A Meditation for Advent

The cry of the Prophet echoes through the ages:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and
every mountain and hill be made low.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
(Isaiah 40:3-5)

As we enter the season of Advent, we are reminded again of this call. We work to clear every obstacle that may prevent God from entering our hearts, our church, our world. We know we do not prepare in vain. Even as we prepare we watch and wait for the coming of the Prince of Peace. So we remain vigilant, breathing the words of the Psalmist:

Advent

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,

more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.
(Psalm 130:5-8)

The hour of our redemption draws near. Let us turn again to the One who created us, the One who unconditionally loves us, the One who promises to set us free of sin and free to love.

Take heart, be vigilant. Prepare the way of the Lord. Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart!

Rest In Peace, Madiba

MandelaVisit

A life-changing moment when the father of the nation visited the newsroom at the Pretoria News and took time to shake hands with each of us. His boxer hands were huge and warm and his eyes were so very kind.

In the days immediately preceding his visit he stood in the Pretoria High Court where the powerful national rugby union was questioning whether President Mandela “applied his mind” to a decision to institute a Commission of Inquiry into their affairs. I was a reporter in that courtroom. As he took the stand the judge asked him to be seated and the president said that he had stood in that court before and would stand until the questioning was over. It lasted the better part of two days.

What impressed me most was that at every break he would come to the gallery and greet the people. Madiba’s love for us overflowed as he touched as many hands as he could. It did not matter what our color was or how we were dressed or what our purpose was for being there. His great big heart was open to all – even to a young white reporter.

His courage, strength, grace, kindness, and mercy touched me deeply and I am so grateful for his example. I’m sure many more had far more profound interactions with Madiba, but for me those two brief encounters encouraged me to step out and step up and act on my dreams for a just and peaceful world.

You are loved, Mr. Mandela, and you will be missed.

In the beautiful words of Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba:

“Go forth, revolutionary and loving soul, on your journey out of this world,
in the name of God, who created you, suffered with you and liberated you.

“Go home Madiba, you have selflessly done all that is
good, noble and honourable for God’s people.

“We will continue where you have left off,
the Lord being our helper.”

A Chain of Gratitude

Thou that has given so much to me,
Give one thing more – a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if thy blessings had spare days;
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy Praise.
– George Herbert

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve been exploring gratitude with a small group at the church. Through poetry, prose, holy writings, movie clips, and multimedia presentations we have pondered both the abundance of reasons for being grateful and the effects of gratefulness – on the self, on others, on the world, on the Divine.

Gratitude opens the great warehouse doors of the soul, allowing light and love to flood in and out. Gratitude enlarges the capacity to live in the moment – this moment – and to live it well. Gratitude acknowledges the miracle of being and opens the heart to wondrous possibilities. It activates and animates faith.

Gratitude need not be complicated. All it requires is awareness, a growing mindfulness. It is a response that needs to be cultivated over time through simple acknowledgement. The more intentionally one practices grateful awareness, the more the practice of seeing the world with the eyes of blessing becomes possible. And the more we see the world through the eyes of blessing, the more we, ourselves, will be transformed into a blessing.

The practice of gratefulness is so beautifully captured in this moving clip by Louie Schwartzberg:

To God Alone be the Glory

At the end of each of his compositions the great Johann Sebastian Bach would write Soli Deo Gloria – Latin for “to God alone be the glory.” Playing with this notion in my sermon last Sunday I charged the congregation to work toward giving glory to God and to God alone in everything we do this week. Whether it’s reflecting on the deadlock in Washington, navigating the routines of the day, considering our giving to the church (it is our Season of Generosity after all), or spending time with family and friends, all we do should be underwritten by the postscript Soli Deo Gloria.

Now I can’t claim to be successful to any great measure, but I certainly can testify that my week has been so much richer with this in mind. My focus on blessing others has been more acute and my willingness to celebrate God’s presence more intentionally has held many blessings for me. My prayers seem richer.

It is with this in mind that I offer this beautiful reminder of Christ’s transforming presence found at theworkofthepeople.com

Soli Deo Gloria!

UCC Synod: First Reflections

Call me a breath of stale air, but a large gathering of church people isn’t exactly my idea of a fun way to spend a few days. There are the church nerds, the Jesus freaks, the wannabe famous preachers, dozens vying to be noticed, the do-gooders, the networkers, and the white men in suits who seem always to gravitate to offices of power. Is it any wonder churches are closing and denominations are shrinking?

Yet here I am, in Long Beach, California for the United Church of Christ’s 29th Synod. I would be a hypocrite if I did not admit there’s a bit of each of those annoying church people in me and that is, in part, why I’m at Synod. But there’s more — much more — that brings me all this way.

