Sunday, July 31, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Sunday

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13)

Begin by praying the Collect for Grace and Collect for Purity:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Read: Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21, Romans 9:1-5, and Matthew 14:13-21.

Collect for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Saturday

Read: Matthew 7:7-11 and Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

Ask. Seek. Knock. The interesting part about Jesus’ language in this passage is the verb tenses. Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Greek (not King James English, like some people seem to think!), and Greek has some things that are quite different from English. One thing is the verb tenses.

As Jesus is telling us to ask, seek, and knock, he is using a verb tense that carries the understanding of continued action. Ask and keep on asking. Seek and keep on seeking. Knock and keep on knocking. Don’t stop asking, seeking, or knocking until you’ve gotten what you’re after. God’s not going to give you something bad when you’re asking for something good, though he may give you something good when you’re asking for something bad.

Ask God for the things you need. You may find the following prayer helpful:

Lord God, you sent have promised to give good things to those who ask you: Grant that we might have the grace to ask, seek, and knock without ceasing, that we might obtain the promises of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A bit of poetry...

The Chimney Sweeper
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue,
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep,
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

Theres little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lambs back was shav'd, so I said.
Hush Tom never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair

And so he was quiet. & that very night.
As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight
That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack
Were all of them lock'd up in coffins of black,

And by came an Angel who had a bright key
And he open'd the coffins & set them all free.
Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind.
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

-- William Blake

Morning Prayer Guide - Friday

Read: Romans 9:6-13 and Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

St. Paul is trying to make the point that we’re not part of the Kingdom because of our genetics (who our parents are, or whether we’re descended from Abraham and Isaac and Jacob), but that we’ve been adopted into the family through Jesus’ death and resurrection. While we do understand and believe this (the majority of us aren’t Jewish, after all), we can sometimes fall into the same line of thinking.

Sometimes we get this “us versus them” mentality, as though people who aren’t part of our church are somehow not good enough to become members of it. In fact, sometimes we even get to where we think that if someone’s parents and grandparents weren’t members, he or she shouldn’t be allowed to be, either.

Oh, we never admit it aloud. We never let on that we actually think this. In fact, we tend to lie to ourselves about it. But whenever someone new comes in we watch to see if they will vote the same way as everyone else, dress the same way, and act the same way. When they start to show they have a difference in opinion, we want to run them off. Worst of all is when it’s the pastor we’re trying to get rid of!

Do you have an “us versus them” mentality about church? How about the rest of your church? Have you ever tried to get someone to leave just because they dressed or acted or voted differently from you and everyone else? Take some time to pray about this. Write your own prayer.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Thursday

Read: Philippians 4:10-15 and Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

St. Paul’s famous line, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” is found within its context. We tend to rip it out and use it for many different situations. While it’s certainly true that Christ does strengthen us to do whatever he leads us to do, the context is St. Paul’s financial support and his ability to survive whether he has a lot of support or none at all. He writes that through Jesus he is able to make it when there is little outside help, just as he is able to when there is enough.

Take a few moments to consider this. How can you help financially? How can you help in other ways? Does your church support any foreign missionaries? How has God spoken to you through this? Write your own prayer.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A bit of poetry...

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old--
This knight so bold--
And o'er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow-
"Shadow," said he,
"Where can it be--
This land of Eldorado?"

"Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,"
The shade replied--
"If you seek for Eldorado!"
-- Edgar Allan Poe

Morning Prayer Guide - Wednesday

Read: Mark 4:30-34 and Psalm 119:121-128

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It starts out small, insignificant. It seems as though nothing will come of it. It seems as though it will die before it gets a chance to grow. But the mature mustard plant was the largest herb known to the Jews, and the seeds were the smallest. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom is just like a huge tree comes from these tiny seeds. It doesn’t seem like much, but before it’s done there’s a whole tree.

Think about how this is true in your own life. Have you ever seen something start tiny but grow very large? Is it still growing? Do people find their needs met? What can you learn from this parable? Write your own prayer.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Tuesday

Read: Ephesians 6:10-18 and Psalm 119:121-128

St. Paul writes several times that we are to stand strong against the devil. This is the favorite “armor of God” passage. Each part of the armor (well known to those under Roman rule) protects us from the enemy’s weapons.

Standing up for what is right can be difficult sometimes. However, when we do stand up and put fear aside in order to follow God, we find success. Just as we read yesterday about the legend surrounding St. James’ death, sometimes our bravery and faithfulness causes even our enemies to become believers.

How does this speak to you? Do you stand strong? Take some time to think about this. Then, write your own prayer.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A bit of poetry...

Crossing the Bar
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Morning Prayer Guide - Monday

Feast of St. James the Apostle
Read: Jeremiah 45:1-5, Psalm 7:1-10, Acts 11:27-12:3, and Matthew 20:20-28

Little is known of St. James other than what we read in the New Testament. He was the brother of St. John the Evangelist (author of the Gospel and four epistles attributed to him). They were the sons of Zebedee, and along with Peter and Andrew were fishermen on the Lake of Galilee. They were possibly Jesus’ first cousins, as Salome their mother was sister to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because James is always mentioned first, he is probably the older of the two.

Some believe that James was a missionary to Spain before his death, but this is probably not true. James is the patron saint of Spain, and his relics are believed to lie in a church in Compostela.

James was so passionate about following Jesus that he gave his own life, martyred in ad44 by Herod. Legend has it that the man who accused James of being a Christian was so moved by James’ strong witness before Herod that he himself believed and the two were beheaded together. He never turned away, even when faced with death. Would you do the same? Would you accept death as a reward for following Jesus? Take a few moments to pray about this. You may find the following prayer helpful:

O gracious God, we remember before you today your servant and apostle James, first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ; and we pray that you will pour out upon the leaders of your Church that spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority among your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Sunday

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12)

Begin by praying the Collect for Grace and Collect for Purity:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Read: 1 Kings 3:5-12, Psalm 119:129-136, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Collect for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Saturday

Read: Matthew 12:38-42 and Psalm 119:129-136

“You want a sign? You are evil and adulterous.” Jesus has little patience for those who seek entertainment or want him to jump through hoops. Jesus didn’t perform miracles as magic tricks. He didn’t come to fulfil our selfish wants. He came as the Son of God, made flesh to dwell among us.

