Tag Archives: Christmas

An advent letter to my congregation

christmas eve candleDear Church,

This is our first Christmas together, and I cannot tell you how excited I am for Christmas Eve.  Every year, there are two moments I most look forward to at Christmas.  One is my daughters coming down the stairs on Christmas morning, pausing for a picture, then slowly making their way to see what magic transpired under the tree.  The other is singing “Silent Night, Holy Night,” as the lights are slowly turned down and the candles are lit in the sanctuary on Christmas Eve night.

I know that Easter is supposed to be the big day. Singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” with the throngs and the organ and the lilies and the spring air at Easter is pretty special, but it is Christmas that touches my heart like no other. I know that Christmas is wrought with commercialism, consumerism, and a secularity that some mourn.  Maybe that is why that moment is so special to me.  It is so needed.  It is that moment where nothing matters but joy.  I can block out the noise and the fear and the distractions.  Sure, “Silent Night,” has helped contribute to a falsely idyllic understanding of Christmas, but I’m okay with that.  It is a song that can end war, even if only for a moment.

I get a pretty special view for Christmas Eve.  I get to stand up front and look out at the faces of those gathered.  I can close my eyes and see it through the years.  I can picture each of the congregations I’ve had the awesome honor to serve.  I can see the faces of those who have supported me, shaped me, challenged me, and molded me into the man and pastor that I am today.  I can see the faces of young and old, woman and man, single and married, healthy and sick.

I can see the faces of people lit by the glow of a small candle as we sing those holy words, and I’m very much looking forward to singing it with you.  We haven’t been together very long, but things are going well.  No church is perfect, but I believe that I am right where I need to be.  Already we’ve laughed and cried together.  Already we’ve dreamed of a Kingdom future, and mourned the loss of pillars.  Already we’ve eaten too much, shared some of our scars, worried a little, and stumbled through some movements.   Already I can see the excitement and the energy.  I can see good things happening.  I can see people being fed without asking first if they deserve it.  I can see invitation that is born from joy, not fear.  I can see welcome.  I can see grace, and a desire to share lives,  not just small talk and pleasantries.  I can see the Body of Christ, redeemed by Christ’s love, reaching out into the world.

Incarnation.  That is what Christmas is all about.  It is the coming of light in a world of darkness.  It is God breaking through all of the barriers.  It is strength and power and might redefined in the form of a newborn baby.  Christmas is peace, love, joy, and hope.  And just as that candle spreads from the table in the sanctuary to those that are singing in the pews, Christmas is the light of Christ spreading into the hearts of the faithful, and being carried out into the world.  It is not about “happily ever after.”  It is about the presence of God in the midst of real life.

It is a reminder that right here in the world is a promise that God is with us.  Right here with the cancer is hope. Right here with the struggle and upheaval is peace.  Right here in the gathering of Christ’s people is joy.  Right here with our fellow humans, hurting, sinning, and falling, is love.

So I’m waiting for Christmas Eve, and not altogether patiently.  I’m waiting to wish you a Merry Christmas, and to see your face lit by the glow of a candle.  It’s my favorite time of year, and I’m so glad we can do this together.

In Christ,

Your pastor

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Two Rivers United Methodist Church

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To those who only come on Christmas Eve, “Welcome. I’m so glad you’re here.”

WelcomeIs this the only day of the year you come to church?  Please don’t apologize. You are welcome, and I’m thrilled you came.  If you’re only going to come to worship once a year, then this is a good day to pick.  It is a pretty awesome day.  The Christmas tree is beautiful.  The songs are familiar.  The story is simple, and the message is powerful.  Singing Silent Night at the end of the service with the candles lit give me chills every time.  I hope it is moving for you too.

Maybe you’re here because your Grandma insists.  Great.  We love your Grandma too.  I saw her last month in the hospital, and we prayed for you.

Maybe you’re here because you’re looking for your “yearly check up.”  Great.  I’m glad you still feel connected to God through worship.  It might not be a part of your weekly routine, but I’m so glad that you came here to try to encounter something Holy, even if it is only once a year.

Maybe you’re busy every weekend.  You intend to come to worship, but it’s just too hard.  Great. I know that your time is precious. I’m so glad that you were able to carve out some time now. Christmas is an especially busy season.  I’m so glad you were able to be here and worship. Life is hard. I believe that being a part of a worshiping community can help you tremendously.  I hope you are blessed by coming.

Maybe you’re back from college, and this service brings back memories of growing up as you live through a transitional time of your life. Great. We’re proud of you, and what you’re becoming. We hope you remember who and whose you are while away at school. Leave your school address, and we’ll send you a care package.

