FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT–AGAIN

Because I have two separate pastorates, I have two worship services.  I have already described the morning worship on the first Sunday of Advent.  After some lunch, a brief nap and a chance to read over the afternoon service, I left for the second service.  This was not our normal afternoon service.

To start with, we had scheduled a potluck supper after the worship, something we do several times a year.  That meant the service would start later so that the supper would happen closer to actual supper time.  It also meant some extra people who come because of the meal and the chance to visit with people over the supper.  It also means that things are more hectic before worship begins as we juggle final arrangements for the supper with getting ready for worship. We also had to get the Advent Candle stuff set up, which meant scouring the building for a suitable table.

It was also a cloudy, dreary day which made the burned out bulbs in over half the light fixtures in the sanctuary very obvious.  Since the fixtures are high and hard to get to, we tend not to pay much attention to them, until we all of a sudden realize half the sanctuary is in darkness and we need to do something–except the pre-worship discussion revealed that none of us had any good idea of how we were going to replace the bulbs,

With all that going on, I was kept fairly busy before worship began and didn’t realize until just before we began that in my worship preparation the week before, I had neglected to make sure my tablet and the bulletin were in sync.  I forgot to add in the hymns to the order of service on the tablet and also forgot to add in the second special music slot.  Fortunately, those were easy to remedy.

But things kept slipping.  I announced the Advent Candle reading and sat down while the reader did that part of worship.  And then, instead of standing to announce the offering, I forgot the offering, thinking the choir would sing, which they did–fortunately, other people seem to be able to pick up after me.  I eventually got the offering in and worship continued.  But when the choir did their next selection, I stood up, not realizing they were doing two pieces.  The congregation had a bit of a laugh as the choir told me to sit down.

I was not at my best during that service.  The activity and confusion before the service combined with a busy week leading to the worship meant that I was not as prepared as I should have been going into the worship and not as focused during the worship as I should have been.  I did manage to include all the required bits and pieces, even if the order of service I was following didn’t always connect with the order of service printed in the bulletin.

Eventually, we reached the end of the service and most of us went to the church hall for our supper.  But for me, the important thing was that in spite of all the confusion and my mistakes, we worshipped.  It might not have been exactly as planned.  I might have made more mistakes than normal.  People might have been a bit distracted by the enticing smells coming from the hall.  The dreary cloudy weather might have affected some of us, especially since the lack of adequate lighting made it hard to see the hymn books.

But in  spite of all that, we worshipped God.  We prayed, we sang, we presented our offerings and we heard and responded to God’s word to us for that day.  We greeted each other, welcomed each other and enabled each other to be reminded of the reality of God in our lives so that we could together give him the worship he deserves.

I very much doubt that we will ever have a perfect setting for our worship.  I would hope that we don’t always have as many issues as we had this afternoon but there will always be something.  Our worship depends on our ability to remember the reality of God in the midst of the confusion of life.  We worship not when things are perfect but because God is present and loving and graceful in the midst of the confusion and reality of life.

May the peace of God be with you.

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FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

It was the first Sunday of Advent and I was ready.  The write up for the Advent Candle was done.  The sermon was ready and was what I thought was an interesting approach to the Advent season–at least it was interesting to me and that helps it be interesting to those listening, I hope.  I was ready for this.

Except, well, the reality was that I didn’t expect there to be too many people there.  We are a small group and with some of our group doing their seasonal migration to warmer climates, another being involved with a family event and others having other stuff going on, I didn’t expect too many there for worship.

I gave some thought to that during the week.  With the absolute best attendance I could expect being 4, I gave myself some options:

  • Four in the congregation would mean a regular service–after all, we have done that before and it works.
  • Two in the congregation would mean a smaller service with no sermon. We would do the Advent Candle, prayers and Communion.
  • Three in worship–well, that would be a bit harder to figure out and so I would ask them what they wanted to do.

I arrived early, as always. Someone was there setting up the Communion service.  She had also come the day before and decorated the building for Christmas.  It looked great.  We talked about a variety of things as we waited for others.  She let me know that one I had on my possible list wasn’t coming so that made three a real possibility.