Whether or not Jonah actually happened, it is still a good example. The Ninevites in the story repented upon hearing Jonah’s preaching, but here is Jesus (who is much greater than Jonah) and the Jews are not repenting. The queen of Sheba also believed after seeing Solomon’s wisdom, but here is Jesus (who is much greater than Solomon was) and the Jews are not repenting.

Do you see signs and refuse to follow them? How will God judge that? You may find the following prayer helpful:

Lord God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to show us a holy way of living: Grant us grace that we might follow you out of obedience, and that we might put away our pride and false pretenses; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A bit of poetry...

After Apple-Picking
My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing dear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
-- Robert Frost

Morning Prayer Guide - Friday

St Mary Magdalene
Read: Ruth 1, Psalm 73, Acts 13, and John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most faithful disciples. She remained at the cross with Jesus’ mother and St. John when all else had fled. She was the first to see him after the resurrection, and he told her to go and tell the others that he was alive. She was also apparently well-to-do, and helped pay for the banquets Jesus would throw whenever he entered a town.

Several of the gnostic gospels portray her as being Jesus’ favorite, or even his wife. However, this is almost certainly untrue.

Luke 8:2 tells us that Jesus cast seven demons from her. Some major Christian saints interpreted the seven devils to signify that she “was full of all vices”, which shows that we can be forgiven of sin. Even though she was a woman in a time when women were not highly regarded, she was still accepted into Jesus’ inner circle and followed him to his death and beyond.

How does Mary’s faithfulness speak to you? You may find the following prayer helpful:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Thursday

Read: 1 Corinthians 4:14-20 and Psalm 119:129-136

St. Paul has just written about how he has been in need, and the Corinthian church has not supported him as they should have. He isn’t pointing this out to bring shame to them, but to let them know they need to do the right things from now on. What is more, Paul sent his trusted associate, St. Timothy, to them to help them accomplish this goal. Paul then warns them not to get prideful, as though Paul is too weak or busy to come – Paul is coming and will set things right when he gets there.

The Corinthian church supporting Paul was quite similar in idea to United Methodist churches paying their conference askings (commonly known as “apportionments”). This money is collected by each annual conference and is used to pay for things on the conference and denominational level, such as the expenses of the conference, the salaries of the Bishop, district superintendents, and support staff, the starting of new churches, training events for local pastors, missions (local, national, and international), resources for local churches, and so on. If we are required to tithe our income, why shouldn’t the local church also tithe? It is no longer “my” money or “your” money once the bills hit the offering plate. God does not allow us to take back that which we have freely given. It belongs to God, and it is our responsibility to make sure that we meet all our obligations. Further, the United Methodist Church is a connectional church. This means that there are not 792 different churches in north Alabama, but that there is one church that meets in 792 different locations. We have a responsibility to the other congregations to help support the conference, which then helps support us.

Take a few moments to consider this. Does your congregation pay all the conference askings? Is there grumbling and complaining about it? Do you understand what it means to be a connectional church? How has God spoken to you through this? Write your own prayer.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A bit of poetry...

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Morning Prayer Guide - Wednesday

Read: Matthew 12:14-21 and Psalm 75

Sometimes the better part of valor is to simply withdraw. Some people, because of their envy, will be blind or have their hearts hardened. It is the part of prudence and Christian love not to provoke the blind and the hardened; and not to take from them the occasion of sin. On this occasion, Jesus had a run-in with the Pharisees over healing a man on the Sabbath. He withdrew from there and went elsewhere.

Jesus healed many people in the new place. One has to wonder how many would have been healed had he been able to stay where he was. The Pharisees’ refusal to accept Jesus’ healing and teaching cost many people who otherwise might have come to believe.
How does our disobedience and disbelief affect the lives of innocent people around us? What do you need to do about it?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Tuesday

Read: Zephaniah 3:1-13 and Psalm 75

Zephaniah was the grandson of the great Israelite king Hezekiah. He lived and prophesied during the reign of Josiah, and he was quite outspoken about the need to remove the false gods from Jerusalem and the whole nation.

In this passage, Zephaniah nails Jerusalem for a second time, saying that those who have led and influenced worship will get it worst. Toward the end of the passage, however, the tone turns to one of promise. If the people will turn away from their evil ways, God will restore them. Even if he does have to punish them, God will still restore them to their former place. God wants them to be close to him and allow him to bless them.

How does this speak to you? How does it differ from yesterday’s passage? How is it similar? Take some time to think about this. Then, write your own prayer.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A bit of poetry...

The Raven
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you"- here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" -
Merely this, and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more."

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered- not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never - nevermore'."

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore:
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted- tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend," I shrieked, upstarting -
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!
-- Edgar Allan Poe

Liturgical Musings

The secular world has this annoying way of celebrating a holiday for several weeks leading up to the actual day, and then when the day is done so is the celebration. We play Christmas music on the radio from Thanksgiving until December 25, but on the 26th we’re so sick of it that we go back to regular programming. We buy Easter candy for the month or so leading up to Easter Sunday, but as soon as Easter Monday comes, the candy is on clearance, the dresses are forgotten in the closet, and the eggs are all put away for next year.

The problem with this phenomenon is that it is just the opposite of the way the kalendar is supposed to work.

As we discussed last week, Advent is a season in its own right, not pre-Christmas. It would be silly to sing Christmas carols during Advent, just as it would be silly to sing them during Lent or on Pentecost. But since the entire nation is doing just that, we can feel a bit left out. So what do we do about it?

What we often fail to realize is that Christmas is a season that is twelve days long. Remember the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? That’s what it’s talking about. Christmas begins at sundown on December 24th (Christmas Eve, so named because Christmas begins in the evening) and lasts until sundown on January 5th. Epiphany is a separate but related holiday celebrated on January 6th.