Maybe you’re trying church with your kids. Great. We love kids, and not just the idea of kids. We love real kids.  Kids that make noise. Kids that get up and climb the steps. Kids that need something to do. Kids that want to participate in worship, and kids that just want to color. Kids that are looking for a smiling face over the pew. Kids that dance in the aisles when the music is just too good to sit still. We know that raising kids is one of the hardest things we’ll ever try to do, so we’ll be in this together.

Maybe this is the first time you could come back since the loss of a loved one.  I’m so sorry for your loss, but I’m so glad you’re here. I hope you consider this a step toward healing. I know you miss her. I know that Christmas can sharpen the pain. There is someone here that misses someone too. I hope you sit together, and find comfort and joy in the midst of mourning.

Maybe this Christmas you had a strange feeling that maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store.  Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. Great. I hope you continue to search, and by the way, I love Dr. Seuss too. I hope you encounter something real with us at worship. I pray that you feel connected to God through the songs, the prayers, the Scriptures, and the message proclaimed. I hope that the power of the eternal Word made flesh resonates with you, and opens up a new way of understanding the world.

Maybe you’re searching for a church home. Great. You should know that this is not a typical worship service, but we hope you can come back. May your search be blessed, wherever it takes you. If you want to come back on Sunday, we’ll be here.  We’d love to have you. I’d love to walk with you as you dig deeper into your faith. I’d love to see you in a Bible study. I’d love to talk with you over coffee about faith, compassion, forgiveness, Jesus, grace, sin, death, and life.  I’d love it if you want to get baptized. I’d love it if you joined us in our mission to transform our community and our world.  But if this night is all you want, I’m okay with that.

Maybe you’re a pilgrim searching for truth. Great. There’s room for your questions. No one here has it all figured out. I believe that doubts, questions, and wondering makes faith stronger in the long run. There’s no need to check your brain, your science, or your logic at the door. Maybe though, there is room for some mystery, and we can go on this journey together.

I celebrate that you are here with us today. Sometimes I hear “church folk” or other pastors talk about “C and E Christians.” You know, people who only show up to church on Christmas and Easter. The term is seldom used with kindness.  Maybe if the people already established in churches stopped talking about C & Eers with such righteous indignation, more of them would come back on December 28.

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Interactive Christmas Eve service: The ABCs of Christmas

I found the original ABCs of Christmas on a website called The Young Clergy Women Project.  I loved the idea of the service, and decided to use it this year for one of our Christmas Eve services.  Every year we have a special “Kid-Friendly” Christmas Eve service.  I love this, because it seems like it will be truly interactive.  Each person coming into the service (or every child) will get to choose to be a Wise One, a Shepherd, or an Angel.  Erin Klassen, the author of the original blog post, suggested making little head gear for kids to wear.  I’m not that crafty.  I’m going to print little paper-sized posters for people to take with these pictures on them:

These are images I took from Microsoft Clip Art.

These are images I took from Microsoft Clip Art.

At the beginning of the service, I’ll tell the people to listen to the Christmas ABCs story, and pay close attention.  Every time I say the word “Shepherds,” the Shepherds are supposed to hold up their poster and say “Let’s go see!”  Every time I say the word “Wise Ones,” the Wise Ones hold their poster and say “Look, a star!”  When I say the word “Angel,” the angels say, “Hallelujah!”

A is for ANGEL. The ANGEL Gabriel began the story by telling Mary,

Luke 1:28-33        “Good morning! You’re beautiful with God’s beauty.  Beautiful inside and out! God be with you…. Mary, you have nothing to fear.  God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.”

B is for Bethlehem, where our story takes place.  People traveled from far and wide to get to Bethlehem, which was not a very big village.

C is for Census, which means an official counting of all the people.  The reason so many people came to Bethlehem.

D is for Donkey.  A donkey carried the family on their long journey.  Mary and Joseph had to travel 107 miles along the Jordan River to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  That’s a pretty long journey.

E is for Exhausted.  That’s how everyone must have felt when they arrived.  It would take about 36 hours of walking to go that far.  That’s three days in a row of doing nothing but walking.

Song: O Little Town of Bethlehem

F is for Family.  Mary and Joseph and their new baby Jesus created a new family, one that would bless the whole world.

Luke 2:6-8       “While they were there, the time came for Mary to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn.  She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for in the hostel.”

G is for the Good News about to be shared with all the earth.  This is what the ANGELS said:

Luke 2:10-14   “There were SHEPHERDS camping in the neighborhood.  They had set night watches over their sheep.  Suddenly, God’s ANGEL stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them.  The SHEPHERDS were terrified.  The ANGEL said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master.  This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket lying in a manger.”

            At once the ANGEL was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises: “Glory to God in the heavenly heights.  Peace to all men and women on earth.”

Song: Hark the Herald Angels Sing

H is for Hope.  Now we light the Advent candle of Hope.  Hope is knowing that good news is coming, even when things look bleak.  Jesus is the source of our hope.

