New Year’s Prayer

O eternal God, as we prepare to turn the calendar from one year to the next we pray in the words of the psalmist that you will teach us to number our days so we may gain hearts of wisdom. Help us learn from the mistakes we have made in the past so we can lead better lives in the future. Forgive us for the times we have disobeyed your will so we can live free from the burden of regret and guilt.

Help us to forgive those who have wronged us either on purpose or accidentally so we can live free from anger or feelings of being a victim.

As we pray for all those in need this day – those forced to live or work in frigid conditions, those enslaved by addictions, those suffering from illness, grief or chronic pain, help us find ways to comfort and empower them.
The New Year is a wonderful time to reflect on the past, to review our life goals and find the true purpose you have for us. Like Simeon and Anna, we pray that we can be faithful in worship and so focused on seeking your will that when our days are over we will be satisfied. Help us renew our vows of allegiance to you and your kingdom so that walking with you is not just a new year’s resolution or an item on our bucket list. Give us courage to make our faith and service to you the all-encompassing purpose of our lives, not just at Christmas but every day of the year.

Remind us again that to be followers of Christ means to devote our lives to making disciples; to witnessing to the Gospel by the way we live our lives. We are not here to accumulate wealth or possessions. We are here to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with you, O God. Our prayer is to do that with all of our being – at home, at school, at work or wherever we are – to share the peace and joy of Christmas with all the world. The Christmas story doesn’t end today or on Epiphany – it continues whenever we as the modern supporting cast live into the wonder and mystery of your love.

We ask these things in the name of Emmanuel, God with us, as we offer the prayer he taught us to pray.

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Advent Drama: Joseph

Pastor: Can you feel the anticipation as we draw close to the big day? Two candles are already glowing on our Advent Wreath. As we continue to think about the supporting cast of people in the Christmas story our special guest today is a carpenter from Nazareth.

[Joseph enters dressed in contemporary work clothes wearing a tool belt, pencil behind his ear]

Joseph: My journey began with our prearranged marriage. Our parents certainly picked well for me. Mary was so beautiful and she has such a strong faith. I was truly blessed to have a wife of such noble character. The custom for us is to wait an entire year after we were engaged before the marriage vows are finalized. That year of being apart and waiting seemed like forever. But Mary was worth the wait because I loved her.

But then the waiting became much harder than I could ever imagine. There was a night that left me feeling so cold and alone, in total shock. Mary’s news broke my heart when she told me she was pregnant. My head was spinning and my heart pounding. I knew I wasn’t the father? I was so hurt and angry and confused. I wrestled with my decision all night long. How could I marry her now? I wanted to just divorce her quietly. But I knew the punishment for adultery was death by stoning. I couldn’t let that happen to my dear Mary.

It was a terrible dilemma! How could I ever decide what to do? And then the answer came to me in a dream. An angel appeared to me and said, “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is the result of a miracle performed by the Holy Spirit.” The angel said, “You will name the baby Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins.” When I woke up I knew what I should do. The stars were brighter and my heart lighter as I ran to tell Mary my decision. I decided I would be the best husband and father I could possibly be.

But that wasn’t the only time God spoke to me in a dream. I got an urgent message from God when Jesus was very tiny warning us that Herod was going to kill all the baby boys, and we had to flee to Egypt to save Jesus’ life.

Being a father to such an unusual boy wasn’t easy, but through it all God has taught us so much about love – love for each other and God’s love for us. The real miracle was that God’s son became my son too. He was bonded into my life by love.

As we light this 3rd Advent candle, may that kind of love grow in each of our hearts as well.

[Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio]

Pastoral Prayer for 3rd Sunday in Advent

God of Mercy and Grace, again we pause to make ourselves aware of your presence. We know you are with us everywhere but in the rush and busyness of this season it’s easy to forget that and even to forget what Christmas is all about. Help us to center our hearts and souls just now that through Scripture and the blessed gift of music we will hear again and feel again the night and day of your eternal love. Bless these musicians as they proclaim the Good News, and give us open hearts to listen and believe.

Help us suspend our cynicism and doubt like Joseph did. Send your spirit to assure us that when life seems too much to bear, when we see no way out of impossible circumstances, if we seek your guidance you will show us the way, truth and life revealed so long ago in Christ Jesus. As we often sing, Love came down at Christmas, but that was just the ultimate expression of your presence that was with Sarah and Abraham, Ruth and Naomi, Jonah and Isaiah and all of your children in every generation since creation began.

