Why Are WE Here: Part III – To be changed. – Sermon for February 1, 2015

It’s been said that the only thing that never changes is change itself. As much as we want things to stay the same, you can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t stop the hands of time, and you can’t guarantee that what is here today will be here tomorrow.

You hear those things and, if you are anything like me, you might feel a little anxious. I think we as humans like routine. We like knowing that everything we expect will be there. And when something changes, even something small, it shakes us up.

Don’t believe me? How many of you have a Facebook account? Facebook is always making changes to its layout and how to use it, and what happens the morning after they make a new change? Every single time, you log on and everyone is complaining about it, often threatening to never use it again.

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nBut of course, everyone does keep using it. They grudgingly adjust. And then another change happens. And the same outcry happens again. It’s like a fascinating little window into how we don’t like change that plays out every few months on the computer screen. But, it’s important to remember, this isn’t a digital age issue. It’s one that I’m betting has been there since the dawn of time.

It was certainly there back in Jesus day. Today’s story tells us that. Jesus walks into the synagogue and starts teaching and he is already under suspicion because he’s challenging and changing what it means to be a religious authority. He is not an insider. He is not a scribe or a pharisee. He has no formal training. But he walks in and talks like he has authority. So, he’s already a threat to the way things have always been.

At that point a man also walks in who has what Scripture calls an “unclean spirit”, or a demon. He’s agitated and yelling and calling out to Jesus, asking if he has come to destroy the demons. And it should be noted that the man does not seem excited about that possibility.

Jesus says to the demons, “be quiet, and come out of him”. And they do.

And that’s when everyone gets really scared. Because not only does Jesus teach like he has authority, but he can do things, he can create change, that no one has ever seen before. And change, real change, is scary. It’s not just the inconvenience of your Facebook being different when you log in in the morning. It’s the kind of change that takes everything you have known about yourself and who you are and shakes it up.

And Jesus was all about change. He was changing everyones’ understanding of what it meant to worship God. He was changing peoples actual lives, like the man he healed in the synagogue. He was changing everything.

But, more than that, Jesus was the change. Everything about him and his life meant that nothing about us or our lives were, or are, safe from change.

And so this is what I want to say today: following Jesus is not safe. It is not comfortable. And it is not something you can do if you really just want everything to be the same as it has always been. Because being a follower of Jesus means that you and your life are going to be changed. And sometimes, that change is not going to be all that convenient.

Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to that man Jesus healed that day. All we really know is he had been changed in a profound way. And we know it was for the better. But in that moment, and the ones that followed, do you think he was scared? Do you think that for just a moment he wished that he had never met Jesus? Do you think that he almost wished he could go back to the life he knew, the one where he had learned to live with his demons?

I think he probably did. I say that because all of us have had our demons. All of us have had our battles, and our moments of having to fight them. And all of us, if we have made a decision to overcome those demons, have had to say “I’m ready to be changed, not matter the cost.”

And if you’ve ever done that, my guess is you’ve also had a moment where you’ve said, “Is all this really worth it? Were things really all that bad before?” And maybe you’ve wished, for just a second, that you never had believed change was possible.

Because change is hard. And the harder news is that Jesus is all about change. But the good news is that Jesus is also all about new life, and sometimes we need to let Jesus change us in order to get us there.

For the past few weeks we’ve been going through this sermon series and we’ve been asking “Why are WE here?” Or, “Why are we the church together?” The first week we talked about how we’ve been called here by God. Last week we talked about how we are here to be disciples. And this week we are talking about the next step. We’re talking about how we are here to be changed.

That means, first, each of us individually. Because a big part of the Christian life is about being transformed by the fact that you are a follower of Jesus Christ. That word “follower” is more important than it may sound. Because to be a follower of Christ, you have to actually follow. You can’t just stand still. You have to be willing to move with Christ.

