Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Advent: Season of Hope, Peace, and Joy

December 15, 2015

hope peace joyWe are well into the season of Advent– only one Sunday between us and the special event we wait for. Advent, in the church world, is a season of waiting and watching for Christ to come in his many forms. We watch for the baby in the manger, we watch for the Christ who will come again. We look behind to the prophets of old who foretold the birth of the Messiah, and we look ahead to the life, death, and ministry of Jesus.

For the first Sunday of Advent we celebrate Hope. Hope is an expectation and desire that something will happen. It is the thing that keeps us going; hope makes us stand up and raise our heads. As Andy Dufresne wrote to Red in The Shawshank Redemption“hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

The Psalmist writes, “Our hope is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” We hope in the one who created the universe out of nothing, who made the sky and seas, the earth and all that is in it. Our Advent hope is for the one who is and was and is to come– the Messiah, the deliverer, who will heal our brokenness with compassion and grace. This year’s gospel passage for this Sunday features John the Baptizer, pointing the way to Jesus the Christ, and the hope that comes with him.

For the second Sunday of Advent we celebrate Peace.  Peace can be understood as a time of quiet and tranquility, free from disturbance. It is a time without war, without strife, a time of harmony between social groups. In this year’s gospel for this Sunday John calls us to live peacefully with each other– not in so many words, but through actions: be kind and share what you have with anyone who has less; don’t cheat anyone; and don’t steal from others but be satisfied with what is yours.

In these times of seemingly endless war and conflict it is especially important that we look to Jesus the Christ as the Prince of Peace, and that we follow his way in seeking that peace. The ministry of Jesus was one of healing, of comforting, of loving– especially to the poor, the oppressed, those who had demons or other illnesses. Jesus opened the eyes of the blind and awakened the people around him to their own self-worth, bringing peace to their lives– and ours.

The third Sunday of Advent is Joy Sunday. Joy is a state of pleasure, delight or happiness– though being joyful doesn’t mean being happy all the time! To me, joy is more of a state of being, rather than an emotion. Joy can be fleeting, as when you receive a piece of good news; or can be longer lasting, as when you have an encounter with God or the Spirit. These mountaintop experiences can bring us a joy that stays with us always.

We see joy in this year’s gospel passage for this Sunday, which is the song of Mary. Mary sings of a God who will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. This is good news and a cause for joy for anyone who suffers at the hand of oppression!

Hope, peace, and joy all abound during the Advent season. Hope for a special Christmas with family and friends, peace on Christmas Eve when the children are asleep and the presents are wrapped, joy in the knowledge that this season is about the giving of ourselves to others.

These are all wonderful parts of Advent, but this coming week is the best of all– a more excellent way. I can’t wait!



Whose is the Church?

May 13, 2014

I read a great blog last week from a Lutheran pastor who was speaking to her denominational body. Her denomination, like the PCUSA, has been losing members for several years, causing leaders within the church and people in the pews to bemoan the “decline” of the denomination. And it’s true that, if you look  at the numbers, the mainline denominations are in decline– all of them, across the board, some more than others, and including the PCUSA. Of course as analytical beings who are also dedicated to keeping our lives as change-free as possible, we have spent lots of time and money over the last several years trying to figure out what’s going wrong, why the new non-denominational church down the street is stealing all of our members, and just generally angst-ing about the whole issue. We wring our hands (and I have done my share of weeping and hand wringing, I’ll admit) and we stay frozen in place because we simply cannot imagine that church can be any other way than what we’ve experienced.

But the message that Nadia Bolz-Weber had for her denomination is a good one for all of us to hear: Stop saying the church is dying!

The church has been around for a long time, people. From shortly after Jesus ascended into heaven until today, the “church” has existed in many different forms and permutations. From house churches who shared all their goods together for the common benefit of all, to the great cathedrals of the middle ages whose imperfect priests led congregations of the poor and wealthy alike; to the small family churches and large mega churches of today, “the church” has always been more about function than about form. Functionally churches began as a way for believers to come together, to share Christ’s love with each other, care for each other, and share the gospel with others (ok, maybe that’s idealized and simplified, but that was the purpose at it’s core.) These early churches seem to have been communities of support and care, of teaching about Jesus and learning to follow his way, of sharing the good news with anyone who would listen.

Now we do hear of unrest in these churches, and we do know that their survival was tenuous at times, for reasons both internal and external (and who knows how many of these worshipping communities disbanded without anyone ever even hearing about them?) But many of them did survive and thrive and on account of this perseverance we today know who Jesus was and what he meant to the people of his day and hat he means to people of our day.

