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1: We light a candle for lives lost—for laughter cut short, voices that will never again be heard; for hugs unraveled by death. We light a candle for a broken future—made incomplete without loved ones lost.
2: Rev. Clementa Pickney
3: Cynthia Hurd
4: Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
2: Tywanza Sanders
1: Ethel Lance
3: Susie Jackson
4: Depayne Middleton Doctor
2: Rev. Daniel Simmons
3: Myra Thompson
1: May light perpetual shine upon them.
2: We light a candle for American dreams deferred. For insufficient funds in the bank of justice…for our worst selves denying our greatest promise as a nation.
3: We light a candle for Charleston,
1: New York
3: and Ferguson—cities without innocence now known by the malignant refusal of the few to see the compounding value of all.
4: We light a candle for Dallas. Racism has grit in Dallas. Racism has claimed lives here. Racism has claimed dignity here. The swollen flow of racism through this state threatens to overflow the banks of our well-divided districts.
1: We light a candle for Dylann Roof—a shooter who was not born to kill, but pulled a trigger thirty-nine times.
4: thirty-nine times!
1: We pray that this is not the end of his story.
2: We light a candle of solidarity. We do not stand alone. We share the same light with millions who came before and many millions who walk after us on the march to a promised land yet unseen, long discussed but that already extends long arms of life and hope into our present reality.
3: We light a candle for the church.
1: The blood that now stains the wood panel floors of the church call out to God.
2: The blood that has far too often run in the streets now runs in our churches.
4: We can no longer hide behind our pulpits.
3: We light this candle to poke at privilege, speak hard truths, be less complacent as a church ablaze for the God of justice whose patience wears thin with those who ‘proclaim peace, peace when there is no peace.’
4: We light a candle for ‘Emanuel’
3: which means ‘God with us’
4: in prayer that God will, indeed, be with us in this time. God does not shy away from tragedy. God is not intimidated by bullets or bombs. God is not deterred by those who insist white privilege isn’t real. God is with us.
1: Most importantly, we light all of these candles for hope—as a sign of rebellion against the darkness that threatens to consume us. For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not, will not, can not overcome it.
I’ve been dabbling with spoken word poetry, on stage and in sermons. Here’s something that I tried out in both places. I’m still new to this so it needs work, but some folks asked for it…so here it is.
We like to put Bethlehem in a box…and then take it out once a year. Bethlehem is a “good neighborhood”, made of felt board and figurines. It is a delicate place that demands a delicate ritual. We unpack Bethlehem with our fingertips, piece-by-piece. Bethlehem is predictable. The characters are always the same and the story never changes.
We bring Bethlehem home because, in some sense, Bethlehem stands for home—or at least our ideal of what it should be. Adoring parents, abundant gifts. An angel showing divine approval while looking down from above. Bethlehem is stable.
But this is not the Bethlehem of the Bible and this is rarely the home of our lives.
Bethlehem is a Biblical bus stop. It’s a spiritual transfer station where one finds God an moves on. No one stays in Bethlehem.
David slays Goliath and goes north to Jerusalem.
The shepherds return West to their flocks.
Wise men go East.
The Holy Family flees south.
The price for staying is the death of innocence that far too many have paid.
Bethlehem makes warriors out of runts and gods out of babies.
Bethlehem is made more of blood than of plastic.
Figurines don’t shit. Babies and donkeys do.
But still, Bethlehem is beautiful and it is necessary.
Bethlehem is where you go to find God…and then GO because you can’t spell God without “GO” and I’m pretty sure the “D” doesn’t stand for “dump your ass here.”
As I look over the Bethlehem box in my living room, I wonder, who are we in the home for God?
We, in this room, are not the bored shepherds, falling asleep on their staffs. We’re not dirty enough, not oppressed enough, not nearly poor enough to have God show up in our back yard. We are not frightened by angels because we’re too entertained to hear them.
We are wise, or at least educated. It takes a star to catch our eyes, but when our eyes have been caught it is easy to reel us in and here, here is the power of the wise men generation, the potential power of us.
We are the generation who leaps so that we can look at the view.
We put all our eggs in one basket and count them as chickens in waiting
We run with scissors because we know that someone needs them now (plus we’ve got shit to do and it’s not that hard to protect yourself from scissors).
We go on road trips to anywhere because the trip is what we remember
and that goes for life too: it’s the trips we remember because it’s easy to laugh after a fall—except when it hurts…that’s when it’s easy to cry. Yes, it’s the trips we remember.