And if you are moving with Christ, following him, then you cannot help but be transformed by who he is. You cannot help but be changed. And sometimes that is going to be wonderful. And sometimes it is going to be staggeringly inconvenient and difficult. And it’s going to happen again and again and again.

And even when you think, “I’ve reached the summit…there’s nothing more God can do with me”, you are going to be changed again. It’s just part of what it means to follow Jesus. But the good news, is that it is that if that transformation really is about, and comes from, Jesus, it is always going to be life giving. It can’t help but be.

So, the first big question is this: are you going to go along for the ride? Are you willing to commit to this journey? And the second big question is what happens when a whole church full of people all make the same decision to really follow Jesus, even if it changes everything for them?

Whatever happens, I know it has happened before, and it will happen again, and the church has and will survive. This church has been here 375 years. And as historic as we are, and as much as we rightly value our history, we have also changed mightily during that time. In it’s fundamental form this is the same church that Rev. John Wheelwright founded in 1638. And yet, we have again and again been transformed by the grace of God.

And we have not just survived. We have thrived. Take a walk down Water Street and look at the names of the former tenants set in stone right there on the sidewalk. They came long after this church came to Exeter, and we are here long after. Why? It’s not because we are better people, or better at managing our finances, or better at taking care of our building. It’s because we are following after something greater than ourselves. And because we are willing be be changed by the one we are following.

Because through the centuries, if this church had not been willing to change because that’s what following Jesus demanded of us, then we wouldn’t be here anymore. We’d just be another historic building on Front Street.

But instead, we and all of our ancestors have been transformed. We’ve continually been transformed from what we were, and into something new. And we haven’t just been transformed from, we have been transformed for. We have been transformed for the work that needs to be done in our world. We have been transformed for Exeter. We have been transformed for each new generation that has heard the Gospel in these pews. And we have been transformed for such a time as this.

Today we have our annual congregational meeting once again. It is one of probably hundreds that this church has had. And, as usual, we have some small changes on our agenda. And we have already made some other changes in the past year. And the good news is that things are going very well.

But put it in perspective. Because how many other times has this church met when the change they were being asked to make didn’t feel so easy, or so clear? Like the time they had to decide whether or not to support a young cause for independence in the colonies? Or the time they had to build yet another new building? Or the time they had to deal with the parish splitting in two? Or the time they decided to work to help abolish slavery in this country? Or the time those two parishes decided to come back together? Or the time they voted to become Open and Affirming?

Those are just a few of the transformations this parish has gone through in nearly four centuries. And each one has been a change from something, and a change for something. And there will be many more.

And our only job as a church is to keep moving. Keep following Jesus. Don’t stop. And when we look back, we will see that he has only changed us for the better, and that he has never failed to give us new life once again.

How to Pray: Sermon for January 11, 2015

Matthew 6:9-13

9 “Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Some of the first prayers I ever remember saying were during football games. My dad’s side of the family is all from Washington, DC, and they are all Washington football fans, and my dad in particular takes games very seriously. In fact, on most Sundays in football season my dad and I both watch the game, hundreds of miles away from each other, and we text one another through every touchdown, every fumble, every interception.

I knew football was something important in my family growing up. In fact I remember being about six years old and watching Washington play the Dolphins in the Super Bowl. We were watching them on TV, and I could see everyone was so intent and so anxious. And so, though I didn’t understand much about God or prayer or how to pray, I decided to take action. And through the game I kept praying that the pass on third and long would connect, or the field goal would make it through the uprights.

Washington won that Super Bowl, and the players did okay in that game, but I held myself partially responsible for praying the way to that Lombardi trophy. And I thought I was on to something good with this prayer stuff. But then the next year, my team went to the Super Bowl again. And this time they played the Raiders. And, despite my best attempts at prayer, they were absolutely crushed.

It was probably my first experience of religious disillusionment.

I don’t pray about football much these days, though I still sometimes catch myself saying, “Oh please, God, let him catch it,” and I feel a little embarrassed. I don’t think it’s ever wrong to talk to God, but I still feel self-conscious and like I’m doing something wrong. I still want to know, “Am I praying the right way?”