And the sharing of your love didn’t stop at Bethlehem either – just as your spirit came to Mary and Joseph before the birth so it continued to protect the holy family from Herod’s evil way. The love that came down at Christmas was nurtured by Joseph and Mary; it was shared and proclaimed by Paul and the apostles and Christian martyrs and missionaries across the centuries in every corner of the world.

That Love still inspires kindness and mercy today, even in the midst of violence and unrest in the streets of Columbus or Jerusalem. It inspires sacrificial love as we share our blessings with those less fortunate and in those who will be traveling to Mexico 11 days from now to share the universal message of love that transcends all language and cultural barriers. We ask your blessing on those 12 messengers of Christ’s love that we have named today. Fill each of them to overflowing with the love of Christ and guide them safely on this mission of mercy.
In these final days of Advent, O Lord, we pray for the lonely, the sick, the discouraged and hopeless. We pray for generous hearts that our preparation for this holy birth will truly reflect the awe and mystery that is there every day for those who are humble enough to trust that with you all things are possible. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, as we pray the prayer he taught us to pray.

Second Sunday in Advent Prayer: Surprise Us, Lord!

Gracious God, as we go through the season of advent hearing the familiar stories, singing the beloved carols, there’s something very comforting about the traditions and the familiarity of the whole Christmas season. We feel cozy and at home with it all, and that’s good—up to a point.

But please pull a few surprises on us like you did with Elizabeth and Zechariah. Don’t let us get so much into auto pilot that our traditions become routine and lose their power. That first Christmas was anything but routine. Old women and virgins conceived, expectant parents were forced by foreign rulers to travel miles for a census only to be told they had to sleep in a barn.

But you had other plans, O God, and those oppressive rulers got upstaged by divine mischief and incarnation. Caesar and Herod took a back seat to a helpless baby in a manger!
What surprises do you have instore for our troubled and broken world this year, Lord? What unexpected and unheralded messengers of peace are you going to reveal to us in 2017. In these dark and cold shortest days of the year where will your light shine to show us your way of truth and justice? What healing miracles have you prepared for us? What acts of kindness and mercy is your Holy Spirit going to stir up in us to perform for those who least expect it.

Amid the clang and clamor of a world that has lost its way, dazzle us with a star that will lead us to Christ. Empower us like Elizabeth to believe the impossible so we can help produce for our time voices that cry in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord – Not back then but here and now. Whisper again in our ears the assurance that nothing in all creation can separate us from your amazing love in Jesus Christ. In his holy name we witness to your power as we join our voices in his prayer.

Pastoral Prayer after Thanksgiving

Good morning God. As we gather here in this holy place today most of us have overeaten as we celebrated Thanksgiving. Some of us have overindulged in Black Friday shopping or football. We are full of the fruits of this great nation we live in. But even though there are leftovers in many of our refrigerators we are here because we are still hungry.

We are hungering and thirsting for righteousness and grace, for direction in a troubled and broken world. Some of us are mourning loved ones who were not at the Thanksgiving table this year. Some of us ate alone on Thursday and are hungry for community.

Some of us feel discouraged by a steady diet of news of violence, of police and border guards being attacked, oil spills, navy planes crashing, sexual misconduct, and governments in Egypt, Germany and Zimbabwe in crisis. We want to turn off the bad news, but as with the turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie, we just can’t seem to walk away. We want to be informed citizens and we genuinely feel the pain of everyone who is suffering. We suffer from compassion overload. Our prayer lists for friends and loved ones run off the page.

But we are people of faith who remember Christ’s promises. He tells us the mourners will be comforted, the spiritually hungry will be filled, and those who are merciful will receive mercy. That’s the menu we want to order from on this Sabbath day. We are here because we know taking time to worship provides us a sanctuary from the bad news of the world. If we listen, this is where we will hear, taste and feel the grace of our loving God.

Of all the things we are thankful for, O God, you and your mercy are at the top of the list. Your love is more precious than a win over that team up north. It is more valuable than any Black Friday bargain. Your freely given blessing of salvation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the true gift without price. We can never pay you back for your grace, but we ask that you will give us a faith that enables us to pay it forward. Grant us the courage to witness in our words and actions to those who are starving for the good news of Christ, the true bread of the world that satisfies forever the hunger in our souls.

Commit to Adulthood: Jesus and Sexual Misconduct, Exodus 20: 14, Matthew 5: 27-30

As one celebrity or public figure after another has joined the long list of those accused of sexual misconduct I have wrestled with how to comment in a meaningful way. I’m still working on that, but I remembered a sermon I preached several years ago that seems even more relevant today than it was then. I hope it adds something to this conversation. The sermon was part of a series on the 10 Commandments, “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World,” at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH in the summer of 2014.

