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granddaddy and beagle

Being Church: Loving Senior Adults

A decade ago when I was in divinity school at Gardner-Webb University, I completed an assignment for my Pastoral Care and Counseling class that was insightful at the time and continues to prove useful to me now. The task was to complete a systemic model for care in the church using Erikson's Stages of Development.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/forbesoste/

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about pastoral care for those in Erikson's last stage of development: Mature Adult, ages 65 +, Ego Integrity vs. Despair. I pulled up my project to review the thoughts I had back then when I was elbow deep in pastoral care textbooks. In my opinion, these ideas are helpful to anyone who desires to show love to people in this late-in-life stage.

I offer that portion of the project below with one caveat: it is more academic than what I usually post here. SO . . . If it's more than you want to read, would you just do this one thing: check in on my father-in-law a senior adult you know. For example, offer a ride to Tuesday morning Bible study at the church. Or plan a breakfast outing; maybe the senior adult you know loves to go out to breakfast. Talk to them. Find out what his or her interests are. Ask for help; it's so nice to be needed. Don't forget about him, whoever he is. I bet it's really hard on his family who aren't local. I bet those who live locally would really appreciate co-travelers in this grief journey. You know, whoever they are. My 97 year old friend Mary said it best: "Just don't forget about us. Remember us."

(Watch for an upcoming post with specific how-to ideas and feel free to comment and offer ways you would like to see the church meet the needs of senior adults or ways you've seen this kind of ministry done well.)

granddaddy and beagle
Isabella Beagle (with Granddaddy in the background)

PASTORAL CARE: A SYSTEMIC PLAN
(completed for Dr. Doug Dickens, PC&C, GWU, 2010)

Mature Adult, ages 65 +, Ego Integrity vs. Despair.

Mature adults need pastoral care to help them feel connected and valued. Pastoral care at this stage includes care for the children of the mature adults and often care for their aging parents as well. Mature adults must be cared for so that they do not despair.

  • Physical Care
    • Mature adults need an allotted space that is familiar and welcoming. This is particularly important to senior adults who are losing their vision or their mobility. Familiar space makes church attendance more feasible within their limited abilities.
    • Church transportation should be made available to mature adults who are unable to drive. (Or who may be hesitant to drive at night or long distances)
    • The church should be accessible to members who struggle with mobility issues. That is, elevators and ramps should be readily available. Restrooms should be adaptable for those with mobility impairment.
    • Bible study materials, church newsletters, and other church publications should be printed in large, easy-to-see print.
    • Hearing assistive devices should be available in worship spaces.
    • Leaders should be sensitive to hearing loss—a common problem in this population—and should attempt to speak clearly and directly to mature adults. (Look at people when you speak and be sure listener can see your lips move.)
  • Emotional Care
    • Church members should be sensitive to the needs of mature adults who are experiencing life changes such as retirement, illness, or loss.
    • Churches should offer topical studies on budgeting, aging, aging parents, grief, and other such topics that relate to mature adults.
    • Support groups and classes for grieving mature adults should be made available.
    • Mature adults should be paired with younger adults who they can mentor.
    • The church should celebrate milestone moments with mature adults. Moments such as marriage of children, becoming grandparents, or retirement all offer opportunities for celebration.
    • Weekend retreats to interesting locations should be offered to mature adults. These weekends away increase connectivity and provide opportunities for developing new relationships.
    • Entertainment opportunities of interest to this age group should be frequent and accessible. Church transportation should be provided.
  • Spiritual Care
    • It should not be assumed that mature adults have made decisions about their faith. Therefore, persons in this age group should also be invited and encouraged to make faith commitments.
    • Biblical instruction must not neglect the basics of the faith. Leaders should not assume that all Bible study participants know the old, old stories.
    • The church should provide assistance to those planning memorial services or funerals. The care should involve not just technical and logistics help, but also emotional support throughout the process.
    • Senior adults should participate in and volunteer for mission activities.
    • Mature adults who are also mature believers should be included in the church diaconate and on other committees within the church. They should be encouraged to lead Bible study classes also.
    • Mature adults should assist in worship leadership. By participating in church music, reading scripture, taking offering, or leading in other ways, mature adults can feel valuable to the congregation and therefore less likely to despair.
    • Members should be sensitive to particular needs of mature adults, offering encouragement to those who are dealing with parents growing old, their own physical limitations, loss, relocation, and retirement
    • Members should avoid using labels to refer to other church members. Stereotypes should also be avoided. Instead, the message of God’s love should be paramount.