I is for Imagine.  If we close our eyes and imagine the scene, we can see the beauty and wonder of the ANGELS proclaiming good news to all men and women.  We can see the SHEPHERDS, first terrified, but then overcome with joy as they hear the good news.  If we try even harder, we can imagine a world where God’s peace reigns, where there is no war or hunger.  And if we can imagine it, we can do it with God’s help.

J is for Joy.  Now we light the Advent candle of Joy.  Joy is a kind of happiness that comes from God.  It cannot be dampened, and is always shared.  The birth of Jesus gives us joy.

Song: Joy to the World

K is for King.  Though Jesus would be King, he was not the kind of King people were used to.  Most kings are born in palaces, surrounded by servants.  He was born in a stable, surrounded by dirty, smelly SHEPHERDS.  Most kings rule with power and fear.  Jesus rules with mercy and love.

L is for Lost.  When Jesus grew up he told a lot of stories, and three of them were about lost things that were found.  He loved to find lost things, and when you are with Jesus, you will never be lost.  He is the good SHEPHERD, who do anything to find his lost sheep.

L is also for Love.  Now we light the Advent candle of Love, Jesus summarized his ministry by saying “Love God…” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

M is for Manger.  A manger is usually used to hold food for animals, but this time it held the baby because he had no crib.

Song: Away in the Manger

N is for Noel.  Noel is another word for Christmas.  It means new birth, and that’s what happened in our story.  That’s what happens every year at Christmas time.  That’s what happens every time we decide to follow Jesus – he is born anew in us.

O is for Offering.  The WISE ONES gave gifts to the baby, and we can offer our gifts every day.  We give our time, our talents, and our treasure to God, and pray that as a Church, we are good stewards of all that is entrusted to us.  So we we share our gifts now.

Offertory – Go Tell it On the Mountain

Doxology

P is for Peace.  Now we light the Advent candle of peace.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and is the source of the kind of peace that surpasses all understanding.

Q is for Quiet.  We begin a time of prayer in quiet, allowing God to speak to us, and joyful when the quiet is broken by small voices.

R is for Revealed.  Revealed means “showing us something that was once hidden.” God revealed to us what love looks like by giving us Jesus.  Jesus is love, and reveals to us the way to love one another.

S is for Star.  One special star guided WISE ONES to come to see the baby.  They were mysterious, and they lived far away, but they brought gifts to Jesus because they knew that he would grow up to be a King.

Matthew 2:9-11 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time! They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. 

T is for Table.  When Jesus grew up he invited all to his table.  He gave his friends bread and wine, and told them to remember him always.  When we gather at the Lord’s Table today, we call it Communion because we come together.  So at this table, we also remember the next letter:

U is for Unity.  Communion is a time when all people can come together and be one.  Just as many grains come together to form one bread.  We, who are many people, come together to be one body of Christ.

Communion Liturgy

After the Communion liturgy is read, these instructions are given: When you come to Communion, you will be given a piece of bread by the Pastor.  You may take it with you to the railing, where you will  be given a cup of grape juice.  If you are here as a family, then each family will be given one hunk of bread.  You are then invited to kneel at the railing together.  Take the bread, break off a piece, and give it to someone else in your family and say, “This is Christ’s body.”  If you have a little one, tell them “We do this as reminder of how much Jesus loves us.”  The cups will be brought to you at the railing.  You are welcome to pray together as long as you wish.

V is for Vulnerable.  Vulnerable means, “able to be hurt.”  Every baby is very vulnerable, and so are we when we love one another.  God became vulnerable when Jesus was born, and we are called to be vulnerable when we love our brothers and sisters.

W is for Wonder.  Like the WISE ONES, we stand in awe and wonder of the newborn King.

X is for Christ.  X is the Greek letter Chi, the first letter in the word “Christ.”  The X is one of the most ancient symbols of Christianity.  People have been using the letter X to stand for Christ for centuries.  And now we light the Christ candle, symbolizing the coming of light into the world.  Jesus is born.

Y is for You.  You ANGELS.  You WISE ONES.  You SHEPHERDS.  You sons and daughters. You mothers and fathers.  You friends and strangers.  You are all here to worship and celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Z is for Zeal.  Let your zeal for Christ burn brightly.  As these lights are passed out, know that the light of God burns much, much brighter.  Though these lights will die out, the light of God is steadfast, and endures forever.

Glow sticks are distributed by the ushers.  Sometimes these sticks are difficult to crack, so they should be lit before the service and kept in a box.

Song: Silent Night

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One piano sounds like a string symphony playing Christmas Classic

Every time I watch the Piano Guys, I find myself doubting.  They cannot possibly be doing this with just one piano.  This is truly remarkable.  I could write more about being inspired to use old tools in creative ways, or the power of team work, or the discipline it must take to perfect this kind of performance.  Instead, I’m just going to take it for what it is – a beautiful piece of music that should be savored.

