Month: January 2014

Surrounded

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My heart is heavy this morning for people I love.
There are those who grieve and those who wait.
There are those who can’t seem to catch a break and those who feel broken.
There are those who desire to have a life they cannot vision.

I walk my dog on a cold, January morning and I lift them up in prayer.
I say their names over and over.
I lift them up and know that my prayer is one of many.

My prayer becomes a little color in a tapestry of light.

Here’s what I know.
Perfection is a disease.
Responding to the demands of others and not the demands of the soul, silences the spirit.
You can’t go back. You can only go on.
Our days are filled with so many things that do not matter and very little is given to that which does.

We are surrounded. Surrounded. Surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses.
Some are living and some are gone,
but they are there, surrounding us,
smiling,
saying: “be well, be still, look about this fresh new day not with angst or limitations and not with ambition and hard work, look upon it as the day you were made to live.”

Go out today knowing you are surrounded, and be at peace with yourself and with others.

Church Officer Retreat

team

This is my first officer retreat as pastor of this congregation and it’s different from one I would normally do.  There is no working manual, policies, procedure or polity  to walk through.  Although all of that is coming and is important.

This retreat is designed create cohesion, common understanding and core values.  I have created this based on three books.  The first resource is the book The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts by  Luther K. Snow. the second is taken from Stan Ott and his teaching of the Word Share Prayer and  the “with me concept” and Patrick Lencioni and has the concept of creating a thematic goal.  I recommend reading Silos Politics and Turf Wars, by Lencioni and going researching everything Rev. Dr. Ott does in his program ACTS 16:5, Vital Church Initiatives.

The resource I am using is from Eric Law’s work on active listening and mutual invitation.  The goal here it get people to practice listening instead of anticipating what they are going to say next or interrupting.  Listening is a lost skill in our loud society.

As someone who likes things organized and finalized, this retreat is a little tricky for me, because the outcome may be more organic than product.  In other words we still won’t know who is going to make coffee when, serve communion, and greet worshippers on Sunday morning – and I have to be o.k. with that. Because  the focus today is about asking bigger questions:

Why do we exist?  (and the answer can’t be an ethereal answer)

What is God’s will?

What do we all need to do  together to fulfill God’s desire?

This is not a visioning meeting or a mission statement meeting. It’s more meat and potatoes than that.

To give you a little history, before this retreat we had all three officers together for an end of the year meeting and I did an exercise where I asked them to think about what Bible Story they felt we were currently living in.  That outline is below.  The answers were all different but similar nature. They were all focused on being through the wilderness, the storm, the high wall and coming out the other side into hope.

So as we look on this new land?  Who are we and what should we build first and what needs to not be built at all.  That’s what we are about today.

Church Officer Exercise/Discussion

Set Up

  • Dry erase board and markers
  • 1 sheet of Construction Paper or butcher paper and a couple of markers on every table.
  • Round tables of 6 to 8
  • Bibles (at least one at every table)
  • Tape

Rules

All church officers need to sit with other church officers. Make sure there is a fair representation of every church officer at every table. – No couples.

Process

  1. Name all of the Bible stories you can think of – brainstorm list and put them on dry erase board. – 5 minutes max. Just to jog their memory.
  2. Ask each group  to now spend some time thinking about what Biblical story do you feel our church is in right now?  What story do you feel best describes our current story? – For example, do you feel we are David fighting Goliath? Do you feel we are in the desert?  Are we facing temptation?  Are we out to sea?  What Biblical story best depicts our current story as a congregation?  There are no right or wrong answers. Work together at your table and come together with an agreed upon story and then write that story on your sheet. – Write it big enough so we can all see it. – If you want to draw a picture of the story you can – Or you can just put the title of the story on the top of the page. – Like “Noah’s Ark.”