Our regular starting time arrived and it was still just the two of us.  We wondered where the other almost definite member was–I tried to remember if he has said he was going to be away or something.  Just as I was thinking of suggesting we close up, we heard his truck in the parking lot.  He commented on the small numbers and took his seat.

I explained my plan, which they agreed to, including the part about no singing–the only real singer in the group really didn’t want to do a solo that day.  We worshipped.  Our worship included the Advent Candle, prayers, Scripture and Communion.  We received the offering, which really meant two of us gave our envelopes to the other person who was looking after the money that day.

The service was short and didn’t include many of the regular things we do.  There was no sermon.  We didn’t have a long discussion about the Scripture readings.  We didn’t sing.  We didn’t do the responsive reading.  But we did worship.  We spent time together, sharing our common faith and encouraging each other as we worshipped God.

Would I have preferred a large congregation, say our regular 8-9?  Definitely.  Did I feel I was wasting my time leading worship for 2 people?  Definitely not.  Fortunately for all of us who pastor small churches, God doesn’t have a quorum for worship.  He doesn’t require that there be a certain number of people present.  He just requires that we come together prepared to meet with each other and him.

I am and have been a pastor of small congregations for most of my ministry.  This was probably my smallest congregation in all those years but it was still a congregation of people seeking to worship God.  It was still my responsibility to lead them in the worship–maybe not the one that I had planned and organized but I was and am still called to lead them in worship.

I suspect that will be our smallest congregation this year–given that we have only a few services left before the winter shut-down and there are no plans for the regulars to miss any more of the services we have planned, except for the snowbirds who won’t be back until spring.

I really don’t know where God is leading us as a church or what will happen as we continue with our ministry.  We may grow.  We may continue our present slow decline.  We might, like many small congregations grow enough to keep going.  But I do know that this particular Sunday, three of us showed up to worship God and together, we did just that.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAVING IT ALL

Unlike many people I know in  the more conservative part of the Christian faith that I affiliate with, I am not at all interested in an annual ritual.  This time of the year, it is not unusual for people to point out some cultural trend and use it as a symbol of the continual secular conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas.  The obvious antidote it to work hard to put Christ back in Christmas.  There will be sermons, Christmas newsletters, social media rants and on and one telling us that we need to do this.

Early in my ministry, I was one of the people trying to put Christ back in Christmas.  As time passed and I learned more about Christmas traditions, Christian  history and theology and the reality of North American demographics, I became less and less vocal about the need to put Christ back into Christmas.  I began to realize that there are some people for whom the whole Christmas scene is depressing.  There are others who don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons.  And increasingly, there are many whose cultural background doesn’t have a Christian component.  As I learned things like this and realized some of the implications of these realities, I spoke less and less about putting Christ back into Christmas.

And eventually, I began to think that maybe we as believers just might be better off if we actively worked at taking Christ out of Christmas.  What we call Christmas is really nothing more than a huge cultural event sponsored primarily by commercial enterprises.  The glossy veneer of Christianity that gets plastered over the whole mess is actually demeaning to our faith.  Do we actually want the name of Christ associated with the riots that happen in shopping malls on Black Friday, which somehow marks the official beginning of Christmas shipping?

It is probably time for us to realize that there are two events going one here:  the cultural festival that sort of grew out of a Christian celebration and the Christian remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  The events were once related but in truth, the only real connection these days is the fact that both happen at the same time.  They may have once been closely related but today, the connection is slim and tenuous and is an actual problem for those trying to really focus on the love and grace of God shown in the Incarnation.

Since we can’t put Christ back in Christmas–our culture has gone far beyond that–we might well be better off to take Christ completely out of Christmas.  Let culture have the holiday.  As Christians, we can live with “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays”.  The faith can survive when schools have “Winter Concerts”.  Holiday shopping can happen without Joy to the World in the background.

