Friday, November 23, 2012

Why We Should Sing Christmas Carols Now

This Advent season at the church I serve we are going to be focusing on Singing Our Way to the Manger.  I have been working on a written devotional with that title.  In the coming weeks I will offer some additional thoughts about carols, the ways they help us prepare for the birth of Christ, and why we should sing them leading up to Christmas for that exact reason.

I think many reading this might thing, duh!  But you need to know that during seminary it was drilled into me that singing Christmas carols was bad...and for a UCC seminary to say something was bad really meant something!  We prefer soft verbs and affirming all people.  But it was clear to me, stick to the dirges during Advent (four Sundays before Christmas) so that the carols really means something comes Christmas.

I don't know who started this movement, but I have decided to stop following.  We are going to sing Christmas carols with wreak-less abandon at church every Sunday leading up to and after Christmas.  I am going to listen to them in my office.  In fact, I have already started. This week I pulled up my copy of the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas on my ipod and turned up the volume.

I actually agree with David Lose that this is a spiritual practice and we should not feel bad about it.  I pray you will do the same.  Okay, now I gotta go because Frosty the Snowman is about to come on.

May the traces of God's grace sustain you and may you sing all the way to the manger this year.


Today my family and I went to see Wreak it Ralph.  As someone who grew up loving the trips to the arcade to pump quarters into games like Q-Bert and Pac Man and the obvious reference to Ralph being like Donkey Kong.  Like all Disney movies, Ralph is essentially about finding your identity.  Without ruining it for you, let me describe the plot.  Ralph plays a guy who wreaks buildings (see the genius in the title).  But Ralph grows weary of being the bad guy.  One of my favorite lines in the whole movie is when an evil wrestler dude tells Ralph, "Just because you play a bad guy does not make you a bad guy".  You'll laugh once you see the movie.  So, Ralph decides to try to be a hero in another game and eventually meets up with another character who is trying to figure out who she is too.  If one character searching for identity is good, two must be twice as good!  Like Simba in the Lion King or Ariel in the Little Mermaid, eventually all Disney characters find that happiness is embracing who you are, even if it is not perfect.

Trying to find our identity today is huge (and the movie makers at Disney know it).  While once it was mainly an issue for teenagers or for those in college; today identity is a huge topic for all of us.  It is not just Disney who knows this.  Apple does too.  Don't like who you are?  Just wait for the new incarnation of the ipod or iphone to remind you that you are an apple gal.  Don't like who you are?  Just swipe the credit card and buy a new shirt or shoes or something, especially if you can get it on sale!

Now to be clear, I get caught up in this all the time.  Before I went to some continuing education classes this summer I went out shoe shopping so that they would match the ensembles I wanted to wear...I certainly did not want to be that guy with the uncool shoes.  Andrew Root at Luther Seminary teaches about how our identity used to come from family, but those days are over.  Then our identity used to come from our jobs, which was on life support since the economic crisis of the middle eighties and now might be officially done with the recent economic downturn.  Now, our identity seems to come from what we can consume, which might ring true especially during this Christmas season.  There is countless pressures to buy right now.

I know I struggle, like Ralph, with my identity from time to time.  And yet, I also want to resist thinking that my identity comes primarily from what I consume.  I'd rather think that my identity comes from Christ consuming me in such a way I find the peace, hope, joy and love that makes me whole.  In fact, rather than just thinking that, I would love to have my identity in Christ coming from how I live.  I see these weeks leading up to Christmas as a time to let that be a spiritual practice so that as the dwindling days of 2012 give way to the new year of 2013, I would keep on living an identity as a follower of Christ.

May the traces of God's grace help assure you that you are loved by God, not for what you buy or car you drive, but because by the waters of baptism you belong to God.  And that is who we are and whose we are.


Friday, November 16, 2012


What makes you happy?  Spending time with your family or friends?  Curled up on the couch wrapped in a blanket with a good book and a cup of really good coffee?  Cooking in the kitchen?  Working in the garage?  Completing a project or planning a vacation?

Happiness is one of those topics that is so subjective.  What makes one person happy might bore another person to tears.  And yet, even though the pathways to happiness are as distinctive as the person, the destination is the same for all of us.  

I have been thinking a lot about happiness recently.  What is amazing to me is that not only have I yet to figure out fully everything that makes me happy, but also that it seems to change year to year.  Things that made me happy in my twenties, now holds little appeal to me.

And to make things just a little more complicated, what makes me happy also hasn't changed all that much.  Some of the happiest times are moments I am with my family.  Playing a game at home or sledding down a hill in the winter or watching a movie or sharing highs and lows around the dinner table.  Let's be honest, I don't want to suggest that our house is Leave it Beaver all the time.  There are moments of raised voices...especially when we are running late.  There are moments when we seem to push each other's buttons.  And there are times we all need some space.  But the vast majority of the time, I know one place that is almost guaranteed to make me happy is being at home with my family.  

I recently came across this quote from The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I was happier when I accepted my own real likes and dislikes, instead of trying to decide what I ought to like…. As Michel de Montaigne observed, “The least strained and most natural ways of the soul are the most beautiful; the best occupations are the least forced”

Last Sunday, I asked the congregation I serve to spend time this week prayerfully considering the question, "How is it with my soul?"  So often when things seem stormy in my soul, I try to force things.  I pray more or think I should go on some retreat for a kind of spiritual high.  In other words, I assume the problem is either me or something I should do or something that is in my control.  Maybe the reason why things seem so difficult is because the balance between likes and dislikes has shifted toward the latter.  Maybe it is because I am doing things I think I should do rather than what feels natural.