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The Virtual Run to Bethlehem

According to google maps, the journey along the Jordan River from Nazareth to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is 166 kilometers, or 103.2 miles.

According to google maps, the journey along the Jordan River from Nazareth to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is 166 kilometers, or 103.2 miles.

This Advent, I am going to run to Bethlehem, but I need your help.  As a way to encourage people to Live Well, I’ve started a new virtual running event.  From November 28 until December 25, I want to run the virtual journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  According to Google Maps, this is a 106 mile journey.  For me to run the 106 miles, I would have to average four miles a day.  While not impossible, it is an impractical goal.  So I’m enlisting help.

My Pulpit Fiction co-host and best friend Eric Fistler and I are going to do this together.  We are asking all of the Fat Pastor readers and Pulpit Fiction listeners to do the same.  If we can get a few people to do it with us, the 106 mile journey will be a lot easier.  In fact, I figure if there are ten people running, we might be able to make the return trip too.

If you want to participate in the Run to Bethlehem, just submit your time and distance on this google form.  We’ll compile the information and post our progress as we go along.  We’ll start tracking on Thanksgiving Day, and we’ll go until Christmas (maybe Epiphany)

If you’re on twitter, use the hashtag #AdventRun to post pictures or tag routes if you use something like Map My Run.

Also, don’t forget to use #BeChristInChristmas to share ways that you, your family, or your church is trying to be Christ in the life of your neighbors.

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11 ways to #BeChristInChristmas

christmas meme1. Don’t get mad at people when they wish you “Happy Holidays.”  I’m not sure who decided that anger is the right Christian response to a polite greeting from a stranger.  I say “Happy Holidays” all the time.  Is it because I’m a politically correct, overly emotional, too-sensitive, mamby-pamby, liberal pinko who hates Christmas and wants to hang an Obama Tree in my living room?  Maybe, but I’m only a few of those things (I’m not telling which).  I just think it is a nice thing to say.  People that are looking for Christ at the check-out register of Target might be looking in the wrong place.  Frankly, I’m not too interested in finding Christ at my daughter’s public school either.  Check that.  I can find Christ anywhere, but I find it in the heart of my neighbor, not in slogans, signs, or songs.

2. Go to worship.  It might sound overly simple, but maybe we can look for Christ in his house.  The purpose of worship is to connect with the divine, so look for Christ in the hearts of your brothers and sisters.  Find Christ in the songs of the ages.  Find Christ in the passing of the peace, in the breaking of the bread, and in hearing the Scriptures read and proclaimed.  If you’re not a church-goer, give it a try.  Most churches are at their best in the weeks leading up to and on Christmas Eve.  There are few moments of the year I enjoy more than singing “Silent Night,” and lifting a candle on Christmas Eve.  I’m not going to guarantee that every House of Worship will suit you.  The body of Christ has many flaws and scars, yet the presence of Christ can be found in the midst of this imperfection.  Then go out into the world and be the presence of Christ for others.

3. Read the Bible.  Again, sounds simple.  There are a lot of ways to encounter Christ, and one of them is to read the stories of his life.  Read the Christmas stories as found in Matthew and Luke.  Read about Jesus’ ministry and discover what he said, who he loved, where he went, and what he did.  Allow the Sermon on the Mount to challenge your life.  Allow the parables to challenge the way you think of the world.  Discover the radical strangeness that is the Kingdom of God.  Be like a tree planted by the waters, and delight in the stories of Jesus.  Then maybe his birth will mean something more.

christmas check list

4. Volunteer.  Give your time to a cause that is meaningful.  Use your talents, skills, and passion for something larger than yourself.  Love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with your God.   Find a soup kitchen, a food pantry, a clothes closet, or a shelter that needs help.  Sign up with the Boys and Girls Club.  Offer to teach a class at your church.  Volunteer to read to kids at your local elementary school.  Then after Christmas is over, keep doing it.

5. Shop fair trade.  Buy products you can feel good about.  Support economic justice by making sure that the people that created the products you buy are paid a fair wage.  There is a shop in downtown Davenport I buy a lot of stuff from called SIS International Shop.  Equal Exchange is another great company that I love to support.  Ten Thousand Villages is a wider chain with some great merchandise as well.  

christmas meme 2

6. Buy gifts that will improve relationships, not just add to clutter.  A few years ago my brother, sister, our spouses, and I decided that we weren’t going to buy each other presents.  Instead we gave our parents a night with the grandkids, and the six of us went to dinner and bowling.  I don’t get to see them nearly as much as I’d like, so I cherish that night we shared much more than any t-shirt or book that they might have gotten me.  Last year my daughter got a big Lego Star Wars set for Christmas.  It was great, but the best part of that gift were the hours that we spent together working on it.

advent books7. Make one of these.  I could buy a cheap box with terrible chocolate to pop out each day leading up to Christmas, or I could make this.  The Advent calendar of children’s books is an amazing idea I’ve seen from a couple of people on Facebook.  I hope I take the time to make the latter.  I’m afraid I’m going to end up buying the former.