(15 minutes)

  1. Now that you have identified your story write underneath your title or picture why you feel this is our current story?  You could say because we are in transition, or because our neighborhood has changed or whatever, but explain why you picked that story.  Write down those reasons. (15 minutes)
  2. Now that you have read the Word and discerned how the Word is speaking to our congregation, write a small prayer in response to your discovery. It could be a prayer of gratitude, a prayer for hope, what is your prayer in light of your story? (10 Minutes)
  3. Now come together as a group and have a spoke-person from each table stand and share the Bible story they chose and why.  Save the prayer.
  4. After each group speaks, have them put the sheet on the wall.
  5. After all the groups have shared ask if they saw common themes in the narratives chosen?  Ask if they are in agreement that this is where the church currently is in their story.  Ask how do they feel about that and what would they like to see differently?
  6. Then have everyone go around and share their prayer.
  7. Invite the group to stand in a circle, hold hands and pass the prayer a long person to person lifting up the prayers they heard.
  8. That’s it.

Here is the Retreat:

Orchard Park Presbyterian Church

Indianapolis, Indiana

January 18, 2014

Church Officer Retreat:

Who:   Elders, Deacons and Trustees

Items Needed:

  • Flip Chart
  • Tables of 8
  • 10-15 half sheets of paper per person in the center of each table
  • Name Tags
  • Masking Tape
  • Thin Markers

 Handouts

  • Word Share Prayer
  • Thematic Goal Handout
  • Objective and Committee structure
  • Mutual Invitation/How to listen

All Elders, Deacons and Trustees should sit apart. Even number of each office.

10:00 a.m. Word Share Prayer,

Introduce the idea of active listening and mutual invitation.

1 Corinthians 1:1-13

10:30 a.m.       Ask the Question, “ What God’s will for this Community?”

Asset Mapping:

From The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts by  Luther K. Snow.

For the next hour we are going to through a process called Asset Mapping.  Asset Mapping is the learning or relearning that the cup is half full.

The easiest, simplest, and fastest way to do this is to use the Reminder List of Basic Assets.

Think about the five types of assets  that we have as individuals and as a community:

Reminder List of Basic Assets

  • .Physical assets, these are things that we see, touch, feel,
  • .Individual assets
  • .Associations
  • .Institutions
  • .Economic assets

Remember, too, that the church is the people, and the people are the church. Your congregation has assets. As an individual, you have assets. Your individual assets are part of the mix. In asset mapping, we talk about both congregational  and individual assets, equally and together.

Each person writes down assets they think of:

Sit in small groups of four to eight people. Hand out the half-sheets of paper and the markers.

Each person will generate a stack of assets by writing on these papers.

Write each asset on a new sheet of paper. (Do not write a list of assets on one sheet.) Write in LARGE BLOCK LETTERS that everyone else can read from a distance.

Write down specific assets in three of the four categories from the reminder list.

Read your assets out loud to everyone in the group you are in.

Tape the papers on the wall, in any order.

You are not trying to summarize the assets of your congregation. Nor can you expect to catalog all of your assets. The idea is to recognize and list assets that might be useful. You will want to dig deeper to remind yourself of assets you may have overlooked. Take two or three rounds, listing several assets in each category.

Thought Provokers

Physical assets

What are two or three physical assets of your congregation?

What are other physical assets of your congregation that you would not have thought of at first? Think creatively! Be specific.

Individual assets

What are one or two things you can do with your hands?

What is something no one in church knows you care about?

Name a few talents and skills of other people at your table.

Associations

What groups of people do you connect with in your community? They can be inside or outside of the congregation.

Institutions

What institutions have something in common with your congregation?

Economic assets

What does your congregation spend money on?

Dig deeper

What signs have you seen lately of God’s grace in the world?

BE SPECIFIC

Not “the building” but “100 seats in the sanctuary.”

BE CREATIVE

The most useful assets are often the weirdest or funniest ones.

2. Connect the Dots

Spend up to 20 minutes on this.

Development is creating a new link between two or more existing assets.

Forming Action Ideas from Assets

Gather with your group by the wall and look over your assets.

Think about God’s will for your congregation, the gifts God has given you, and the actions you can take by using these gifts. As a group, brainstorm actions that connect two or more of these assets to accomplish God’s will.

Contributing to Your Team

Cluster the sheets of paper with the assets you have connected.

Tell the others in your group what action you are thinking of.

Other people can add assets to your cluster or start a new cluster. As you are clustering assets, talk to each other about the actions you might develop.