Synod is a poignant reminder that the Church (notice the capitalization) is an ark in which a broad range of peoples with varying beliefs, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, gender expressions, abilities, socio-economic backgrounds, and motivations are adrift on the waters of mystery and uncertainty hoping to settle on something resembling terra firma. In theological terms this may be related to soteriological ends. Practically it resembles a sense of place and purpose and a deep-seated hope that together we are more powerful than we are divided – a dictum increasingly under attack by societal pressures that value the individual over the collective.

It’s no wonderer that an intergenerational service of healing last night was so powerful for me. Yes, the church nerds, the Jesus freaks, the wannabe famous preachers, the folks who need to be recognized, the do-gooders, the networkers, and the suits were there. The category defying ones were there, too.

Setting aside my judgments (which say more about me than others), in the end we were all simply seekers wishing to encounter God and praise God and celebrate God’s vision of love, justice, peace, hope, inclusion, healing and _________. We were open to being moved, to sing loud praises and raise our prayers, to receive the Word, to have healing hands laid on us and to share in the simple supper that has echoed down the ages in imitation of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples.

Herein lies the power of Synod, the power of the Church, for me: it is an intentional gathering of individuals with a wide range of motives and personal idiosyncrasies who are responding in varying measure to the call of the Holy Spirit on their lives. It’s a beautiful tapestry in living flesh of love, justice, peace, hope, inclusion, and healing. However imperfectly, it is a reflection of the Kingdom of God on earth where each and all can be held as a beloved child of the Most High and from where the love of Christ can beam into the world.

A Year On

The months have flown by since my last post. I elected not to write as the winds of change made their mark on the landscape of my soul.

In June last year I was called by First Church of Christ, Congregational, 1652 in Farmington, Connecticut, to become their Pastor and Teacher. It meant saying goodbye to the dear people of The Congregational Church of West Medford, where I had just entered my fifth year of ministry. What was in many respects a sad time gave rise to an opportunity to celebrate the progress the congregation had made, a capstone of which was a mission trip last August to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

A testament to the faithfulness of the folks in West Medford, the congregation had been transformed during my pastorate among them into an outwardly focused, mission-driven church that sought in new and exciting ways to rise to the challenges of a new day. I hold them dearly in my prayers as I now minister at First Church in Farmington.

My ministry here is also one of peacebuilding and congregational transformation after years of tumult. Again I have been met by God’s grace every step of the way and am blessed by a community striving toward greater faithfulness and a true Christian identity. God has prepared me well for the challenges I face here and the congregation has offered an amazingly gracious welcome. The progress we’ve made in just a few months is enormous and I’m grateful for the ways God has blessed us.

After goodbyes, changes, and transitions, I am grateful to be able to echo the words of that great hymn written by Horatio Spafford: It is well with my soul! It is well, it is well, with my soul!

First Church of Christ, Congregational, 1652 in Farmington, CT
First Church of Christ, Congregational, 1652 in Farmington, CT

On Being Green

It was Kermit the Frog who once sang, “It’s not that easy being green.” I quite agree. The bright red stoles of Pentecost have been neatly folded away. The white and gold of the 50 days of Eastertide deserve good rest after adorning the sanctuary since replacing the dark shadows of the Paschal Triduum. The purples that guided our imaginations in Lent won’t be seen again until the first Sunday of Advent.

Liturgically we’re on the cusp of the long season after Pentecost known as Ordinary Time. It’s the second and longest period of Ordinary Time in the church year. The stoles on the lectern or draped over the preacher’s shoulders will be green for the 24 weeks that follow the white of this week’s Trinity Sunday service. It’s a long season that encompasses the bright greens of June, the lush dog days of summer, the first cool nights, and the glorious tapestry of fall. It can seem like a long, unexciting season for those of us who don’t celebrate minor feasts for saints or other commemorations. Ordinary Time can come to seem a little, well, ordinary. Yet it is in the ordinary where the extraordinary can come to light.

Kermit reminds us that while it’s not that easy being green, “Green’s the color of spring, and green can be cool and friendly-like, and green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree. When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why. But why wonder? I’m green. And it will do fine. It’s beautiful.”

Joan Chittister frames the essence of Ordinary Time this way: “Like an echo off a mountain that ripples and repeats itself down the valleys of life, the Sundays of Ordinary Time stand as a stark and repeating reminder of the center of the faith. Each Sunday, remember, is a feast, a little Easter, in its own right. Unencumbered by the overlay of any other feast, they carry within themselves, stark and unadorned, the essence of the Lord’s Day. Each of them is Easter, a return to the core of the faith, the center of the church, the call of the Christian community that ‘Jesus is risen.'” (The Liturgical Year, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009, p 185.)