8. Go on a prayer run.  This is a term I first heard from a follower on my Facebook page.  She told me that while she runs, she prays.  She solicits prayer concerns from friends from church, and takes them with her as she goes on a run.  Sometimes she listens to the Bible as she runs.  I’m hoping she adds the Pulpit Fiction podcast to her playlist too.  The point is, she’s improving her physical health while at the same time strengthening her spiritual life.  She told me recently that she ran her first 5K.  I’m so glad she shared her joy with me on the FB page.  Now I share her idea with all of you.  You can also participate in the 2014 Advent Run to Bethlehem.  The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is 103.2 miles.  Last year, 23 different people made a total of 67 entries in our Advent Run.  There were entries from 14 different states plus London, England. We went a total of 255 miles.  Join in the virtual run to see if we can cover that distance as a team between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Here is the link to submit your run.  It will open on Thanskgiving Day, 2014.

9. Throw a Baby Shower for Jesus.  There is a women’s shelter near you.  There is a scared teen mother you know.  There is a Children’s Home that is struggling to stretch their budget.  Invite people to a Baby Shower for Jesus.  Have games, food, and decorations just like a regular baby shower.  Invite everyone to bring gifts just like at a regular shower.  Then give them all away to someone in need, and remember that Jesus said, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” (Matthew 25:40; CEB)  And if the idea of throwing yet another party before Christmas is too daunting, then wait until Epiphany (January 6, 2014), the day we remember the coming of the wise men to bring gifts to the baby Jesus.

10. Advocate for Justice.  The unnamed miracle of Christmas is that Mary survived.  Mary gave birth among animals and filth.  There was no professional to help her.  She was probably very young.  The fact that she survived the birth is a miracle that few name.  This Christmas, name that miracle. Tell the stories of the thousands of women who give birth in similar conditions every day.  There is a natural connection between the need to advocate for maternal health and family planning and the coming of Christ.  I wrote this reflection after I went to Washington to meet in Congressional offices on Capitol Hill.  Understand though, that you don’t need to go to Washington.  Write or call your local Congressional office.  They pay attention to what people talk to them about.

11. Tweet #BeChristInChristmas.  Share ways that you are being Christ to someone else this holiday season.  Use the power of social media to share the good news of Christians being like Christ.  Last year there were a few people that participated and shared some great ideas that included sending cards to soldiers, shopping for an Angel Tree, and singing in nursing homes.  I’m hoping that this idea can grow, and we can all be inspired to do something for mercy, justice, and kindness.  Be the hands, feet, heart, mind, and mouth of Christ this Christmas.  And please, have a very happy holiday!

12 Listen to this song by Christopher Grundy.

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Christmas Eve Cover Photo

This is a picture I created for use as a facebook cover photo for Christmas Eve.  Merry Christmas.

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Facebook Christmas Eve cover photo

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Declare that the dawn is coming

girl on beachI love holding babies.  I have held many babies.  Countless times I have held a baby in my arms, and looked down and wondered, “What will this child be?” I can think of no act in life that is more full of hope then holding a baby.  I held each of my daughters within minutes of their birth.  Each time I was filled with awe and wonder.  Each time was a holy moment beyond explanation.

This year at Advent I have rediscovered Zachariah.  I’ve been a Dad for a few years, but for some reason I’ve always been drawn to Mary’s song.  I wrote last year at Advent about preparing for the coming of a child.  This Advent though, I have been drawn to Zechariah’s prophecy when his son was born.

Zechariah praised God when his son was born.  He praised God for the promises that God made.  He praised God for the promises that God kept. He praised God for the promise that was in his son.  For he knew that his son was created for a purpose.  He knew that his son would be called a prophet.  He knew that his son would “go before the Lord to prepare a way.”  He knew that is son would “tell the people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins.”  Zechariah was filled with joy at the birth of his son, so he praised God.

But I’m here to tell you that God rejoices no less for you than did Zechariah  for his son.  Zechariah so loved his son that he could glimpse him through God’s eternal eyes.  God so loves you that he has laid out a path for you to follow.  God has given you something that makes you uniquely you.  There is something in you that transcends employment, labels, gender, race, or status.  God has created you with a purpose, and is calling you to that purpose today.  You were created to do no less than John once did – to prepare the way of the Lord, and “to show the people the way to salvation through the forgiveness of sins.”