10403016_827092474010019_3062638086161016394_nMaybe you’ve asked that too. If you have, you’re not alone. Even back in Jesus’ day, people were wondering if they were praying the right way. And one day one of Jesus disciples said to him, “Teacher, teach us how to pray.”

Jesus responds by teaching them a prayer that we recite here every week, and that Christians around the world have recited daily since: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds a little different than the words we say now, but there’s no mistaking that it’s the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s as close as we have ever gotten to a perfect prayer. And that makes sense, because it came right from the source.

When you look at the prayer, just in those few lines, there is so much there that is so rich. Jesus calls God “Father”, which means he is inviting us to enter into a conversation which is personal, and loving. We ask that God’s reign would come. We ask for our daily bread, trusting for God to provide what we need. And ask forgiveness, and we ask for help forgiving others. And, finally, we ask God to keep us safe, and out of harm’s way.

Really, everything you need is in that prayer. If there is such a thing as a “right way to pray”, this is it.

Now at this point you might be thinking, “that’s all very good and well, but I have prayed before and I don’t think it works.” Maybe you prayed for something you really and truly needed, not just a football game, and you didn’t get what you need. Or maybe you prayed for someone you loved dearly who needed healing, and you ended up losing them anyway. Or maybe you have just cried out asking, “God, are you there”, but you haven’t had any response.

I wish I could give you an easy answer at this point, one that explained all that, but the fact is that I can’t, and it would be condescending for me to try. And at this point a lot of people would quote the words of CS Lewis, a well-known Christian writer, who once said, “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

And, he’s right about one part of that. Prayer does change us. If you’ve ever gotten into a regular routine of praying, you know that. Your attention shifts. Your priorities change. You feel your life change in ways that make it better.

Two of my favorite prayers, the Prayer of St. Francis, and the Serenity Prayer, are two good examples of prayer that changes us. They teach us how to order our lives. They remind us of what matters and what we can do. And if we really mean what we pray, they change us.

And that, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. But if prayer were only a one-sided conversation with ourselves, it wouldn’t be all that much better than something written by a motivational speaker. We would feel good, but where is God in all that?

Prayer is not just about us. It’s about God, and it’s about a conversation that we are having with God. And time and again in Scripture, we are provided with examples of a God who does listen to us, and who does respond. That doesn’t always mean that we get what we want, and that doesn’t always mean that we are answered with a “yes”, but it does mean that, somehow, we get what we need.

But, on our side, that means that we have to be a part of that conversation too. And sometimes that means that we have to recognize that prayer is more than just words. It’s not just a wish made to God.

Sometimes the best kind of prayer can be our own action. Prayer is a form of action because it is inviting God’s involvement. But good prayer doesn’t stop with words. In fact. prayer cannot just stop with words if it is real. Prayer can take many forms. And actions can be prayers as well.
When you write out a donation to disaster relief, that is a prayer. When you go and help rebuild houses, that’s a prayer. When you give food to those who are hungry, that’s a prayer. When you work for justice and peace, that’s a prayer. And when you get up in the morning, and get out of bed, and commit yourself to loving the people around you as best as you possibly can, that’s a prayer too. A life of action, a life of living out your faith, is the best prayer you can say.

And it’s also the best way you can change the world, and be a witness to what God is doing in it. Because there’s another part of prayer, too, and it’s one I was reminded of in a big way this week, and that’s the way that prayer helps to shape our lives together, and helps to tell the story of who we are and what we believe.

I think that Jesus was trying to tell us something when he said we should start our prayers with “our Father” and not just “my Father”. I think he was reminding us that prayer is better when it finds its home in community. And sometimes it is most powerful there too; more powerful than we could ever imagine.