Teachers: Public School Ministers

(As the summer winds down, my teacher friends are gearing up for another school year. Over the next few weeks, I'll be rerunning some of my favorite posts about teachers as a reminder of how much educators do to make the world a better place. Let's all thank a teacher today; and let's vote for education reform that honors the good work that our teachers do and respects the value of every single student.)

First Baptist Church, Weaverville, NC (2014)

“What is a minister?” Zach* asked. (Zach always had a question, a comment, or--frequently--an outburst of some sort.)

It was Wednesday afternoon and seven-year-old Zach was one of about 12 kids in attendance at Kids for Christ (KFC). This program meets weekly after school and includes a variety of activities including Bible story time. The KFC’ers get off the school bus at the church and their parents come for them at 7:00 pm.

That afternoon I was helping Cozette, the Bible story teacher; we were focusing on Isaiah 66:13 and talking about mothers. (It was the Wednesday before Mother’s Day.) Both kids and leaders shared stories and talked about what we had learned from our moms. I showed them a picture of my mother and explained that she taught me a lot about ministry.

“When I was a little girl,” I told the kids, “My mother often cooked twice as much supper as we needed so that we could share a meal with another family. She also visited people, wrote notes, taught Sunday school, and did lots of other things that showed me how to be a minister.”

That’s when Zach’s hand shot up. “What is a minister?” he asked.

“Great question,” I told him. I wanted to answer accurately: the word itself could relate to positions outside a church. “A minister is someone who takes care of people and spends time with them. Like me, I work here at the church and I am the Minister with Youth and Children. So, I spend time with you guys and help take care of you.”

“And I’m a minister too,” Cozette, said. “I visit people in group homes and I help them with things they need.”

“Oh!” Zach said, nodding. “Like a teacher.”

Wow. What a response. See, Zach—a loveable and bright little guy who is eager to learn—is not the quietest fella you will ever meet. My guess is he does his share of squirming, speaking out of turn, and just generally pushing the limits of acceptable classroom behavior. And yet, the description of a minister, made him think of teachers.

Teachers.

Teachers. Overworked, underpaid, and up to their lanyards in standardized tests.
Teachers. Who stay after school for special events and come in early for conferences with parents or students.
Teachers. Who spend their own time and money because they love what they do and they want to do it well.
Teachers. Who take time to minister to a fidgety little boy who sometimes forgets the rules.

Teachers. Ministers.

“Yes,” I told Zach. “A minister is like a teacher.”

*Name changed for privacy.

the good samaritan

The Good Immigrant: A Parable Retold

A number of years ago, I led a youth retreat where I preached on the Good Samaritan eight times in four days. Having studied the text deep and wide, I wrote a modern version of the parable to share with the students in worship. It was a good exercise for me--and I thought you might find it helpful as well--to remember that compassion really can transcend any boundary.

imageThen the president of the Woman’s Missionary Alliance stood up to test Jesus. "Jesus," she said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (And everyone around got all quiet and listened because frankly, they were surprised that she had to ask such a question. Everyone knew that! For heaven’s sake, those words were printed on the city light poles, on banners at the local schools, and on the brand new welcome sign down at the local lake. It was so important, that they’d made it the town mission statement. What was she up to?)

