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Archive for November, 2010

The Gifts of the Small Church, By Jason Byassee.  Abingdon, 2010. 114 pp., $14.00.  You can read the first chapter of the book here.

The Gifts of the Small Church is a rare book that is not about “fixing” small congregations or “turning them (us) around.”  Jason Byassee has glimpsed the presence and working of God in three small United Methodist congregations in rural North Carolina, and he tells the stories of the saints he met there with loving appreciation.  His wife, Jaylynn, served two of them as a two-point charge, and he took his own appointment as part-time pastor to a third small church.  He sees the people of God in these congregations through the gracious, yet discerning eye of God.

Jason often had me laughing out loud, as when, for example, he describes his discovery of an ancient Easter egg during cleanup day at one of the churches.  “Yes,” I chuckled, “sometimes you do find fossils of one kind or another when you poke around in a small congregation.”

Jason also drew many “amens” from me.  He asserts that “the small church is just God’s primary way of saving people” (p. 4), and always has been.  (Amen.)  Why?  Because you catch faith and learn how to be a Christian from a small group of people who know you by name and interact with you over an extended period of time.  God doesn’t save people in general.  God saves particular people by grace mediated through particular people.

Moreover, that small group of particular people serves as a school for discipleship.  Whether you are the pastor or a person in the pew, in the small church there’s no way to avoid the people that you hate, or that at least get on your nerves.  You must learn Christian virtues like patience.  You must practice the gospel gifts of grace and forgiveness.  You must learn to love people as they are, not as you wish them to be.  In other words, you have to want to learn to be like Jesus in your heart.

While Jason looks at the small church through loving eyes, he also looks through realistic eyes.  Every church, whatever its size, is beset by sin and the problems that result.  As he puts it, “[S]inners are all God’s got to work with” (p. xii), and preachers certainly are in that number.  (Amen again.)  And yes, I agree with Jason that some small congregations are not healthy, and that some need to die by closure so that God can bring about a surprising resurrection. (more…)

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'Week #1 Friends, if you need just a little something to chew on at the beginning of a new week in ministry, check out The Alban Weekly.  Published every Monday morning, this free email newsletter features a concise article concerning some aspect of ministry, and this is often an excerpt from a book published by The Alban Institute.  Sometimes the articles come from the Institute’s journal Congregations.  Alban offers many helpful resources: continuing education events, webinars, and weblinks as well as publications.  Highly recommended.

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What a thought for Christ the King Sunday!  Isn’t this a picture of the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven?  We give Christ praise and glory wherever we are, in the middle of the kingdoms of this world.  Hallelujah!

YouTube – Opera Company of Philadelphia “Hallelujah!” Random Act of Culture.

http://www.youtube.com/v/wp_RHnQ-jgU

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Our numbers are not looking good.  My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), lost 510,536 members between 1998 and 2009. Eighty-eight congregations closed in 2009 alone.  My own congregation is mourning the deaths of many dear saints.  We are also watching with sorrowful joy as most of our children move away in order to answer their calling.  I am sure Gideon was utterly dismayed when his army of 32,000 was reduced to 300 in the face of a massive contingent of Midianites, and then utterly amazed at what God did next.  I wonder whether God is using similar tactics with us.  Could God be doing a “Gideon’s Army” kind of thing here and now?

Gideon’s Army

Judges 6-8

Gideon could not believe his ears! Just when he was getting his confidence up, just as he was really beginning to believe this job was do-able, here comes God saying, “Gideon, this army’s too big! We’ve got to cull this herd!”

Who ever heard of anything so foolish? If anything, the Israelite army of 32,000 needed to get bigger. Why? Because the Midianite army boasted 135,000 soldiers, and they were mounted on camels. Their strength was massive!

Just when Gideon was beginning to trust God. God had given sign after sign to show Gideon that God really was with him, and that God really would use him and the Israelite army to stop the Midianite menace. Remember Gideon’s fleece? It is the most famous of the signs God gave him.

Gideon said, “Lord, I need some reassurance that you really are going to deliver Israel by my hand. I need to be sure I’m not just dreaming this up. Tonight I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. Tomorrow morning if the dew is only on the fleece and the ground all around is dry, I’ll know I’ve heard you right.” God acquiesced. It was so.

Gideon’s reply? “Don’t get mad at me, Lord, but I need another sign. Let’s use the fleece again, only this time, let the fleece be dry, and the ground all around be wet.” Once again, God acquiesced. It was so.

Gideon was convinced—mostly. He tested God and was reassured. Somehow the 32,000 Israelite soldiers would be enough to go against the enemy. But hold on: not time to start the war yet. Here comes God with a huge test for Gideon! (more…)

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All Nature Prays

Cover of "Grandad's Prayers of the Earth&...

Cover of Grandad's Prayers of the Earth

Another beautiful book for God’s children of all ages is Grandad’s Prayers of the Earth, by Douglas Wood, illustrated by P.J. Lynch.

