“Christmas is coming | The bells are ringing. | All comes alive |
As music fills the air….
“I hear the drumming | It won’t be long, now | Christmas is coming |
Will you be there?... “I don’t want you to miss it | I know I have before | Like the Innkeeper I miss the wonder “Right outside his door.”
Jason Gray sings these powerful lyrics in his song “Christmas is Coming” on his album Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy. In this Christmas album he sings for, or from the point of view of, several of the characters surrounding the birth of Jesus. He sings an “Ave Maria” for Mary and about the miraculous power of forgiveness for Joseph. He sings “Gloria!” for the Shepherds, and for the Magi he sings “Easier” about giving physicals gifts (e.g. gold) to Christ rather than our whole hearts. He includes some traditional songs, too, like “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Holy Night,” and “Joy to the World.” All of the songs are fantastic, but the song that most often hits home for me—and probably for many Christians in this country during Advent—is The Song of the Innkeeper, called “Rest.”
In this song, the Innkeeper is portrayed as a weary man, who is always moving from one task to another, from one customer to another, never getting to slow down, and in the midst of it all he cries out, “I need rest.” He feels like he’s lost in a forest or drowning at sea, his head barely above water. He admits that he’s in need of a rescuer, a deliverer, the Messiah who can give him rest. But he sings on that first Christmas Eve, in light of a poor couple at his door: “There were no rooms to rent tonight | The only empty bed is mine | ‘Cause I’m overbooked and overrun | With so many things that must be done | Until I’m numb and running blind.”
We often operate like the Innkeeper: overbooked and overrun, with so many things (we think!) that must be done. We wear ourselves out with busy-ness. And during Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, we tend to get busier: decorating, making plans, buying and wrapping presents, cleaning the house, cooking food. Now, none of these things are evil or wrong, but the way we do them can cause them to become distracting; they can numb and blind us. They can take away our focus—our energy—from preparing for Christ! Advent is a time of preparation, for sure, but it is a time to “prepare the way for the Lord.” Advent is a time to prepare for Jesus Christ to come into our hearts (in a new or renewed way) and in the world (in glory)!
On Sunday mornings this Advent, we will be exploring several of the characters surrounding the birth of Jesus, and, particularly, how all of these characters were interrupted by God with the birth of Jesus! We’ll explore hope, peace, joy and love by looking to Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1), Joseph (Matthew 1), the Shepherds (Luke 2), and the Magi (Matthew 2).
This Advent, may we allow our agendas and plans to be interrupted by the Light of the World. May we make room in our hearts and schedules for Christ. May we not miss the wonder of Messiah coming like Jason Gray imagines the Innkeeper, who in exhaustion sings:
“Tonight I can’t get any sleep | With those shepherds shouting in the streets | A star is shining much too bright | Somewhere I hear a baby cry | And all I want is a little peace.”
Grace & Peace in Christ,
I am sooo grateful for my citizenship! With my citizenship I have unimaginable freedom!
As a citizen, there is amazing opportunity, wonderful life, and deep joy. Though my citizenship is free to me—I was born into it!—it came at great sacrifice. My freedom came at someone else’s expense. But with my citizenship, I am afforded incredible peace. I fully trust the provisions toward me, protection over me, and promises made to me of unshakable security. My citizenship can’t be taken away from me by any force on earth…and it’s eternal!
I am, of course, speaking about the citizenship that I share with every believer in Jesus Christ. Paul writes that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
I know that many fought for the creation and protection of the United States of America. I know that many folks wish to be citizens of this great nation. And those who are citizens of the USA are very privileged, indeed, to be citizens here. Citizenship in the USA is at least as coveted and beneficial a privilege in the 21st century as citizenship in the mighty Roman Empire was some 20 centuries ago. Though the USA is still young (the USA hasn’t existed quite half as long as the Roman Empire did), and it is very powerful (it has perhaps more resources and military strength than any dominion to date), if we believe Scripture, this country will not last forever. It cannot. But the kingdom of God will last forever! (See Daniel 7:13-14, 27; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28).
As believers and followers of Jesus, we are called to be “in the world” but not “of the world” (John 17:11-19). Put differently, though we reside in the world and have temporary citizenship in earthly kingdoms/countries, the Church is meant to reveal a different way of life (See Romans 12:2), a different kingdom, to an otherwise anxious world, because we are not bound up in these temporary powers and politics, because “our citizenship is in heaven,” which will never end.
Presbyterian Pastor and author, Eugene Peterson passed away October 22, 2018, one week ago from when I’m writing this. He may be best known for his version of the Bible, The Message. It’s easy to get wrapped up and anxious about the state of affairs nationally and/or globally. And certainly, Christians should be prayerfully involved, but we are never to be fearful, and we’re not to put all our eggs in a basket we know won’t last. As Eugene Peterson translates:
there’s far more to life for us. We’re citizens of high heaven! We’re waiting the arrival of the Savior, the Master, Jesus Christ, who will transform our earthy bodies into glorious bodies like his own. He’ll make us beautiful and whole with the same powerful skill by which he is putting everything as it should be, under and around him.