Naming Actions

You want to end up with a few (two to six) clusters of assets representing particular actions you’ve discovered through brainstorming. Give each action a short name. Write that name down on another sheet and post it with the asset cluster.

Action 1—

cluster of assets

Action 2—

cluster of assets

Action 3—

cluster of assets

DO NOT put assets into categories based on similarity.

It is a common instinct to find likeness, but it can stop you from acting.

DO connect diverse assets to brainstorm ACTIONS.

Think about actions like:

  • Project
  • Event
  • Performance
  • Campaign
  • Protest
  • Celebration
  • Demonstration
  • Making, growing, or fixing things

As you work together, feel free to write down more assets.

The same asset can be used more than once. Just write it down again on another sheet of paper.

3. Vote with Your Feet

This should take less than 10 minutes.

Follow Your Heart

Listen to each group report on the actions they have discovered through brainstorming.

Decide which of these actions you would most like to take part in yourself.

Go stand next to that action.

You get an instant work plan

Now look around. What do you notice?

Learning by Doing

Questions to Consider and Discuss

Spend about 10 minutes on this.

Impressions

Looking around the room at people standing by the assets clustered into actions on the wall, what do you observe?

Did anything surprise you in the experience?

Sensing the power of faith in community

How did it feel to write down your assets?

How did it feel to connect the dots?

How did it feel when you voted with your feet?

Recognizing Results

When you connected the dots, what kinds of actions emerged?

Taken together, what would these actions accomplish?

What have you accomplished already?

Thinking about open-sum dynamics

Copyright © 2004 by The Alban Institute, Inc. All rights reserved.

12:00 Lunch

Discussion Over Lunch – new people at tables

The next two things we are going to accomplish in the next two hours, is based on the gifts we have been given and the places where we see God working the most, we are going to create a thematic goal for the year.

A Thematic Goal is a rallying cry. It’s a focus that we all share. It’s a goal that is the front end of every group that meets and is addressed at every meeting.  The thematic goal asks the question:

What is important right now?

It’s singular, qualitative, temporary, and share across leadership teams.

The point is not give us a cheer, it’s to give us a focus.

If we could accomplish only one thing during the next x months what would be? 

 What must be true x months from now for us to be able to look back and say we have had a good period?

Lets try to answer that based on our assets.

Thematic Goal Exercise

1. Ask every member of the team to individually answer this question: “What is the single most

important thing that we must get done this period in order for us to succeed?”

Team members write their responses down privately. It is important that the participants write

out their answers so that their ideas are not biased by what their peers may have said before

them. Estimate a timeframe for the Thematic Goal. Since the timeframe for varies depending on the

situation choose one as a starting point. We usually begin with 6 or 9 months.

l Answer some supplemental questions. The following phrases may help clarify your Thematic

Goal:

a. “If we don’t accomplish ________________, we will have failed.”

b. “If we do not ___________________, our organization will suffer significant risk.”

c. “What is the most important thing we need to accomplish this period?”

Engage in debate over the goal. Team members may push back and suggest that there are many other things that have to get done and that the organization “can’t afford to focus on just thing.” When hearing this objection, keep in mind the phrase, “If everything is important, than nothing is.”

2. Once everyone has committed to something on paper, go around the table and ask each person what they listed. Capture each person’s suggested Thematic Goal on a flip chart or white board. To ensure everyone does not hold back, we suggest that the leader of the team go last. Be sure to write every unique goal down and ask any clarifying questions when necessary. Indicate which goals have been suggested by multiple team members.

3. Have the team review the list.

4. Use the following questions to determine which suggested goals might be better categorized as

a Standard Operating Objectives.

“Is this something that is always important?”; “when are you not worried about that?”; “how is that different than last period, or next period, or next year?”

Tell the group, “remember a Thematic Goal is in place only for a specific period of time, and then it goes away. If it is something that is always important, and that you always worry about,

it’s more likely than not a Standard Operating Objective.”

5. Ask the team to again review the list and try to identify which goal really rises to the top as the most important.

6. If there are still some discrepancies, ask team members to take 60 seconds to convince the

team why their suggested goal is most important.

