the world. There is always a tomorrow. “Tomorrow is another day,” “It’s only a day away,” yes, Scarlett O’Hara was right. Annie was right. Someday we’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind us . . . thanks, Dorothy.  

We remember those lines because they are true. I know that. I’ve lived that. 55-year-old Earl would say to 11-year-old Earl, “It won’t always be this way. You’ll be okay. It will be over soon.”  I would sit there, on that Sear’s NFL bedspread, or maybe we’d sit on the shag carpet, and say, “It’s going to work out. Pay attention and learn some stuff on the way.” Like learning to be calm in a crisis. Like learning to be able to talk about anything (when you can ask your daddy where he hid the bottle, you can talk about anything). Like knowing that nothing is the “end of the world.” 

I know. Some of you are saying (shouting, maybe), “But what if it really is the ‘End of the World?’ What about that, Mr. Smart Guy?!” In that case, the day after the real “End of the World,” I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong. 

I’ve survived an alcoholic family. I’ve survived moves (try moving from Huntsville to California with a toddler!). I’ve survived loss (our first year of marriage also saw the loss of my mother and Belinda’s grandmother within a month of one another). I’ve survived church conflict like most have never seen (one side to be “guarding the Holy Spirit” from the other side – no lie!). I’ve survived being an Atlanta Braves fan in the 70’s and 80’s. We will survive this!  

At first, I was afraid. I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side. But, other than a disturbing tendency to lapse into disco at inappropriate moments, I’ve come through it. This post really needs a soundtrack. I’ll make you a playlist.   

It occurs to me that we know what is coming and we know when we will know for sure what the consequences will be. A week from today (February 19) we’ll almost be there!  

It also occurs to me that Jesus knew what was coming. He knew the cross was coming, and even that wasn’t the end. He knew the cross was coming but he still invited the disciples to go on living. He even cooked them breakfast (John 21:12) – how normal was that!? 

It’s hard to be normal these days. It’s hard to even act like things are normal. They aren’t. But they are survivable. I know. I’ve been through some stuff. God has been with me, even redeemed some pretty awful stuff! God will be with us, too. We will survive.   

Hope is Never Hidden – Jeremiah 33:14-16

In his book, Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller says that Christmas is the only Christian Holy Day that is also a major secular holiday. Sure, there’s a secular component to Easter. We’ve got the Easter Bunny and the Egg Hunts to go along with the cross and the resurrection. But Easter’s secular side pales in comparison to the onslaught of lights, carols, sales, TV specials, and SALES, SALES, SALES! Easter has Good Friday; but, nothing to compare to Black Friday – consumerism’s kidnap of Christmas. 

As I was writing this sermon, I was listening to a Christmas song by Rodney Crowell, “Christmas Everywhere:” 

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas everywhere
Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas pullin‘ out my hair
Shoppers lined up out the door
Traffic backed up miles and more
It’s Christmas time, so what the heck
Let’s go spend the whole paycheck 

But, when you focus all your annual financial success on this one month, one weekend, no expense is too great to draw customers in. So, Christmas, real Christmas, is hidden beneath a mountain of secular images in an attempt to make money.  

I recall one “Black Friday” I spent in the University Mall in Tuscaloosa. Technically, it still felt like Thanksgiving Day – we left the house about 10:00 pm (so, we hadn’t been to bed!). I sat on one of the benches, just like all the other “old men!” Thousands of people hustling back and forth with bags and boxes representing even more thousands of dollars in cash purchases and credit card debt. They carried sale flyers, celebrating each acquisition with glee.  

Over the din, I could hear the faint strains of Christmas carols over the loud speakers:

“O Little Town of Bethlehem . . .” 

“What Child is this, who laid to rest . . .” 

And perhaps the most ironic – “Silent night, Holy night . . .” 

There was very little “holy” about that night. No child “on Mary’s lap” would sleep through this commotion. The “hopes and fears of all the years” probably wouldn’t meet until the bills came due in January.  

In America, its “Hark the Herald Angels” versus “Holly Jolly Christmas.” We know who wins. Santa takes it every time! 

The secular, consumer side isn’t going away any time soon – not when there’s so much money riding on it! But, really, we Christians shouldn’t worry about all that. The true, holy roots of the season will always be present.  

The problem comes when the secular, consumer side drowns the holy roots that seek to sink deep in our hearts. Buying lots of presents isn’t the problem. The problem is when the accompanying greed drives compassion out of our hearts.  

It’s bad when we move away from the justice and righteousness that God brings during Advent. 

Jeremiah was a prophet of longing. His ministry, his preaching, came during a time of great suffering in the land of Israel and Judah. They had been defeated in war. Most were taken off into slavery and exile in Babylon. It is common for the First Sunday of Advent to draw our attention to the longing for a coming Messiah. Our desire for peace, justice, and righteousness isn’t much different from the longings of the ancient Jews.  