Why does Christmas start on the evening of the 24th? This is an ancient custom, and it has roots in the Biblical account of the creation in Genesis chapter 1. Over and over again it says that “the evening and the morning were the first day”. The Jews quickly adopted this pattern, and to this day the Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sundown and lasts until Saturday evening at sundown. Since the first Christians were Jews, it would make sense that they would adopt their own worship practices. The only difference is that since Jesus was resurrected on the first day of the week, Christians began worshiping on the day of the resurrection – the Lord’s Day.

At church, the colors go from the somber purple or royal blue to white, the color of celebration. This is when we should begin the Christmas music. My favorite Christmas carol is sung every year at the beginning of the Nine Lessons and Carols service at Kings College, Cambridge. Here’s a clip from 2008:

The interesting thing about the season of Christmas is that the first three days after Christmas Day (assuming they don’t fall on a Sunday) are dedicated to St. Stephen (the first deacon and martyr), St. John the Divine, and the Holy Innocents (the babies that Herod had killed in Bethlehem), respectively. Bishop Will Willimon writes about this:

“The old church calendar, in its wisdom, places immediately after the joyful feast of the Nativity the day of St. Stephen (December 26), first martyr of the Church in Acts and the... story of the bloody massacre of the boy babies. New birth and nativity, the cross and sacrifice get all mixed up in the gospel. When will we ever learn that nothing truly new, no large move of God occurs without some pain? Blood and birth go together.” (Found here.)

Now, Advent is a penitential season, and through all four weeks we’ve been setting aside our Christmas parties, Christmas music, Christmas decorations, etc., in order to focus on being prepared for Christ’s arrival. But Christmas itself is a celebration! It is the celebration of the incarnation. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, NKJV). So we’ve been waiting, almost hungrily, to enjoy all the things about Christmas we love, and now we have twelve days to do it in.

Impractical? Not as much as you’d think. Sure, there will be the odd party you need to attend that simply cannot be moved. There are people, Christians even, who will look at you as though you’ve got two heads for just suggesting they wait “until after Christmas” to have a party. But perhaps we should do less conforming to the world and more transforming people’s ideas. Maybe instead of just giving up before we even start we should try explaining what’s actually going on.

What if we were to be adamant about keeping Advent as Advent and Christmas during the actual season? What if we were to educate our churches, our families, and our friends about why we should do this? What if we were to put aside the December full of stress and rich food and gift-buying and plan further ahead to enjoy those things between December 25 and January 5?

As you begin Advent this year, think about ways you can keep Christmas during the season of Christmas, and not let it invade Advent. Think about how you can set aside some fun and good food to enjoy later. Then, when Christmas does arrive, how can you celebrate it more fully? How can you share in the joy of the incarnation and nativity of our Lord?

Morning Prayer Guide - Monday

Read: Nahum 1:1-13 and Psalm 75

The prophet Nahum prophesies against the Assyrian capitol city of Nineveh. The Assyrians have done awful things to people, particularly Israelites, and God is displeased. God will judge Nineveh, and it will not be pleasant.

Nineveh represented to the Israelites all that was evil in the world. In our culture, Las Vegas, Nevada tends to enjoy that status (“Sin City USA”), at least among Protestant evangelicals, although Las Vegas isn’t the capital of an empire known for child sacrifice and ritual child prostitution.

Verses two to eleven talk about how God is powerful. He has his way in the whirlwind and storm. He can dry up the sea and all the rivers. He pours out his fury like fire and hot rocks. But God is also good: He’s a stronghold in troubled times, and he will chase after his enemies with darkness.

Take a few moments to think this over. What does this passage say to you? How does it help reveal God to you? Write your own prayer.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Sunday

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11)

Begin by praying the Collect for Grace and Collect for Purity:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Read: Exodus 19:2-8a, Psalm 100, Romans 5:1-8, and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Collect for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Saturday

Read: Mark 7:1-13 and Psalm 100

Jesus told the Pharisees they had twisted God’s word with their tradition. They got upset because the disciples were eating dinner without first washing their hands. Jesus replied that they shouldn’t be so focused on the outward appearance, because their hearts were not clean.

This goes back to our discussion of legalism on Wednesday. We should choose to avoid something because we feel a conviction, not because we think it will make us look more holy. The first is a valid reason (wanting to please God), while the second is invalid (wanting to look better in everyone else’s eyes). Which one do you think God will honor?

The Pharisees did a lot of things to make themselves seem more holy. But because they were doing it for that reason, it was displeasing to God. Had they been doing them out of conviction and obedience, it would have been different. It reminds us that we need to examine our motives. Why do we act the way we do? Why do we say the words we say? Are we doing it out of obedience, or out of pride? Take some time to examine yourself. You may find the following prayer helpful:

Lord God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to show us a holy way of living: Grant us grace that we might follow you out of obedience, and that we might put away our pride and false pretenses; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A bit of poetry...

For Whom The Bell Tolls
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
-- John Donne

Morning Prayer Guide - Friday

Read: Acts 7:35-43 and Psalm 100

Here we have an excerpt from St. Stephen’s last sermon as he was facing the Sanhedrin. The Israelites originally rejected Moses, asking him, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” later on, God put Moses into that very position, and used him to deliver Israel from bondage to Pharaoh. Later on, the Jews rejected Jesus and turned him over to Pilate to be crucified. But Jesus is the very one to deliver them from the spiritual bondage.

What is more, the Israelites gave up on Moses when he was away from them for so long, and they formed a god of their own. Over and over again, they would forsake God and follow some other god. But God would rescue them and bring them back. Our God is a God of love and faithfulness. He doesn’t allow our unfaithfulness to get in his way.
Take a few moments to pray about this. How does it speak to you? You may find the following prayer helpful:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, might bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Thursday

Read: Hebrews 3:1-6 and Psalm 100

The writer of Hebrews is writing to the Jewish community of the dispersion. Here he writes about how Christ is greater than Moses. While Moses had an important role to play in how we understand God, Christ’s work was greater than Moses’. The word “house”, used repeatedly in this passage, can refer to a dwelling, but here actually refers to a family. By extension, it refers to the Church. Christ is the architect and builder of the Church, and because of that he has much greater honor than the Church itself.

How does this speak to you? Take a few moments to reflect on it. Then, write your own prayer.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A bit of poetry...