If we look at the big picture, we see that church membership and attendance has waxed and waned many times in the 2000 years since Jesus’ death. There have been times, such as in the mid-20th century, that churches in America were thriving, while in the Soviet Union even attending church could get a person arrested. And yet today Russia has a thriving religious community, while in the US churches seem to be in decline. Christianity in Asia and South America is booming, while in the US it seems to be dwindling. People seem to have so many choices of ways to spend their time– and they’re choosing not to attend church– especially not younger people. And so we wring our hands, fearful that our churches will soon all be silent.

The thing is, what we’re really afraid of is that church as we know it, as we’re used to, is going away. The old familiar hymns aren’t played as much, and in some places the organ has been replaced with a piano or–gasp!– a band with guitars and drums and all sorts of unfamiliar instruments. To those who grew up with organ music, with the great hymns, it seems sacrilegious to play instruments that are usually played in bars and clubs in church.  The rhythms of new songs are different than we’re used to and we might find them hard to sing. And people don’t dress up for church anymore– it all seems so unseemly. We have also put a lot of time and money and energy into our buildings and programs, only to have the next generation seem unappreciative of our efforts. And our churches get emptier and emptier with each passing year.

But so what? Do we really think that this means the church is dying? Are we really so concerned with numbers that we are going to throw up our hands, rend our clothes and hair in despair? Because I have news for you– and it was news that Nadia Bolz-Weber shared as well: this is not our church. Whether the church as we know it lives or dies, it isn’t our church. This Church and all of the churches that make up the larger Church– belong to God– the God who created us and our world, the God who came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, the God who is among us as our Advocate, the Holy Spirit. And even if we have to give up our buildings and meet in catacombs once again, even if we can’t display our nativity scenes on the public square anymore, even if we don’t understand what is happening and why it is happening, God is with us. Our churches belong to God, Christ, and Spirit– and God has done a pretty good job of keeping things going so far. Maybe not the way we imagine it should be, but let’s not give up. For God’s sake.

So I join Nadia Bolz-Weber in saying this: Stop saying the church is dying! Stop all the hand wringing! Focus on being church– loving one another, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, celebrating the sacraments, studying the word– for that is what a church does, that is it’s function. Form follows function, it doesn’t lead it. And if we have to find new forms to follow those functions in today’s world, why is that a bad thing?



5 Ways to Support Your Congregation (and the Body of Christ!)

January 30, 2014


I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of “lists,” and right now there seem to be lists for everything from how to be a better parent to how to know what your cat is saying to you. But sometimes a list is a great way to get information across to people– which is, I guess, why so many people use them. Anyway, we often talk about supporting our congregations by being the Body of Christ in the world, and I get a lot of feedback in the form of “Huh? How can one person make a difference in the life of the congregation, or be the Body of Christ in the world?

So, here is my list, in descending order of importance:

5. Give. Give of yourself. Give your money (what you can, of course.) Pledge and meet your pledge, understanding that it is a commitment and a responsibility just like paying your mortgage or rent. Volunteer in your church’s ministries– offer to serve in the nursery or teach a Sunday school class. Clean one room of the church every week. Jesus invited people in, to hear his message and receive his healing. But then he expected his followers to go out and do and give. He sent people, “volunteers” out into the surrounding towns to share his teaching. And he had people supporting him financially, and people gave because they were moved by what he had to say. The church doesn’t run itself, and the pastor can’t make everything happen all by him or herself. If you get anything out of worship on Sunday, give back through tithing and volunteering.

4. Show up. It takes a lot of planning to put on a worship service, a Bible Study, or a fellowship event. It makes a huge difference when everyone shows up. It is understandable that there are days when you just can’t make it, when you’re sick or worried about risking yourself in the weather. However, if you wake up and just don’t feel like going, or if you’re tired at the end of the day, remember the work that has gone into preparing for whatever event is happening, and support that effort by showing up. The energy in the room is different when there’s a large group as opposed to a small group, and most church events need that energy to be successful. 

3. Take Initiative. Be the change. If there isn’t a class for your kids, start one. If the current Bible Study or Sunday School class doesn’t appeal to you, start a new one. If you have the gift of hospitality, offer to plan a fellowship event. When the same group of 10 people are always the ones putting all of the effort into planning and implementing church activities, they will burn out quickly and the activities will become stale. Change takes energy, but an energetic church is an attractive church, and fresh ideas and activities are attractive to newcomers and outsiders. One of the things that made Jesus’ ministry so attractive to people is that it was a fresh way of looking at and being in the world.