And Jesus said to her (without any sarcasm in his voice at all), "Well, sister, what is our mission statement? How do you interpret it?"

She answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus responded, "Yep! That’s it! Just do that, and you will live a life that glorifies God not just now but for all eternity."

She had another question, though. "But Jesus. Exactly who would you say is my neighbor?"

Jesus said, “Let me put it to you like this:

"A business man was in the habit of exercising after work. At the office, he’d change from business attire to gym clothes, place his valuables in his backpack, and walk over to the downtown YMCA for a work-out before going home. One night, as he headed back to his car over near his office, he was jumped from behind and mugged. They stole all his credit cards, his iPhone, and his laptop. Then, they beat him and left him--broken, bloody, and unconscious--to die.

“Now by chance, the senior pastor of World’s Biggest Church was leaving a ministry meeting in the city and happened to walk right by the unconscious man. The thing was though, he still needed to update WBC’s website and Facebook page before he could go home; he hurried on to his office, asking Siri to remind him to look into the matter later.

“Likewise, the leader of the homeless ministry happened upon the injured man; of course, any other time, she would have stopped. (She would have!) But that night, she was on her way to B-SUB (Bible Study Under the Bridge), and she knew there would be a big crowd waiting on her. She kept walking.

“Then, an Afghan immigrant came along. When he saw the man, his eyes filled with tears, and he knelt beside the man. He noticed the guy’s t-shirt: torn and bloodied, it’s graphic and slogan spewed hate. No matter, the Afghani carefully removed his own head scarf, folded it, and used it as a pillow for the man’s head; then he took off his cloak and carefully draped it over him. The immigrant called 911, remained with the man while awaiting the EMT’s, then followed the ambulance to the hospital. Once they arrived and he saw that the man was getting the appropriate care, the Afghan immigrant stopped by the front desk. He gave them his credit card information to cover the man’s medical expenses and his cell phone number just in case there were any additional needs he might address.”

So, Jesus asked the woman, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who was mugged?”

And the woman said, “Um, well, in that story, I guess it would be the . . . uh . . . the one who showed him mercy."

Jesus said to her, "Mercy. That’s it. Mercy.”

karl barth quote

Ministry Matters: EMTs in the Sanctuary

I learned this past Sunday that my friend Dave Miller passed away after a brief illness. Dave was a long-time member of First Baptist Church of Weaverville where I served as Minister with Youth and Children before accepting the call to pastor Ecclesia Baptist in Asheville. The incident I've described in the original blogpost (below) happened four years ago.

Wait--that can't be right . . . It was in February. 2015. So that's only . . . oh. So, yeah, four years.

The interesting thing about the story below is that it's actually the first of at least two similar occurrences when Dave had some sort of minor episode while I was preaching. This odd coincidence led to a running joke.

"I see you're preaching Sunday, Aileen," Dave would say on a Wednesday night at Bible study. (He was never just a Sunday morning church goer.) Eyes sparkling, grin hiding just behind his straight face, he'd quip, "I believe I'll play it safe and just stay home."

Or, "Hey Dave, how are you feeling today? I'm preaching so I just thought I'd check!"

"Well, I'm a little tired, but I'll get a nap during your sermon."

The last time I saw Dave Miller was my last Sunday at First Baptist Weaverville. "You be careful preaching every Sunday! Don't put them to sleep, you hear?" He laughed at his joke and I laughed at him laughing. Then, getting serious, he added, "We're going to miss you honey. We're really going to miss you."

I miss you too Dave. Give my love to Glory, and I'll see you in the sweet by and by.


ministry altar bible

February 5, 2015, Weaverville, NC

I've only been in the vocational ministry for five years, but if you count my nearly 50 years as a preacher's kid, that's a good bit of ministry--or at least church--experience. So I know of what I speak when I tell you that on Sunday, February 1, I came as close to speaking in tongues as I ever have.

