Advent 2014

advent one

Advent is the season in the church in preparing and awaiting the celebration of the birth of Jesus on Christmas.  For years I have incorporated this formula in my teaching and preaching.[1]

Jesus Came

Jesus Comes

Jesus will Come Again

First, the historical Jesus lived over 2000 years ago to walk and talk and preach and heal the infirmed.  As a young man, for all he did for others, he suffered and died carrying our sins with him on the cross.  His resurrection connects Christmas with Easter and Jesus’ Ascension into heaven giving us the promise of eternal life.

Second, Jesus is present in the lives of those who profess to believe in him.  Advent hope is grounded in the Incarnate Christ who continues to live in the hearts and minds of those who believe Christ continues to live in and through us today.  For people of faith living in community, we are the living, vibrant body of Christ doing God’s work in the world today.

Third and most challenging to explain:  Jesus will come again.  We don’t know the when or where or how Jesus will come again.   As Matthew says, “no one knows the day or hour—but only God”!  What I know for sure:  Scripture promises that in some way Jesus will come again.  Until then, my hope is in God who is always present with us and known to us through the living Christ.

There is a simple advent prayer:  Come Lord Jesus, Come!   This prayer is asking for God to tie together the past with our present experiences and the hope we have for his future reign as the Son of Almighty God.

[1]   I appreciate seeing this formula in the writings of a number of preachers and scholars down through the years.  Dr. Robert Chesnut was the first.

‘Good Bye’ Library (Reflections from one year ago)

After reading John Buchanan’s blog about his downsizing his professional library, I have to share my thoughts from a year ago in saying “good-bye” to more than half of my library.

As I see more and more of my colleagues prepare for retirement, this is an article from the former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago worth the read:

One year after my retirement, I gaze upon my small library never to forget that last week in my church study when faced with no other choice but to downsize my library.  Two elders, Shelley and Isabella, stood in front of my desk books and boxes.  They would place books in front of me and I would quickly make a decision as to which ones I would keep.   Books that would not be ‘saved’ were going to a room near my study.  They would be spread out on tables for anyone in the congregation wishing to have them.  I gave a couple of seminarians advanced notice of the opportunity take any books they might find helpful in their studies.  I also gave the seminarians most of my reference books.  This is how I acquired many of the books that are in my library.  I didn’t have the patience to think about trying to sell my library.  For economic reasons, I know many of my colleagues who are forced to think about selling their books in order to supplement their income.

Back to that room where my parting books were on display on tables.  I will never forget sitting alone in this room in front of these tables gazing upon them feeling like I was at a funeral.  I was truly grieving the loss of books that had become to me like friends.  A few of these books made were saved to be returned to my personal library.

Weeks later as I placed my books on new shelves in my new home study, I recall ordering a new bookcase.  I was going to need more shelving.  This being said, I am trying to weed out books at the same rate I purchase new books.  I have also been trying to cut back on the books I purchase—really hard.

Ordering e-books is something new for me.  I’m not sure I will ever get used to having a library of books stored somewhere in a “cloud”.  Gazing upon the book self on my phone or computer isn’t as enjoyable as looking at the full wall of books in my study.  I laugh at how the computer tries to simulate a bookcase in listing the e-books I have purchased.   I will always love the hard-copy books I can feel and touch and underscore and write in the margins.

All I wish:  I hope that all of my books, when I die, will be given to those who will honor and cherish them as much as I have throughout the years.  Perhaps some seminarians will have an opportunity to have them?   I know what my wife wishes:  That I get rid of the books before I die!

Scriptures for Thanksgiving

Turkey black and whiteSearching through my Thanksgiving files, I found this listing of scripures that were published some years ago by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) office of Worship and Theology.  “Scripture abounds with thanksgiving to God, for thanksgiving is part of the Christian way oflife, no matter what the circumstances.”    In gratitude to God for blessings received, let’s lift up God’s Holy Words this Thanksgiving!

O give thanks to the LORD, call upon the Holy One’s name, and make known God’s deeds among the peoples.

–1 Chronicles 16: 8

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of God’s wonderful deeds.

—Psalm 9:1

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.

“Those one who offer thanksgiving as their sacrifice glorify me; To those who order their way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”

—Psalm 50:14, 23

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,

and to sing praises to your name, O Most High;

to declare your loving-kindness in the morning,

and your faithfulness by night…

For you, O Lord, have made me glad

by what you have done,.

I will sing for joy at the work of your hands.

How great are your works, O Lord!

-Psalm 92:1, 4-5

Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous, and give thanks to God’s holy name!

—Psalm 97:12

Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and into the divine courts with praise! Give thanks to the Lord; bless God’s holy name!

—Psalm 100:4

Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon God’s name; make known the divine deeds among the peoples! Sing to the Holy One, sing praises to the Lord. Tell of all God’s wondrous works!

—Psalm 105:1-2

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the people;

and I will sing praises to you among the nations,

for your loving-kindness is great above the heavens;

and your truth reaches to the skies.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens,

and let your glory be over all the earth. -Psalm 108:3-5

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; God has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

–Isaiah 12:1-6

Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls; yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.

