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Back and (Hopefully) Better Than Ever

To the regular readers of this blog:

I apologize for not writing in a few months in this space. A sick mother-in-law, a new baby, and general chaos have all detracted from getting fingers to keyboard in order to share with you. I am hoping to regularly share the goings on at Laurel and some words of God’s wisdom now that life has calmed down a little.

Prepare By Waiting

Maybe you remember the first time you cooked a full turkey. Maybe it was for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I remember the smells of the bird cooking in the oven as I waited for Thanksgiving dinner to arrive on the table. Those are smells that remind me of holidays in my family, and I suspect in many of yours as well.

A friend of mine who will never be confused with a chef tried cooking his first turkey a few years ago. Maybe the oven temperature was too high, or it was cooked too long, but the smells coming out of his kitchen did not remind me wonderful holidays, but mostly of fire drills at school. Smoke was everywhere, turkey was blackened – and not in the Cajun sense of the word. I wondered aloud what had happened. He told me that he was trying to overcome the fact that he hadn’t had time to defrost the turkey properly, and upped the oven temp 50 degrees and cooked it longer, thus the smoked and charred bird for Thanksgiving. All I can say is I was glad I had other family to visit that holiday, or I might have gotten very hungry.

Just as you need time to defrost the turkey before you cook it, we need time to prepare ourselves for Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s coming. “I know that,” you may be thinking, “I need time to get and wrap presents, put up a tree, hang lights, write Christmas cards, and do all that other stuff.” But to defrost a turkey, what do you have to do? You have to take it out of the freezer, put it in the refrigerator, and then let it sit there for days on end.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that in response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she was going to have God’s son Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

During Advent we have a chance to say to God, “Here am I. I am here, I am ready, I am waiting for your command, Lord. I want to live out your will. Help me to see what that is for me.” This requires waiting and listening more than doing or running. In this process of waiting, we also say as Mary did, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Let it be. We are called to let God be in our lives and to recognize that all the running around we do cannot bring us closer to God, but only farther away.

Prepare, wait, listen, and be. Let God be the source of light in your life. My prayer is that even in the midst of busy Advent season here at church we slow down and let ourselves get ready for Christ’s coming. And then on Christmas day we can rejoice fully in the good news God has for us.

 

Where All This Is Going

As the leaves begin to turn and the temperature slowly lowers from scorching to merely unreasonably warm we are reminded that summer never stays forever and fall comes eventually. With fall comes the changing of colors, the darkness at an earlier hour, and preparations for the end of the year and all that goes with it.

As Christians we are preparing for the end of our year; it comes a little earlier than the turning of the secular calendar. Christ the King Sunday is the final Sunday of the church year. It is followed by the First Sunday of Advent and the beginning of a new year for Christians.

The church year is meant to reflect the course of history and to anticipate what is coming. In Advent we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas and remember that we are preparing for Christ to come again. In Lent we consider our lives and how we are in need of change and healing in preparation for the agony of Good Friday and the glory of Easter Sunday. During the Easter season we revel in the good news of the resurrected Christ, and at Pentecost we sing praise the Holy Spirit who leads the church into the world.

Then, after the flurry of activity from December through May, comes Ordinary Time. For thirty-some-odd weeks we worship together, pray together, live together. At times it may feel boring, always the same. As June moves to July to August to September and into October there are a few festivals but none that are major. We see Christ at work but wonder if something momentus will ever come.

And then comes Christ the King. On this Sunday we celebrate the coming of Jesus in glory, the Messiah made manifest for all the world to see. We believe that this is where history is going – to the return of the Christ as head of the Kingdom of God. We look for and long for the kingdom to come in our lives and in our world. Christ the King Sunday looks forward to the time when God’s hopes and dreams for the world will be made real. So Christ the King marks a major festival of the church, the festival which celebrates where we are going.

On November 21, as we celebrate Christ the King, we will be partaking of communion together. This will be a change from our normal first-Sunday-of-the-month practice. My hope is that participating in the Sacrament in a special time will help make that Sunday memorable and hopeful for all the church and enable us to remember with hope where all this is going.

Until we get there, grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, our risen Lord and Savior.

 

Ancient Prayers With Not-So-Ancient People

One the most profound acts I get to perform as a pastor is taking communion to people in their homes. Most of the time these are homebound seniors, people who do not even step outside their house for days on end and rarely having the company of an another human being in their home. These same people also tend to be the saints of the church who have given countless hours to prayer, work, study, and service in the name of Jesus Christ. Now they sit or lay down at home, watch TV, go to doctor’s appointments, and wait.

Once a month an elder from Laurel and I make the rounds doing home communion. Claudia, my volunteer secretary, puts some communion wafers on the small pottery plate and pours grape juice into a glass bottle with stopper. I take a basket with the plate, bottle, a pottery cup in same style as the plate, a Bible, and a Book of Common Worship which contains the liturgy. When the elder and I arrive we enter the person’s house, sit down, and often just talk about their life for a few minutes. Often the person receiving communion asks how the church is going and we’ll discuss that too. Then we’ll begin the service.

Home communions have most of the elements of Sunday worship. We do prayers, Bible readings, partake of the sacrament. I even do a (short) sermon, sometimes a recap of the previous Sunday. Home communions are different, though, in a couple of ways. First, the sermon almost always turns into a discussion. Since the setting is so intimate and the people receiving communion have so little chance to have conversation in their daily lives, often I will find myself interrupted by a story that pertains to the point I’m trying to make. Most of the stories I hear are full of wisdom and give me insight into the Scriptures, some are random tales that I forget even before we move on to the sacrament itself.

Second, while the liturgy on Sunday mornings has a fair bit of call-and-response where the leader says something and the congregation responds in unison the liturgy during home communion is often a monologue. Since many of the people we bring communion to are hard of sight or hearing it makes it hard for them to participate in a call-and-response style.

