Finding Personal Preference In Advent

“I’ll give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you. I’ll remove the stone heart from your body and replace it with a heart that’s God-willed, not self-willed.” 
-Ezekiel 36:26
One of my real honest-to-goodness struggles during this season are all of the Christmas decorations.  I love most of them.  Going into an At Home store is overload for me.  I love that one.  I want that one.  Gotta have that one. 
I have a Nativity room. 
A Santa collection. 
A battery-operated, flickering candle in every window. 
A snowman and a snow-woman room. 
A country farmhouse tree. 
And, of course, each area has its own Yankee Candle scent. 
But a neighbor … just a few houses down, has a giant inflatable “Christmas” minion in the front yard.  Even worse is that house around the block that has a Santa riding an elephant.  What’s with that?  
Taste, my friends!  
Personal taste!
Personal preference!  
What may be true in Christmas decorations … taste and preference … can it also be true in Advent?   Because personal preference is often in conflict with what God desires from us, the answer is no.  The season of Advent is so much more. 
The most important aspect of Advent is the challenge.  The challenge to get right with God and to put our hearts out there so that god can chip away the stony built up layers.  Or, if need be, remove our hard hearts and replace them with a heart that is full of life.  
This is how a heart grows three sizes, my friends. 

A Uniquely Spoken Life

Toward the end of his life Rich Mullins said, “I think we cry at funerals—even at funerals of people we don’t like—because we realize what a miracle a life is. You realize, ‘This will never happen again.’ There will never be this exact combination of genes, there will never again be the things that have created this person to be what he or she is. God has spoken uniquely here, and it’s gone. It’s over. And I think there’s some regret, because we all realize, boy, we didn’t pay enough attention.”
Excerpt from:  An Arrow Pointing to Heaven
Rich Mullins:  A Devotional Biography
by Brennan Manning & James Bryan Smith 
Introductions aren’t supposed to grab your thoughts.  That’s chapter !  But every now and then …  When I pulled it up on iBooks, I glanced down at the bottom and saw “Suggested For You”.  And there it was.  An Arrow Pointing to Heaven.  I clicked on the sample and began reading.  The above excerpt was close to the last thing I read before tapping on the BUY.   
I’m not sure of the exact context in which Rich Mullins said these words.  Maybe he was in a season of funerals to which I can at times relate to as a pastor.  Nevertheless, what intrigued me was the idea that God uniquely speaks to life. 
Isn’t that fascinating! 
Have you ever considered your life as uniquely spoken from God? 
A game changer, right? 
But wait, there is more … if we open ourselves to this idea.  Not only is my life uniquely spoken, but so is the person who is reading this.  So is the person sitting next to you, across from you, or behind you.  So is …, well, keeping it simple and to the point, … so is every human on this planet.   
That’s more than a game changer!  That’s a life changer … full of possibilities to change our life and the lives of those around us.  And honestly, don’t we need change?   Change not on some grand scale.  Simple change.  Honest conversations.  Being present without a cell phone at the ready.  Looking for God’s voice to speak from another. 
Letting God’s voice speak over ours …

The Lost Art of Remembering

As summer comes to an end, you no doubt have some photos that are saved somewhere on your phone.  You scroll and scroll.  Up and Down.  Where oh where did your pictures go?  So concerned about finding your saved photos, you can’t remember the stories behind the pictures.  
“This dang old phone!  You can never trust the cloud!!  I hate this thing!!! I can never find what I am looking for!!!!  So much for saving!!!!!”
At this point, your listener is backing away.  Their desire to see and hear is gone.  All they want to do is escape.  
“Wait!  Don’t leave yet! I know they are here somewhere!!!  I saved them!!!!”
In my crazy head, I started thinking about the difference between saving and remembering.  
I watched the above play out at a restaurant table in front of me.  Trying not to stare as the person hurled more insults at their iPhone and their listener started subtly dropping hints that they had to go, I looked at Luke 23:39-43.  It is the passage where Jesus is crucified between two criminals. 
You may recall that one criminal, after hurling insults, cries out, “save yourself and us!”  The other criminal rebukes this statement and says, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Like the flash from a camera, I instantly and unexpectedly had a blinding revelation. T here is beauty in remembering.  Remember your baptism.  When you eat this bread and drink from this cup; remember.  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  
Do we remember any more in church? Or are we too busy scrolling through salvation?  Trying so hard to find something in the cloud when what is really important is there in the heart.  A heart that God has designed to remember.  What would happen if the church became a place where we asked Jesus to remember us first?  Would our scrolling be less?  Would our sharing of the Gospel be more? 

