Month: December 2013

Sometimes Pastors Want to Go Back to Sleep, too…

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Joy is still there, it’s just fuzzier and hard to see, perhaps.

The Sunday after Christmas is a Sunday I used to call “Associate Pastor Appreciation Sunday” when I was an associate pastor. It’s a Sunday when many, many associates are preaching. There’s all kinds of beauty on Christmas Eve… a sanctuary full of folks singing carols and lighting candles. There’s music and joy and shiny patent leather shoes. Then, the Sunday after Christmas. It’s kind of a downer. To me, the Sunday after Christmas is that feeling you get when you go into the kitchen after having thrown a big dinner party. Dishes everywhere, piled up. Lots of happy memories lingering in the air, but it’s a drag to face the reality of that clean up. There’s a lot of work to be done.  The Revised Common Lectionary (the text assigned for preachers for the week) doesn’t do pastors any favors, either (or does it?). The text for this morning is a text that has been called throughout the centuries “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” Now there’s a joy-filled topic that will inspire folks to come to church! It’s a text about King Herod and how he was looking for the baby Jesus so he could kill him. In so doing, he ordered baby boys under the age of two be killed. All of them. It’s a brutal text… no glitter or candles or pretty wrapped packages here, just a story about a family in danger, running for their lives, and a cruel dictator taking innocent lives. And as I said in my sermon, it’s rather startling and unsettling that we should have to move away from the glow of candlelight so quickly. I’d rather sit there a little longer, sing a few more carols, enjoy the moment. Why do I have to confront the cold reality of the harsh world in which we live? Don’t we have to face that enough when we check twitter and CNN and the New York Times? Didn’t I just see it in the face of a cold and hungry looking man who was holding up a paper sign that said “God Bless You?”  

In thinking about it a little bit, though, it seems to me that this story does have something to offer me and my people. It’s the truth that God is here, among us, not just when things are easy, but (especially) when they are hard. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

Real

I’ve not been much in to Christmas music this year. I don’t know why. It’s been a busy season, so maybe that’s it. I’m also adjusting to San Antonio Christmas. San Antonio has its own beautiful traditions that happen around Christmastime including the lights on the Riverwalk and tamales on Christmas Eve, but I’ve lived my whole life in places that were cold and snowy on Christmas: Chicago, Grand Rapids, Princeton, Detroit. It doesn’t feel like Christmas music when it’s sunny and green. There is one song that I’ve listened to almost every day since I found it a few weeks ago, it’s a song, called “Real” by Nicole Nordeman. The song is from the perspective of a person who is looking at a manger scene and imagines Mary and Joseph saying to her “let me be real.”

I’ve been wondering what it means to let Jesus be real. The word “real” has so many different meanings: to be authentic, to be true, to be accurate. As a Christian and a Pastor, it’s my life’s work to make Jesus real, not just in my own life, but in the lives of people I feel called to love and serve and reach out to.

One of the things I love about this song is that it challenges us to think of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus as real beings, not plastic statues with no soul. I think of Mary, in particular, and I picture her as strong and brave, but also small and dusty. I think that walk to Bethlehem was hard, and I think she probably cried and screamed when her baby was born.

Real.

When a Dog in a Pink Sweater isn’t Just a Dog in a Pink Sweater… #GaDog

As you may know, I’m a Presbyterian pastor. Every other year Presbyterians get together at a huge homecoming called the General Assembly where we vote on important issues, get together with one another socially and have a big ole Presbyterian Part-ay! (Except, well, maybe it’s not just a party, maybe it’s a serious, serious gathering with important issues to discuss.)

This week our denomination’s website, the PCUSA put up this advertisement to promote the General Assembly which is being held in Detroit, MI.

#GAdog

The text says “Attend the 221st General Assembly” and there’s the logo for the general assembly right on the image. Clearly it wasn’t a mistake that this image, a dog in a pink sweater, was attached to the idea of the General Assembly. Someone noticed and posted the question on Facebook, where I saw it, and posed the same question: Why? Since then there’s been a lot of discussion about the dog (tagged #GaDog on twitter and facebook) and I think this discussion really, really matters. While much could be said about it, I’m going to offer an initial thought for reflection and see where the conversation takes us.

The thought is this: design and branding matters, a lot.  Inadvertently (it seems, though no official comment has been made) whoever put this dog in a pink sweater next to the invitation to the General Assembly “branded it.” The brand for the GA in Detroit is now “Dog in a Pink Sweater.” Some people say “wow, that’s really, funny/bizarre/strange” or “We could have a lot of fun with that!” others say “No, that’s ridiculous and tragic, and it overshadows the REAL brand of the conference, which was supposed to be “Abound in Hope.” My own view is somewhere in the middle. I think there’s a lot of fun to be had with this pink dog. I love the idea of “GaDog for Moderator” as a little lighthearted satire of this whole debacle. The truth is, though, this dog in a pink sweater shows something very obvious about the PCUSA — we don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to branding. 

I’m currently in the design stage for my book on families and faith (yet to be named, that’s another blog post, I promise.) The process of branding the book and finding an image that will represent it is not a process that I engaged upon lightly. In fact, I was very persistent and very vocal that I wanted the best designer I could find to work on it and to really think about it. I know that whatever image is carefully chosen and put on the cover will brand the book forever. If it’s a dog in a pink sweater, I’ll have to live with it, and I know it.