“When I was little, my Grandad was my best friend,” the narrator begins.  “Grandad and I liked to go for walks in the woods together.  We didn’t walk very far.  Or very fast.  Or very straight.  While we walked, I would ask him questions about things I wasn’t sure of.”

On one of those walks, the boy asks about prayer, and the conversation unfolds in this book.  In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, Grandad explains what nature teaches us about prayer.  Trees, for example, pray as they reach for heaven, and rocks are still and silent before God.  Waters pray sometimes by silent reflection and sometimes by flowing and even leaping into the air.  All creatures pray, Grandad says, and people pray in many ways.  Watching the sunrise and saying hello to a new day is an ancient prayer.  Holding hands around a table and giving thanks is one of the greatest prayers that people pray, he adds.  The boy wonders whether our prayers are answered.  Grandad’s answer is wise and full of grace.

There are more walks after that one, until the day when the grandson must cope with Grandad’s death.  “I prayed and prayed and prayed until I couldn’t pray anymore,” says the boy.  Indeed, he is unable to pray for a very long time.  Now a teenager, at the end of the book, the grandson takes another walk in the woods where nature teaches him Grandad’s lessons again.

This moving book is a great resource for helping people think and talk about prayer, along with the themes of love and grief.  I have read this book to groups of adults, who were deeply touched and began sharing their own struggles with prayer.

Sensitive illustrations in autumn tones allow the reader to watch as the boy grows up.   They put us in touch with an amazing creation.  In this book “all nature sings,” as the old hymn says.  And I think Grandad is right: all nature prays, too.

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Nov. 30 - A Day in a Wheelchair

Image by vanhookc via Flickr

Our congregation has been working the issue of accessibility for people with disabilities for a long time.  We still have a way to go, but we’ve come a long way, too.  It’s a two-fold process.  We need access ramps into our church buildings, and we also need access ramps into our hearts.  We need to widen the doors of our church buildings, and we also need to widen the doors of our hearts.  From time to time I will post sermons, thoughts, or resources related to accessibility and disabilities.  To start the series, here is the sermon that I preached in 1995 on Morton Church’s first Accessibility SundayI am sure that the statistics I cited then need revision, but the need is as strong as it ever was–perhaps even stronger.

Unexpected Guests
 A Sermon on Luke 14:1, 12-24

One Sabbath day Jesus went home to dinner with a leading Pharisee of the local congregation. Now this was not a spur of the moment potluck. The host had put every bit of effort into getting ready for Jesus that we put into getting ready for our annual homecoming. It was a matter of honor to put on the finest feast he could, and the more important the guest, the more elaborate the feast.

The host put his head together with the cook about the food, just as we do every September. The food had to be tasty and there had to be enough of it and more. There was a special item on the menu: meat. It was too expensive to eat every day.

The host carefully instructed the servants how to lay the table and where. They must make comfortable places for the guests, and especially for the guest of honor. We know how important that is! Every year we worry about our guests getting too hot outside, and we debate about the best place for the tables. Last year we went all out and got a big tent to dine under.
Just as we do, the host probably planned a program for the guests to enjoy. He also sent out invitations by way of the servants. In his time, you invited your guests twice: once to announce the meal, and then again when the meal was ready. Last year, over one hundred people accepted our invitation to come home to Morton, and we had a grand feast!

At last the dinner hour arrived, and the Pharisee’s table was piled high with good things. After all the guests had gotten settled, Jesus looked around at everyone. He found himself looking into the faces of the host’s family and friends, the neighbors and the influential people in town. Jesus also noticed who wasn’t there, who hadn’t been invited to the party.

He leaned over towards the host and said, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Invite the people that the world forgets about. You welcome the people that world leaves out of its fellowship and off its guest list.”

Everybody around the table stopped chewing. What did he say? Jesus had some nerve talking to the host that way! (more…)

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Via Crucis XI - Gesù promette il suo regno al ...

Via Crucis XI Sculpture by Franco Fiabane. Image by brtsergio via Flickr

Another liturgical year has come full circle, and here we are gazing at Christ our King, whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Here is a sermon for Christ the King, Year C.

Jesus, Remember Me
A Sermon on Luke 23:33-43
Christ the King—Year C

What an odd thing it is to focus on the crucifixion story at this time of year!  The holiday season is getting into swing.  Beautiful decorations are going up.  The mall parking lot is full.  People are working at creating a Christmas atmosphere, warm and sentimental.  The prevailing message sounds like this—and I’m quoting from the Coldwater Creek clothing catalog: “simmer wassail on the stove ’til the whole house smells of apples.  Catch the joy in a child’s eyes.  Light one candle.  Or many.  Marvel again at the power of song to lift the human heart.  And sing for all you’re worth.  This holiday, take comfort in the simplest of pleasures.  For this is the season of sharing.  Of giving.  And finding quiet joy in the closeness of all those dear to your heart.”  It sounds very cozy and inviting.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, and indeed, a baby king, a sweet little boy will receive some attention in a few weeks.  But here is a pitiful man, strung up on a cross, with a sign that reads: “This is the King of the Jews.” (more…)

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