Hard to Believe

It’s hard for me to believe that yesterday I woke up on the east coast and this morning I am waking up on the west coast. Hard to believe because it must mean that I actually got into an airplane after 30 years (almost to the day) of not flying AND … I survived not one but two flights. Hard to believe that I accomplished such a feat without any drugs or overly priced but friendly beverages.

Yes Virginia, there is a place called California and it is beautiful. Especially as the sun comes up on this Tuesday morning where oddly I woke up at the same time … 5:30 am. The good news is that I did hit pacific time.

I really do wish you were here with me because everyone needs a vacation from their work.

Well, wait a minute … you say … your work is the business of faith.

Yes … yes it is. But I have news for you … faith isn’t a business. Faith is a journey and it is a great one at that! I won’t be vacationing from faith. I expect that my faith over the next few days is going to rival some of the altitudes that we reached yesterday in a very bumpy plane ride. And I expect a descent and a landing at some point too.

Let’s face it, we have mountains and valleys in this journey called life. All somehow work together. The key is to be open and to become aware. Be open to the twists and turns … which is why I am here in California. Become aware because in our becoming we experience what it means to be human … which is to say that we discover that many things really aren’t that hard to believe because of our faith in the goodness and grace of God.

“Faith isn’t something that is downloaded into a brain like antivirus software onto a desktop. It is about lived experiences. Faith doesn’t run deep because one is stuffed with right answers. It is cultivated by asking the right questions. Faith is about journey, experience, movement, and process. It is about adventure. And one thing we know about adventure is that there are moments of pain, regret, wounds, suspense, and questioning.” – Philip Yancey

Let the adventure begin …

Recovering Faith In Each Other

The email subject line simply read “HELP”.  One sentence followed: “Pastor, I’m losing my faith and I need help recovering it.”
Thank God I didn’t respond back with an email. I would have messed up royally with impersonal communication.  Instead, we met face to face and enjoyed some coffee. We talked about current events and the toll that it was taking on the soul.  “I just want to escape all of the judgement and negativity.  What I am seeing and hearing has my head full of questions and I am thinking that I want to walk away.”
And here I thought that I was going to have to explain the four spiritual laws or Wesley’s understanding of grace.
There’s a fine line between losing and questioning one’s faith.  One might suggest that losing faith begins with questioning faith.  On the other hand, faith may be strengthened, reborn or renewed by a good question or two.
What are current events revealing to us?
Anger and frustration … are we in danger of these emotions getting the best of us?  
As we took the last sips of our coffee, we both agreed that the best way of keeping the faith was to try our hardest to love one another and put love into action as best we could.  We committed to look for the best in others through thought and deed.  
Perhaps the best way of keeping the faith is to be found in the recovery of our faith in each other by loving one another as Christ has loved us and loves us still.

About Face


I don’t always get to see the faces when I preach ...


Not only did I love Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon from last Saturday’s Royal Wedding; I loved seeing the faces of worship.


Smiles, jeers, tears, blank stares, eyes closed, wide eyed inspired, that look that says “when will it be over”, etc and etc … we saw them all on Saturday. Make no mistake, there is something about a face in worship that we just can’t hide no matter how large our hats are or how many pages are in the program or hymnal.


Our face reveals it all.


Worship is about face.


And someone is watching.