Our generation knows that all who wander are not lost and that the lost might not be if they just wandered around a bit.
The world has forgotten that the wise leave home, chase after stars and set their sights high.
The wise are civil in their disobedience to authority but disobedient nonetheless.
The wise lose home and find themselves.
So maybe Bethlehem stands for home after all—or an improvised home for those of us who find home on the road.
Bethlehem stands for home in the face of homelessness, and home in the face of God.
This is a short prayer that I wrote on the way to church on Sunday. It was inspired by a David Crowder song:
When darkness falls on us,
We will not fear, we will remember that your light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
When rain falls on the earth,
We will not fear, we will remember the waters of our baptism that bring death, but also new life, purpose, calling and grace.
When sickness overshadows our bodies,
We will not fear, we will remember that Jesus healed 2000 years ago and that Jesus continues to heal today.
When we walk in the valley of the shadow of death,
We will not fear, we will remember that you are with us—your rod and your staff comfort us.
When our sins and mistakes cover our souls. When we’ve broken someone’s heart. When we’ve broken your heart,
We will not fear, we will remember the prodigal son who remembered the goodness of the father.
When fear creeps in, help us to remember.
Sometimes the church eats cake batter
I led a devotion this week at the conference office with eight or so conference staff members. It was a great way to start the day. After singing O Come, O Come Emmanuel, I stood in front of them and waited. I just watched the clock while they all looked expectantly at me.
20 seconds passed and my heart was racing.
30 seconds passed and I considered giving up and talking.
40 seconds passed–I seriously can’t take this anymore.
42 seconds passed–AHHHHHHHHH!
45 seconds okay, I’m going to pretend to turn to the scripture just so it looks like I”m not comatose
55 seconds there’s no way I can make it through two minutes
60 seconds “All creation waits, with groaning for the coming of the kingdom of God.” I spoke!
I hate waiting. Maybe it’s because I’m from NJ where time is a much more precious commodity, but I can’t stand to wait. When I moved to Texas (Fort Worth–where everything moves a little bit slower), I came close to losing it just about every time I went to the grocery store because they check out people talk to me!
‘I’ve got things to do, I”m never going to see you again…I’m sure you’re nice but do we really need to slow things down now so that I can learn that you like dogs too?’
I’m a good cook. I’m an awful baker because when you bake, you’ve got to get it all ready stick it in the oven and wait. You can’t check it’s progress, you can’t modify it and fix it to make sure it comes out okay. You just stick it in the oven and bake. I can’t do that! When I cook food, I’m constantly tasting, testing, adjusting and balancing flavors. Even with dishes that take a while to make, I don’t have to wait. With baking, there’s no way around it. You have to wait.
I asked the conference people how they felt while I stood in silence:
- worried for the presenter
- calm…it’s the first silence I’ve heard in a long time
WELCOME TO ADVENT
We live in a society dominated by instant gratification. Some attempts at the instant are trivial: instant soup, coffee, oatmeal–even Mac’n’Cheese. There’s instant messaging, text messages, twitter and cell phones to help us instantly get in touch. There are unfortunate expressions of our desire for instant gratification: abundant pornography, excessive debt and various addictions to name a few.
In a society of instant gratification, advent is a time that we embrace the awkward (anyone ever notice how awkwardly awkward is spelled?), choose the silence and worry–worry that things won’t come out right, that we’ve screwed something up. Advent is a time to worry. It is a time to wait. It is a time that is meant to make people worry–especially the powers that be! It is also a time to hope–a time to look forward to what might be. It is a time to build up expectations and make room for something new. Advent isn’t about instant. It’s about waiting.
Some of the longest waits of my life:
- 1 minute, 32 seconds…time it took for my wife to walk down the aisle
- 54 minutes…time the medical team tried to resuscitate the teenager who would lead to my first time telling a mother that her son was dead
- 3 hrs, 40 minutes…time it to for me to get in touch with one of my best friends after an airplane flew into her office building
- 6 hrs, 49 minutes…time from when I gave my 7 month-old daughter to a surgeon to repair her heart until I got to see her bright pink skin
- 2 weeks…time it took from the onset of contractions for one of my daughters until she was delivered (these two weeks were a lot longer for my wife)
- 10 years, 2 months…time it took for me to go through the ordination process
- 14 years, 0 days…time for my first real kiss (yeah, it was my birthday)
All of these were incredible waits, but all of them led to an incredible experience. When I look back, I know that the wait is part of what made them powerful and life-defining. There was something about the wait that made me value the moment. How does Isaiah put it?