Many of you remember Jane and Michael Henderson, who were the co-pastors at this church in the 1990’s. And many of you remember their daughter, Abby. She grew up in this church, going to Sunday school, sitting in worship, listening to the prayers, and later joining in them herself.

Abby is now a minister herself. And this past week we were both at the same continuing education event out in Arizona, and we had the chance to share several meals together and to talk about this church, and how it had shaped her, and I was reminded in a profound way about what a community gathered together in prayer can teach. Your prayers helped to shape her.

But you don’t have to just look at someone who grew up in this church twenty years ago to see that it works. Because the examples are all around us. One of the parents of one of our five year olds told me a story about this this week, and she gave me permission to share it with you this morning.

On Sunday mornings, during the prayer of confession and after the time of silence that we keep, I always pray something along the lines of this: “Brothers and sisters, hear the good news, who is in a position to judge us? Only Christ, and Christ came to love us. In Jesus Christ we are all forgiven, Amen.”

I don’t think of those lines as particularly memorable, particularly not for a small child. But the other night at bath time, one of the moms in our congregation walked in to find her five year old looking at her brother and saying “sisters and brothers, hear the good news!” and then talking about the very everyday ways that Jesus loves us.

I was blown away. And I was reminded of how important prayer can be for our community. Because our prayers, the ones we say together every Sunday, are more powerful than we can imagine. Because sometimes prayer is about telling a story, and we tell the best stories when we tell them together. We teach the stories to whole new generations. And those generations will teach those stories to generations after them, and long after you and I are gone, the story we tell in prayer here in our life together will continue. The prayers will go on.

It’s a heavy responsibility. But it is also an unbelievable joy. Prayer is so much more than a set of words on a page. Prayer is a whole way of living in the world. And prayer is the lifeblood of a church, and of the world.

And so, pray. Pray to change yourself. Pray to change things. Pray with your hands and feet and heart. Pray to tell the story. And pray with one another, starting here, so that the story will be told from generation to generation, until God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

“The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”: A Letter from the “Dying” Church

To my mourners:

Sometimes the dying are the first to know. While others believe you are invincible, you quietly go around collecting pamphlets from hospice and making final arrangements. But sometimes, more rarely, the dying are the last to know. While they feel alive and vital, others are picking out their headstone. Lately I’m feeling like I’m in the latter camp.

I hear that I am dying. This is a shock to me because I had no idea. I’m a good two millennia old so I think I’ve gotten to know myself pretty well, and I certainly have had tougher times than this. In my earliest days, in fact, my very existence was in question. So picture my surprise when I hear that those who have known me for only a fraction of my days are counting down to my demise.

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nI think what makes it all the more surprising is that many of the ones who are saying I am dying are not just observers. They are actually a part of me. A recent part, perhaps, but a part none-the-less. Because I, the church, am more than just another institution. I am, in fact, the body of Christ; the living and continuing presence of Jesus in the world. And all who believe in Christ are a member of this body, just like all believers in the past have been members of this body. To be the church is to be Christ’s body in the world.

With that in mind, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am dying. Let’s say that death is even somewhat imminent. Let’s say that the body of the church, the body of Christ, is indeed about to die.

Well, here’s what I know about Christ’s body. It has died before, and it has risen again. Resurrection. That’s the whole message of Easter. Death occurs, but death does not win. The body rises stronger. And we, who are Easter people, should know that and not fear the end.

But beyond that, am I really dying? Because I’m not so sure that’s true. Yes, fewer people are attending church. Yes, as that happens some churches are closing down. Yes, the church’s influence in society is not what it used to be. But does that really mean I’m dying? Or does that just mean that the church is entering a new phase of life, just like it has before and will again? Maybe, in fact, a better phase?

Here’s the thing. There’s a difference between death and change. Just because I am no longer the way you (or your parents, or your grandparents) remember it growing up does not mean I am dying. Just because you don’t see what you want or like when you look at the church does not mean that death is imminent. Because, and this is sometimes hard to accept, as much as you may like to believe otherwise, the church is not dependent upon your comfort or approval for its life.