I was in the middle of my sermon when an older member of the church who was sitting down to my right, slumped over in the pew. (I told him later that if he didn't want to hear me preach he could just say so and not cause such a stir.) As it turns out, he had a spell related to heart troubles and once the EMT's got things straightened out he was fine.

Anyway, there I was preaching on the weekly lectionary text like a good little girl when Dave keels over. It took me a minute to clue into what was happening but when I did, I turned back to the choir and asked a member who is a nurse to attend to Dave. She got up immediately as did another member in the congregation who is a medical professional. Our pastor, who by God's providence was seated one pew over, went to comfort Dave and his sweet wife of about 60 years.

That left me, mid-sermon, standing at the pulpit in front of a congregation of confusion, fear, and anxiety. I had absolutely no idea what to do.

But the Spirit did. It's a good thing that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." (Romans 8:26) In truth, I remember very little of what I said or did. All of it was Spirit led.

Now, it's true, I was raised in the church and have experienced tense situations before this. I've seen my Preacher Daddy deal with emergencies from the pulpit a time or two and have been in other situations where difficulties arose in unfortunate surroundings.

I've also had classes on crisis management and read books on the same topic. I've studied group dynamics and crowd behavior.

But I'ma tell you right now. The Holy Spirit scooped up all that life experience and book learning and molded it into something far greater than anything I could have accomplished. In the midst of that human crisis, the Spirit interceded and brought Peace to the turmoil.

Hallelujah and to God be the Glory!

canoe and mountain

CBFNC 2019: Canoeing the Mountains

On March 28, I joined other leaders in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC) as we listened to Dr. Tod Bolsinger share wisdom he presented in his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory (IVP Books, 2015).

Bolsinger’s book had been recommended to me by many when I began my ministry with Ecclesia Baptist in August 2018. I downloaded the audio version and listened to it right away, finding it both insightful and compelling. In Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger uses the metaphor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (in search of a northwest water route in the 19th century) to explore church leadership in the 21st century.*

For today’s church, our “canoes” are practices that have brought us success in the past; our “mountains” are the conditions that were not present at all in earlier seasons of the church. The current frustration of attracting young people to church serves as a great example. Back in the 1970’s, for many of us, church was THE only activity; in 2019, the buffet of extracurriculars is endless. When I was a teen, a church could get a new ping-pong table and attract a crowd of students instantly; today, churches are giving freebies to kids and youth to entice them to go on a free trip to an indoor trampoline park—and even these tactics fail to impact weekly attendance.

So how do we change this? That’s exactly what Dr. Bolsinger discussed at last week’s meeting. First, he noted what does not bring about change.

  • Fear. On the Sunday following the tragedy of September 11, 2001 U.S. churches were overflowing. Just one year later, church attendance was at an all-time low.
  • Facts. Raise your hand if you know how to eat right and exercise. Now keep your hand up if you always do all those things. Exactly. (Same is true for any unhealthy habit. The knowledge that it is unhealthy does not usually bring about lasting change.)
  • Force. Bolsinger shared a fascinating statistic: when told by doctors to change their behaviors or die, 90% of patients do not make the necessary changes. Doctors can’t force us to make healthy choices, no matter how much they threaten us.

Bolsinger then talked about what does bring about change.

  • Relate. Hearing each other’s stories helps us to understand one another and thereby change our approaches accordingly.  (For example, take a person who is highly critical of those who come into the country without legal documentation. Pair them with a person who has traveled that path. As they share their stories, understanding can result, which could lead to a change in behavior.)
  • Repeat. Facts may not bring about change, but they do make us aware of what we might need to do to change. The way to achieve permanent change is to repeat a new behavior until it is a habit. (For example, think of the person who goes to class but does not understand the subject matter. The student keeps going, keeps doing the assignments, keeps asking questions. In time, the student learns the content thanks to repeating it in a variety of ways over time.)
  • Reframe. When we think of things in a new way, we can bring about change. (For example, imagine the church that thinks the only way to grow is to draw people into its building. They decide that maybe they could, instead, go where people are already gathering. By relating to these communities and repeatedly visiting them in their own settings, the church begins to experience new growth.)