The Lamb
Little Lamb, who made thee
Does thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing woolly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice.
Making all the vales rejoice:
Little Lamb who made thee
Does thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb I'll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by His name,
Little Lamb God bless thee,
Little Lamb God bless thee.
-- William Blake

Morning Prayer Guide - Wednesday

Read: Matthew 12:1-8 and Psalm 40:1-8

Sometimes we allow our legalistic ideas to get in the way. The Pharisees got upset because the disciples were eating wheat as they walked along on the Sabbath day. Jesus’ response is to quote what King David had done and then to tell them, “the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Remember back to Monday. While we may choose not to participate in something, it can be easy to get legalistic about it and demand that others do exactly as we do. Instead of having grace for those who choose to do differently, we get bent out of shape over petty things.

Have you gotten legalistic over things? What do you need to do about it?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Tuesday

Read: Hebrews 13:1-16 and Psalm 40:1-8

Our passage opens with three things we should always do: Let brotherly love continue, show hospitality to strangers, and remember the prisoners as if chained with them. These are important things to remember.

Brothers have a tendency to fight with each other. They argue, they punch, they call names. There is friction and turmoil. But brothers also stand up for each other. While they may call each other names, they won’t allow others to do so. Brothers show us that it is possible to love someone, even when we dislike them. Sometimes we can dislike someone at church, but we still have to love them. But instead of going around gossiping about them and tearing them down, we have to build them up. Instead of being passive-aggressive and refusing to work through our problems with others, we should go to them and get it worked out. The Bible gives us a pattern for conflict resolution. We should follow it.

We should also show hospitality to others. It is easy to do this for people whom we know and love. It is more difficult to do it for newcomers. As we open the doors of the church to the community, we should also open the doors of our homes. We are ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. We should show others what it is like to live in the Kingdom. The best way to do this is at home. The best way to gain someone’s trust is at home.

Finally, we should remember those who are in bondage. This means those who are in prison for one reason or another, but also those who are in bondage to other things. Addictions, bad jobs, bank loans... the list is long. We get ourselves into situations that sometimes we cannot get out of without some help.

How does this speak to you? Write your own prayer.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A bit of poetry...

The Tyger
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye.
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And watered heaven with their tears:
Did he smile His work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
-- William Blake

Liturgical Musings

As I suggested in my earlier post, We Are Liturgical Beings, there is a progression of seasons through the year that do not necessarily correspond to the civil calendar. I'd like to introduce you to them, one at a time. I'd also like to invite those of you who are already familiar with the liturgical calendar to read these as well. I think you'll find it helpful.

We'll take a look at a new one each week until we've made it through the whole year. I think this is important, because it doesn't stop when we leave church on Sunday. The liturgical year flows through our whole lives, our devotional times, our worship (both public and private), our prayer. It is a very powerful tool, and to reject it or mutilate it is, quite frankly, wrong.

Oh, and by the way... From here on, I'm going to change the way I spell “calendar” when I'm talking about the traditional church one. That way, you'll know that “kalendar” refers to the liturgical one, and “calendar” refers to the one we use in the secular world. It's not actually my doing; I got it from Anglican circles, and found it useful.

Now that we have that down, let's begin. But where to start? Is there a good starting place? Actually, there is. The first season of each new liturgical year, and the best place to start, is in Advent. Now this is where my Methodist brothers and sisters, and my brothers and sisters in other faith traditions/denominations, have kind of allowed the calendar to influence the kalendar. (See how useful that is?) See, most of us think that Advent is just the precursor to Christmas. So we decorate the church with Christmas decorations, sing carols, have Christmas parties, and do all the Christmassy things that we've grown accustomed to in the secular world.

The problem with that is that Advent isn't pre-Christmas. It is its own, distinct, season.

Advent begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew's day, which always falls on November 30. Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. On years when December 24 is a Sunday, we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent in the morning, because Christmas does not begin until evening (hence the name... more on this next week). The color is purple or royal blue. The purple color is the older, more generally accepted color, and helps us remember that Advent is a penitential season. In fact, the Orthodox call it “Lesser Lent”. But where Lent has the flavor of repentance, Advent has the flavor of hope and returning light. The other color, royal blue, is a more recent addition and is mainly found in Anglican circles (which may explain why I like it so much). It gives the visual cues of royalty, and helps us separate the penitence of Lent from the preparation and hopefulness of Advent.

The four Sundays in Advent follow a pattern. Advent is all about the coming Messiah, about preparing for Christ's arrival. So the first Sunday is about the Second Coming. The Gospel readings are drawn from later in Christ's ministry as he talks about his return. My most favorite hymn is traditionally sung on this first Sunday in Anglican and Methodist circles (and a few others, too): “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending” by Charles Wesley. I can't resist giving you a taste:

The second Sunday re-shifts the focus to Christ's first coming. Here we meet John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, “Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!” Please note that we still haven't started singing Christmas music yet. There is a marvelous selection of Advent hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal and in the Episcopal Church's Hymnal 1982.

The third Sunday starts hinting at Christmas. But it is still not Christmas. We talk about John the Baptist again, and his ministry. John was important because he rejected the finer things in life in order to devote himself to God and proclaim the immanent coming of the Kingdom. Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches will use rose colors on this day, to signify that Advent is half way over. In fact, this Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday, because in the Latin Mass, the service begins with “Gaudete, Jerusalem” (O be joyful, Jerusalem).

The fourth Sunday really starts hinting at Christmas, but it is crucial to remember that it isn't Christmas. Here we meet Mary and learn about her encounter with Gabriel.

The whole theme of Advent is one of darkness. Advent falls in the northern hemisphere's darkest time. The days are getting shorter, the nights longer, and in the ancient world this was a cause of concern. As we progress through the season, however, we add more and more light, until we get to Christmas.

This is especially apparent in the Advent wreath. Advent wreaths are fairly new, so they don't really have much of a tradition. Usually there are three purple candles (or royal blue, depending on which colors that particular church uses) and one pink one, to correspond with Gaudete. The United Methodist Book of Worship calls for four purple candles. In the center is one white candle, usually much larger than the others. On the first Sunday, one of the purple candles is lit, and burns through the rest of the service. It may also burn at other services through the week. On the second Sunday, two candles are lit: The first candle and one other. The third Sunday, the rose candle is lit along with the previous two purple ones, and on the fourth Sunday all four are lit. The central white candle, known as the Christ candle, is not lit until Christmas Eve.

