Monday, November 24, 2014

Programming Notes

Our heading into the heart of the holiday season always signals that a few things are coming on the blog.

First, the Advent season will bring what has become a blog tradition, that being my Mondays of Advent series. Each Monday of Advent, I'll write a reflection about my own journey through this special time leading up to Christmas. I've come to treasure this as a spiritual practice, and I hope that it might aid some readers' journeys as well.

Next will come the Year-End Pop Culture Roundup, the culmination of another year's worth of reading, watching, and listening, where I name some of my favorites that I've experienced over the course of 2014.

But before we get to all of that, I wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving. May you find time to remember what makes you most thankful, not just this week, but always.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Vintage CC: Blue Christmas…Before Thanksgiving

I wrote this way back in November 2005, when I was feeling particularly bad about the upcoming season. In fact, it was the first time I'd felt that way about Christmas approaching; when the commercialism had just taken its toll on my psyche. I've retained some of that over the years, but I've also made sure to look for the blessings, just as I did so many years ago. I hope that readers will be able to find such blessings, too.

I woke up this morning to find the light dusting in the field that I had wanted so badly a month ago. It's perfect for today, two funerals and two grieving families in ten days. We'll celebrate two baptisms in Advent, so hope looms on the horizon as it creates an irenic scene in my backyard that Thomas Kincaide couldn't match on his best day.

I've never felt the holiday crunch the way I do this year. We'd ventured to the mall the other week and I couldn't bring myself to take more than three steps into a women's clothing shop my wife was sure would contain a gift for a relative. I stood by the entrance sipping my caramel coffee, noting a few ladies' vibes of discomfort with my standing near a rack they'd meant to explore. No problem. I'll move sideways (not forward) to another rack. There you go. Make someone's spirits bright.

Have you seen that JC Penney commercial where the disembodied voice promises that your family's Christmas will be 'made magical' after you buy them stuff? Seriously. That's what they say. Is it possible to have Seasonal Affective Tourette's? Does that happen? I'll ask my psychology major wife later.

We of course live among smaller towns in our piece of Ohio, and a lot of them host nights where you can wander downtown while they pass out hot chocolate, leave their little shops open late, you can hear caroling and even join in. It can get really cold, but you can also run into old friends from high school, close your eyes as Little Julie sings the second verse of O Holy Night on her own (and boy do you hope she'll major in voice when she graduates in 2012), you're far away from constipated parking lots and manufactured cheer.

We're hosting a Blue Christmas service this year. It's the first time many have heard of such a concept. It's the first time I've led one. I can appreciate its need now. I grow increasingly tired of 'merchandise makes magic' advertising and yearn for more homegrown 'hey neighbor how are ya?' spirit that Jesus truly advocated. If you're unfamiliar with Blue Christmas, here's the abbreviated vernacular: the holidays suck for a lot of people because they're lonely, depressed, mourning a loved one, or stressed out. Blue Christmas is to provide reassurance and comfort. I ask myself how someone who feels more befuddled than ever by the world's version of Christmas could be in a position to lead this service, and then some voice to which I don't pay attention often enough says, 'Well, it's for you, too. They're not messed up. You all are.'

So I look back out to my field and look at the pure untouched layer of snow covering it. If only it could always be like that. If only Christmas could be as pure. If only I could be.

I can't wait to hear Little Julie sing. She's the only one keeping me sane.

God works through everyone.

Monday, November 17, 2014

When Pastors Play God

In recent weeks, much has been written about the ongoing saga of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, particularly the accusations leveled at embattled pastor, Mark Driscoll, who finally resigned his position. The alleged actions for which he came under fire included bullying in meetings and other contexts, having the church pay a company to help put his book on the bestseller list, telling a room of people that "I am the brand," and pushing out other pastors in his church network that raised these issues to begin with.

All of these actions signal an incredible narcissism; a need to protect one's position atop a great mountain removed from scrutiny and second-guessing, with questionable tactics employed to keep oneself there or to be elevated higher.

When you declare "I am the brand" in a church context, you've replaced God with yourself.

Of course, it's easy to level criticism at someone like Driscoll. He's a public figure who easily dug himself into holes with his rhetoric. The fact that many others internally have finally been calling him on such things is perhaps the truly amazing part of this story.