–Habakkuk 3:17-19

Everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God

–2 Cor. 4:15

You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

–2 Cor. 9:[1-10]11-15

Speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,

singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;

always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God.

-Ephesians 5:19-20

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

—Philippians 4:6

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Christ 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 Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, Christ has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before God–provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.

–Col. 1:1-23

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

–Col. 2:6-7

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5: 18

I admonish and urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be offered on behalf of all people.

— 1 Timothy 2: 1

For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving.

1 Timothy 4:4

All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

–Rev. 7:11-12

PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship 1

Obama Speech–Executive Actions on Immigration

The immigration system in our country is broken.  The congress has failed to inact reforms.  The Senate has approved a reform bill, now over 500 days ago.  The house leadership refused to take the bill to the floor for debate.

Millions of undocumented immigrants want to play by the same rules as everyone else in this country.  I hear the news media call them “illegal” immigrants.   I believe UNDOCUMENTED is the correct term.   People by nature of their humanity are not illegal (another debate).

This is a link to the actual speech President Obama gave on Thursday evening.

For those who didn’t hear the President speach, this is a good read.

Just Wondering

007Knowing that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is investing tens of thousands of dollars and professional staff hours with the “1001 New Worshipping Communities” initiative, I wonder where the funding and intentional staff support exists in helping thousands of small congregations in need of revitalization.   I know of dozens of rural and urban churches that could use more focused support from the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Are there others who share this concern?  Specifically, what is being done to help small struggling congregations deal with huge buildings that drain congregational resources away from evangelism and mission?  Who on the national staff is addressing the specific concerns of urban congregations?

Just wondering!

Journal: VOCATION–Call to Ministry

Grandson Tommy

Over the years I have found the best way to determine the validity of my call to ministry is in asking two questions: First, am I enjoying what I am doing?  Second, am I vocationally satisfied that my ministry is truly giving glory to God?

In asking these questions, I am not saying there isn’t a sober sense of empathy for the pain and suffering of others. Ministry is hard and there is often pain and grief in doing God’s work as a pastor.  At the same time can I go home to kiss my wife and hug my daughter (when she is home) in knowing that what I am doing is truly a “vocational call” to be serving God even when it hurts?

Throughout my professional life, now almost forty years, I have used the first question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism as a guide:

What is the Chief end of Man (Humankind)? Answer:  “To Glorify God and Enjoy God forever.

This fits perfectly with my definition of vocation.

My understanding of “Vocation” also fits with what Frederick Buechner says in a post on Facebook post on 11/11/14:

VOCATION comes from the Latin vocare, “to call,” means the work a person is called to by God.

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self-interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing cigarette ads, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. (originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words)

Currently on disability and soon to be retired, I am limited in what I can do. I have major physical limitations.  I struggle now from my home office in determining what God is calling me to be doing.  What am I doing for the glory of God and the benefit of others?

What I know for sure, is that now fir the first time in many years, I am putting my family and myself on the top of my list of priorities. I can now make family plans without worrying about church meetings or the pastoral demands of a particular congregation.  The issues and struggles don’t go away.  My daughter is facing major surgery in a couple of weeks.  The world of issues and needs hasn’t gone away.  I just don’t have primary responsibility in responding to these issues or needs as I used to when I was an installed pastor of a particular church.  Others have now been called to do this hands-on work.

Now I ask, vocationally: What can I do to take better care of myself for the benefit of my family and so that my Grandson will have many more years to enjoy his grandfather?  Given the hard work before me in taking care of myself, this “call” is going to demand a lot of prayer and encouragement from others.

So I ask those who may read this blog: What is your understanding of vocation?  Are you giving glory to God and enjoying God in what you have been called to do and be?

Thanks be to God for all the gifts God has entrusted our care.


Veteran’s Day Prayer

Veterans’ Day Prayer  (UCC 2008)

O God, we give you thanks today for our nation’s veterans.

We honor them for their faithful service to our country,

and for what they have done

to defend and preserve our freedom.

Flag and Candle

Generation after generation,

young men and women

have answered our country’s call,

and their lives have been changed forever.

We are grateful to all who have served,

whether in peacetime or in conflict.

But today we especially remember

those who have been tempered by fire,

those who continue to bear wounds

of the body or the spirit

as a result of what they endured.

They lie in our veterans’ hospitals

or struggle for recovery in rehabilitation centers;

they suffer from post-traumatic stress

and survivor’ guilt;

they yearn for peace in their souls.

Dear God, we ask you to heal their wounds,

to banish whatever inner demons may haunt them,

and to give them peace within

so they may return fully to their families and to society.

We thank you, God, for all of our country’s veterans

—those of past generations,

and those who continue to earn this title today.

May we never forget what our country has asked of them

and what they have given in return.

Help us to give them the respect and honor they are due.

And strengthen our resolve

to build a world modeled on your realm,

where war will be pursued no more.

This we ask in the name of Jesus,

the Prince of Peace.  Amen.

Thanks in all Circumstances!

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  (I Thessalonians 5: 16-1-8)

One of my favorite scriptural texts for this time of year comes from I Thessalonians 5: 16-18.   But given the world in which we live today, it is a challenge “giving thanks in all circumstances.”