The whole reason for Advent's existence is to remind us that we live in darkness and we need Christ's light in order to function. It is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. It's not so much that Christ came, or that he will come again, but that Christ comes, continually. We just have to open our eyes. In the beauty of a sunrise or sunset. In the taste of a cinnamon-raisin bagel with cream cheese. In the laughter of friends and family, gathered around the table at Thanksgiving. In the sound of a John Coltrane saxophone solo, or Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma”, or J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. In the smell of a baby or your spouse or incense. In the feel of a hug or a handshake or a shovel or a keyboard.

Advent trains us to see it. Advent shows us that Christ really is there. Advent is important, because if we're not ready we'll miss the Incarnation altogether.

Morning Prayer Guide - Monday

Read: 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:2 and Psalm 40:1-8

St. Paul exhorts us to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. While many have used this to say that Christians are not to marry nonbelievers, this is not the whole story. The word “yoke” comes from a Greek word that is a military term, meaning to break ranks. Paul is telling us not to leave the Christian community to join that of the world. Paul wanted them to avoid the pagan feasts and festivals for which Corinth was known. The idea of not marrying a non-Christian is certainly a part of this, but it wasn’t by any means Paul’s original intent.

Paul goes on to write that we are temples of the living God. We do not want to defile the temple by allowing things that displease God to enter the temple. Entertainment is the area which carries the greatest risk, because it seems harmless. All of our friends are watching this movie or reading that book or listening to this music. We want to watch and listen, too. But sometimes we have to draw a line and say that we will not participate. And sometimes doing that will make others angry, as though you are condemning them by not participating.

For instance, there are some who choose not to read or watch anything related to Harry Potter. While it seems that most of the English-speaking world, Christian and nonChristian alike, has read the series and watched the movies, and while many claim to find Christian morals and lessons within, this is one line some people drew early on. It is not to condemn anyone or to say that others cannot participate. It is because they feel that to do so would displease God. It isn’t about anyone else, it is about their relationship with God, and not wanting to defile the temple. Others find inconsistency when these people who refuse to read Harry Potter are then caught with CS Lewis’ Narnia series or JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, but again, it has nothing to do with what others think, but about what God thinks.

Take some time to think this over. Put aside your personal feelings for a moment and really think about it. Do you participate in activities that displease God? Are there ways in which you are unequally yoked to the world? Do you need to put some things aside? You may find the following prayer helpful:

Merciful God, forgive us where we have failed you. Help us to follow your ways. Help us to put aside the things of this world and focus completely on you, that we might follow you all the days of our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Quiet Reflection

It is peaceful here.

I'm sitting in a rocking chair, under the breezeway at Pool Camp, looking out over the chigger bowl and listening to the cicadas sing and the distant sound of a lawn mower. Most everyone is gone to Walmart or on some other last-minute errand. The sun is setting, and a light, teasing breeze gently caresses the uppermost tree leaves.

I'm going over the last few things I need to do for worship tomorrow. Get some pens. Find the large cross. Cut some ivy. But somehow even these things seem less important now.

There is a prayer to be said. I don't have my prayer book, so I'm leafing through the pages of my mind.

The collect for purity turns up:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, that we might perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

A few cars go by. A door slams. The mower is still running. But all is peace here where I sit.

What makes a place holy? Why does this place seem holier than some others? Is it the worship that has happened here over the years? Is it the trees and bugs? Is it our expectations? Is it a combination?

What do you think? What makes a place holy? What if people stop using it for a holy purpose? Does it stop being holy?

Note: I wrote this, longhand, last night, since Pool Camp doesn't have internet access or phone signal. I'm quite thankful for that, too.

Morning Prayer Guide - Sunday

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10)

Begin by praying the Collect for Grace and Collect for Purity:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Read: Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65:9-13, Romans 8:1-11, and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Saturday

Read: John 12:44-50 and Psalm 65:9-13

Jesus’ words are pretty straightforward. He is in Jerusalem, about to be crucified. He has spent the past two years working with the Jews and teaching his disciples. Some had accepted him, some had been interested in him, and some had rejected him. As he closes out his earthly ministry, he tells his listeners that those who have heard but chosen not to believe will be judged on the last day.

How many feet have you washed this week? What kind of an experience was it? Has anyone washed yours? By washing others’ feet you have been modeling Christ to them. This should not be a one-off, but a daily project, a way of life.

Develop a lifestyle of servanthood. You may find the following prayer helpful:

Lord God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to be a servant: Grant us grace that we might also be servants to those around us, that we might bring those who do not follow you into your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A bit of poetry...

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
-- Robert Frost

Morning Prayer Guide - Friday

Read: Romans 15:14-21 and Psalm 65:9-13

St. Paul wanted , above all else, to bring the message of Jesus Christ to people who had never before heard it. He wanted to take the Gospel into places where it had never before been. He worked tirelessly to do just that.

Few people today have ever really heard the message of the Gospel. Even though we live in the South, where there are churches all over the place, people are largely ignorant of who God is. Jesus is just a cuss word to them. Oh, sure, he was a guy who lived a couple thousand years ago and who was pretty radical for his time, and he was a good man who stood up for the poor and oppressed, but that’s about it.
Beating people over the head with the Bible, telling them that they’re going to be tortured forever in hell if they don’t accept God is one of the least effective ways to bring people to Christ. The most effective? Friendship. Service. Washing their feet.

Take a few moments to pray about this. How does it speak to you? You may find the following prayer helpful:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, might bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Tension, Part II

We’ve done ourselves a disservice, really. By claiming to have all the answers to all of life’s problems, we’ve actually painted ourselves into a corner. “We have what you need. Just say the right things, believe the right things, think the right things, and do the right things, and we’ll guarantee you’ll be ok.” No wonder no one seems to want to be a Christian. It sounds too much like a used car salesman’s desperate pitch.