So here’s my question: Do you want to continue to sit and mourn around a death bed that I do not inhabit? Or do you want to be Easter people, and live in the Resurrection? If it’s the former, fine, but don’t call that church. Call it what you want, but don’t put the words “body of Christ” on that funeral.

But if it’s the latter, if you want to live as a Resurrection people, here’s a few thoughts on what you can do:

1. Read Scripture: I know, I know. There are many forms of revelation, the Bible has been used to justify some terrible things, etc., etc. But the Bible is the story of communities of faith learning how to live, and change, and grow together. And when we lose Biblical literacy we lose our story, and we lose our hope. And too many Christian have given up on really knowing the Bible.

We need to be able to talk about Moses and the Israelites taking the risk of leaving Egypt, getting lost, and then finding the promised land. We need the early Christians of the Book of Acts to tell us what it meant to be the church together in those early days. We need Paul’s letters to small local churches struggling to figure out who they are and what that means. We need it all.

2. Take risks:

Every local church I’ve known that has died has one thing in common: for too long in their lives they were risk averse. Maybe in the last years of their lives that changed and they were willing to risk everything, but they didn’t get to that place without years of choosing “safety” over choosing a bold witness to Christ’s love. No one wanted to rock the boat. No one wanted to risk losing a few members. No one wanted fail. And so, slowly, the local church became so afraid of making a move that it just withered in place.

But every local church I know that has thrived has one thing in common: they took risks. Not reckless risks. But risks. They took financial risks to expand growing ministries. They took leaps of faith when calling pastors and other staff, and did not try to find a candidate who wouldn’t make waves. They took risks when it came to social issues. And, most of all, they took these risks without sabotaging themselves because they feared their own success.

3. Reject negativity:

No one likes to be around negative people. (Well, possibly with the exception of other negative people.) And yet, the church is often a negative place. Church meetings are filled with anxiety about money or arguments about bylaws. Community life is uninspiring and tedious. And gossip and “parking lot meetings” are far too often the rule of life in the church. Who wants to be a part of that? Anyone who doesn’t enjoy drama won’t stay at a church like that for long.

More importantly, who is going to believe we are being honest about saying we have faith in Christ if our churches are like this? Because if someone says that Christian faith is all about redemption and new life and hope, and then turns around and shows someone a church that is full of pettiness and negativity, no one is going to buy it. Yes, Christians are human and make mistakes, but our default mode should be about living in God’s grace, not living in fear.

4. Recognize grace and practice gratitude:

This follows on the last point. Christians are called to recognize God’s grace in their lives. It’s sort of the point. It’s why you all sing “Amazing Grace” so much. But understanding grace on an intellectual level, and really knowing you have received grace are two different things. And here’s how you know that you really understand God’s grace: you can’t do anything but say “thank you”. Gratitude is the most natural response to grace, and it’s what the Christian life is all about. Christians do what they do not to earn their way to heaven, but to say “thank you” to all of the grace that God has already provided.

So why don’t churches live that way? Why is so much of Christian community life about the anxiety of not having enough? Why is it about mourning what we don’t have instead of celebrating what we do?

People in recovery, perhaps some of the most aware people in the world about the grace they have received, have a practice called gratitude lists. When everything looks like it’s going to hell, they sit down and write down what they are grateful for in their lives. Sometimes it starts small (I’m alive, I have enough to eat, I have enough for today) but often it grows into something more (I have more than I need, I have a community that loves me, I have meaning). What would it look like if your church made a gratitude list? Could you do it? If not, that may be part of the problem. Help those in your community to cultivate grateful hearts, and you will transform your local church.

5. Live for others, not for yourselves:

When you talk to churches in transition I ask them about their greatest challenge. “We need more people,” is what you will hear a lot. Some go further and are a little more blunt: “We need more people to join so we can pay our bills.” For some churches, too many, bringing new people in is not about welcoming them to a community of faith. It’s about ensuring the local church’s survival. And the reality is that people can see that desperation from a mile away. And no one joins a church, or any other organization, just to be another name on the books or another pledge card in the plate. And no one should.