I know that there is an individual (or group of individuals) behind the decision to put the dog in the pink sweater in this image, and my intent is not to make that person (or people) feel stupid. I would like to know a little bit more about the thought process behind it though, because my guess is that the answer is “We didn’t realize what a big deal it would become.” Which is, of course, exactly my point.

On Christian Art, Music, and Plumbing Services…

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I just got an ad in my inbox from a large Christian Book Distributor/Publisher. The headline? “Beautiful Christian Silks Make Meaningful Gifts.” The inside of the email assures me that the scarves are based on some of the world’s best “Christian Art” and that the scarves would be great gifts for my (and I quote) “Christian Friends.” 

It’s not my intent to pick on the publisher here, but it brings up a point I’ve been thinking a lot about in the past few weeks. The question is this: What makes something “Christian” art (or writing, or music…)? Is it the artist, the subject matter? I think the label “Christian” when applied to art, music, and writing, is almost universally a bad idea. Art, music, and writing are inanimate, they don’t have feelings or beliefs. I’ve heard a lot of “Christian” music that doesn’t represent me, a Christian, and I’ve heard a lot of music on the “regular” radio that I think reflects the message Jesus was getting at. Does that make it Christian music? I like to create art. If I paint a picture of a sunset, does that make it Christian art, because I identify as a Christian? (PS, I would probably never paint a picture of a sunset, at least not a realistic looking one, but that’s another story entirely.)  What about White Crucifixion, painted by one of my favorite painters, Marc Chagall. Is it a Christian painting? The artist is Jewish, and the painting is clearly about Jewish themes. Does the painting become Christian when Christ is front and center? These questions add depth and complexity to the dialog about “Christian” art, and I think they illustrate some of the difficulties in trying to apply “Christian” as a label to just about anything. 

Once I got a flier for a plumber that said “Christian Plumbing Services.” What does that mean, exactly? I understand that the intent of the advert was probably to highlight the fact that the plumber herself (or himself) is a Christian, but it feels like a strange way to divide the world to me. 

People can be Christian. Even then, it’s hard to come up with one definition of what that means. I would love to see Christian not be used to describe scarves, music, art or plumbing services. What do you think? 

For further reading: Why Switchfoot Won’t Sing Christian Songs. 

Smart Phone Spirituality

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As I wrote about a few weeks ago, our smartphones can often deprive us of the ability to live in the present moment. If we want to capture every moment, we’re not able to experience the moment as it unfolds for just us, the audience of one. I think the opposite is also true, as well. Our smartphones can be a tool for fostering spiritual growth. Enter the advent photo challenge. This year our congregation challenged itself to participate in an advent photo challenge whereby we would think of a word that’s associated with advent and post an image related to that word. This isn’t an original idea, there are lots of Instagram challenges out there, and a well known advent photo challenge hosted by the United Methodist Church (rethinkchurch.org) I wanted to challenge our congregation to do its own for a variety of reasons: to foster community among our own congregation, to make our church known to our own friends and family members, and to spread the word in our neighborhood.

I figured that the activity cost us nothing. If it flopped and nobody participated, all we were out is an hour or two of preparation and promotion. If it were to be a success, it had the potential to bring some attention to our congregation and give our congregants a new way to experience their faith. What I wasn’t counting on was how meaningful I would find the activity in my own spiritual journey. This week I’ve found that the “word of the day” hasn’t just been an impetus for finding an image that would work for the challenge, it’s been a word that’s stuck with me the whole day, a word I’ve meditated on and come to experience with greater depth throughout the day.

What would you say if I told you my mom was in the hospital on the “trust” day, or that I received a long awaited notice on the “wait” day or that on the day of “quiet” I had a few minutes to myself to ponder the week behind me? Would you say it was an amazing coincidence? I wouldn’t. I would say that those things were in my mind because of the photo challenge, hour after hour, those words have been with me, and they have allowed me to listen to the voice of the Spirit, guided by those prompts.

It’s been fun, and meaningful, to think about God being present to me each day, in these words and images, and I’ve loved seeing everyone’s contributions as well. It’s not to late to join #NPCADVENT

npcadventps. Yep, life is the word for the 19th and the 23rd, both. There’s a lot to life.

Hurry, Hurry

Here we are, in the season of advent. See, right there, you know I’m a pastor nerd. For most people, this is “the Holidays” or “the Christmas Season.” For pastors, it’s advent. What’s the difference? Well, advent is a time of waiting and longing for the coming of Christ. It’s actually kind of somber and very, very quiet. There’s not a lot of glitter or sparkle in advent, just a cool, dark, night. In advent we wait. I talked about this in my sermon yesterday, about how truly countercultural advent is. Absolutely everything around us screams SHOP! BUY! PURCHASE! DECORATE! For us to take a stand and decide to do something different

to slow down

to wait

to be still

we are recognizing that advent is a time of spiritual preparation, not all that different from Lent.

Yesterday I read the poem “Hurry” by Marie Howe. Even if you heard it yesterday in the sermon, it’s worth another listen in the poet’s own voice. You can hear it at the top of the page HERE.

How will you celebrate advent this year?

For further reflection:

Advent Conspiracy