Imagine what the church will become if we used Ordinary Time as an opportunity to return to the core of the faith, to get back to the basics of what we have come to believe. Imagine how much more meaningful Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany will be. Imagine what Lent, Easter, and Pentecost will come to mean. Imagine, if you dare, how your life will be transformed when you more fully live the commitment that Christ is risen.

So let’s heed the wisdom of Kermit and Chittister and live into what’s special about being green. Let’s celebrate Ordinary Time in a way that opens our hearts and minds to the extraordinary presence of God in the world. What a tremendous gift Ordinary Time promises to be!

Thoughts on Sabbath

At our weekly Commune service last night I offered reflections on keeping the Sabbath. Using a beautiful translation by Everett Fox of the Torah we remembered how, after God looked over the world and declared it “exceedingly good,” God rested on the seventh day. God blessed it and hallowed it, and ceased from all work on it. We then read the commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day, to hallow it. For six days you are to serve, and to make all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath for YHWH your God.”

I then asked the community to reflect on how well they’re honoring the Sabbath. I invite you to do the same. Do you take time to simply enjoy the company of your family and friends and take time to rest? Or do you find yourself working, worrying, shopping, or in a vegetative state in front of the TV cursing the Sox (Red or White) for another loss?

One of the loveliest descriptions I’ve read about keeping the Sabbath comes from Abraham Joshua Heschel. He writes in The Sabbath (a truly marvelous work): “The art of keeping the seventh day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation: as He sanctified the seventh day, so shall we. The love of the Sabbath is the love of man for what he and God have in common. Our keeping the Sabbath day is a paraphrase of His sanctification of the seventh day.”

The Sabbath is not something we honor simply to give ourselves an excuse not to do work or to do things we otherwise would not do. The Sabbath is a gift from our Creator – a gift of love whereby we get to take time to intentionally reflect on and enjoy and participate in God’s beautiful creation. Sabbath rest should be blessed rest that leaves us renewed and ready to face the opportunities and challenges presented on every other day of the week. By honoring the Sabbath we honor God. By honoring the Sabbath we participate in the Holy in a way that our regular work does not often afford. So let’s make every effort in the weeks to come to try to develop Sabbath practices that enrich and enliven us.

Holy Week Reflection

I enter Holy Week

Loud hosannas give way to silence
into which the Word was
breathed at the beginning of time
ordaining the sacred to flow through
the chaos of misdirected musings

Silence gives way to lament
for the rage that corrupts the
atmosphere and harms a world sung
into being when the First Hymn
proclaimed all was good

Lament deepens into fear
that all is lost to the ways
of the world that rejected the one
who sought to bring it home again
into the arms of the One who made it

Fear takes flight as love
fleetingly at first takes hold
in a consciousness that drowns
the power of the mighty
in the humility of the weak and oppressed

Love and hope join hand in hand in
faith that can move the stone
from the entrance to a tomb that seeks
to shackle the grace into which
even the sinning are accepted

I prepare for Easter morning

Spiritual Refreshment on the Internet

Doing as much work in front of my computer as I do, I find it helpful at times to go to places on the web where I can find refreshment and renewal. Rather than frequent pilgrimages to news sites where the hype of “breaking news” is overdone, I find the sites offered below help me gain perspective and inspiration. They often lead to a reflective walk around the sanctuary or through the neighborhood.

One of the first places I like to go is The Painted Prayerbook, where United Methodist minister and artist Jan Richardson brings together writing, art, and faith in a way that leads to deep reflection and prayer. I am astounded by the volume and depth of the work she does.

The United Church of Christ’s daily devotionals can be received by email or accessed on the denomination’s website (you’ll need to scroll down and select the reading for the day when accessing online). True to the identity of the UCC, these reflections are inclusive and seek to respond to real-world concerns and questions.

Contemplative Outreach, according to its vision statement, “is a community of individuals and Centering Prayer groups committed to living the contemplative dimension of the Gospel in everyday life.” Father Thomas Keating, a guru of centering prayer, is one of the founding members. The articles, videos, and newsletters under the resources tab provide helpful reminders and practical advice about the practice of contemplative prayer.

Finally, for now, as a preacher I enjoy visiting WorkingPreacher, where scholars comment on the texts prescribed for the week’s lectionary. I believe anyone who wants to engage the Bible can gain much out of the insights offered by a range of commentators. In find the work of David Lose particularly insightful and very much enjoy his “voice.”