What if instead of asking people to build up your church, you asked how your church could help build up others? What if the focus wasn’t so much on healing yourself, but on helping those who need it the most? What if your greatest priority wasn’t saving the church you know, but instead sharing that church with others and giving them the freedom to help change it?

And what if we lived together like the Resurrection is real, and is happening still? Because it is. And because we have work to do.

With love from the empty tomb,

The Church

P.S. – Of course one person cannot speak for the church. But if we believers are really the church, each of us can speak as a part of the church. So what do you have to say, church? Are you dying? Or are you ready to live?

New Year, Old Me: Five Things I’m Going to Keep Doing in 2014

528599_10151161854801787_1430087781_nIt’s that time of the year when every website, magazine, and Twitter feed is selling January 1st-dated potential. Headlines like “New Year, New You” or “Ten Ways to Lose Weight/Get Rich/Find Love/Be the Best Person Ever in 2014”. And, hey, if that kind of inspiration works for you, more power to you. Go with it. May 2014 be your best year ever.

The only thing is, New Years Day, and the companion resolution-making process, has never been all that exciting to me. If anything, it’s always a little depressing. I have made resolutions but, truth be told, I’ve never really felt all that motivated to keep them. I used to think that was a character flaw. Now I just think that maybe resolutions tied to the date of January 1st just aren’t right for me.

I grew up in the South surrounded by Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God and other churches that emphasized the need for having some sort of big religious experience where you turned your life immediately over to God. The only thing is, that never happened to me. My extended family was mostly Catholic and Presbyterian, and those aren’t exactly the sort of traditions where blinding light conversion stories take center stage.

Instead my coming to faith, like most things in my life, was a gradual process. I didn’t become a Christian by “making a decision for Christ”. I became one because gradually I was drawn by the story of Christ and I wanted to live my life following him. I can’t tell you the date that happened, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t January 1st. It wasn’t any one day.

Really, no significant change has ever happened in my life because I have set a date for it to happen. I fell in love gradually and unexpectedly. I got sober because gradually I realized I had to do it. And one day in college I decided to trade my law school applications in for seminary ones, not because that day was special, but because it had just come to the point that I knew that was what I needed to do.

The thing about God’s grace, and the changes that it causes us to make, is that it rarely comes on our own schedules, and my guess is that it even less rarely comes on a date that has rather arbitrarily, at this place and this time in the whole of history, come to be the start of a new year. So my guess is that if something big happens in my life this year, it will come because of God’s grace, and it will come on some random unexpected time, and maybe all at once, or maybe little by slow.

So, this year I’m not making resolutions. I’ve decided I don’t want a “new year, new me”. Really, it’s taken a lifetime to get to this “me”, and I’m pretty happy with who I am, and all the little graces that have made me me. My hope is next year at this time I’ll be pretty happy to be me too.

So, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I’m going to do something different. I’m going to list five things that I randomly started doing at some point this year that I’ve decided to keep doing. They’ve made my year better. My only hope is that 2014 will add to this list. Either way, I think it’s going to be a good year. Here they are:

1. Writing more notes and cards with my favorite pen. I’ve used fountain pens for years. I have this one that’s not a big, expensive, fancy one. It’s just a solid, black, medium nibbed fountain pen that feels heavy in my hand and puts ink down perfectly on paper. I’ve used it a lot this year. I’ve written more cards and notes to people I care about, and while I hope they have brought them joy, I have to admit that writing them has probably brought just as much joy to me. I’m going to do more of that this year.

