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Season of Lent

The season of Lent has begun. As we gather for worship on Ash Wednesday, we begin our forty-day journey toward Good Friday and Easter. As you may or may not know, Easter was the first holy day celebrated by Christians. (We might think it would be Christmas, but it was actually Easter.) And in the early days of the church, the forty days of Lent developed as a season of self-examination to help Christians prepare for the powerful news of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

In many ways the season of Lent is a gift to us. An invitation to go deeper in our life with Christ. What does Lent mean to you? How do you walk through these forty days of preparation? Do you give up something–like sweets or Tweets? Do you take on a new practice like driving the speed limit or reading the Bible every day?

To be honest, many of us (including me) often see Lent as an opportunity to break a bad habit or to start a good one. We take the forty days as a “trial run,” giving up something that we know we should probably give up anyway. Or, we take on a practice to which we really should commit all year round, but we choose to give it only forty days. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But what often happens is that we make Lent about us and not about Jesus. It becomes a “self-help” season  instead of a season when we recognize our helplessness and turn to God.

In another sense, though, Lent is about us. It is a season that calls us to deep self-examination. We are invited to look into our hearts and into our daily lives in order to recognize our sin and our need for God. Ash Wednesday confronts us right off the bat with our sin, our mortality and our brokenness. We are reminded, as we begin the journey of Lent, that we are utterly dependent on God’s grace. Then, we step into Lent committed to confronting our need each and every day.

One of the things I’m going to do this year during Lent as a way of acknowledging my need for God is to practice the prayer of examen, an ancient way of praying that helps us examine our lives each and every day. Here’s how it works: At the end of each day, take a few moments to review the day and ask yourself, “Where did I experience God’s love today? When did I show God’s love and mercy?” After reflecting for a few moments, turn to a harder question: “When did I turn away from God today? When was I an obstacle to mercy and love? What might God have wanted me to do differently today?” I think I’ll use a journal to help me reflect on these questions, but you could just ask them of yourself as you get under the covers each night to go to sleep.

This prayer practice on the surface seems very self-focused but in practice turns us toward God. It helps us to reflect on our daily lives and to be aware of God’s presence with us all the time. If you’re looking for a way to mark the season of Lent this year, join me in practicing the prayer of examen. And let’s keep each other posted on what we’re learning.

 

Prayer for Everyone

As part of my sermon preparation each week, I like to wake up on Monday morning and read the scripture text assigned for the following Sunday. If I begin the week that way, the text stays in my mind and heart and travels with me everywhere I go during the week. Sometimes events happen during the week that shed light on the passage, or vice-versa. You just never know what the Spirit will reveal when the scriptures collide with daily life.

So last Monday I woke up and read these words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies.” I spent all week pondering this teaching, reading commentaries and wrestling with it in Bible study groups. And last Tuesday when I went to a meeting of United Methodist clergy in the Nashville District, these words were still hanging around in my heart and head.

As coincidence (or the Holy Spirit?) would have it, a group of us pastors had already planned to gather over lunch after the meeting to talk about the news that the state of Tennessee plans to execute ten death row inmates in the next two years. We wanted to share ideas about what we could do to keep this from happening. What can we as pastors do? What voice do we have?

Now, I know that people have varying opinions on the issue of capital punishment, and as a pastor I never want to force my opinion on anyone or to imply that anyone who disagrees with me is somehow wrong with God. Not at all. One of the things I love about John Wesley and the Methodists is our commitment to “think and let think.” Our opinions on social issues may vary. We all love God and are seeking to serve God as best we can. Faithful Christians can come to different conclusions on a lot of different issues. And, if you disagree with me, I hope we can talk about this issue openly and disagree lovingly.

At the same time, I do have strong feelings about this issue and am doing what I can to act on them. There are lots of arguments for and against capital punishment—economic, moral, practical and religious arguments—and I don’t need to spell them all out here. But at the root of my opposition to the death penalty are the teachings of Jesus that we hear in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus never condoned violence, and neither can we condone the violent crime that someone has committed. People must be held accountable for their actions. At the same time, I can’t condone the violent response of the state. I believe that if we want a society that is murder-free, then we can’t use murder as a way to achieve it. As a follower of Jesus, I believe there has to be a “third way,” a way founded the strong love of God. I have to believe that God never gives up on anyone. And if God never gives up, then I can’t either.