7. Ask the team to consider which of the goals on the list are truly candidates for the Thematic Goal, and which may simply be a Defining Objective of that goal.

8. Have the team put a stake in the ground and choose one for the Thematic Goal.

If the group is stuck, it may be appropriate at this point to push the discussion forward

(sometimes discussing the Defining Objectives helps to further clarify the Thematic Goal or to even re-frame it)

9. Write this Thematic Goal in a box at the top of a new Flip Chart.

Who Must Do What?

Based on the thematic goal, drawn from the Assets, what role should elders, deacons and trustees play to make that goal happen. Not based on committee structure – based on assets.

To be continued and individual meetings….

ORCHARD PARK PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA

Word Working uses “respectful communication guidelines” and “mutual invitation” as ways to help ensure an

open and safe place for the Word to work. Respectful Communications Guidelines

R = take RESPONSIBILITY for what you say and feel without blaming others

E = use EMPATHETIC listening

S = be SENSITIVE to differences in communication styles

P = PONDER what you hear and feel before you speak

E = EXAMINE your own assumptions and perceptions

C = keep CONFIDENTIALITY

T = TRUST ambiguity because we are not here to debate who is right or wrong

Participants are asked to agree to uphold these guidelines.

Mutual Invitation Method

Mutual Invitation is employed to ensure that each person in the group is invited by name

to share in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

1. The leader clarifies what the group members are invited to share.

2. The leader gives guidelines about the use of time.

3. The leader may share first or may invite another person by name to share.

4. Whom you invite does not need to be the person next to you.

5. After the person has spoken, that person is given the privilege to invite another

to share.

6. If the person invited chooses not to share, the person may simply say “pass”

and proceed to invite another to share.

7. The process will continue until everyone has been invited to speak.

8. At that time any person who passed will be invited again to share. Persons are

still free to pass.

9. The main activity of the group is to listen.

Rationale:

The Invitation Method is a way to include all people in the conversation ina very respectful atmosphere. While each person is speaking, the others listen. No one may interrupt the speaker nor jump in to speak without being invited by name. In this method, no one has more authority than anyone else – each person is invited to share, and after sharing that person has the privilege to invite who will share next.

Eric H. F. Law, 1992

WORD-SHARE-PRAYER         

READ:  Colossians 3:12-17 (Body Life)

12Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 17And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. NIV

REFLECT:  Read this passage two or three times.  What is the overall spirit of what the Apostle Paul is saying?

Of the many actions we are encouraged to do in our life together as members of the Body of Christ, what are the one or two actions that speak most powerfully to you personally, today?

RESPOND:  How will you apply one insight from this text to your own life?

 

 

REQUEST:  Jot down prayer requests that you and others may have.


 

Thematic Goal Exercise, Patrick Lencioni: Politics, Silos and Turf Wars

“What is the single most important thing that we must get done this period in order for us to succeed?”

a. “If we don’t accomplish ________________, we will have failed.”

b. “If we do not ___________________, our organization will suffer significant risk.”

c. “What is the most important thing we need to accomplish this period?”

What Role Should Elders Play in Implementing this Goal?

Create objectives

What Role Should Deacons Play in Implementing this Goal

Create objectives

What Role Should Trustees Play in Implementing this Goal

Create objectives

Getting it Together: Creating Organizational Health by Building Teams, Creating Clarity, Breaking Silos and Building Trust

image

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading books on culture, tearing down silos, building up teams and creating organizational health. The first book, Churches, Cultures and Leadership:  A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities, by Mark Lau Branson and Jaun F. Martinez, is excellent.  They give a lot of good examples, exercises and personal stories to make their point and keep the reader engaged.  Their overall goal is to “promote more attentiveness, wisdom and faithfulness concerning intercultural life in and among churches and between churches and their neighbors” (12).

There is much that could be reflected on after reading this book, but the piece I want to hone in on is their discussion on community.  First  of the all, the authors differentiate between the definition of a society and culture.  A society has more to do with “institutionalizing  means for serving the goals of large social entities, culture embodies patterned meanings that have been developed over time and transmissible” to children and others who enter that culture.