My dear, dear friends! I love you so much. I do want the very best for you. You make me feel such joy, fill me with such pride. Don’t waver. Stay on track, steady in God. (Philippians 3:20-4:1, MSG)
As great as it is being citizens of the USA, during this month of American elections and patriotism, may we who hope in Jesus Christ be reminded that our true citizenship is in the kingdom that will never end. And as followers of the Prince of Peace and King of Kings, may we allow our heavenly citizenship with ‘kingdom politics’ to inform our earthly citizenship and politics. May the Church in the USA “stay on track, steady in God,” secure in Christ alone.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ at Unity,
I was ordained and installed as Pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church four years ago. Specifically, it was August 31, 2014. Four years feels significant to me. This isn’t about theology or scripture; this is about my life experience. This is what I mean…
Kelly and I have been married for just over fourteen years, and twelve years of our marriage has been lived in increments of four years. Or maybe I should say: we have not lived in any one place for more than four years. Even before marriage, I had four years of high school (Glastonbury High School, in Glastonbury, CT), followed by four years of college (Ohio Wesleyan University, in Delaware, OH). Then I spent one additional year in Delaware waiting for Kelly. We married in 2004 and moved to just outside of Boston, MA. We were there only two years, but then we did four years of campus ministry with the Coalition for Christian Outreach at Kenyon College, in Gambier, OH. Then we moved to Pittsburgh for four years of seminary (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary). Four years feels very “academic” to me, and much of our marriage has revolved around an academic year and rhythm. But a lot can change in four years!
When we arrived in Cambridge, Mikayla was 2 ½ years old, Zeke had just turned 6, and Ana was 7 ½, and only Ana and Zeke were in school (2nd and 1st grades, respectively). Now Mikayla’s in 1st grade, Zeke’s in 5th, and Ana just started Middle School!!!
We’ve been here four years, and we now enter our fifth year of living in Cambridge, having our kids go to school in Cambridge, and being at Unity. Some people live in one place most of their lives. In the The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, the hobbits are essentially home-bodies. But they are called on a great adventure. Not too far into their journey, they know when they’ve gone further from home than they’ve ever been. In fact, one character stops at one point to the concern of his friends, and he says, “If I take one more step, it’ll be further than I’ve ever been from home before.” That’s how I feel right now.
As an adult, as a Christian, as a married man, I have never lived anywhere longer than four years. Yes, I lived in Delaware, Ohio for five years, but four of those were as a student living on campus. The fifth year in that city was very different, because I was working and living in an apartment in town rather than studying and living on campus. Also, I came to Christ half-way through college, so I only spent three years in Delaware as a Christian. All this to say: as we begin our fifth year here at Unity, I feel as though I’m venturing further than I’ve ever gone before. This may feel like a new experience, a new adventure for Unity, as well, because since Unity was formed nineteen years ago, I’m the fourth pastor (apart from interims). Only one other pastor was here more than four years, and he was only here for five.
My family and I would truly love to stay here for a good many years more, if the Lord is willing. So, as a church family, as we all begin this new leg of our journey together, I anticipate that, like the hobbits, we will see and experience things we never have before. Some things may be scary, some may be beautiful, and all of it will be an adventure! May we entrust ourselves, as individuals and as a congregation, to our Lord Jesus Christ who will not drive us away from himself, but who will be with us and guide us on this adventurous journey by his Holy Spirit. Amen!
Dear Church, here is a review of how our Lord and Savior taught us to pray. Jesus says, don’t pray hypocritically as a performance for others. And don’t pray faithlessly like those who have no real relationship with God. Rather, pray like this:
Address: who is God and what’s our relationship?
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Jesus welcomes into intimate relationship with the God of the Universe. Through Jesus, as his followers who trust in him, we are adopted, and can address the Creator of All Things as “Father.” The one who sees us even when no one else does; who knows us and our needs; and who wants to give us good things, including Divine Love. Calling God “Our Father in Heaven” also means that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, who share the same heavenly origin.