Whether you agree with me on this one or not, I invite you to be in prayer for everyone affected by this news: for the victims and their families, for the death row inmates and their families, for the people called upon to carry out the executions, for the governor and legislators, for other inmates at Riverbend who are emotionally affected, for our church members who visit inmates on death row, for all whose lives have been broken by violent crime—and for wisdom for all of us to know how to respond in ways that are holy and loving. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

 

Jazz Church

I don’t know about you, but when I’m eating my bowl of Cheerios every morning, I like to have something to read. And I’d prefer it be something written on actual paper and not on a screen. Not that I’m against reading on the iPad, the Kindle or the iPhone. There’s just something about that LCD screen early in the morning that is just too much, especially before I’ve had my coffee.

Since we no longer subscribe to a real newspaper, I have to look harder for something worth reading while I eat breakfast. One day last week, I reached over my bowl and grabbed a magazine that had arrived in the mail the day before. It’s a new magazine to me, one that I now receive because I registered for a workshop with the Alban Institute. (The Alban Institute does a lot of continuing education for pastors and churches, and they publish this magazine for geeks like me who enjoy reading about theology and church.)

I opened the magazine to the cover article, whose title intrigued me: “Jazz Church.” Unfortunately, I’ve already recycled the magazine and can’t remember the name of the author,  but I remember that he is a pastor serving a congregation. Anyway, he talked about how the character of a congregation often resembles the style of their worship music. For example, congregations that worship primarily with classical music are often highly structured, with clearly defined roles and processes. A congregation whose primary medium is praise music will often center around a charismatic individual, just as the music often comes from a soloist.

Then there is the “jazz church,” like the one the author serves. His congregation worships with jazz music, and their congregational structure reflects that style. There is a lot of spontaneity in jazz music. It doesn’t feature just one voice or instrument, but different musicians step forward at different times and then blend back into the ensemble. If someone makes a mistake, she works it into the theme and the other musicians play off of it. Mistakes are welcomed, in fact, as is improvisation. The music centers around a theme, but it plays with it, improvises on it, explores it and expands on it. But the theme is always there, at the heart of the piece.

Reading this article, I realized that Christ UMC is, in many ways, a “jazz church.” I would say that the music of our pianist Jon Calvin is at the heart of our worship, and his playing is responsive, improvisational, spiritual, open-ended, playful at times and always moving us deeper.  Likewise, our congregation is flexible, responsive, open, playful and spiritual. We know our primary theme: relationship with God, one another and the world, but we feel free to improvise, to try new things, to make mistakes and to be open to the Spirit’s leading. Not one person is the featured performer, but each person steps forward when the time is right, then blends back into the “band” seamlessly.

It was a fascinating article, and one that made me grateful for how God works in our congregation. What do you think? Would you say we are a “jazz church?”  Tell me what you think and let’s continue the conversation. I’d love to hear your variation on the theme.

 

Peacemakers

Rummaging around on Facebook the other day, I came across a picture that moved me. It was taken on the streets of Kiev, Ukraine. There has been a lot of political unrest in Ukraine in recent weeks as anti-government protestors have gathered in the streets to call for the resignation of the current president. The protests and the government’s reaction against them have grown violent, and the situation is volatile.

The photo that caught my attention was of a Ukrainian priest who was standing between a group of protestors and a line of government riot police. He was dressed in his clerical robe and was calmly holding a small cross toward the crowds.

At the same time that I saw this picture, I was in the middle of studying the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, and I couldn’t help but hear Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” If you were in worship this past Sunday, we explored a few of the Beatitudes together: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are those who mourn.” But we didn’t have time to go into all of them, and we quickly sailed by “the peacemakers.”