A church is neither a culture or a society. A congregation in the United States is a conglomeration of many different cultures set in a larger society.

A community can be composed of persons from one culture or many cultures, and it is usually set in the midst of several society.

According to Josiah Royce there are three essential elements necessary to make a community:  Memory, Cooperation and Hope.

There is the theological memory:  “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”  “Jesus said, do this remembrance of me.”  “Remember your baptism and be grateful.”

There is the traditional memory: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,”  “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine,”  “We always have done it that way….”

There are the shared memories:  “I was there the day their daughter was baptized,”  “I remember when he was born,”  “Remember when we had worship in the dark?”  “I remembered when he was diagnosed.”   “Remember how we came together?”

Cooperation is the second essential element for making a community.  A community has explicit or implicit agreements or covenants  that are embodied in how the “educate their children, communicate, work, eat and dance.”   I have talked to people who come from smaller churches who are always surprised when people aren’t “willing to step up and work more.”  Or other people wonder why we don’t “just hire that job out.”  Or rely or don’t rely on email. Or use social media.  And then there is the judgment on the Christmas and Easter folks. The people we only see twice a year. Are they part of the community or are they guests in the greater community?  Or is community defined by those who contribute financially  or volunteer?

Third, we gotta have hope.  There are two important words there, we  and hope.   Communities are not about individual goals, success or achievements.  Communities create the assurance that we are never alone and the future is better because not matter what happens we are in it together.

There is much more that could be said about this book, but that should at least give you a taste.

The second book is by one of my favorite authors, Patrick Lencioni and his book Silos, Politics and Turf Wars.    Lencioni writes that Silos and turf “enable, and devastate organizations.  They waste resources , kill productivity and jeopardize the achievements of goals” ( viii.)

One way to keep silos from happening is by having a strong leadership team.  In Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni remarks that without trust, the ability to have conflict, accountability, commitment to a common goal, politics and infighting ensues.

A leadership team is a small group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving a common objective for an organization.

Lencioni talks about collective responsibility, which implies more than anything a selfless, shared sacrifice from team members. It means the Christian Ed committee  is invested in mission and mission is invested in worship and worship is invested in youth and youth is invested in the building, and the building is invested in PW.

Great teams are willing to be vulnerable, have trust, be transparent and admit short comings.

They have to be willing to put the team before themselves.

Next, healthy organizations have clarity. It’s all about communication and alignment.  In his book “Advantage, ” Lencioni says to have organizational health we need to ask 6 questions:

1. Why do we exist?
2. How do we behave?
3. What do we do?
4. How will we succeed?
5. What is most important, right now?
6. Who must do what?

These questions are so important for the church! I visited a mega church the other day. It had a huge youth center with fake palm trees and awesome facilities and I thought, “we can’t compete with that!”

Further, when the world says “God is in the sunset and in the snowflake and you can be spiritual and not religious and who really needs organized religion anyway?” we better be able to very clearly explain these 6 questions and not with schmaltzy answers, but with passion and common understanding.

We need to know why exist and we need to be able to know that based on what we believe, not what society says we should be.

We must know our reason for existing.

Discipline 3, after building a team and knowing who we are,  is to overcommunicate clarity. We have to communicate who we are, what we believe, and what matters over and over and over again.

There is more to say about all of this, but for now, I will let this all simmer. I think Paul must have been wanting the church in Corinth to consider these questions when he wrote about the church being like one body. Maybe he was on to something….

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”  First Corinthians 12.

Christmas Should Be More Materialistic, Snow Day Sermon

epiphany

In The Bleak Midwinter : Choir of Kings College, Cambridge

John 1:1-18

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

15(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Dear God, we come here this morning hopeful for a word from you to meet our needs, hopeful for a little light to help us see our way better, a little light in the darkness. So startle us, O God, with your truth, and come into our lives with your light and your love in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