God has called you to your life.  Let it speak.  Let nothing get in the way of being the person that you are.  Zachariah claimed in his prophecy that through the birth of Jesus, “we have been rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear.”  We need no longer fear.  We need no longer hide from God or from each other.  We are free to use the gifts that God has granted us for God’s purposes.  We can serve God in our homes, in our churches, and in our workplace.  We can serve God with our hearts, hands, feet, and minds.  We are free to love God, because it is only in freedom that love is possible.  We are free to love ourselves because we know that we were created in the image of the God that is love.  We are free to love one another because God has called us to do no less.

Fear is powerful.  Fear can be overwhelming.  When we sit in the shadow of death, fear can be crippling.

Many of us have experienced that kind of fear.  We have experienced that kind of sorrow or loss.  When the chaos of the world is too much to bear, we sit in the shadow.  When the diagnosis is positive, and the prognosis is not optimistic, we sit in the shadow.  When the job is lost and the source of the next check is a mystery, we sit in the shadow.  When we fail to love as we were called to love, we sit in the shadow.  When thousands of children die from undernourishment or  preventable disease, we sit in the shadow.  When a man breaks through the sanctuary of a school and shatters the lives of innocents, we sit in the shadow.

Though some would claim that God does not go where God is not wanted, such a claim stands in direct opposition to the claim of Christmas.  The claim of Christmas is that God goes where God is not expected and is not wanted.  God goes where it one time seemed impossible.  God breaks through the cosmos, tears through the curtain, crumbles our dividing walls, and makes the audacious and spectacular claim that God was made flesh.  God was a baby.

The claim of Christmas is that God broke through the darkness.  As Zachariah said, “Because of God’s compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 CEB)

Through our freedom, humanity has created many dark and terrible places.  The shadow of death at times looms large over our world, but in the midst of darkness a baby is born.

Zachariah saw a great purpose in his son’s life.  People wondered, “What then will this child be?”  John grew to be the voice in the wilderness that cried out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

What then will you be?  For what purpose have you been created?  Use what you have been given to do as John did.  Prepare the way of the Lord.  Show people the way of salvation.  Find those that sit in the shadow of death, and sit next to them.  Hold their hand.  Weep with them.  Give them love.  Show them the light, and declare that the dawn is coming.  Declare that the dawn is coming, and let the Holy Spirit guide us on the path of peace.

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Let Your Life Speak is one of my favorite books.  It was written by Parker Palmer.

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Longest Night: For those that mourn at Christmas

This is a liturgy I wrote for a service I have called either a “Blue Christmas” service or a “Longest Night” service.  Where I am, the longest night of 2012 will begin at 4:35 on Friday, December 21.  If you are a worship leader, I suggest you start this service half an hour before sunset.  Send out letters now to all families that have had funerals in the last year, and also to local hospital chaplains.  I believe this is a beautiful way to make space for those that mourn at Christmas. You have permission to use as much or as little of this as you wish.  I’d appreciate a small credit somewhere in the bulletin.  If you plan on using it, I’d love it if you told me in the comments section.

Set in a prominent place in the sanctuary should be vase with water and dead, gray sticks coming out of it.  Each person, as they enter, shall be given a blue or purple carnation or rose.  These probably need to be ordered ahead of time, as most florists do not have them on hand.  Placed around the vase may be votive candles as well as the bread and cup for Communion.

The candles for the Advent wreath should be lit before the service.  If this service is held on the Longest Night, the fourth Advent candle – the candle of love has probably been lit.  Later in the service, each person will be invited to take the flame from the candle of love – which cannot be extinguished by death- and light a votive for the person/persons they mourn.  They then place a blue carnation in the vase amongst the dead sticks.  After all have placed in the vase, it becomes quite a beautiful winter arrangement.  This arrangement can be left in an inconspicuous place in the sanctuary for the Christmas Eve celebration.

Music can be used in this service, but as an undertone to set the mood.  If you have a musician available, then they can play calming music at the beginning of the service, and possibly some recognizable hymns (not Christmas carols) during Communion.  One song that is suggested can be played as a CD, but permission from the artist must still be granted.   I do not have the right to grant usage rights, it is merely a suggestion because I think it is a beautiful song.

Words of Welcome

The Advent season is one of wonder.  For so many it is a time of hopeful anticipation.  It is a season of promise.  The longer nights and the gray clouds seem to provide the perfect background for the lights and the tinsel.  The decorations are everywhere we turn.  For so many, this is a time of hopeful anticipation.  But for many of us, especially those of us gathered here, Christmas is a harsh reminder of life that once was.  So we gather not so much in hopeful anticipation, but in the cloud of despair.   While so many are ready to sing “Joy to the World,” we gather as those that mourn.   We gather now to carve out a time of quiet reflection.  We gather to shed tears if they come, to hold hands if they are available, and to know that we are not alone.  Whether this is the first Christmas without someone you love, or if you seem to be hurting from loss for as long as you remember, We gather to be reminded that it is okay to mourn, even at Christmas.