“You” petitions: desiring the fulfillment of God’s purposes
hallowed be thy name,
The name of the one true God—the God of Israel, whose name is revealed as YHWH, the Great I Am, and who is revealed as the Blessed Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is worthy to be revered as holy, unique, the only One of a kind, who alone can save, heal, and deliver. “Hallowed be” is not a statement but a request. We desire to hallow God’s name, to trust this heavenly Father fully, and we to desire that others would do so as well.
thy kingdom come,
Jesus is King, reigning in Heaven right now, however, most people do not see or live as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom. So we pray that Christ will return, reveal his Kingdom, and set all things right. And we are promised he will! But this is also a prayer that we would be so filled with his Holy Spirit and shine in the world, revealing glimpses of the Kingdom to the world, that others would experience the love of God in Jesus Christ.
thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Of course we want everyone to obey the Lord, but this starts with us—the Church, the Body of Christ. We are to desire that God’s will—namely that others would know and trust Jesus—would come to pass through our lives. So, this will mean actively “listening” for God’s will in order to be able to accomplish it. We can learn the voice of our loving Father through Scripture, so that we can then recognize God’s Word in prayer.
“Us” petitions: asking for what we need
Give us this day our daily bread;
We start to pray for our needs only after we have first been aligned with God’s purposes. Now, as we are prepared to trust and obey Jesus, we ask for what we need in order to follow. Understanding that our loving Father knows our every need, and trusting that God will provide everything we need to follow Jesus faithfully, we ask that what we need for the day be provided to us. This means praying and trusting God day by day.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;
One of the things we need is forgiveness! This recognizes our need, trusts God to give it, but it also recognizes that others are “indebted” to us by how they wrong us. This is the only request in the Lord’s Prayer that is conditional, and it’s a very serious condition. It highlights the importance of the need for forgiveness in the world by essentially saying, “God, I want you to forgive me to the same degree that I forgive others!”
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
The last need that we have as we follow Jesus, trusting God as Father, is deliverance. Temptation will come, and James 1:13 assures us that God never tempts us to evil, however, evil temptations will exist until Christ returns. Being tempted is no sin; Jesus was tempted in every way, but remained without sin. But we need God’s deliverance, whose name is Jesus, in order to stand firm against temptation and be freed from the powers of the evil one, that we might follow Jesus faithfully all our days.
Ascription of praise: remembering who God is and why we pray
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.
Though Jesus didn’t say these concluding words in his teaching to his disciples, it is appropriate that we conclude our prayers ascribing praise to our heavenly Father. We end with a reminder of why we’re praying to God as Father through Christ; we pray, asking these things because our Father has the kingdom (all authority to fulfill these requests), and the power (the ability to fulfill these requests), and the glory (God can and will tangibly show up as we step out in faith, trusting God to fulfill these requests) forever (none of this is going to change. God will always have the authority, power, and presence that we need and ask for).
Dear Church, Bride of Christ, Followers of Jesus, Body of Christ, Children of God,
May we pray this way, regularly coming before our loving Father, aligning ourselves with God’s purposes and making ourselves available to what God wants to do in the world and through our lives, and then may we be so bold as to ask God to provide exactly what we need in order to follow where Jesus leads us.
Even if we don’t pray these words exactly, may we pray like this, with childlike faith, knowing our Good Father sees us, hears us, loves us, knows what we need, and will give us all that we need to fulfill his purposes for each day, every day, our whole lives long.
May it be so. We agree with this prayer. Yes, Lord, please!
For many of us, the summer brings changes in our schedules, especially if coordinating care for kids while school’s out for the summer, and/or with planning vacations or weekend getaways and outings. I know my family and I will take a few weeks away near the end of this summer, too! So it’s easy for us to lose track of time and commitments over the summer. Whether I’m away or you’re away, the Church (the Body of Christ) still gathers every Sunday to worship our Lord, and the Body of Christ, including Unity’s staff, is still at work through the week, helping to coordinate and engage in the day to day ministry and mission of the Church.
Now, I hope that over the summer we will all gather for worship as often as we are in town. But in light of all the various summer activities, I know that it won’t be every Sunday for most of us, but I also want to make sure that we all know that even when we can’t join in worship on Sundays, we can still continue to support and participate in the ministry and mission of the Church. To that end, Session and I would like to let you know that many banks in town offer online banking and auto bill-pay options. These allow you to have your bank send a check on your behalf to pay a bill to a service provider or even send in an offering to the church even when you’re out of town for the weekend! Session and I invite us all to consider setting up automatic payments through our banks as a way to be able to continue supporting the mission and ministry of Unity even when we happen to be unavailable on a Sunday morning.
The second thing I want to share is that I’d like some suggestions from you! Are there passages of Scripture or questions of faith that you’d like to hear addressed from the pulpit? I’d be interested in trying to address some of these throughout the summer. Also, what sorts of articles and/or information do we print in the monthly newsletter that are beneficial for you and that you enjoy seeing in the newsletter? Are there other things (information/articles) that you’d like to see in the newsletter that you think would benefit you and the church? Please either email me (email@example.com) your thoughts about that or use the below space to let me know. You can cut it out and place it in the offering plate or hand it to me on a Sunday. I’d even like to know if you think the newsletter already covers everything you think it should! Are there other ways we can communicate with you (did you know that Unity is on facebook and twitter?), or other things you’d like the church to communicate about that would be beneficial to the life of the church and your walk of faith? Let me know, and we’ll see what we might do about it!
Our relationship with Jesus and with the Church is a two-way street. We each give and receive. As we approach the summer, I’d like us to make sure that communication and support is going in both directions, so that we continue to grow as the Body of Christ, encouraging and strengthening each other! “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV).
Sickness. The weather seems to be changing, trying to begin Spring. The temperature is going up and down, there’s rain, then sun, then rain again. And I’m sick. As I write this, I’m trying to fight off something. I’m trying to rest and “push the fluids.” I’ll have moments where I feel almost completely fine, and then my throat starts to hurt, I cough, I feel weak and tired. It comes to us all. No matter how healthy a lifestyle you live, you will face sickness at one time or another.
Sickness. Those who are affected by sickness seek treatment. They seek healing. They seek wellness. Sickness breaks us to various degrees, and healing brings wholeness. On being questioned why he was spending time with “bad people,” Jesus responded, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17, NIV). This is both encouraging to me, and challenging! It encourages me because Jesus has the cure. In fact, Jesus is the cure! He has been called the Great Physician of our Souls (and Bodies). “By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24)! Praise the Lord! This wasn’t just while Jesus walked the earth; this is both a future promise and a present promise. Behold, says the Lord, “I am making everything new” (Rev. 21:5)! There will come a time, when Christ returns, when there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Jesus Christ has begun “the treatment” of the world, and when he returns, it will be completed. Hallelujah!
So, I am encouraged that Jesus is about bringing total healing and wholeness to the world. But I am challenged because Jesus says he did not come to call the righteous…but sinners. Friends, this means we can either pretend that we’re “well” and that we can get along fine without being “treated” by the Physician, or we can admit that we’re “sick” and in need of a cure. It means submitting to the Physician so that we can be made well. It means admitting that our attempts at peace and well-being haven’t been going so well. It means letting go of our attempts to heal ourselves. We need transformation from the inside out, because the root of our sickness is within our very hearts. We need a total heart replacement in order to have the heart of God, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t perform open-heart surgery on myself!
During this season of Lent and during this time of national tragedy, fear and turmoil in this country, may we followers of Christ humble ourselves, lay down our own attempts to “cure” the sickness within us and the sickness of the world, and may we approach Jesus to seek his loving “total treatment plan” both for ourselves and our world.
Grace & Peace
When they hurled insults at [Jesus], he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body
on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds [we] have been healed. For [we] were like sheep going astray, but now [we] have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls.
~ 1 Peter 2:23-25
Lent begins on Valentine’s Day this year (seriously!), and Easter is on April Fool’s Day (no joke!). Lent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. One of the time honored ways to “prepare” is through fasting.
I started fasting during Lent, to my remembrance, during my first year of marriage. I did it for the wrong reasons, and I did it in an unhelpful way. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally learned a proper perspective on fasting along with helpful considerations on how to do it. I’d like to share some of those thoughts with you, and invite you to join me in fasting this Lenten season.
We do NOT fast:
-to show ourselves as “holier than” others
-to “prove ourselves” to God or others
-to get “brownie points” with God
We DO fast:
-to recognize our moment by moment need for Jesus
-to relinquish control of our lives to our Heavenly Father
-to rely on the Holy Spirit to sustain, strengthen, and guide us
“Fasting is not primarily a discipline through which [we] gain greater control over [our lives], but one through which God gains access to redirect and heal [us] in body, mind, and spirit...Combined with prayer, [fasting] is a potent means of making ourselves available to the cleansing, restoring, empowering grace of God.” ~ Excerpted from Marjorie Thompson's, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 1995), pp. 77 & 79.
Because fasting is a way to help us in prayer, if you do not feel called to fast or are unable to do a total food fast, please do not let that hinder you from participating in a modified fast and dedicated times of prayer during Lent. There are many ways to fast (e.g. all food/calories [drinking water only], just food [drinking juice], eating only veggies and fruit, just giving up all meat, giving up just red meat, etc.).
If you do feel called to an all food fast, and would like to try it, Marjorie Thompson recommends that when fasting: do not eat more than usual for your last meal before fasting or for the meal with which you break the fast. From experience, I completely agree!) I will be fasting on each Thursday in Lent, beginning after dinner on Wednesday until dinner on Thursday, but you are welcome to fast another day, or in another way!
I hope you’ll prayerfully consider praying and perhaps also fasting with me as we set our hearts and minds on our Lord’s death and resurrection, praying for new life in our city even as he desires total claim on our own hearts and lives now.
Grace & Peace in Christ,