2. Be a good neighbor. In your own neighborhood, get to know the people around you– especially if your neighborhood is changing or has changed. Share yourself with the community by volunteering in the schools, by supporting the local police and fire departments, by offering to babysit for the single mom or dad (or couple) who live down the street. These ways are how we can be the Body of Christ in the world– by knowing who is in that world and what their joys and concerns are. Jesus sent his disciples out with nothing but the teaching he had given them and the ability to heal and drive out demons, because he wanted them to offer themselves to the communities. He wanted them to be vulnerable. In your church’s neighborhood, be aware of the issues it’s facing– whether its a new housing development that will change the character of the community, or a high crime rate that threatens the people who live in the neighborhood, or whatever is going on around you– be aware and be involved. Make your space available for community groups and meetings– and show up for community meetings whenever possible. “Love your neighbor” is one of the two greatest commandments, according to Jesus, and we need to do more of it.

1. Be flexible.  The number one thing I see that hinders a church in it’s ministry are people who aren’t flexible, who can’t or don’t want to deal with change. “We’ve never done it that way before” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work” or “things have been this way since I was a child and I don’t see why they need to change now.”  Never mind that society is changing all around us– not that the church needs to change because society is changing.  However, change happens whether we want it to or not. The world is different than it was 50 years ago, but the church is still trying to operate using that model. For churches to be healthy, congregation members need to be flexible and open to change– any and all change. Change is scary, and our world is a fearful place right now; however, trying to keep the church exactly as it has been since we were children isn’t realistic or healthy. Jesus was constantly on the move; he didn’t stay in one place, he travelled from place to place. The message didn’t change– that’s the important part– but he didn’t stay put, he was flexible, and required the disciples to be flexible as well.

Oh, there is one more thing you can do to support your church, that anyone can do, anywhere, any time: pray. Pray for your pastor, pray for the spiritual health of your congregation, pray for the community around your church and the people in your neighborhood. Prayer really does make a difference– if nothing else, it changes us and  the way we see the world.

So there you have it– my 5 (or 6) favorite ways to support your congregation and be the Body of Christ in the world. I can’t guarantee that if you do these things will change overnight– but what I can guarantee is that you will change and your congregation will feel supported and loved– and your community will too. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

What Will You Say “Yes” To This Year?

January 27, 2014


The lectionary passage for yesterday was Matthew 4:12-23, which includes Jesus’ call to his first disciples:

Now when Jesus[a] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat  in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus[c] went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news[d] of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

This is a classic story that most of us are familiar with. There’s even a children’s song about it:  “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men, I will make you fishers of men if you follow me.”   Our picture may be of Jesus walking by the sea of Galilee, passing by these fishermen, and calling to them “follow me!” and having the men drop their nets and come running after. Their response to Jesus seems to be immediate, and positive, with no discernment committee or dithering or talking it over with the family. They just jumped up and came after him, saying an emphatic “yes!” through their actions.

But that isn’t how it always is in real life, is it? We aren’t always ready to jump up and follow where Jesus is leading us. Heck, most of the time it really doesn’t seem clear what Jesus is calling us to do!

So how do we know what Jesus is asking of us, and how do we find the courage to say “yes?”

First of all, we do have to spend some time in discernment. Discernment is a process which may involve prayer, Bible study, and conversation with others, in which we come to understand what God/ Christ/ Spirit is calling us to do– what our purpose is in God’s great creation. We may have different purposes at different times in our lives, and we may have to spend time in the process of discernment over and over again throughout our lives. Sometimes we have an inkling of an idea, a glimmer, and when we spend time in discernment we are able to make the glimmer come alive, and we know what we’re to do. Sometimes we’re stuck, and the discernment process can help us begin to be unstuck, to find a way forward into a new purpose or calling.

Then, we have to be willing to change. It doesn’t do us much good to understand our purpose if we’re not willing to live it out. Sometimes people and churches get stuck in this place– they get comfortable the way they are, and they don’t see any need to change or they are afraid of change. However, change comes whether we want it to or not, and to me it’s better to embrace it, to be intentional about the change that you need to make. We have to remember, Jesus never said, “stay where you are and as you are, it’s ok, you can live out your purpose staying in place.” No, Jesus said, “follow me!” and “go in pairs to the surrounding towns” and “go into the world and share the gospel with everyone you meet.” If we stay stuck in place then we really aren’t following the call that Jesus has placed on all of our lives. Change is hard! But again, it happens whether we want it to or not– and if we are wise, we will make the change happen rather than just letting it happen to us. All we have to do is say “yes!” to that thing that we find when we discern Jesus’ call on our lives.

So, what will you say “yes!” to this year?