Prayer for those that mourn at Christmas

In this season of anticipation, we seek the comfort of the Holy Spirit.  We ask for your blessing this night upon those that mourn, for the pain at Christmas seems sharper.  We remember the words of Jesus, who promised comfort to those that mourn.  All around us are reminders of the joy that the world tells us we are supposed to be feeling.  Forgive us, O God, for not joining in the celebration with our whole hearts.  Guide us now, O Holy One, that we may move in still small steps from mourning to comfort.  Help us to find healing in the midst of the pain, and order in the midst of chaos.  Lighten our burden.  Give us rest.  Amen

Song – “Come to Me,” by Christopher Grundy (or another song)

Words of Grace

The Lord is merciful and gracious; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to the faithful.  For the Lord knows our frame, and remembers that we are dust.  But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon the faithful, and the righteousness of the Lord to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. (Psalm 103: 8, 13-14, 17-18)

Matthew 11:28-30 (Common English Version)

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.  Put on my yoke, and learn from me.  I’m gentle and humble.  And you will find rest for yourselves.  My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

John 14:1-4, 16-20, 25-27  (Common English Version)

“Don’t be troubled.  Trust in God. Trust also in me.  My father’s house has room to spare.  If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you?  When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too.  You know the way to the place I’m going…

I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion who will be with you forever.  This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him.  You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.  I won’t leave you as orphans.  I will come to you.  Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.  Because I live, you will live too.  On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you…

I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 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.  Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give you.  I give to you not as the world gives.  Don’t be troubled or afraid.”

Words of Reflection (From “Longest Night” from the blog http://fatpastor.me)

On Christmas Eve churches everywhere will be filled with happy people.  The lights will be on, the poinsettias arranged, the sweaters will be bright, and the smiles will be wide.  People will gather in the pews and sing the traditional carols, hear the Christmas story, and light candles.  Millions on Christmas Eve night will rise and sing “Joy to the World.”

Many of those same people that will rise and sing on December 24 will go to bed on December 21 and face the longest night of the year in despair. There will be many that lie down wondering, “Where is the joy?”  For people that are hurting, struggling, or mourning, the longest night of the year is so very long.

The bills have not been paid, the credit debt is mounting, and work is hard to come by.  The night is so very long.

My mother died at this time of the year.  Christmas won’t be the same.  I miss her smile.  I miss her words of wisdom.  I miss her so much, and the night is so very long.

For the last 53 Christmases I have been with my husband.  He held me in his arms as we watched the children, then the grandhcildren, open their presents.  He made hot cocoa every Christmas morning.  I do not even know the recipe, and the night is so very long.

The onesies I got for Christmas last year are put in a box in the attic.  Never worn.  Never held.  I miss my child and I never held him in my arms, and the night is so very long.

The night can be so very long.  The night can be so very dark and cold.

Some say that everything happens for a reason.  God is in control, and has a plan.  But what kind of God could plan such things?  Is this the God that I am supposed to celebrate?  Is this the God that I am supposed to worship?  How can I sing “Joy to the World,” when there is none in my own heart?

Christmas does not mean everything is okay.  Christmas did not end the sadness, the pain or the despair.  For those that are hurting at Christmas, I hope you know that you are not alone.  I do not offer you simple platitudes.  I do not offer you easy answers.  All I can offer you is my love.

I don’t think that everything happens for a reason.  I think there are terrible things that happen every day that God did not plan. If it this were not so, then why would Jesus ask us to pray for God’s will to be done? I also think that God gives us the power and the grace to overcome even the worst that can happen.  God gives us the chance to heal and be healed; to feed and be fed; to love and be loved.

The longest night can be so very long.  Christmas does not end the night, but it gives us hope for the dawn.

When we leave this place, it will be into the longest night of the year.  Take this time, and claim it, but do not linger here.  Know that tomorrow the night will be shorter.  Know that soon, the light of God will break through.  Know that on Christmas, God broke through the chaos.  Know that on Christmas, God came to life so that we may have life abundant and life eternal.

We gather here today to acknowledge that our pain is real.  We acknowledge that death has its place in the world, but it is not in a place of triumph.  Death has been swallowed up in victory.

Act of Remembrance and Communion

We gather in this place with signs all around.  The Advent wreath has been lit, with the lights of hope, peace, joy, and love already lit as we prepare the way of the coming of Jesus.  If, as the Bible says, God is love, and God is eternal, then love is eternal as well.  Tonight, we are reminded that nothing can extinguish the candle of love.  The love that God has for us is steadfast and endures forever.  The love that we have for those we mourn cannot be extinguished by death.