I wish that every sermon was on point. Good Lord knows that when I preach I try. Some rise to the occasion and a good many … well, you know. But I have discovered this. Whenever I have thought that I have written a really good sermon, often it drops on the ears like a lead balloon. And then there are the times when I write something and its’ not my words. Hmmm …


I wish that every worship service had inspiring music. My favorite hymns or praise songs … but every now and then a new praise song or an unfamiliar hymn comes along and the words capture my heart. My soul lifts with every note and the music ceases to be about me. Hmmm …


I could go on and on. We have the subjects of liturgy, how the sacraments of communion and baptism lengthen the service, sitting in “my” pew or chair, the long pastoral prayer where they pray for everyone on the prayer list, and keeping the service to an hour …


What if worship wasn’t so dictated by our faces and was more about seeking after and discovering God’s face. Would that change our face? Would we become less the critic and more the servant. After all, isn’t it called the worship SERVICE?


Maybe we need an about face when it comes to our ideas of worship. 

When Windex Won’t Do

Knock, knock …


Who in their right mind actually says “who’s there” anymore? Especially when weird strange folk knock or ring the doorbell! Folk who’s skin color is different. Folk who were bused in on air conditioned busses. Folk who had on the green shirts and said, “can we pray for you?”


I’m amazed that any one opened the door.


Amazed that some door openers stepped out onto the porch and prayed with us hand in hand. Amazed by their requests.


One lady wanted us to pray that her family “stayed with the Lord, came back to the Lord or would find the the Lord.” When we asked for names she simply said, “too many to name.” She had 10 children and 119 grand, great grand and great, great grandchildren. Thankfully God knows their names well!


Another woman said that we made her day. She was feeling anxious as her due date for her first baby was any day now. She came out on the porch and we prayed for her and her unborn child. We asked, “what will the name be?” She replied, “I’ll know the name when I see his or her face.” Amen.


I was deeply touched that one woman brought out an 8 by 10 portrait of her son. She wanted us to see his face too. He would have been 35 on that Saturday. That’s right would have been … would have been if a bullet had not ended his life six years earlier.


Then there was the woman who opened her front door but kept the glass door locked. She asked for a prayer of strength for her faith walk. “Pray that I stay strong.” She didn’t open the glass door and so we “touched” hands through the glass. And she has been on my heart ever since.


A handprint on the window of my prayer life.


I can’t shake it.


I can’t wipe it away … this prayer cry for strength in a crime riddled neighborhood where grandmothers and great grandmothers worry about the salvation of their family tree, where mothers grieve the loss of their children and new mothers wait in anticipation and desire prayers of hope for a future.


These are trying times for many and the struggle to keep the faith is real. We all know don’t we? And so, the common ground that we all desire is this struggle. A struggle that will give way to strength when we come alongside each other and cry out to the Lord who hears our prayers! Our witness, be it good or bad, always leaves a print behind.


Too Much Caffeine

Through the winds of conversation, I heard about a tale of no sanctuary granted to coffee. Coffee drinkers were welcomed but no coffee cups please. Another case of the ridiculous “love the sinner but hate the sin” right? 


The “practice” of drinking coffee in the sanctuary has given church folk yet another reason to be divided. Reverence verses relevance. Relevance verses respect. Cream and sugar verses straight up black. (How did that get in there?)


The truth of our verses these days is that we have too much caffeine running through our veins. We are too quick and too eager. Bandwagons come and go. Some advice to the over caffeinated, we don’t always have to jump on them. In fact, sometimes it is better to watch and just listen to the music. And in our listening we might discovery a rhythm of greater purpose. 


Coffee isn’t the first of debated “things” brought into a sanctuary. Drums, guitars, organs, pews, statues, hymnals, flags, art, and clocks have all had their moments. And the debate sometimes hasn’t just been about things. Certain people have been debated over. 


I need to correct what I just wrote. Certain people are being debated over still. 


According to the dictionary, a sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety. As such, the sanctuary becomes sacred because … 


Because …. there’s our answer. 


The “because” reveals it all … our understanding of what is sacred. And what is sacred or holy is best understood in the person and work of Jesus.


As Jesus showed us, the holiness of God is not found in a physical building or for that matter a coffee cup. Rather, holiness is found in our awakening to the presence of God pumping through our veins. The sacred will always be a matter of the heart.  


Revealing the heart of God is a must for we who follow Jesus. It is our calling and our great commission. And know this … some will take cream and sugar and some will not … but what is important is this … all will be invited to taste and see that the Lord is good!