Bolsinger reminded us that change typically does not come about quickly. That is, it is more akin to the slow-cooker simmer than to the microwave zip and zap. In that same vein, he said that effective church leadership grows from a mindset that causes us to “Stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.”

Bolsinger’s presentation—and his book—contained much more insight than the bits I’ve highlighted here. And, I think all leaders facing unfamiliar circumstances (whether in the church or elsewhere) will find helpful guidance here. Check it out and let me know what you think.

*Lewis and Clark sought a water route through the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and were therefore equipped with canoes and the necessary tools for a water journey; instead, they encountered the Rocky Mountains and had to form new plans in order to progress.

lenten season

Some thoughts on Lenten disciplines

I grew up Southern Baptist, so if it weren't for my Lutheran best friend giving up sweets every year around this time, I'd probably not have thought too much about the Lenten Season. I mean, I'm sure my Dad mentioned something about it in his sermons along the way, and he even held Maundy Thursday services way back in the seventies (radical for the time). Still, I didn't really practice Lent until about a decade ago when we joined a Baptist church that had reached back to its early Christian roots and resurrected the practice of Lent.

There are lots of different reasons that observance of Lent is important to all who follow Christ. One reason I've heard is that Lent can be a sort of New Year's Resolutions re-boot, a time to get back on track with the life goals you set for yourself a couple of months ago. While I definitely agree that Lent is a time to reflect on our own brokeness, I don't actually think we should use this ancient practice as a self-improvement exercise. Not that Lent doesn't actually have that outcome, because naturally we do become more fully alive when we are more focused on God incarnate in Jesus Christ. But, in my opinion, self-improvement should not be the ultimate objective.

According to the liturgical (church) calendar, Lent marks the weeks leading up to the church's observance of Easter. Thus, it is a time of contemplation, a time to renew the commitment to follow Christ into the difficult spaces where darkness reigns and light is rare. Thus, for my Lenten discipline, I try to select something to add or eliminate that will remind me frequently of Christ's deep love for all of creation and my responsibility to reflect that love in my daily life. Want some examples? Here you go.

  1. Daily exercise of 30 minutes or more. Walk the dog, stretch, ride a bike, dance. Just move! And be grateful to God for the amazing capablities of the human body.
  2. Daily quality reading of 30 minutes or more. Ahh. Let's just sit for a minute and think of that bliss. Sigh. Read something that matters though. Not just your news app.
  3. Daily writing. Now would be a great time to start a gratitude journal or a journal of reflections.
  4. Eliminate negativity. I try to remember that we are all broken in different ways, but too often I forget and become critical and nasty. When I do forget that all God's children are beloved and precious, I can act ugly (or at least think ugly thoughts). I need to quit that.
  5. Eliminate certain aspects of social media. Oh man what a time-sucker. Do you, like me, find that sometimes you think about your Twitter or Facebook feed more than you think about the love of God? Yeah, we need to break that habit, don't you think?
  6. Eliminate purchases that do not support local, free-trade, or living wage businesses. I don't know about you, but I get sloppy with my shopping. That needs to stop.

Whatever you choose for your Lenten discipline, my prayer is that you will remember daily that you are beloved beyond measure.

What about you? What Lenten commitments have you made?

advent bird in tree

Advent Devotional: Where's Your Head?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Colossians 1:15-20

Recently, I saw perhaps the weirdest video I’ve ever seen. It begins with a woman preparing fresh fish for supper. On the screen we see her hands: one holding a kitchen knife, the other holding a raw fish fillet on a cutting board over a sink. All she has left to do is cleaning off a few more scales and the fish will be ready to cook. But (here’s the weird thing), every time she touches her knife to the headless fillet, it spontaneously bends up towards her. She shrieks, “This fish is trying to bite me and it doesn’t even have a head!” Crazy, right?