“You Shall Not Commit Adultery.” Some of you are thinking, “Finally, we’ve gotten to a commandment I haven’t broken.” And some of you carry a heavy burden of guilt or anger at yourself or someone else who has failed to live up to commandment number 7. I have good news and bad news for us all because this commandment is about much more for all of us than sexual fidelity.

I got an email two months ago asking me if I was available to preach one part of a series called “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.” I love to preach and my calendar was open; so I said sure. Lesson learned – before making a commitment be sure you fully understand what you are committing to do.

I didn’t bother to ask which commandment since it was several weeks away. Fast forward to mid-June when the series began. I got out my calendar and started counting the Sundays until August 3 and arrived at the conclusion that I would be preaching on number 8,”You Shall Not Steal.” When I emailed our pastor to confirm that conclusion, her reply was a classic. She said, “No, we will be skipping one Sunday in July to do a mission report. I have you scheduled for adultery on August 3.”

I assured my wife she had nothing to fear – I might be scheduled for adultery on August 3 but after preaching three times in one morning, the only attraction a bed would have for me is a nap.

Everyone chuckles when I tell them I’m preaching on Adultery, but this is serious business. As with the sixth commandment, this one is short and very unambiguous. “You shall not commit adultery.” And, as with “You shall not murder,” Jesus ups the ante in the Sermon on the Mount with one of those things we just wish he hadn’t said when he gets to adultery.

Matthew 5:27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
And then it gets worse —
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Wow! If we enforced that one literally we’d have a world full of blind folks with no hands!

A young boy in Sunday school was asked to recite the 10 commandments. When he got to number 7, he said, “Thou shall not commit adulthood.” Part of the problem with obedience or lack thereof when it comes to the commandments is a refusal to commit adulthood. We are all a bit like Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up.
St. Paul’s beautiful words about love in I Corinthians 13 are by far the most quoted scripture at weddings, and that chapter includes the line, “When I became an adult I put away childish things.” Faithful maturity means committing adulthood, but that commitment has to be renewed on a daily or sometimes hourly basis, as Paul himself points out in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Anybody relate to that if you’ve ever resolved to go on a diet or start an exercise program?

The two scriptures we read today make it sound so simple. Just don’t do it, and Jesus says the way to not do it is to not even think about it. Would Jesus say that if he lived in our wireless world? We’ve heard a lot recently about a “sexualized culture” in the OSU marching band. Big surprise! We live in a hyper-sexualized culture that uses sex to sell everything from Pontiacs to popsicles. Early Christian monks hid in monasteries to avoid worldly and sexual temptation, but there is nowhere to hide from the realities of human sexuality in a wireless world.
And the cast of characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, where the commandments reside, don’t help much. Sister Joan Chittister in her book, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, starts her discussion of adultery this way. “The problem with this commandment is that no one in the Hebrew Scriptures seems to keep it.” Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Jacob married both Leah and her sister Rachel, David knocked off one of his generals, Uriah, to try and cover up his affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. When Abram and Sarai were too impatient to wait on God’s promised son, they took matters into their own hands and Abram took Sarai’s servant Hagar, and she became the mother of his first son.

Yes, that’s ancient history, but to understand why we must take this commandment seriously today we have to make some sense of this seemingly blatant contradiction between what the scriptures say and the behavior of our spiritual ancestors. To oversimplify, at least part of the answer is that the biblical narrative is set in a sexist, patriarchal world where women were property. Having lots of wives and children were signs of prosperity and a future for society. There were no DNA tests to determine paternity and the lineage of one’s offspring determined inheritance; so the sexual faithfulness of a woman was critical to the whole socio-economic structure of the society. This commandment for Moses and Solomon was not about adultery as we know it but about respecting the property of others.

Marriage in biblical times was not based on ‘love’ as we think of it. The great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” makes that point in a humorous but very profound way. As Tevye’s and Golde’s daughters repeatedly challenge the sexist ways of their culture, loveable old Tevye begins to evaluate those traditions as well. In one memorable scene he surprises his wife of 25 years with this question: “Golde, do you love me?” And her response is classic. She says, “Do I what?”

So how do we understand and apply this commandment against adultery in our very different wireless world? The key is that it is all about commitment. Even though marriage in Jacob and Leah and Rachel’s day was totally different than ours, the common denominator is commitment to a set of responsibilities and obligations to each other which have to be taken seriously and kept to insure family and cultural stability.