My generation, especially, seems suspicious of such widespread claims. Of course, my generation is too afraid or lazy to actually engage in the discussion. We’re the microwave generation, and we want what WE want. Yesterday. We’re the generation of microwave popcorn, plug-n-play computer peripherals, express lane checkouts, and prepackaged everything. Fast food drive-thrus weren’t fast enough, so we invented the idea of calling ahead so our food would be ready when we get there. They’ll even charge our credit card and then bring it out to our car, so we don’t have to fool with cash or get out of the car to go inside.* Instant global communication? Done. Our cell phones surf the web, access social networking sites, send and receive emails and text messages, and can even make phone calls. We’re so obsessed with speed that our phone providers advertize 4G speeds despite the fact that no one in the US has the technology deployed yet – and won’t for a couple more years. We don’t wait for the newspaper or even the dedicated news networks anymore. We get it all, instantly, online. We don’t fix things, we throw them away and replace them. Sometimes we’ll wait until it’s broken, but mostly we upgrade as soon as the newest one hits the store shelves. And a leisurely breakfast with the family before going to work? Forget it.

Not only do we want our stuff fast, we want our faith fast, too. We don’t want to work on building belief and understanding. We want it prepackaged, right out of the box. We don’t want to struggle with our faith. We want it to be easy. Unfortunately, life isn’t like that, so we escape reality. We use drugs and alcohol. We create an online, virtual persona, one that is “cool” and without foibles or failures. We, in the words of The Who, put on “an eminence front.” Perhaps worst of all we decide that Christianity is too hard, and the people who call themselves Christians too imperfect. So we turn to strange eastern religions, ones that don’t claim to have all the answers, ones that contradict themselves on things, because somehow we know that in that environment we can hide our true selves. From ourselves.

Of course, it isn’t just my generation that tries to lose itself. Those older than me get lost in nostalgia and the “golden years”. “We’ve always done it this way...” or the corollary, “But we’ve never done it that way!” We get lost in the idea that the way it used to be is still the way it is. We’re stuck in 1950s-style ministry practices and philosophies, despite the fact that was 60 years ago. Remember how fast-paced we are? Five years is a long time; ten years an eternity. Does anyone remember what a hanging chad is? How about Monica Lewinsky? Even here in the southern US, which is chronically 10-15 years behind the rest of the country, things are changing. Ministry ideas, such as going door to door, or explaining the five spiritual laws, don’t work anymore. You do realize the “sinner’s prayer” does not appear anywhere in Scripture, right? But our churches are filled with people who are obsessed with reliving the glory days of the past, and refuse to change the way they reach out to the newer generations.

But I digress. See, the Church has made a claim it cannot really uphold, and our society has gotten lazy. My generation, as well as the Baby Boomers, have had stuff handed to us our entire lives, and we’ve come to feel entitled. So when the Church’s claim of having all the answers doesn’t seem to pan out, we react with accusations of hypocrisy and then leave. Mainline denominations aren’t even keeping up with population growth, which means that instead of “winning souls for Christ”, we’re losing them. Actually, “hemorrhaging” is a better word.

It’s discouraging, really. How can we be the faithful followers and disciple-makers that Jesus told us to be in a new and ever-changing world? How do we answer the claims of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and self-importance? Or do we just keep bumbling along, hoping that the “seeds” we’ve “planted” will take root?

It’s a tension, and an important one. On the one hand, we have the unchanging message of the Gospel: That God loves us and wants us to love him back, that God sent his divine Son to be a human and dwell among us, modeling for us the right way to live, that Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection actually meant something in the grand scheme of things and that now we can be set free of the burdens that sin puts on us so that we can live in harmony with God and each other. On the other hand, we have an ever-changing world, and a society that refuses to engage in anything too deep, lest we be confronted with the truth. The instant global communication I mentioned above? Therein lies the paradox: We have the opportunity to instantly communicate with any person anywhere in the world, yet our relationships have become increasingly superficial. We don’t want our “friends” to see the real person inside, so we project only those qualities we think are good, while repressing those qualities we deem to be bad. And people who have any depth are called “creepy”.

So where will this tension lead us? I don’t know. I do know this: Something has to change, and change fast. We’re too stuck in the past. We think that tradition means what we grew up with, or what our parents and grandparents experienced. We forget that tradition encompasses two thousand years of growth and development, and countless millions of saints, with whom we are supposedly in full Communion.

We’re too modernist. The Church’s modern mindset has put God in a box. God is bigger than that. We cannot classify God. We cannot describe God. We cannot make him safe or sanitized or personalized. He’s not a Barbie doll. He’s the God of the Universe, the supreme Creator. Faith isn’t a systemized way of describing or analyzing God, as though he were a science experiment. God does not exist on our terms. We exist on his.

God is an artist. God is a creator. God did not decide every single tiny detail in ages past, leaving us to be mere puppets on a stage. God knows what to expect, because as the supreme Creator he is infinitely wise and intelligent. To quote Brian McLaren:

...if God is infinitely wise and intelligent, then every possible scenario could be played out in God’s mind in an instant. (That’s a rather mind blowing thought!) So... nothing would take God by surprise. But that’s not the same as saying that God has already fast forwarded and seen the whole movie, so in a way it’s all determined, it’s all mechanistic, it’s all a done deal. Somehow, the idea of creation includes the idea of reality ... that this whole thing is real, it’s really happening, it’s not just a mind game of God, etc. (“More Ready Than You Realize”, pg. 123 [Zondervan, 2006])

Remember, it was the modernist mindset (Calvin’s, and his followers) that came up with the idea that God had pre-planned everything, and that no matter what we choose God had already decided it. It is much more risky (and Biblical, in my opinion) to believe that while God knows all the possible outcomes, it is up to us to choose. God is not a chess player, playing both sides of the board. God is a chess player who has invited us to play the other side. He knows what moves we’re likely to make next, but the choice is ours to make. And the choice we make affects God’s next move and the outcome of the game.

The tension we face is an important one. Once again we are reminded that the way we respond to this tension, the way we harness it, the way we allow it to stretch us and grow us, will in turn determine how people respond to us. Will we release the things of our past, the way things used to be, the glory days of our memories? Will we allow God to move in a new way? Will we let go of Mayberry and embrace people where they live?