In front of us are sticks.  This collection of dead sticks is here as a reminder that we are always surrounded by death.  The cycle of life to death is in all of creation.  When you entered, you were given a blue carnation.  This carnation is a sign of those for whom you mourn.  Blue is a traditional color for sadness.  It is also a traditional color for the Advent season.  These carnations remind us that even as we prepare for Christ’s coming, there is room for the human reality of sadness.

Also in front of us are the bread and the cup.  These are the elements of our Lord’s Last Supper.  It was a supper he shared with his disciples when he knew that his life on earth was coming to an end.  The bread, which is for us the body of Christ, is broken.  It reminds us of our human frailty, and of our unity as the Body of Christ.  The cup, which is for us the blood of Christ, is shed.  It reminds us of the Christ’s death on a cross, and of the forgiveness that is offered to all.

On this, the longest night of the year, we are reminded of just how dark the world can be.  Yet it was into this dark world that Christ was born.  It was in the midst of death and destruction that a child came so that we may have life.  We gather at Christ’s table in remembrance of the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We remember that Jesus walked with us as the Word of God made flesh.

He healed the sick, fed the hungry, forgave the afflicted, comforted the mourning, worked for justice, and wept for his friends.  He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and calls all people to enter with rejoicing.  He came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly, and he invites us all into life eternal.    By the baptism of his love, compassion, suffering, death, and resurrection Christ gave birth to his Church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant by water and the Spirit.

When Jesus gathered with his disciples, he took the bread, gave thanks to God, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take eat, this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

When the supper was over Jesus took the cup, gave thanks to God, gave it to his disciples and said, “Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

And so, in remembrance of these mighty acts of Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and grape.  Make them be for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by Christ’s blood. By your spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, one with the great communion of saints, one with the great cloud of witnesses, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we all feast at his heavenly banquet.  Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in your Holy Church, all honor and glory is yours now and forever, and so with the confidence of children we pray:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen”

Come now to the table of Christ, for all things are ready.  After you receive the bread and the grape juice, please pick up a votive candle and light it from the candle of Love.  You may also then place your carnation into the vase.

Blessing and Sending Forth

This arrangement, which was once barren and gray, was only a reminder of death.  Now it is something beautiful.  It is a reminder that God take all things and make them new.  Death is a part of our human experience.  It was a part of Jesus’s human experience.  But death is never the final chapter.  The despair of death may last, but we are never called to linger on it.  Go now into the night knowing that you need not go alone.  Go now into the night knowing that the dawn is coming.  Go now into the night knowing that love endures forever.  Go now into the night knowing that the Christ child will come.  Go now, and may the peace of Jesus Christ, the peace that surpasses all understanding, be with you.  Amen.

Other Advent worship resources from the General Board of Discipleship 

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The Unnamed Miracle of Christmas

Mary survived.

She gave birth to a boy surrounded by animals, filth, and dirt.  There was no midwife or doctor or antiseptic or sterile instruments.  There was no one to help.  She was young – probably not fully physically mature.  Still, she gave birth to a boy and survived.  The unnamed miracle of Christmas is that Mary survived.

Healthy Families Healthy Planet

I first heard this statement from Katey Zeh, Project Director of Healthy Families, Healthy Planet.  This initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society is funded by a grant from the United Nations.  Its mission is to educate people about the dangers of motherhood in the Global South, and to advocate for the protection of these mothers.  They have produced this video, which is worth a watch.

A lot of people get very tense when you start talking about family planning.  This is a hot-button issue in American politics.  Yet I believe that this project is one of those things that can and should transcend partisan politics.  Maternal health is a pro-life issue, and so is family planning.  Family planning includes education about contraception, birth spacing, and the importance delaying a girl’s first pregnancy.  Maternal health is not a women’s issue.  It is a human issue.  When women are healthy, their children are healthy.  Education about women’s health reduces abortions, miscarriages, and maternal mortality.  That is something we should all be able to support.

In many parts of the world, where women are still treated much like cattle, family planning and education can be a matter of life or death for a mother and her children – both born and unborn.

This Christmas season, as you ponder the miracle of God becoming flesh, think also of Mary.  Think also of a 14 year old girl you know.  Ponder what would happen to her if she were forced into pregnancy, and was unable to access a doctor, a midwife, or even a clean floor on which to give birth.  Think also of the mother that died in the last 90 seconds in childbirth.  Think of the women that are valued not as people, but for the service their uterus provides.  They are forced into pregnancy too young, and too often.  They are giving birth in terrible conditions.  They are dying.  Their children are suffering.  They need us.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief provides a guide for putting together Birthing kits.  If you are interested in putting these together, you must follow the guidelines precisely.  Follow this link, then click on “Birthing Kits” along the right side of the page.  This is a great way to #BeChristInChristmas.

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