Just look at the ‘circumstances‘ in which we find ourselves as a nation and world. There are a lot of things wrong in this world. Are we in what Walter Brueggemann has called a modern day exile?   I believe this metaphor of exile comes close to describing the realities of he world in which we live![1]  Some examples.

I just finished listening to the evening news learning about two more murders on the streets of Saginaw. Another father has been incarcerated for abusing his young son.  Have I been naïve in thinking things were getting better in the city where I live, Saginaw, Michigan?

This is also election night. The GOP is going to take over the congress.  Instead of listening to election results I have decided to turn to writing in this journal.  I fear that all we will see as a result of all the malicious robocalls and political television commercials is more gridlock in Washington. Have I been naïve in thinking things were getting better in our nation’s capital, Washington DC?

Through faith in Jesus Christ with scripture in hand, I want to understand what it means that there is plenty to be thankful for in this world—as Paul suggests, “in all circumstances”. I am grateful for family and friends and health.  It’ still good to be an American, though I worry that we are no longer seen as the greatest nation in the world.  There are a lot of reasons to give thanks to God for blessings received.  At the same time, there is also a lot of suffering!

Globally, the internet talks of ISIS killing little boys in northern Iraq. The BBC story yesterday asked: Will the schoolgirls abducted on April 22 from the Borno state, Nigeria ever be found?[2] And what about western African and the Ebola virus that is indiscriminately killing thousands of people?   One news commentator said that Ebola has moved to the second page of the newspaper. The election has become the new first page.  I suppose Ebola, heaven forbid, will have to come once again onto the shores of America for this to become front page news once again.

Another story that really got to me was about a 90 year old man and two ministers arrested in Ft. Lauderdale for feeding a homeless man in public. A new law in Ft. Lauderdale forbids “public food sharing”. The police officer approaches these food-sharing citizens with the demand:   “Drop that plate!” – as if they were carrying guns.[3]  These advocates for  the homeless are going to face a fine of up to $500 and 90 days in jail.  Where is their thanksgiving in these circumstances?

What has come of this world in which we live.   Literally, dozens of heart-breaking issues that can easily fill us with despair.  And yet we are called to give thanks to God in ALL circumstances?   Where are we going to find within our hearts and minds the hope that leads to thanksgiving?   Where is the “Help, Thanks and WOW” Anne Lamott calls us to pray through tough times and with hard issues?   As Anne says,

Everywhere you turn, our lives and marriages and morale and government are falling to pieces. So many friends have broken children.  The planet does not seem long for this world.  Repent!  Oh, wait, never mind.  I meant:  Help.[4]

Feeling bombarded with an overabundance of global and domestic issues, it is time to turn to prayer. It’s time to turn to God.  It’s time to renew our faith in Jesus Christ.  And prayer is not a switch we can turn off and on.  We cannot turn the ugly things we see in and experience in this troubled world just because it’s close to thanksgiving or Christmas!

We cannot deny the fact that we may be afraid for loved ones who are suffering.   As the 46th Psalm says and I believe, “God is our refuge and strength—a very present help in times of trouble”   The phrase that catches my attention as I often meditate on this Psalm: “Be Still and Know God”. Is this the prayer I have been looking for?  The prayer that will restore hope in the presence of God in our lives?   Be still and search for the presence and stability and hope that comes only from God!   

My daughter Emily lives in California. She is now facing for the fourth time major surgery on her neck.  She will have this surgery a week before thanksgiving.   In my prayers, I need to affirm again and again and again and in all circumstances that God is always with Emily and her family.  I know this to be true.  This truth rests deep in my heart:  God does not abandon us.  Even when the world is topsy-turvy with horrible things happening all around us, God is always with us.  In all circumstances because God is always with us, we can have hearts filled with gratitude and thanksgiving.

So back to prayer: Genuine prayer is not just putting on happy faces in hiding our true feelings.  The fear we face in challenging/difficult times is real.  We need to share our fears to God.  We need to “Be Still” in searching for the ever presence of God amidst the fears.  This will be my prayer for Emily when she has her surgery.  This will be my prayer for her entire family as she recovers.  God is always with her/us!  We thank God that she has found some good doctors and a surgeon who will do the operation.  I am thankful for great hospitals and caring staff.  In all circumstances, I am thankful for all the family who will be around Emily as she recovers.

This is also my prayer for the troubled world in which we live. We’ve experienced the promised land that emerges from exile before.  We can and will again emerge from these feelings of being exiled in lonely and parched places of the soul.

Faith in Jesus our Lord who lived and suffered and died for us anchors us in love and hope, so that in all circumstances, we can behold what it means to thank God for life and this world God has placed us in to live.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  (I Thessalonians 5: 16-1-8)


[1]   Exilic Preaching, Edited by Erskine Clarke, Walter Brueggemann , Sermon on page 9.

[2]  All stories I picked up from the Internet on November 4, 2014.

[3]   Huffington Post, Impact, November 4, 2014

[4]   Help, Thanks, Wow, by Anne Lamott, page 11.