There is one exception to this rule. During the liturgy there is a point where we speak the Lord’s Prayer together. And without fail, no matter how talkative the person receiving communion might be, I always hear their voice echoing the prayer that so many have prayed throughout the ages. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

And in that moment the body of Christ comes together to be sustained by… the body of Christ. Those who have been separated from worshipping with the body by illness, disease, or age are brought back through the breaking of the bread and the prayers. In this the church is made whole, when all those who are a part of the body of Christ can be take part in the full worship of the church.

Use Your Gifts

I may be going to go out on a limb here, but I think we all know that reading the Bible is important. Whether we actually sit down and read it or not is debatable sometimes, but just a few minutes a day can dig up some valuable treasures.

Consider, if you will, this nugget out of Exodus buried in Chapter 31.

 The LORD spoke to Moses: 2See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: 3and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, 4to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 5in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. 6Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skillful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you: 7the tent of meeting, and the ark of the covenant, and the mercy seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, 8the table and its utensils, and the pure lamp stand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, 9and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand, 10and the finely worked vestments, the holy vestments for the priest Aaron and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests, 11and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the holy place. They shall do just as I have commanded you. (New Revised Standard Version)

Did you get through it? Did you read every word? Okay, did you get the general picture? Sometimes we have to sort through the text in order to understand. And sometimes we have to put the Bible in context to understand as well.

In Exodus 31, the Israelites are in the middle of the wilderness. So Bezalel and Oholiab are two artisans walking with everyone in the desert. Specifically, Bezalel is the equivalent of a gemologist, artist, and contractor all rolled into one. But in the middle of the desert, who needs any of those things? God does. As God lines out for Moses how to build the Tent of Meeting that will be the roving sanctuary for the people of Israel for nearly forty years, God points out these two as having the gifts and skills necessary to complete the job.

Everyone has a gift to offer the church, the people of God. What is your gift that God has given you? Can you teach a Sunday School class? Can you mow the lawn some weeks to keep the grounds looking good for God? How about lay reading or ushering during the service? Or serving our community by giving to Lamb’s Basket? Or can you come up with a way to serve others that God has given you that we haven’t even thought up yet? 

God has given you a gift to share, just like Bezalel and Oholiab. And your gift is important to God and to the church. So let’s find out what it is and celebrate all the good gifts God has given us!

Pouring Water

We (and by “we” I really mean “I”) have started a new-to-Laurel tradition. Each Sunday morning as we gather for worship, water is poured into the baptismal font, now centrally located at the foot of the steps leading to the communion table. Why do we pour water into the font before the service?

To remember our baptisms. Baptism is an ancient rite of the Christian church, and in most denominations it is considered a sacrament – a mysterious means of grace from God. What happens on the outside during baptism is pretty straightforward: a person either has water poured over them or is “dunked” into a pool or stream and while this is happening the pastor, priest, or other person-in-charge declares they are baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. That’s basically it.

But it is what happens spiritually and internally during the sacrament of baptism that is mysterious and full of meaning. There are a variety of metaphors used to describe the what happens in baptism. Baptism takes us from death to life, so we die to ourselves to that we might live in Jesus. Baptism also signifies our adoption into the family of God and is a sign that we are in covenant relationship with all those who are baptised into God’s family. Baptism further is described as cleansing us inwardly as well as outwardly, that we are cleansed from sin and made new and whole. All of these things happen during the act of baptism, and we live into these things each day when we remember that we are baptised into the Christian faith.

So each Sunday we remember our baptisms by pouring water into the font. We are reminded that we die and rise with Christ, are adopted into the family of God, are cleansed from sin and made whole. Then we go commissioned to share the good news that in Jesus there is something different and mysterious and wonderful in the kingdom of God.

Knowing the Ending

I was watching the USA World Cup match online at work earlier today, when I had to tear myself away from it to go visit a parishoner. While the US was staring down a 0-0 tie and elimination when I left, I knew that I would not be returning before the game actually ended. So I put my mind to other things, such as my pastoral visit, and off I went not knowing how my national team fared in the rest of the match.

Once I had prayed and said, “Thanks for having me in your home,” to my parishoner, I went out to my car and turned on the radio to the post-match show. I quickly realized that the US had scored just before the game had ended and we were still alive in the tournament. I picked up some lunch at the local supermarket and headed back to the office, where I watched the end of the match via a replay online.

I found myself with different emotions watching the game after the visit than I had while watching the game beforehand. Before I was worried, now I was confident. Before I wondered if the US could pull it off, now I knew the US did pull it off. Before I felt queasy, now I felt joyous watching the ball bound into the net to send the US to the second round.

As Christians, we believe we know the ending. We watch and participate in history believing that we will still be alive when the dust settles and moving on to another day, a better day. We believe that good is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death, and God is stronger than everything else combined.

Our story as Christians doesn’t just focus on the history of what God has done. It also looks forward to what God is doing. God is building something new and better than what we have now. Now we have a world where some prosper greatly while many languish in great poverty. God is building a world where everyone has enough: to eat, to drink, to stay, to wear.

Now we have a world where we are so afraid we have little hope of anything getting better. God is building a world where fear is replaced by hope, not a naive brand of hope and a wise brand that understands that life, while not fair, is good because God is good. God is building a world where there is no longer “us” and “them,” but simply just “us.” Jesus shows us what this world might look like if we are willing to try it.

Christians are in the business of trying to live this new world God is building, and we believe that while we will never get it completely right ourselves that God will come and amazingly make it right, the way it should have always been but is not. This may seem  a pipe dream to you, but sometimes that is what faith is: believing the dream.