But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who serve churches of 50, 100, 200? We may not go around declaring that "we are the brand." We may not have books on the bestseller lists through dubious means. We may consider shouting down opponents during board meetings to be unthinkable and unprofessional (though perhaps still tempting at times).

But that doesn't mean that we're not immune from such dangers. There are more subtle ways in which pastors may move themselves into the spot reserved for the divine. They are ways we may not usually add to such a list, but may lure us gradually into a false sense of self.

First, there are the ways we may make ourselves the center of all church programming and ministries. There are those instances when we feel the need to plan, approve, or be involved with every meeting or event that happens within the congregation. Sometimes the desire for this is communicated by the church, and we may buy into it thinking that nothing can be accomplished without our input or presence. Not only does this set us up to be micromanagers and poor delegators, but it ends up affecting boundaries and self-care. When we travel too far into this mindset, we end up sacrificing family or time off because The Church Needs Me.

Then there are the ways we take on the needs and pathologies of people in pastoral care situations. Whether the need is spiritual, financial, emotional, psychological, or medical, we may be tempted to become one's personal case worker, answering every "emergency" phone call at all hours, dropping whatever else we are doing for every cry for help. It starts with a single payment from the emergency fund, and we may begin interpreting our or the church's mission to help people as a mission to be on-call for one particular person all the time, because They Need Me.

We don't end up saying "I am the brand" in these situations, but we might as well. Because whether we insist on micromanaging an entire organization or just one person, it is our brand on which we are insisting: our brand of ministry, our brand of administration, our brand of worship, our brand of life management. We are called to help lead in these areas, and indeed we are expected to do so. However, we are also called to collaborate; to affirm and encourage the ideas and abilities of those with whom we serve, or the expertise of those better informed to deal with the issues individuals face. We are, after all, called to "equip the saints for the work of ministry," as Ephesians puts it. That eventually involves giving up control and oversight of some tasks, and entrusting others with the work instead.

Whether we pastor a church of thousands as a best-selling author and sought-after speaker or a modest rural church only the immediate community knows about, the dangers are the same. They just manifest differently.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Liturgy for the Christ Candle

Note: Every day this week, I'm sharing original liturgy that I've written for lighting the Advent candles this year. I share them in case people are still searching for such resources leading up to this special season.

Call to Worship

A light has dawned, and it fills the earth. God is doing a new thing; it is good news for us.
We who keep parts of ourselves in the shadows are invited into the light; to embrace the new life God shows us. 
Go to Bethlehem to see the embodiment of God’s grace. Go to experience God’s love in human form.
We must go in order to see for ourselves. The light of the world beckons to us. 

(Pause as the Advent candles and Christ candle are lit.)

Rejoice and be glad for the possibilities of this good news!
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among all whom God favors! 


We are startled and surprised by the many ways you appear to us, gracious God. As we tend to our mundane tasks, the sudden brilliance of your revealing light awakens us to your presence. We rejoice in the good news you share with us: unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Like the shepherds, may we hasten to see the ways you are making all things new, and may we be inspired to rejoice and proclaim as we re-enter a world yearning to hear words of hope. Amen.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Liturgy for the Fourth Advent Candle: Love

Note: Every day this week, I'm sharing original liturgy that I've written for lighting the Advent candles this year. I share them in case people are still searching for such resources leading up to this special season.

Call to Worship

Our journey through Advent is nearing its close. We’ve joined in hope, taught peace, and rejoiced with one another.
Led by the Spirit, we have remembered some important truths revealed by the One whose birth we seek. 
The flame symbolizing love is the latest to mark our journey, and it is perhaps the brightest of all.
Love seems to be the simplest, and yet is the most difficult. We take this moment to be reminded yet again. 

(Pause while the fourth Advent candle of Love is lit)

The light of love illuminates the path ahead of us. It is the path that the One soon to be born will bid us follow.
May God embolden our hearts to love others as God first loved us. May this time of worship strengthen us for this call. 


Ever-present God, we rejoice in the love and faithfulness that you have shown to us. We are aware of your invitation not only to receive this gift, but also to share it with others. We confess that it is hard to love some of the people who cross our life’s path. We see the risk involved and are not sure how best to fulfill your calling. O God, grant us discerning hearts and generous spirits, that we may know the best way forward, ever guided by your light. Amen.