You know what’s even crazier, though? The fact that fish aren’t the only ones guilty of acting as if they can operate without a rightful head in place. Too often we followers of Christ do the same thing. We flop around and can’t figure out why we feel distant from God. In our churches, we wonder why we can’t form community, why there’s so little harmony and so much discord. Could it be that we are trying to live godly lives and form meaningful connections without our Head?

Paul says that in Jesus “all things hold together.” Let’s keep Christ at the head of our lives not just at Advent, but always. We just aren’t made to function any other way.

Thank you God for Jesus! Help us always to make Christ first place in everything. Amen.

 

Peace Is the Real Thing

2nd Sunday of Advent: Peace--the Real Thing

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Luke 1:78-79 NRSV

Back in the 1970’s, when $250,000 was an exorbitant amount to spend on an advertisement, Coca Cola Bottling Company assembled a cast and crew on a mountain in Italy to film what would become one of the most popular TV commercials of all time. In the ad, young people who appear to be from every tribe and nation, join in singing a song that even now, almost fifty years later, many people can recall.

I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony.
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company.
That's the real thing.

Back in the day, if you watched that commercial and did not shed a tear, you were in the minority. When you saw those youthful faces bright with hope, it was nearly undeniable: if everyone could just have a nice cold Coca-Cola, the world would most certainly be at peace.

In the above text, we read about what the world truly does need, and it’s not a soft drink. Old Zechariah, still glowing from the unexpected miracle of his newborn son, explains, “Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 The Message)

What is Advent

What is Advent?

What is AdventTo hear retailers tell it, the Christmas season started just before Halloween. From CVS to Sears, stores have been festooned in red and green for weeks. The virtual world is no better. Before we even had a chance to design our holiday cards on shutterfly.com, social media had started revisiting the controversies of Christmas Past: what will Starbucks put on their cups this year? how will we greet each other? is there really a festivus for the rest-of-us? Indeed, the world seems to define the holiday season by what will sell best, whether it’s novelty socks or news articles--fake or true.

But the church defines the season in a different way. The Christian church celebrates the season of Advent for the four weeks preceding Christmas Day. But what is Advent? Too many of us don't have any idea. So, in an effort to help remedy this, I thought I’d offer this somewhat academic post about the Advent season. Here you go: your very own Advent Primer.

The world shouts, “Hurry up! You’re so far behind!” The church whispers, “Be still. Listen.” The world says, “You’re not doing enough! You’re running out of time.” The church says, “This is the moment. Be fully present in it.” Click To Tweet

History & Tradition
The name, “Advent,” comes from the Latin, adventus, meaning “coming.” During Advent, Christians focus on the incarnation of Jesus Christ and on Christ’s eventual return, thereby highlighting both the humanity and the divinity of Christ. Advent is a celebration of the mystery of the trinity, made manifest in Jesus Christ who was fully human and simultaneously fully God.
Interestingly, the church has not always recognized this season leading up to Christmas. By the fifth century, the church had begun toying with the idea of a time of preparation prior to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Modeled on the Lenten season (40 days of fasting prior to Easter), Advent was observed in the West long before the Eastern church adopted the idea. By the 11th century CE, most countries had set aside approximately four weeks before Christmas for focused liturgy, abstinence, and fasting. Today, both Catholic and protestant congregations observe Advent as a time of reflection and contemplation.

A part of Advent worship is the lighting of the Advent wreath. Traditionally, the wreath, circular in design and made of evergreen branches includes five candles: four around the wreath and a center Christ candle. The candles are lit in successive weeks, adding one each week until Christmas Eve when the Christ candle is lit along with the four candles encircling the wreath. The Christ candle is white. Often, the candles for weeks one, two, and four are either blue or purple, depending on the church’s preference or tradition. The candle for the third Sunday is usually pink or rose in color. However, opinions differ widely on how best to represent the Advent season through the color of the candles. I'm sticking with the white center, purple, purple, pink, purple arrangement in this post because that is what the churches I've served have done. (Pick your battles, as they say.