I believe we notice the traces of God's grace most readily when I am happy.  I pray this week with thanksgiving you will name not only what you are thankful for, but what makes you happy.  And then try to choose to do those things and be with those people all you can.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

The great weakness in the North American our refusal to accept our brokenness. We hide it, evade it, gloss over it. We grab for the cosmetic kit and put on our virtuous face to make ourselves admirable to the public.  Brennan Manning in Ruthless Trust

My first response to that quote when I read it was, "Ouch."  It is helpful to know that Brennan Manning is a Catholic monk, so he is speaking from inside the church rather than from the outside looking in with a sneer.  Manning is also very passionate about the church reclaiming and restoring what is at the center of the faith, which is not doctrine or creeds, but trust.  

Trust is in short supply today.  We don't trust our government on national or state levels.  We don't trust our employer to be there for us.  And the church has struggled with abuse scandals of all sorts.  The truth about trust is that is not so much that we spent all of our trust in previous years and now are running on empty.  Trust is not a consumable commodity.  Rather like the jar of meal when Elijah encountered the widow of Zarephath  trust cannot ever be fully used up.

To be sure, trust can be broken, which can feel about the same as running on empty.  Trust can be walked on and trust can definitely be mishandled in very hurtful ways.  What we are really talking about when we describe those very real moments is not the amount of trust inside us, but our willingness to trust again.  

Here is where I think Manning's quote is so important.  The church does not always know how to talk about the kind of broken trust or harsh words or painful experiences we carry with us into the sanctuary every Sunday.  Throughout my life in the church there has been an outsourcing of talking about brokenness.  Leave that to professionals like counselors and therapists.  Even in seminary I was encouraged to refer people if the situation was too broken.  I still think there is wisdom in that, but it can also feel like the church is saying to that person that we cannot do anything to help.  I think we can.  We can listen.  We can turn to the broken people we encounter in scripture together.  We can surround that person with unconditional love and reveal that our lives are not as perfect as we show on the surface.  

That is not the same as counseling, but I think there is a place and role for both.  I think when we are honest about our brokenness with others, and we see other's response as open to us, we are more apt to trust.  There is a sort of sacred math here: honesty about who we are plus a church community that provides that space can equal trust.   

And if we can do that as a church, I think Manning is correct, that not only we will be able to trust, we will also sense traces of God's grace.

Blessings and peace!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Lord's Prayer - part 7

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever

I grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons.  All the classics: the Smurfs, the Laugh-Olympics, and of course - Loony Tunes.  Every week Wiley E Coyote would chase the Roadrunner around using some product from the Acme Corporation...which would inevitably fail sending poor Wiley over a cliff or to have a safe come crashing down on his head.  Week after week the plot did not change.  Week after week I laughed at poor Wiley's fate.  It is only now that I realize that part of what makes Wiley such a compelling character is that he has some very human traits.

First, I don't always learn from past mistakes.  I can think to myself, "That was a boneheaded things to say," only to say same equally boneheaded thing the very next time.  Part of the problem is that often today we think we can think our way out of a problem.  Theologian Richard Rohr says, "We cannot think our way into a new way of being, we have to live our way into a new way of thinking."  That is not to suggest that we need to turn off our minds completely, just that maybe living our entire life inside our heads may not always be helpful.  Experiences and emotions can also teach us important insights.

Second, I can turn to the Acme Corporations today and see consuming as a way to solve my problems.  Why not buy that new Ipad mini or new car or television?  Again, the point is not that we should try to go off the grid, start making my own clothes and try to grow my own food.  That is not going to happen.  But I can realize that when I buy something it is an ethical choice and there are consequences.  I can realize that part of the reason why the cartoons I mentioned above are making a "come back" is savvy marketers trying to appeal to my nostalgia and get me to buy Smurfs merch for my kids...just like when I was a kid.  It does not mean we need to eschew all things commercial...but we also need to not be consumed by our own consuming.

This for me is what temptation is about today.  Temptation today is also about our own self-reliance and thinking "I can do this all on my own...thank you very much."  One of the new books coming out is by Anne Lamott called Help, Thanks, Wow Three Essential Prayers. All three of those words are oriented toward that which is beyond us.  We ask for help from someone else.  We thank someone else.  And it is often serendipitous moments outside our expectations or control that amaze ir surprise us joyfully.  As Christian we often utter these three words to God.  This book is on my "to read" list and is set to be released later in November.  But the title itself reminds me that I need let go of my need for constant control or thinking I am completely in charge, I realize there is Someone in whom I can trust.  I open my life to God. 

Jesus said that is what the Kingdom or realm of God is all about.  Jesus taught that there is power in letting go of the world's understanding of power that is too reliant on violence and fear.  Jesus lived a life of joy and love that radiated in glory from Christ's own presence.  God is the One who is the Kingdom/Realm, the power and the glory.

When we pray the Lord's prayer it is inviting us to live in God's realm right here and now.  It is challenging our understandings and our very life.  It is inviting us to remember that God's ways are not like our ways. I hope that next Sunday when you pray this prayer you will let each word and phrase linger.  I hope this last several posts have offered new ways for you to connect with this sacred prayer.  

May the One who is the light to our lives and whose love makes us different continue to offer traces of amazing grace in your life this day and for countless days to come.

Blessings and peace!

God's Calling - We don't have it all figured out

  A few weeks ago, I offered the analogy of the Slinky as a serendipitous example of the ways calling can go off course and still end up in ...