2. Reading less theology and church leadership books, and more fiction. I have a college degree in religion, a Master of Divinity, and a second masters in systematic theology, along with half a PhD in theology and psychology. I’ve read a lot of theology, and a lot of church leadership books. This year I stopped doing that. I switched to fiction. I read “Great Expectations”. I re-read “Dubliners”. I kept a pile of the novels I had always wanted to read on my bedside table. And, honestly? I think I’m a better pastor for it. Plus, I don’t feel guilty for not reading every new church book that comes along. A win all the way around.

3. Letting fewer people live in my head rent-free. There’s an old recovery saying: Don’t let people live in your head rent-free. In other words, the world is filled with people who can’t stand the success of others, can’t control their temper, can’t see past prejudices, or can’t be positive. We still have to love them, but we don’t have to let their toxicity get into our head. Those folks don’t deserve energy you could be better spending on others. This year I learned a lot about how to not attend every argument to which I’m invited. Sometimes walking away, saying a prayer for the other, and then shaking the dust from your feet, is the most grace-filled and Christian thing one can do. I highly recommend it.

4. Valuing what I produce over the amount of time spent working. My first year pastoring I worked an unsustainable amount of hours. Sometimes ten hours a day without a day off. I got a lot done, but I still went to bed each night with a hefty to-do list. I’ve been gradually changing my work/life balance over the past few years. Now I take my sabbath day fully, turn off the phone for dinner with my wife, and go to bed at a decent hour. Now I work significantly fewer hours but, surprisingly, I’ve found I’m able to get more done. Even better, I’ve found that the quality of what I do, from sermons to pastoral care to writing, has gotten better. It’s been a great change.

5. Reading Scripture: Like many pastors, I have at times found myself getting away from the very spiritual practices that first drew me to consider ministry. With a busy schedule prayer time has felt like a luxury. Or, retreats have felt too inconvenient. One thing that had been getting away from me was Scripture reading. This year I changed that by making a commitment to read three chapters of Scripture a day; for me, a very manageable amount. And as I’ve re-introduced myself to Scripture, I’ve found myself falling in love with that complex, beautiful, and sometimes baffling collection all over again. It has deepened my faith walk, and it’s a habit I’m glad I developed this year.

So, those are my five. What are yours? How will the “old you” make 2014 even better?

Questioning Advent: Day Eight – Get Ready

saint-john-the-baptist-09We read about John the Baptist every second Sunday of Advent. Here in the middle of the Christmas joy and preparation is this story of this guy who lives down by the river eating locusts and wild honey, and shouting at everyone to repent.

There’s a good reason no one is putting John the Baptist on a Christmas card.

Maybe it’s John’s call to us to “repent” that scares us the most. I hear “repent” and I either think of a religious revival where some preacher is calling everyone sinners, or a dour confessor doling out penance. Neither is particularly joyful anytime of the year, and particularly not at Christmas.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing. And that’s especially true if we hear what “repentance” really means. If you go back to the root of the Greek word that’s found in the original text of the New Testament, you find that the word is “metanoia”. Metanoia is roughly translated as “to change your mind”. It’s a call to “think differently”. And, not just a call to change your mind, it’s a call to change your actions as well.

That may sound like an odd Christmas message, but it fits perfectly in Advent. This is the season when we who follow Christ are getting ready for something new. This is the start of something big. And if we are going to get on board, we have to make room for what is coming, and we have to change the things that are keeping us from getting ready.

This repentance isn’t about feeling bad or ashamed or guilty. It’s about being willing to put aside the things that are keeping us from fully participating in what comes next. It’s about believing that our mistakes and our past don’t have to define out future. And it’s about deciding to believe that we can be a part of God’s own work in our world.

And, when you think about it like that, John the Baptist was all proclaiming out chance to share in the joy to come. It may not fit on a Christmas card, but it’s worth remembering just the same in this holy season of getting ready.

Question: How are you repenting this Advent? What changes are you making in order to make room or to get ready?

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the chance to change, and thank you for the people you put in our lives who remind us that change is possible. In this season of Advent, help us to make the changes we can make in order to make room for a love that will change the world. Amen.