What does it mean to be a peacemaker? For much of my life, I have thought of myself as a peacemaker. Maybe it comes from being the youngest of four children and always hoping that “we could all just get along!” But I always thought being a peacemaker just meant staying out of conflict. I avoided conflict like the plague. When people in my family or at school or in the workplace were in conflict, I stayed out of the way. I didn’t provoke conflict. I never started a fight, and I escaped one that involved me in any way that I could. I thought that made me a peacemaker.

But in recent years, I have been learning that “peace” does not just mean the absence of conflict. Two nations or two people can come to a cease-fire, but they have not reached God’s reality of peace. God’s peace comes when we do the hard work of reconciliation. When we come face-to-face with those who oppose us, speak the truth, listen earnestly, ask for and offer forgiveness and commit to doing things differently.

So, a peacemaker is not one who simply avoids conflict but one who is willing to enter into the midst of it. A peacemaker will step into the crossfire and invite others to a new way of dealing with each other. That is what that Ukrainian priest in the photograph represented for me. He was willing to risk his own safety. He didn’t take one side or the other but stood in the middle. He offered a vision of the cross and invited the opposing forces to consider a different way.

How can we be instruments of reconciliation? In our daily living–especially in the church–it’s much easier to run from conflict than to walk toward it. But if we walk toward it holding onto the cross, then we can trust God to protect us and/or use us to build real peace. Maybe we start within our family. With a friend. A colleague. Who knows where God could take us from there? Maybe even across the world.

Looking Ahead

Can you believe that January is already half over? We are well into the new year, and our congregation is looking ahead to a year full of worshiping, learning and serving together. As we move forward, I wanted to make sure all of us were informed about where we stand financially as a congregation: how we ended 2013, what the budget looks like for 2014 and how our capital campaign is going. It’s important for all of us to be on the same page as we move ahead together.
I know, I know. Talking about “the family budget” does not always make for exciting dinner conversation or newsletter articles. But, in this case we have good news to share and celebrate together! And money is not just a topic for the Finance Committee or a small group of people in the church. It’s for all of us. We are a household of faith, and, as I’ve said before, we all need to have as much information as we can about how our congregation is doing financially. (Besides, Paul’s going to write this article next week and tell you all about how much fun the youth had on the winter retreat. So you have that to look forward to!)
As you may know, we found ourselves in December with about a $50,000 deficit in our revenue. Although that caused a little stress for those who are stewards of our finances, we were able to celebrate at the end of the year that we had met our budget. Due to a little less spending than we planned and a lot of generosity of giving, we came within a few hundred dollars of our 2013 budget! We were able in 2013 to expand our ministries, sustain our staff and pay our apportionment to the United Methodist Church in full. I would call that a financially successful year!
Looking ahead to 2014, the Finance Committee and the Administrative Council approved a budget that is slightly lower than 2013. By the end of the year we had received $889,962 in pledges, so we felt it best to keep a conservative budget. The budget does include modest raises for the staff and our full apportionment. And a generous designated gift outside the budget has allowed us to continue our handbell and children’s choir ministries under the leadership of Amanda Craft. Amanda will be coming on as Associate Minister of Music through this wonderful gift. So ministries will continue to grow and thrive as we move forward into this new year.
Our 2020 Vision campaign to reduce the debt shows the generosity of this congregation beyond our annual budget. We had hoped to raise $500,000 toward the goal of being debt-free by 2020, and to date we have received $358,254 in pledges. (If you haven’t made a pledge but would like to, it’s never too late!) We feel confident that we will reach the $400,000 mark soon, which is good news indeed.
I am so grateful for our Finance Committee and their faithful work. We have changed the structure of that committee so that members serve for three years in tead of the old “serve ‘til you drop” model. Chip Higgins will continue one more year as our fearless leader, and I am so grateful for the faith, hope and love he brings to that work. And if you see Bryan Richardson, please say “thank you” for the many years he dedicated to this team. He has been a rock and has been a steward of the financial work of this congregation through good times and hard times.
And, finally, I am grateful for all of you and your generosity. May God continue to shape us as a congregation to be more generous, more loving, more faithful and more compassionate with each day.

 

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