Today’s scripture is from Jeremiah: 

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14-16) 

Jeremiah speaks of longing, but uses words of certainty: 

“The days are surely coming . . .” 

“When I will fulfill . . .” 

“He shall execute justice and righteousness . . .” 

The season of Advent – the lead-up to Christmas Day – is a season when the church can no longer contain the unfulfilled desire for all God promises. A cry breaks out, “O Come, O come Emmanuel!” Lord, hurry up! Come and fulfill your promises! “Execute justice and righteousness” in our world! 

My longing breaks forth into a cry when the prevalence of hate begins to “turn my stomach.” 

I want to cry out when I see people dragged down into addiction and poverty. 

I want to do more than cry when I see people shot in malls and children tear-gassed at our borders. Merry Christmas, y’all! 

They say that despair is the absence of hope. Maybe it’s hope that is the most hidden in all this worldly cynicism. The God for whom Jeremiah longs is not absent – not hidden. He is coming, and, for us, has come! 

Even amid all the hype of Black Friday, the holy roots of Christmas can still be found. Christ can be found in the everyday lives of his people. Christ can be found in our acts of love. Christ can be found when we show compassion.  

Like a Christmas Carol refusing to be drowned out by the noise of shoppers, if we listen closely, we hear the hope! We hear the hope as we sing: 

“Glory to the Newborn King . . .” 

“God and sinners reconciled . . .” 

“Born that man no more may die . . .” 

“Born to give us second birth . . .” 

If we listen closely, we discover the source of all our hope, even under the sound of cash registers and commercials. If we open our hearts to the presence of “God with us,” Emmanuel, we will see . . . 

That the days are surely coming . . .  

That God’s promise will be fulfilled . . . 

That justice and righteousness will burst forth in all the land!  

Welcome to the Neighborhood

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . .”

It is common to hear this verse at Christmas time. It’s what Christmas is all about! Jesus becoming incarnate – “made flesh” – as a baby in the manger. The Divine becomes human; the spiritual becomes physical.

The Message says, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

When you show up somewhere, does Jesus come with you?

If we move into a neighborhood, take a new job, go shopping, come to church or go to a party, does Jesus come with us?

We are the way that God chooses to continue to make Jesus known to the world! The Word once became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Jesus still becomes flesh everyday in us – if we proclaim to be a Christian.

We become the means by which Jesus “moves into the neighborhood.”

If we proclaim the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit comes upon us and fills us with Christ’s presence and transforms our heart and mind into the heart and mind of Christ!

Examining today’s scripture will help us understand this idea:

1 In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
2 The Word was with God in the beginning.
3 Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.
What came into being
4     through the Word was life,[a]
    and the life was the light for all people.

The wording is meant to remind us of the Book of Genesis. John means for us to think about creation.  It is difficult to separate “God” from “Word.” From the first moments of creation, God has been inextricably tied with his creative Word. He spoke the word and light, dark, earth, and water were created.

Where does “God” stop and “Word” begin? John doesn’t know. It’s all the same! So, everything – you, me, animals, earth, and trees, sun and moon and stars – are given life by God’s creative Word.

The Life we are given shows us how to live. It’s the Light.

 11 The light came to his own people,
    and his own people didn’t welcome him.
12 But those who did welcome him,
        those who believed in his name,
    he authorized to become God’s children,
13         born not from blood
        nor from human desire or passion,
        but born from God.
14 The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.  

One day, that pure, undiluted Word, that pure Light, became flesh and walked among us.  That “one-of-a-kind God expression, the very heart of the Father” came to earth. Some of us recognized him and some did not. If we did recognize him, “believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said,” God made us to be our “true child-of-God selves.”

If we recognize the Light that is Christ, we are changed! We are no longer just plain, old human beings. We are children of God!

It, therefore, becomes our responsibility to continue to be that “Child of God” every day! This is what people see in us when they say “there’s something different” about us. Because we are Children of God, we have more peace, more love, more trust. When we talk about “making disciples,” we are talking about how we show people what Jesus is by our actions.

We make disciples by incarnating Christ among others; by making him known to those who do not know him yet.

Phil Maynard, in Shift: Helping Congregations Get Back in the Game of Effective Ministry, says:

“Christians believe that life finds it meaning in a relationship with Jesus. Since that is true, it becomes the responsibility of every disciple to not only be in that relationship, but to help others discover that relationship as well.”

We cannot be Christ “in the flesh” to others, if Christ has not been “made flesh” in us.

You’ve got to know Jesus to share Jesus.

It is very easy for that relationship, that connection with Christ, to atrophy, to shrink. How?

Maynard says that the longer we are involved in a church, the fewer people we relate to outside of church. We get so attached to the folks we see in church that we neglect to form relationships outside of church.