The tension is good. Embrace the tension, for it is the tension that makes us strong.


*What I find funny, though, is that despite the rise of fast food drive-thrus and “curbside takeaway”, the full-service gas station is nearly extinct. We want our food delivered right to the car so we don’t have to get out at all, yet we insist on pumping gas ourselves. Fascinating.

Morning Prayer Guide - Thursday

Read: Romans 2:12-16 and Psalm 65:9-13

God wants us all to follow him. So he has graciously written the law in our hearts so that even those who have not heard the law can follow it. For those who have heard the law, it becomes their responsibility to follow the law, but God does not fault those who have not heard it. Which does not mean that we can allow them to never hear it – it is easy for them to become at odds with God if they do not know how to avoid it. Still, God has grace and love far and above our own.
We carry this love and grace with us wherever we go. God expects those of us who have accepted him to pour his grace and love into those around us. He wants us to bring others to a point where they can follow him as well.

As you are washing feet this week, extend the love and grace of God to everyone you meet. Write your own prayer.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Wednesday

Read: John 13:1-17 and Psalm 131

It is very difficult to be part of a footwashing. It is very difficult to be the one washing others’ feet, especially if it is people with whom we are angry and fighting. It is even harder to be the one having our feet washed. We’re too proud to allow another person to wash our feet (just like Peter), and it is a very humbling experience. Especially if we’re fighting or angry with the person washing them.

But Jesus commanded us to do it. It is important to do so literally, because it is such a humbling thing to do. We can all use a good dose of humility from time to time. An especially good time to do this type of service is on Maundy Thursday, since that is when Jesus did it.

Jesus also wants us to wash others’ feet figuratively. He wants us to be a servant, putting aside our wants and feelings and doing something for someone else. He wants us to put aside our pride and our independence and take on a job that is humbling. The footwashing slave in a Jewish home was the one who was at the bottom of the “pecking order”. He was the least in the whole household. Feet were dirty, and to show the soles of your feet to someone else was an insult, akin to sticking your tongue out or making an obscene gesture. A few years ago, President Bush was visiting a middle eastern nation and someone started throwing shoes at him. It wasn’t so much that the shoes were all the man had to throw, it was that throwing shoes was a huge insult, a way of cussing him out without using words. To debase ourselves to the point that we accept and embrace this insult is truly humbling. God knows we need to put away our pride and selfishness, so he has us to do this type of job.

Go and wash someone’s feet today. Let it be your prayer.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Tuesday

Read: Romans 3:1-8 and Psalm 131

St. Paul, writes that just because God has chosen to save with no regard to good works (in other words, God doesn’t care what we’ve done or where we’ve been if we will just turn to him) does not mean that we can live an intentionally sinful life and get away with it. To do so would be to abuse God’s grace and forgiveness. On the one hand, God does not give salvation based on merit or deeds (we cannot work our way into heaven), but on the other God does not allow us to pay lip service while living in our own selfishness. He loves us enough to meet us where we are, to put aside our past wrongdoings, but he also loves us enough that he expects us to grow and change and walk with him.

How does this speak to you? Write your own prayer.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Patriotism in the Church

There is a branch of American Protestantism in which patriotism and faith go hand-in-hand. To be a Christian is to be a staunch patriot and conservative Republican. Flags and patriotic songs are used regularly in worship to celebrate national holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. Sermons are preached in which patriotic themes are pulled from Bible passages (often taken out of context and contorted to fit). Occasionally the Pledge of Allegiance is recited.

But what did Jesus say about all this? It seems as though if we’re going to do something during our worship time it should be something that God wants us to do. Was Jesus a flag-waving patriot, or was he something else?

We can learn a lot from Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees over taxation in Matthew 22:15-22. To set the scene: Jesus is in Jerusalem. This is the week leading up to Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. He has been teaching in the temple all week, and as people come into the city to celebrate the feast, he has garnered quite a crowd of listeners. As usual, the Pharisees are trying to find ways to get rid of him. So, they come up to him, interrupting his teaching. “Oh, we know you’re a great teacher. Should we pay taxes to Caesar?”

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. 16And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. 17Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

18But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the tax money.”

So they brought Him a denarius.

20And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

21They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”

And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.

Let’s look at this carefully. If Jesus answers “no”, the Pharisees will turn him in to Pilate, accusing him of insurrection. If Jesus answers “yes”, they will accuse him of supporting the hated Romans, which they considered to be treason against God and the Jewish nation. (Consider that the Pharisees couldn’t stand the fact that Jesus spent time with and even ate with tax collectors, and that his calling Matthew, who was himself a tax collector, was remarkable.) One can imagine that Matthew and Simon the Zealot (who was presumably adamantly opposed to the Romans and tax collectors in general) were listening especially close to Jesus’ words. Jesus could possibly offend some of his disciples and would certainly fall into the trap that the Pharisees had set.

Except that Jesus sees right through their little plot.

“You bunch of hypocrites. Show me a coin. Whose pictures and inscription are these?”

Well, the obvious answer is “Caesar’s.” They tell him as much.

Jesus’ reply is simple: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt. 22:21).

To Jesus, the answer was clear. Nationhood or patriotism never entered into the equation. Jesus was concerned with higher things than which nation one supported with taxes. God had promised Abraham that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. Not just one or two.

We get too hung up in our patriotism sometimes. Please don’t misunderstand me: I am thankful that God has placed me in the United States of America, that I have the freedom to worship and to speak my mind. I don’t make very much, but I make a fortune compared to ¾ of the people in the world. Still, my patriotism manifests itself at places other than church.

The question, really, is about why we even go to church. Why are we there? Is it to see and be seen? Is it to make ourselves feel good? Or is it to worship the God of all creation in the manner in which he wants?

I feel confident that God is less interested in how we feel about a political entity and more interested in how we spend our time at church. Sunday morning worship hour is not the time and place for patriotism, because it is the time and place for worship. Too often we worship a nation and our sentimental feelings instead of Almighty God. Too often we wave the flag at church, proclaiming the U.S. to be “the greatest nation on earth”, when actually we could do a whole lot more to feed the hungry, heal the sick, empower the powerless, and release the captives – which is what Jesus commanded us to be doing.