Anyway, themes for Advent are hope, peace, joy, and love. As with the colors of the candles, there is some variance in the order of these themes. Almost always, though, "hope" comes first and "joy" is third. I've only recently learned that some church traditions flip the second and fourth themes.  Again, I revert to the order I've followed in my ministry (and, full disclosure, what my daddy has always done in his). Plus, I think we can all agree that this is not the most urgent argument in the Kingdom of God, right? When it comes to candle colors and the order of Advent themes, I'm thinking we can make like Elsa and just "let it go," am I right?

Hope, the First Sunday of Advent
The candle lit on this day is blue or purple and is sometimes called the Prophecy Candle. On the first Sunday of Advent, the church reflects on the coming Kingdom of Christ. Texts for this Sunday are eschatological in nature. According to www.webster.com, eschatology is “a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind.” But, the focus of this day is hope, not fear or anxiety. You see, we can get glimpses of God’s kingdom every day. Celtic Christians call these glimpses “thin places,” places where heaven seems to touch earth. On this Sunday of Hope, we can rest in the knowledge that in Christ, the Kingdom of God will certainly come in the future; let us also anticipate encounters with these thin places in which we experience the Kingdom of God in the here and now.

Peace, the Second Sunday of Advent
On the Second Sunday, we light the blue or purple Bethlehem Candle and the church remembers the Hebrew Prophets. It may seem confusing that today’s candle is called the Bethlehem Candle and we’re talking about Hebrew Prophets, when last week’s candle was named Prophecy. The confusion arises from our misunderstanding of the work of Hebrew prophets. Often, modern people think of the verb “prophesy” as a synonym for “predict.” But an Old Testament prophet was not a kind of ancient soothsayer who predicted future events with eerie accuracy. Instead, they were truth-tellers, delivering divine words of warning and of redemption to the people of God. Today, we look to Bethlehem, where Redemption was born.

Joy, the Third Sunday of Advent
On the third Sunday of Advent, the pink Shepherd’s Candle is lit. The candle is pink in commemoration of an ancient tradition in the church. In the early days of the church, the seven-week term of Lent was the only recognized liturgical season. On the third Sunday of Lent, the church took a brief break from fasting to celebrate the joy that was forthcoming in Easter. On this day, the Pope gave a pink rose to a congregant. Churches today use the pink candle in tribute to this custom from the church’s earliest days and as a reminder of the coming season of Lent.

On this Sunday, the church recalls the ministry of John the Baptist. John connects the prophets of old who spoke of righteousness, to Jesus Christ who embodied it. John the Baptist resembled an Old Testament prophet, yet as contemporary with Jesus, his message carried a unique sense of urgency. The biblical account the birth of Christ places the shepherds on the scene at the time of the nativity. Their rush to the manger resulted from their understanding of the magnitude of the moment. There is only one more Sunday of Advent. Time is drawing nigh! On the first Christmas, the Shepherds understood the immediacy of the moment; and during his ministry, John the Baptist did too.

Love, the Fourth Sunday of Advent
The last Sunday before Christmas the church lights the remaining blue or purple candle, the Angel Candle. Texts focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus. As we await the coming of Christ, we recall the joyous proclamation of the angels and Mary’s faithful obedience to God. When the angel Gabriel delivered his message to her—that she, a virgin betrothed to be married, was pregnant with the son of God—Mary gave herself fully and completely to God’s plan for her life. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we look to Mary’s example for guidance on how we might also fulfill God’s purpose for our lives.