How, then, do we ever incarnate Christ to people who do not know him yet? Maynard calls it Incarnational Hospitality: 

  • Presence – being there, casual relationships
  • Proximity – meaningful involvement with others, making a difference in their lives
  • Powerlessness – be a “servant,” not a “fixer;” empower others
  • Proclamation – “Always be ready to defend the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15); why is “proclamation” last?

Think about our lives.

  • Who are we close to? With whom do we have casual relationships? Outside the church!
  • Who have you helped? Made a difference in their lives? Outside the church!
  • Is there anyone who feels more empowered, more in control of their lives, because of the help you have given them?
  • Of those people, is there anyone who is looking for meaning in life? That might find it in Jesus Christ?

Proclamation is last for a reason. People are more open to gospel when we have a relationship with them (presence). People are more open when they know we care about them (proximity). People are more open when they feel empowered, rather than overpowered (powerlessness). Then, we can proclaim the gospel with integrity – because we have incarnated the presence of Christ!

God Made It All

Genesis 1  (NRSV) 

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God  swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 

Do you know what a “light year” is? It is the distance that light travels in one year, or. 9,460,700,000,000 km, about 6 trillion miles. Some of those galaxies are 24 million light years wide. 24 million times 6 trillion equals a number that boggles the mind! 

When we turn our lights on, we see the light immediately; because light is moving at over 670 million miles per hour! So, imagine the distance: we turn on a light and it takes 365 days for us to realize it. It’s beam is moving at 670 million miles per hour, and it’s traveling 6 trillion miles. 

And God said, “Let there be light.” 

One night recently, as I was walking the dogs, as thought of the scripture I just read to you. It was a clear night, and there was very little “light pollution” (few street lights visible, etc.). All I saw was stars! Big stars. Little stars. Clouds of stars. Big Dipper. The Little Dipper (that’s the extent of my knowledge of the constellations). 

Imagine what ancient humans thought, when they looked at the night sky, before they knew those lights were called “stars,” before telescopes, before we had measured the speed of light or a Light Year. What did they think before they knew that those lights in the sky were rocks reflecting the light of the sun? The only answer they had is an answer that has lasted through the ages, “In the beginning, God . . .” 

After all these years, after all our exploration, there is still an element wonder. After our knowledge reaches its end, there is still evidence of a plan, of “intelligent design.” 

 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 

Before December 22, 1968, we only knew the earth through drawings, “artist’s renderings.” A few humans had been to space and actually seen the Earth from that vantage point. But, before December 22, 1968, with the flight of Apollo 8, no human had looked back at Earth with a camera in their hand.  

For some, the beauty of that picture is enough to convince them of the hand of God in its creation. 

Martin Rees, a British astronomer, says that for the universe to exist, it requires that hydrogen be converted to helium at a very precise rate – so that seven one-thousandths of its mass is converted to energy. (0.007) Lower that to 0.006 and no conversion would take place, the universe would be all hydrogen. Raise that to 0.008 and hydrogen would convert to helium so fast there would be none left.  

Change that already small number one one-thousandths either way, and no universe. No Earth. No nothing. How did this hydrogen to helium conversion stop at the precise rate needed? 

“In the beginning, God . . .”  

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 

Then,  on the fourth day: 

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; 

And finally, after creating us – humankind – God said:  

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. 

But that was not the last thing God did: 

The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation. (Genesis 2:1-3) 

After all the work of creation, God “took a day off.” Likewise, we do the same – to prove that God will provide. The Sabbath proves that all that God created will continue to work without any input from us.  

After those ancient humans discerned God was the creator, there came a time when that Creator reached out to a man named Abraham. From that divine initiative, a nation was created, a group of people united by their relationship with the creator of the universe. Over time, those people wanted a way to show their devotion to their God. They wanted the God who made them to know that they loved him. God must know that we are grateful to him for all that he has made. 

God made everything, so everything belongs to God.  

So, they began to bring God the produce of the earth he had created. And not just any grain or livestock, but the best of the bunch! The first fruits. They gave to God before they fed themselves. Their law even prescribed what they should say when they brought their offering: 

you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)  

God made everything – the harvest, the nation to which we belong – so everything belongs to God.   

In the giving of the first fruits – ancient Hebrews expressed their awe of God’s power by giving what was most valuable. Their harvest was their “checkbook.” As they gave the offering, they acknowledged God’s hand in creating the offering.  

What we do isn’t much different. We don’t bring grain and oxen to the altar for sacrifice, but we bring what is most vital us – money. We bring the currency of our day. We bring what we need to survive. We bring what we have used our God-given strength to produce – money.  

God made everything, so everything belongs to God.  

We give because God first gave to us – the earth that produces, the sun, the rain that helps produce. From our vantage point, the divine giving took on even greater significance.  

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life,  and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:1-5)  

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)  

We give because God first gave to us – the universe, the Earth, the produce of that earth.  

We give because God ultimately gave his very self to us!