It’s hard to think of the New Year beginning, when everything just seems to keep going. How do we begin something that has not ended? I always find myself reflective in the New Year. I am always hesitant to make too many plans and to start making chicken scratches on my to-do list. In these beginning days of the new year, with the earth dormant and the image of a new born child just coming into the world, my temptation is to become introspective, to let my monkey mind slow down and become more contemplative. Maybe we all struggle with the idea of such new beginnings in life because we have been there, done that, made those false starts and felt the disappointment of failing. We’ve promised ourselves, or God, or the stars above… not to swear so much, or to be so self-absorbed, or to be so blunt, or …you fill in the blank. And the first hour or the first day or two things seemed to be off to a good start, but pretty soon it all went downhill fast, and before you knew it you were right back to the same old ways. I think about that email that was making the rounds not so long ago, the prayer for the day that said,

Dear Lord
So far today,
I’ve done all right.
I haven’t gossiped.
I haven’t lost my temper.
I haven’t lied or cheated.
I haven’t been greedy, grumpy,
Nasty, selfish or overindulgent.
I’m very thankful for that.
But in a few minutes, Lord,
I’m going to get out of bed.
And from then on, I’m probably
Going to need a lot more help! Amen.

How do we start this new year? Do we start with a list? Do we start with a vision? Do we start with a review of the past year? Each of the Gospels starts in a different. The Gospel of Matthew, begins by looking to the past. The author begins with a genealogy, in which he explains Jesus’ ancestry. The Gospel of Luke, after the writer introduces himself, begins in a story telling manner, In the days of Emporer Augustus, a decree went out…The Gospel of Mark begins very abruptly, no fluff comes from Mark. – He is very plain-spoken He just begins, This is the Good News of the Gospel.

But the Gospel of John, is the most outside the box. He begins with poetry. Listen to his words –
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He [the Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.

“In the beginning was the Word.” Remember the first words in the book of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” and then a word was spoken. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the Gospel of John and the First Chapter of Genesis are so similar in nature. Both writers were poets who stared at blank piece of paper, wondering how to begin, and they began with poetry. John connects the Word made flesh to the beginning of time. Eugene Peterson suggests that John is rewriting Genesis 1 and 2. And that the Gospel of John is the creation story with Jesus Christ present with the creator.

Creation, in the Gospel of John is now tied to the Word. In the beginning was creation and in the beginning was the Word. In the beginning is God’s impulse to speak, to communicate. God speaks and creation happens, which, because it is a product of God’s self-communication, contains the reality of God: God revealed in sun, moon, stars, in lakes, and oceans, and forests. God revealed in nature. But there is more to it than nature.
The Gospel of John says the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

I had a teenager say to me the other day, after reading this passage, “that doesn’t make any sense – what does that mean?” That is exactly what the Gospel writer wants us to be asking. What does that mean?
The Gospel of John was written for two audiences the Greeks and the Hebrews – both of whom had different ways of understanding the why the world was the way it was. The Greeks had a desire for meaning and truth. Greek philosophy sought the logic of things. The Greek word for what searched is called logos. Everything, even suffering stemmed from that same logic.

The Hebrew people understood fate differently. They believed not in mindless fate, but in a God who was invested in their daily lives. They believed they were a chosen people, with a chosen purpose.

Why do good or bad things happen? The Greeks would say there is a logical explanation. The Hebrews would say, because God willed it to happen.

The Gospel of John was written at a time with these seemingly opposing voices were loudest, and John writes the opening words of his Gospel with these two perspectives in mind. He says in the beginning was both God and logic. In the beginning was the word. In the beginning was logic, the logos. Order. Before God there was chaos. With God there is order. God brings order out of chaos, meaning and truth. There is no logic that can exist outside the logic of God.

This short season of Christmas, which ends today and the coming season of Epiphany, which begins tomorrow is about trying to get our heads around what it means that the whole God became fully present in a loving relationship with us in the person of Jesus Christ. So the Christian faith is not fundamentally a theory or an ethic, or an institution or the fuzzy feeling we have on Christmas Eve. It’s fundamentally about a person, the word made flesh. Christianity is the story of that person and that person’s relationship with humanity.
A relationship we often neglect and pack away in the basement for eleven months out of the year. The fact is we distance ourselves from this organic, living God and we see him as out there somewhere. We go to him when things are really bad, that we can turn to at times of sorrow or tragedy or fear, that’s good enough for us. Now that religion may be a religion, but it isn’t Christianity.
Christianity is more materialistic than that.