“The strength of the Lord will rise as we wait”
Abrahm and Sarai waited…Joseph waited in prison…the Israelites waited in Egypt…then in the wilderness…then in the wilderness again…then they waited in Babylon…then they waited for a Messiah and it was good–it was beyond good!
But advent comes into out lives and so few churches wait for Christmas. Instead of birthday cake, we eat batter. Sure, it’s sweet, but it goopy, not fully formed and definitely not ready yet. Then we show up for the Christmas feast, having already tried the flavor. We’re still interested in the cake, yes, but less so than we might otherwise. And the cake doesn’t really come out right–it seems like those people who only showed up on Christmas and haven’t had any of the batter get more out of it than the church-goers.
Imagine the other side. Imagine if we actually observed advent and the smell of baking cake enticed us for weeks. Imagine how much we would want to eat that cake. Imagine how much better the cake would be if it was allowed to form properly.
Christmas is like this too. The Christmases in my life that have been the most powerful for me have been ones in which I have adopted practices of waiting and preparing and watching. I pray that I might have the patience this year to once again wait upon God’s time and the church’s time instead of my own.
I recently overheard the following conversation between the senior pastor of a large church and a young, somewhat arrogant individual.
“We’re not going to have food in the sanctuary. That just desecrates the holiness of the space.”
“Surely your congregation eats in the sanctuary on a regular basis.”
“If they do, I don’t know about it,” the pastor assured, unsure of the opposing statement.
“You do celebrate communion once a month, don’t you?”
The young questioner was proud of himself for a rather unimpressive retort. I did not have time to continue the conversation with the young man. I thought I would make a broader response for the benefit of anyone else who has dreamt of allowing congregation members to snack in church.
One must only think of the practical matters involved. Crumbs, spills and stains might not only do damage to the cleanliness of our sanctuaries but also our clothing. Our churches are meant to call people to live a better life therefore we must maintain pristine sanctuaries so that when people walk in they know that this is a place for perfect people. We are to present ourselves perfectly before the Lord. Stains on our shirts and crumbs on our lap reveals imperfection. Even Adam and Eve had the common sense to cover their nakedness before they came into the presence of God yet those of you who want to eat in church would expose your slovenly manner before God AND potential visitors!
Consuming anything apart from Christ borders on idolatory because it might lead us to believe that something other than God provides our nourishment. The dangers of this are obvious. It is our base human instincts that drive us to eat. To eat a small amount of food in the Eucharist is a reminder to us that we over-indulge in the things of this world! No, we must not encourage our congregation members to consume lots of food. We want them to leave hungry and thirsty so that their souls might be reminded of the way that they hunger and thirst for God in worship.
While some might argue that eating in church is an extension of the Eucharist and therefore worship of God, they would be mistaken. Look at the scriptures themselves: it was after the last Supper that Jesus led the disciples in a hymn! Worship comes after we eat which is why we expect congregants to eat their doughnuts in fellowship hall before entering the sanctuary. Furthermore, the scriptures make no reference to Communion involving anything more than the simple elements in worship. The Last Supper was simply a dinner with no religious connotation beyond that.
Think, too, about the company the Jesus kept when he ate. Pharisees, homeless men, tax collectors, terrorists and prostitutes? If we took that seriously then imagine who would come to our churches on Sunday morning! Surely the Lord would not think it possible to worship God while eating with such people.
Lastly, people eat together all the time in their day-to-day life. We must continually separate people’s experience with God from their day to day life so that they know that God is above and separated from their lives. Eating together is how people bond, connect, feel comfortable and develop a sense of family. Why on heaven would we want people to experience that in worship!? Worship is a time for people to be uncomfortable with their sin and reminded by their neighbor how much more work they have to do–not to be passed some cookies and told, ‘you’re okay in my church, even if you make a little bit of a mess.’
So by all means, young man.
Please keep food where it belongs and God where He belongs.
Megan Davidson and I (Mike Baughman) just wrote an article for the United Methodist Reporter about how young clergy can and should relate to the broader institution. As someone who is frequently frustrated with the system, we had a refreshing encounter that gave us some hope. We’ll see where it goes. Check out the link and place comments on here (there are no comments on the UMC site–would be nice if we could actually dialogue there!).
“A Twitter Parable”
We talk about twitter, but that’s not really the focus of the article. Here’s a Twitter icon so that this posting looks nicer: