Lessons and Carols: John and the Prophets

This is part 2 of 4 from our Lessons and Carols service at St. Stephen’s UMC from Dec. 31. This one draws from John 1:5-28, Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; 11:1-4, Hosea 11:1, and Zechariah 9:9. For more info on what in the world this is, check out the intro on Wednesday’s post. 

Just before Jesus came into the world, his cousin showed up and started preparing the way. John was his name, and he was truly sent by God. He came to witness to the coming light of the world, the true Messiah, the Word Made Flesh.

Some asked, “Could this man be the Christ?”

But John knew that was not his role in this play.

John knew the words of the prophets of old. Of Isaiah and Micah, Hosea, Zechariah, and more. So he set to work, testifying about a great light that would come into this world.

Because the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light! A child has been born, the Prince of Peace! Wonderful Counselor, everlasting God! The true King!!

The true King will come from the root of Jesse’s tree; and this branch will be the true branch! He will stand up for the voiceless, he will proclaim justice and righteousness to the poor and the outcast. He’ll show the world once and for all what it means to love the true God.

John knew and proclaimed these words. And John did incredible things! So the people asked him if he was sure that he was not the Christ. And he said to them my job is not to be the Lord, but to prepare his way. Prepare the way of the lord! The Lord is coming! Prepare the way!

So the people in charge cornered John.

“What is it that you say you do here?”

“Who do you think you are?”

“If you’re not the one, are you the great prophet?”

John replied,

“I’m nobody from no place. I’m just a messenger. The one who’s coming? I’m not even good enough to untie his sandals. Yeah. He’s that good.

I’ve been out here baptizing people in the river. The Messiah? He’ll baptize with the Holy Spirit!”

“Out of Egypt he has come! And before it’s all done, he’ll ride triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey. The words you’ve heard from the prophets? They’re true. He is who he says he is. He’s the one and only. The holy one. Emmanuel, God-with-us!”

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Lessons And Carols: Genesis and John

Hello friends!

We had a wonderful service of Lessons and Carols at St. Stephen’s UMC on Dec. 31. We had four readings that I pulled together from the traditional lessons and carols liturgy. But, rather than reading straight from a translation, I pieced them together and reworked them into paraphrases of sorts. A few people asked for them, so I decided that I would throw them up here, one at a time, Wednesday through Saturday. The first one, which is an adaptation of Genesis 1 interspersed with an adaptation of John 1, is below. Check back each day for the rest of them!

Before there was anything else and when the world had no form at all, when it was all a dark and empty wasteland;

The Word was there.

The very spirit of God, the essence of the creator was hovering, ready to begin a new thing;

And the Word was there.

So then, do you know what God did? God said, “let there be light,” and there was light!! God saw that the light was good and God divided up the light times and called those day and the dark times and called those night.

And the light and the Word immediately took a liking to each other.

And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.

So then God got back to work because there was plenty to do. So God said something about expanses and waters and the universe and galaxies and stardust and the universe began to take its shape;

And there was the Word, right with God in the midst of it all.

Then God started arranging and pushing around water and shifting tectonic plates and spewing lava out of volcanoes and land and sea started to take shape;

And God said it was very good, and the Word  never, ever forgot this truth.

So God started empowering the Earth to do incredible things. And out of its own goodness and bounty creation started to create! And there were flowers and trees and grasses and all sorts of things springing up.

And God and the Word continued to fall in Love with what they saw.

So God started coaxing stars and planets in the sky and the light and the dark started to take shape as day and night and there was a moon and there were galaxies and the creating hasn’t ever stopped, even to this day.

And the Word was there, because the Word is so much more than simply with God, the Word is God.

Then the animals started to take shape! Fish in the sea and creatures on the earth, birds in the sky, more than you can count! And God commissioned all these creatures to be fruitful, to flourish and multiply and grow and change and do great things.

And this might surprise you, but the Word delighted in this part, because the word is the Light of Life.

Then God and the Word got to talking, and thinking, and dreaming, and decided to create someone in their own image. Can you imagine? A creature in the very image of God! So humanity was born. And they said, let’s give these humans special powers and abilities and responsibilities, let’s make them responsible for the other creatures and the plants and all of this. It was, and is, a whole lot of power to hand over. But we humans had our call from God, to take special care of this creation.

And the Word immediately fell in love with us.

And God looked out at all of this and said, “this is so, so good!”

 

And the Word knew that this was true. The Word also knew that there would be troubles. But that the darkness would never, ever win.

 

Advent 2 2017

Hello!

For those of you who are particularly liturgically minded, you may be thinking, “Wait, this coming Sunday is the first week of Advent!” Well, yes, for you maybe. But we at St. Stephen’s UMC in Houston decided that we wanted to have four full Sundays of Advent, and with Christmas Eve being the fourth Sunday of Advent, we just moved everything up a week. So on Sunday, we’ll be talking about the second set of Advent texts.

I’m going to be trying to do some reflecting and thinking about them here each week, and that will hopefully inspire some conversation in our church — and maybe even in internet-land. Alright, let’s start with Isaiah:

Comfort, comfort my people!

says your God.

Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,

and proclaim to her that her

compulsory service has ended,

that her penalty has been paid,

that she has received

from the LORD’s hand

double for all her sins!

A voice is crying out:

“Clear the LORD’s way in the desert!

Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!

Every valley will be raised up,

and every mountain and hill

will be flattened.

Uneven ground will become level,

and rough terrain a valley plain.

The LORD’s glory will appear,

and all humanity will see it together;

the LORD’s mouth

has commanded it.”

  A voice was saying:

“Call out!”

And another said,

“What should I call out?”

All flesh is grass;

all its loyalty is

like the flowers of the field.

The grass dries up

and the flower withers

when the LORD’s breath blows on it.

Surely the people are grass.

The grass dries up;

the flower withers,

but our God’s word

will exist forever.

Go up on a high mountain,

messenger Zion!

Raise your voice and shout,

messenger Jerusalem!

Raise it; don’t be afraid;

say to the cities of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

Here is the LORD God,

coming with strength,

with a triumphant arm,

bringing his reward with him

and his payment before him.

Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;

he will gather lambs in his arms

and lift them onto his lap.

He will gently guide

the nursing ewes.

Isaiah 40:1-11 (CEB)

This passage, to me, feels like everything significant about the Advent season boiled down into one beautiful piece of poetry. Again and again and again God’s people find themselves separated.

From home, stuck in Egypt.

From home, stuck in Babylon.

From each other, in fractured relationships.

From even God, in fractured relationship.

This is not who we’re created to be, or how it’s supposed to work. We know that. God knows that. Nobody wants it to be this way! Or at least, that’s what we want to think. But…

What do we do or say to make it true?

How do we respond to the God that calls us into God’s own arms?

What do we put ahead of these hopes?

Okay. On to the epistle text:

Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day.  The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be? You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. Because of that day, the heavens will be destroyed by fire and the elements will melt away in the flames. But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found by him in peace—pure and faultless. Consider the patience of our Lord to be salvation

2Peter 3:8-15a (CEB)

I wasn’t sure about including this text, as I’m pretty sure we’re actually going to be focused on the Gospel reading (the familiar story of John the Baptist).

But the theological ideas in here are so awesome, and connect so deeply with everything that John-the-locust-eating-wilderness-living-way-preparing-Baptist said and did, that I felt like it needed to be part of our reflection. Because at the heart of this passage is a truth about how different time is for us than it is for God.

Every year, Advent ought to be brand new.

We need to look with fresh eyes at the hurt in the world.

We need to look with fresh eyes at God’s promises.

We need to look for the places we’re called to be John the Baptist: to prepare a way for something we know we won’t see all the way to fruition.

We need to look at ourselves and remember that God delights in who we are. And that God likes this place we live. In fact, God likes the world enough that God sends us, you and me, out into it to bring about the Kingdom every single day.

If you join us Sunday, we’ll work in these texts and focus on Mark 1:1-8 as we worship God and prepare the way!

 

-N

Responding to tragedy

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”

I said, “I’m here; send me.”

Isaiah 6:8 (CEB)

This post originally appeared as part of the email devotional ministry of the Portico Collective.

I spent most of Hurricane Harvey sitting on the same couch that I am writing this from. The nice, comfortable, dry couch in my nice, comfortable, dry living room in my nice, comfortable, dry house. I did this for a number of reasons.

• The city officials told people to hunker down to wait out the storm.

• It was raining. A lot.

• My street, and streets around me, spent a significant portion of Friday through Tuesday functioning as rivers rather than thoroughfares. (This is actually an intentional design function of our road system here.)

• I don’t have any special skills, nor a boat, nor am I a first responder.

• A very large oak tree fell across one of the two roads out of my house.

Pretty good reasons, right? You know what they didn’t prevent?

Feeling like a dark mass of guilty nervous energy as I cooked things, watched Netflix, and hung out with my wife and my three dogs.

I say this to tell you that you don’t have to be in another part of the country or the world to feel an overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of this disaster. We are feeling it here, too. Even though we are crying, “here I am, send me!” many of us are finding that there aren’t neat and easy and accessible ways to respond.

Our need to be helpful and to do so on our own terms doesn’t often end well in times of disaster. The sentiment of people who are hellbent on donating supplies instead of money is a common one. Also common? Stories of unnecessary donations overwhelming the infrastructure and logistics of recovery efforts, and countless donations going to waste.

So what the heck do we do after we say, “Here I am Lord, send me?”

Research. Ask. Listen.

The things that have happened here are really, incredibly traumatic. We would love to be reminded that people all over are pulling for us.

Know somebody in Houston? Reach out and tell them you love them. Ask them what they need.

Want to help? Nobody likes this response, but we could really use some cash. Money given to organizations like the United Methodist Church’s UMCOR gets to the disaster and makes a huge difference in long and short term recovery.

Really want to come help? Line up someone to work with first. I know, that’s lame. So was hiding in my house. But it wasn’t lame to avoid becoming someone who needed saving because I got in over my head out of a well-intentioned desire.

Still certain you want to make in-kind or material donations? Figure out what the shelters are asking for, and don’t turn your nose up at the requests. Sometimes, the best thing you can give really and truly is a box of tampons.

One last thing: pray for us. For real. Recovery work is long. It’ll be happening for years to come. We’ll need support: physical, emotional, and spiritual long after the news crews leave.

God picks sides

I can't sleep. My alarm will go off in a few hours and I'll get to gather together with faithful people seeking to find deeper meaning and connection to God in a broken world that looks especially ugly today.

When the world feels like it's on fire, I can't help but think about what I know is true about the God of Jesus.

God is incomprehensibly, recklessly, absurdly committed to a boundless sort of love. A love that nobody can hide from, that pursues us relentlessly. And that is true for every last one of us.

But this reckless and absurd love is not impartial.

In the midst of pain and hurt, God picks sides. But God doesn't pick sides the way the world does.

If you are scared and hurting tonight because of the color of your skin, the country of your birth, or the accent of your voice, God is on your side.

If you are mad as hell that somehow, in 2017, thousands of people are reviving anti-Semitic, anti-minority, anti-immigrant cheers and thoughts and actions, God is on your side.

If you had the courage to peacefully stand up to people with racist, white supremacist, bigoted beliefs, God is on your side.

If you were plowed into by a car driven into the crowd, killed or maimed by hate-crazed violence, God is on your side.

If your little island finds itself a pawn in the angry posturing of world leaders and you are living in constant fear for what tomorrow brings, God is on your side.

These are things I know to be true because of how I read my Bible. Because again and again and again the God I worship looks at conflict and hate and pain and picks the side of the underdog, the despised, the outclassed outcast, and says, "this is where I will stand."

There is hope here for all of us. Even those of us who don't find ourselves in the people with whom God is standing.

Because God's grace is available to all people. Full stop. No exceptions.

Because all of God's beloved children are called to stand on God's side, no matter where their birth family or life circumstance places them.

Because God's kingdom is real and present and right now and forever, and it compels us to grab a hammer and start building.

God's heart breaks tonight. My heart breaks tonight. So I will pray with my eyes closed tight, and then I will open them wide. I will open them wide, seeking to see the world the way God does:

As a place to build a kingdom of peace and justice. As a place where people don't find themselves superior based on the color of their skin or the nation on their passport. As a place where the lion lies down with the lamb.

The Good News will triumph. This is as true today as it was yesterday. It will be true tomorrow. But this does not let us off the hook; it does the exact opposite.

It compels us to live boldly. Fearlessly. Justly.

And it compels those things now.

–N

Where I’m from

On Sunday, I got to preach a sermon where I told one of my favorite stories about my grandmother and her “pizza plant.” It’s really fun to be in the place with a new congregation where we are still learning about each other: Who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.

This reminded me of an exercise I did as part of a pastoral leadership development program I’m in. We were asked to write a poem about our spiritual biography. Remembering Gigi and Aiee (what I called/call my grandmothers) was as pretty special thing for me, so I saved the poem. After you read it, I encourage you to think about who shaped your faith and your story. Write it down, and, if they’re still living, share it with the people who have helped make you who you are!

 

It’s my grandmothers.

There have been others

and there have been places

and there have been experiences

and there was that time the cross fell at CAC,

and the conversations with Jay,

and the broken cement mixer in Juarez

that made me pretty sure

I

was

going

to

die

but it’s my grandmothers.

 

Yes the Hindu one, too.

 

I learned to pray in Sunday school, I guess.

But to really pray,

To take the big questions and the ideas

and the words about God

and the readings from seminary

and the anger

and the love

and the scary stuff;

That was all about talking to Gigi all these years after she died.

 

Aiee taught me that God shows up when you throw a party.

That faith and friends and fun and life are totally linked.

That it’s more important to take the fruits and throw them off the bridge

Or to go to the temple and be blessed before moving across the country,

Than to know the particulars of Hindu eschatology.

That love is transcendent and people are weird.

And that God shows up when you throw a party.

 

The other stuff matters.

 

But.

Really,

it’s my grandmothers.

 

 

–N

 

Sacred and Profane

 I’m gon’ praise him, praise him till I’m gone

I’m gon’ praise him, praise him till I’m gone

When the praises go up, the blessings come down

When the praises go up, the blessings come down

It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap

It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap

I don’t make songs for free I make ’em for freedom

Don’t believe in kings, believe in the kingdom

Chisel me into stone, prayer whistle me into song air

Dying laughing with Krillin saying something ’bout blonde hair

Jesus black life ain’t matter, I know I talked to his daddy

Said you the man of the house now, look out for your family

He has ordered my steps, gave me a sword with a crest

And gave Donnie a trumpet in case I get shortness of breath

Chance the Rapper, “Blessings”


Sunday night I saw Chance the Rapper in concert with 16,000 people in Cynthia Woods Mitchell pavilion.
For those of you thinking, “I didn’t think you were nearly cool enough to go to a Chance the Rapper concert,” you would ordinarily be right! But some friends of ours invited Sarah and me to come with them, and we did. Thank God we did. 

Because it was incredible. I am a nerd and I didn’t know anything about Chance the Rapper, so I did extensive research about who he is (aka I read his Wikipedia page). I listened to some of his music on Spotify. 

Then I watched a performer be incredibly spiritual and vulnerable on stage, slipping between performance and prayer, acknowledging pain in his life, and building to an altar call. 

Interspersed between the praise songs, prayers, and sharing about the death of a family member were songs like “We Don’t Do the Same Drugs No More,” clouds of pot smoke, songs full of language that some folks might find offensive, and other things you’d expect at a giant concert. And in profiles in GQ and other places, Chance doesn’t shy away from substance use. 

But in the song “Music is All We Got,” Chance the Rapper fought back tears as he substituted in “Jesus is all I got” for one of the refrains. 

But three or four times Chance slipped from performing artist to child of God deep in prayer. I know this, because I had never seen someone command a stage and cover ground like he did, moving and engaging the audience and captivating 16,000 of his closest friends. But then he would shrink himself down, close his eyes, nod his head and with both hands on the mic clearly start talking with God. Even from the lawn at a giant concert, it felt incredibly intimate.

But there was an altar call at the end of the service in his reprise of the song “Blessings” (apparently this happens at most of his concerts). “If you feel like you were brought here for a purpose tonight; if you feel like you were brought here for a reason tonight, turn to Him. Turn to Him.”

It’s 2017. I know statistics about church attendance, especially amongst younger people. And let’s be real, I was an old guy at a Chance the Rapper concert. Most of the people around me were not in a church that morning, and this concert was full of overtly Christian language, ideas, and even directives from the stage. And the people around me were incredibly receptive. 

Chance the Rapper was preaching the Gospel and people were listening. Thousands and thousands of people. 

In the church, we often feel like the world doesn’t want to hear what we have to say. But I can’t help but wonder…

Why can so many people show up to a venue on Sunday night and hear the Gospel in a profound way?

How would we respond if somebody like Chance the Rapper or his 16,000 fans showed up on Sunday morning? 


I made it through, made it through, made it through
And everything I gave to you, I gave to you, I gave to you
You got it, you got it, you got it, it’s coming, coming, coming
So are you ready?

Are you ready for your blessings?
Are you ready for your miracle?

Chance the Rapper, “Blessings (Reprise)”