You may recall a song “From a Distance.” It was written by Julie Gold and has been covered by Bette Midler, Nancy Griffith, Cliff Richard and others. It gives a wonderful picture of the world from a distance. “From a distance, there is harmony, and it echoes through the land.” And then it says, “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us from a distance.” Sounds pretty, but is it Christianity? No no no no no no. It misses the whole point. God is not some spiritual being who may have time for us when he’s not reading the paper. He’s not a benevolent grandpa who is watching his children play at the bottom of the hill while he smokes his pipe in his rocker. God joins in! The word became flesh! The logic the meaning of the universe became human.

If God is watching us from a distance then he can stay distant, and frankly so can we, but a God who becomes human is a God that comes up close and personal. God is more materialistic than we give God credit for. Christianity is real, tangible, it begins with the cry in the night of child pushed out into world, a naked man hanging on a cross, and the wonder of a man defeating death opening the gates of glory.

Preacher Sam Wells makes the argument that we should stop trying to be more spiritual than Jesus. Because after all the spiritual message of Christmas is that God became incarnate – literally took on human flesh. God became material. Real. Tangible. If we want to really get what it means to be a Christian, Well’s argues that we need to become materialists. Godly materialists. Godly materialists seek God in human form “Godly materialists are like shepherds roaming around Bethlehem looking for Jesus among single mothers and teenager parent and homeless people and those who live among farm animals. Godly materialists are those who seek Jesus in the refugee, escaping for Egypt to save his life, the immigrant, those at greatest risk

The way to celebrate Christmas is to be more materially present with people. To be more human, more honest, more vulnerable, more genuine.

To offer ourselves as friends to others, to hug those who no one hugs, eat with those with whom no one eats, listening to those to whom no one listens, touching those whom no one touches, remembering those whom no one remembers, loving those whom no loves. That is how we celebrate our material God. Christmas is not an idea. Christmas is not a feeling. Christmas is the stuff of life. It is the reminder that God is with us. Emmanuel.
The operative word here is a the verb “with. “When somebody says, I am with you. You know they are connected. They are along side you. They are in the hospital room, not leaving, staying the night. They are in the car, on the way back to school. They are in the interview, at the grocery, on the trip. God with us. Right there. With us.

In him was life, and life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Taking Stock

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New Years Day is always a good day to take stock. How did I do with that whole “eat less carbs” thing? How did I do with reading to my children, exercise, staying in touch with old friends, saving money, and the discipline of prayer and meditation?

Eh. Not so good.

While there is something cliché and refreshing about New Year’s resolutions and starting over, I cannot help but feel a little sad as I think of all the stories of people’s lives I carry with me. Too many people I loved, died. Too many people I loved faced cancer and open heart surgeries and divorce. It frightens me to face this fresh new year and think, “Who will I lose? What will happen to “so and so?” What threatening storms are out there?

I feel like that disciple in the boat, hunkered down in the bow, with a tarp over me shielding me from the storm. Scared to death. Jesus is over there sleeping. Just zonked out, while this storm swirls around and I think, “what’s going to happen?” And he sleeps. Don’t tell me I should be sleeping too. I’m not Jesus and I can’t sleep, because there is a sea sickening storm taking over and my boat is little and the waves are big. I want Jesus to wake up and calm the sea and provide smooth sailing. I know he can do it. Why doesn’t he wake up?

Is it because the storm will pass? Is it because even though there is a storm out there, Jesus, himself is on my boat? Shouldn’t that be enough? Yeah, these are rough waters and I’m not sure how or when the storm will pass, and surely another storm will come, but Jesus is on the boat. He’s right up there letting the big waves rock him to sleep. He’s not indifferent, he’s present. He’s right there.

I peek out from my tarp, and see him through the storm. I keep my eyes on him and suddenly the storm while very real, is not a real threat. Stay with me.

“Dear Lord, be good to me
the sea is so wide
and my boat is so small.”

Irish Fisherman’s Prayer

Being with people in the storms of their life, is the greatest privilege. Their stories remain with me. Always. I would not change a thing.

Happy New Year.