An anonymous author has defined commitment this way: “Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Commitment is especially important in our transient world that moves at warp speed. We are a people deeply in need of stability. Extended families are over-extended or non-existent. When I grew up all of my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins lived within a 20 mile radius. My mother didn’t need a cell phone to keep track of me. If I got in trouble she heard about it from her mom or one of her sisters before I got home!

Not so today when families are spread out all over the country. The village it takes to raise kids is gone. The support system for caring for the elderly at a time when the number of people in their 80’s and 90’s is growing exponentially is history, and the pressure all that puts on the nuclear family can cause a nuclear meltdown.
Those we love need the assurance that we take our commitments to them very seriously no matter what happens. Not because God says so or someone else said so. We have to be faithful to our commitments because we said so.

Marriage is a prime example of commitment because the promises we make are so huge. The words are so familiar they flow off the tongues of starry-eyed brides and grooms too easily. To love another person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness in health, till death do us part. This is not a 5 year or 50000 mile guarantee. You don’t become a free agent when the contract expires. It’s for keeps.

I saw these words spray painted on a freeway overpass a few years ago: “John loves so and so forever.” I don’t know the name of the beloved because it had been painted over. Apparently “forever” turned out to be longer than John expected. And forever has gotten longer. When the average life expectancy was 40 or 50 till death do us part was a lot shorter than it is today. Caring for someone in sickness and health requires a whole lot more commitment when a spouse suffering from dementia no longer knows your name or is dying by inches from ALS or cancer.

“Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Even on days when you don’t like each other very much. Love is not a feeling you fall into and out of. Love is a choice, a commitment. Is it humanly possible to love like that always? No. That kind of unconditional love is from God and we are merely promising to imitate it. God doesn’t say “I will love you if you do this or don’t do that. God says I love you period.” That’s commitment, and it’s what faithfulness in marriage or any relationship requires.

So what happens when we fail to live up to that high standard? When we break our promises and commitments or are even tempted to? Do we pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands? Or go on a long guilt trip to nowhere?
No, there’s another adultery story in chapter 8 of John’s gospel that shows us a better way.

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Have you ever wondered what Jesus wrote on the ground during that confrontation? No one knows of course. No one had a cell phone to take a picture of it. But from what Jesus has said to me on the numerous occasions when I’ve flunked the commitment test, I think he simply wrote one word, and that word is “Grace.” Grace for the woman. Grace for her self-righteous accusers, And Amazing Grace for you and me if we admit our sin and recommit to God’s way of faithful love.

Church Divided Part II

The following is an excerpt from an article by Bishop William B. Lewis (UMC retired). I found it just after posting my previous article about division in the UMC. It is an excellent historical overview of how the United Methodist denomination got to the brink of division. I highly recommend this article entitled “If the Church I Love Divides.” It can be found at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8099/if-the-church-i-love-divides?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=socialnetwork.

“Another important demographic factor that went almost unnoticed by people focused on the numbers was the effect that birth control and family planning was having on the membership of all denominations. Since the post-WWII decade, when growth came easy, the size of American families has diminished markedly. Fewer children mean smaller confirmation classes, mean fewer members who remain loyal as adults.

Walter Fenton and other Good News propagandists would have us believe the membership decline is largely about theological issues and ethical conflicts. Preferring to blame it on “liberals” and “progressives,” they appear to be totally unaware of recent studies showing that the “Nones” are the fastest growing segment of the population. A major driving force behind this turning away from the American Church is disenchantment with “Evangelicals.”

Fenton predicts the collapse of our ‘apportionment-based connectional’ denomination. Like the Mark Twain story about the mistaken appearance of his obituary in the N.Y. Times, the [“Good News”] news of the death of The United Methodist Church may be premature.

There is an episode in Wesley’s Journal where he describes a conflicted congregation at Gateshead near Newcastle. It’s a lesson in eighteenth century conflict management. Wesley pays a visit to examine the classes and appraise the situation. Half the membership is lost in the struggle. As he travels back to London, he reflects that “the half is more than the whole.”

Wesley believed what was left was a healthier community of grace without the discord and dissension that dominated the Society at Gateshead. It is not my choice for it to be so, but if we must divide, I want to be with the People Called Methodists who believe in free grace and embody it with open minds, open hearts, and open doors. We may be a better church after the some have had their “or else” way.

A lesson I learned from demographics and from reflections on “Gateshead” have led me to the conclusion in these later years of my ministry that the future of United Methodism is in service and self-giving instead of “church growth” and self-seeking. Works of healing, charity, and kindness are far more important in the Community of Grace than institutional success. Like Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s “While I’m on my feet” appeal, I live to say more for a church whose mission it is to “lay down its life” for others.”