It seems to me that if we are going to gather on Sunday morning to worship God, we need to worship God. If I want to attend a political rally or patriotic event, I can do so outside the location and time of worship. The kingdom of God has no borders, no nationality, no race. The kingdom of God is about bringing people in and helping them to become disciples, not about waving flags and singing patriotic songs. The kingdom of God is about following Jesus’ example of rising above politics to get to the meat of the issue: one of serving God.

It probably comes as little surprise now that I dislike the displaying of the American flag in worship spaces. Most of this has to do with the law, actually. The American flag has to be placed in the position of honor, to the speaker’s right, or to the congregation’s right. Any other flags must be placed to the left of the American flag – including the Christian flag. Further, no flag can be higher than the American flag. So we are left with a problem: do we obey the law and therefore say the American flag is more important than the Christian flag (and by symbolism, the Church), or do we break the law? The answer is easy. Simply leave the flag out of the worship space. It solves the problem and removes the symbolism of patriotism from a place where the symbolism should be focused on God.

I also dislike singing patriotic songs during the worship service. People are very influenced by music. When we sing about God, we start to value God over everything else – which is what he wants! When we sing about our nation, we start to value our nation over our God. The focus is on our nation (and yes, I am aware that most of the ones we sing are about God blessing our nation, but the focus is still on our nation, not God).

Further, I dislike the way many preachers find some passage to support patriotism, stretching and contorting and taking it out of context to fit the needed message. The Bible does not work that way! The Bible influences the message. The message does not influence the Bible. In other words, we cannot make the Bible fit whatever we want it to fit. Remember the Rwandan genocide of 1994? A quarter of a million people died because a rival tribe decided the Bible said to kill them. The nation is still recovering. That is “Christian” patriotism at its worst.

I understand I am taking this a bit far, but I believe we’ve gone so far off course that I think we need to take some radical action to get us back to where we need to be. For starters, I believe we should remove patriotic symbols from worship spaces, as outlined above. I believe the pledge of allegiance has no place in Christian worship, because our allegiance is not to a flag or a political entity, but to God. I believe we should focus our worship on following Jesus into the kingdom of God. I believe that while patriotism definitely has its time and place, the church during times of worship is not it. I believe we should focus less on how wonderful our nation is and more on how many mistakes we’ve made, how many of our own people are starving, uneducated, and in need of justice, and how many people the world over need Jesus.

Jesus told us to go to the uttermost parts of the earth to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to follow him. Is our patriotism standing in the way of that?

Morning Prayer Guide - Monday

Read: Romans 1:18-25 and Psalm 131

How often we proclaim ourselves to be wise! How often we think we have the answers. We think we’ve arrived. But St. Paul writes that, though we claim to be wise, we’re actually foolish. We try to remake God in our own image, putting him in a box, trying to make him look like something he isn’t. It isn’t a happy thought.

So God turns us over to ourselves. It hurts him to do so, but God is not going to force anyone to love him – to do so would be to violate our free will and the essence of our existence. God took a risk and created us with free will and the ability to choose between him and ourselves – because God knew that if we did choose him it would be a genuine love and not just something we’re programmed to do. So he allows us to wallow in our selfishness, though it pains him to do it.

The worst of it is that we exchanged truth for a lie. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. We, in our selfishness, replaced God and slapped him in the face with our arrogance.
Reflect on this. Have you tried to remake God into your own image? Have you begun to worship the creation rather than the Creator? Have you chosen to follow your selfish desires over God’s? You may find the following prayer helpful:

Merciful God, we in our selfish ignorance have rejected you and chosen to follow a lie. Forgive us! Help us to see the error of our ways. Help us to follow you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Sunday

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9)

Begin by praying the Collect for Grace and Collect for Purity:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Read:Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 45:10-17, Romans 7:15-25a, and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Collect for the Third Sunday after Pentecost:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to your with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Saturday

Read: Luke 10:21-24 and Psalm 145:8-14

We have relatively few of Jesus’ prayers recorded in the Gospels. Here is one of them. He has just appointed the Seventy to go out and proclaim the coming Kingdom. When they get back, they give a joyful report of their success. Jesus prays, and then turns to the disciples. “Count yourself blessed,” he says, “There have been many people over history that have dearly wanted to see what you have seen.”

God’s promises go beyond our own frame of reference. We are the microwave society. We want it all, now. We are the ones with microwave popcorn, drive-through windows at fast food restaurants, and movies on demand. But God is far bigger than that. God sees things thousands of years down the road. God plans for things long after we are dead and gone.

Getting to know Christ takes time. An hour a week whenever we feel like it won’t cut it. We have to purposefully make time to seek him out, to learn about him, to get to really know him. He isn’t like a movie you can watch once and remember the storyline to.

Take some time to get to know Christ. You may find the following prayer helpful:

Help us to follow Jesus, O God. Grant us grace that we might seek him out and know him. Help us to see him when he appears to us. Help us to make him known. Help us to be Christ to those around us, that your Name might be glorified. Amen.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Morning Prayer Guide - Friday

Read: Romans 7:7-20 and Psalm 145:8-14

St. Paul makes the point that we are carnal, sinful people. We say we will do this, but we fail to do it. We say we will not do that, but we end up doing it anyway. We know that God wants us to live a certain way, but we end up going against God because we are selfish, and that selfishness goes to war against our loving side.

This becomes even worse as we grow and learn. In ignorance we blissfully do whatever pleases us. Later, as we begin to see that some things are not good to do, we begin to have this conflict within ourselves between what is right and what feels good. Later still, when we’ve learned even more, the conflict can be even greater.
But God gives grace. He helps us to overcome our selfish nature. He helps us choose the good things and put away the bad.

Take a few moments to pray about this. How does it speak to you? You may find the following prayer helpful:

Lord God, you give us life and teach us to put aside our selfish desires to follow you: Grant us grace that we might put aside our own selfishness and choose to follow your will, that we might live holy and righteous lives before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.