I suggest that we as believers accept the inevitable–this season has been effectively severed from  its tenuous Christian roots.  Great–that means we can actually focus on the remembrance of the birth in our terms in our worship and private devotions.  We don’t need to force our culture to celebrate the birth of Christ.  We do need to give witness to the love and grace of God shown in the risen and living Christ, something that gets harder and harder to do when we are fighting our culture for a season that we are never going to get back.

I would suggest that we treat the cultural celebrations as we treat all the rest of our culture.  We can take part as responsible believers who are attempting to live and show the reality of our faith in all situations. As believers, we can and should use our faith as a guide to our celebrations, seeking the Spirit’s leading on things like how much to spend on what for who.  We probably avoid rioting at the shopping mall when  the must-have toy is no longer in stock–and maybe in the spirit of turn the other cheek, we give the one we manage to snag to someone else.

We can’t put Christ back in Christmas, at least not like we thought we could.  But we can put Christianity in the seasonal celebration.  It takes some thought and some work and some changes, all of which the Holy Spirit will help us with but we can have the celebration of Christ and the cultural festival without one having to win over the other.

May the peace of God be with you.

ADVENT

As a pastor of two different sets of congregations, much of the year is consumed with trying to juggle the different needs of the churches I work for.  They are different enough that I have different sermons, different Bible studies, different meetings and so on.  Only rarely do I get to use the same stuff in both places at the same time.  Most often, even when I can use something similar, it needs serious re-working to fit into the context of the other setting.

Except for Advent and Easter-or at least that is the way I am approaching things.  Advent is the part of the church year set aside to help prepare the church for the remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  I am a member of the Baptist tradition and while we don’t have to pay much attention to the church year, I do like to use the Advent season.  So, when advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, I get to do one set of sermons, one set of Advent candle programs, one Candlelight Christmas Eve service.

And this Advent season, for some reason, I am pretty much ready for everything.  I actually have each week’s Advent Candle program written, I have the sermons planned for each week, including the Sunday after Christmas.  I have the Christmas Eve service roughed out and just need to get a few bits of input from other participants to have that ready.  I am ready for Advent.

Except I am not really ready for Advent.  I am ready to help lead other people through the Advent season, which is part of my job.  But personally, I am not all that sure where I stand on the readiness issue.  Part of my problem is figuring out what the whole Christmas/Advent thing actually means to me and my faith.

Christmas as a celebration has been becoming less and less significant for me the last few years–since the kids all moved out and away, there hasn’t been the same level of excitement with gift giving and over eating and all the rest.  On those occasions when some of the family gets home or we are with them, some of the excitement comes back–but that would be there if we were together in July.

The whole gift process is less interesting.  Neither of us has much of a wish list.  We are at the point in our lives where we have lots of stuff and if we want something, we can and do buy it when we want it.  The eating part of the event–well, I am pretty sure that over-eating is an over-rated sport, given the fact that it is so much harder to get enough exercise to compensate for the extra calories.

Theologically, I am happy for the birth of Jesus–but I find that my thinking is more in tune with the early church.  There is pretty good evidence that the birth of Jesus wasn’t much celebrated until after the time of Constantine, about 350 years or so after Jesus.  They focused on the resurrection, which makes sense–life was difficult and Christianity was technically illegal and so they focused in the really important thing, the resurrection.

But for all that, it is Advent.  I do need to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ.  And I need to do it not just for the people who have called me to be their pastor but for myself.  The part about leading the church through Advent I have pretty much ready–it is all either written or will soon be written.

The personal part, well, that it a work in progress and has been for the last few years.  I try to focus not just on the birth but all its implications.  For me, that includes the rest of the story.  Seeing the birth in its context is important–we don’t worship the baby because he is a baby, we worship the risen and living Christ whom he grew into.  The baby in the manger isn’t important because of being a baby in a manger–he is important because he rose to life on the third day.

So, I will give and receive gifts; I will light Advent Candles; I will listen to the Messiah.  I will help the churches celebrate Advent and Christmas and I will continue to work on my own celebration of the process.

May the peace of God be with you.