Advent. It’s intentional and slow, not harried and fast. The world shouts, “Hurry up! You’re so far behind!” The church whispers, “Be still. Listen.” The world says, “You’re not doing enough! You’re running out of time.” The church says, “This is the moment. Be fully present in it.”

This Christmas, let’s stroll through Advent, enjoying the sights and sounds of the season and with hearts full of hope, peace, joy, and love, let us listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit.

(Check Wikipedia for this year's Advent dates.)

 

First published in 2015, edited and republished annually. Most recent edits 2018

Reign of Christ

Dreaming Big on Reign of Christ Sunday

“Before I was ordained, I just thought every day was Reign of Christ Day,” the rector quipped. Comfortable laughter wafted through the sanctuary.

I was attending the early service at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown with my husband and our daughter who was a senior at Georgetown University. She worshipped regularly with this congregation, so it was a delight to join her there in her chosen sacred space. The Sunday we were there was the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before the beginning of Advent: Reign of Christ Sunday.

Referencing Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann in her sermon, the rector discussed one difference between good and evil. “Good doesn’t like big imagination because it requires us to be too vulnerable, to work too hard. Evil, on the other hand, loves big imagination.”

I wasn’t sure I understood; she continued.  “A wistful mention of the end to local homelessness tends to be met not by enthusiastic support, but by scoffing judgment and wringing of hands. But let Evil mention a big idea. ‘Let’s kill an entire race of people! Let’s fly planes into buildings! Let’s open fire inside an elementary school.’” She listed these real-life tragedies with machine-gun fire rapidity.  “Evil has a preposterously huge idea and gets busy, plotting and planning, seemingly unconcerned with any possibility of failure. Good holds back. Good lists all the reasons this dream is improbable and unrealistic, then Good shrugs its shoulders and walks away.”

It was a valid point and frankly, hit me right in my self-righteous intentions.

“On this reign of Christ Sunday,” she challenged us, “the Body of Christ needs to remember where our center of government is. It’s not in Washington, but in the tender hands of merciful Jesus. Those hands can handle any dreams we can conceive, regardless of magnitude.”

Prayers followed the sermon and then it was time for Holy Eucharist. (What we Baptists call the Lord’s Supper and have monthly or quarterly, the Episcopalians have weekly and then some. If it were a competition, I’d say they are beating us on this count.)

We all filed to the front of the church and circled around the table—there were about 30 of us, maybe 40. The officiants blessed the bread and the cup, then handed one plate of bread to the left, one to the right. The organist began playing a familiar hymn as the elements of communion passed from person to person around the circle.

Let us break bread together on our knees.
Let us break bread together on our knees.

“The body of Christ, broken for you,” said a silver haired man as he leaned over to the caramel colored girl next to him.

“Thanks be to God,” a bespectacled brown man said as he received the bread from a young white man sporting a fresh military haircut.

When I fall down on my knees, with my face to the rising sun.
O Lord, have mercy on me.

The cup made its way around, passing from a teenage acolyte to a tall Asian woman with two children of disparate ethnicities.

“The blood of Christ, shed for you,” a college student said to a young dad who held his infant son, swaddled but squirmy.

A little girl—three years old or maybe four--rocked back and forth, toe to heel, in her shiny Mary Janes; a twenty-something year old woman, her raven black hair plaited in the back, smiled at the fidgety girl. A baby cried. A grown man, eyes glistening, shed a tear or two himself.

Let us praise God together on our knees.
Let us praise God together on our knees.
When I fall down on my knees, with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord have mercy on me!

What a holy and blessed time of worship. A challenging proclamation by a gifted and engaging pastor, sacred communion celebrated at the foot of the cross, and a rich foretaste of God’s kingdom: an eclectic, multi-generational, international collection of believers who came together for this one moment of connection. For me, it was like a glimpse of a dream come true.

Oh Lord, let me dream big and act with bold conviction that it is You who reign in my life.

What about you? What’s YOUR dream?

 

Published originally November 2015

 

 

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