Month: December 2014

Shepherds — A Christmas Message

Preached on December 24, 2014 at Northwood Presbyterian Church

Shepherds.

IMG_1293 (2)

What do you know about the shepherds? What have you heard?

Were shepherds poor or rich? Were they young, or old? Were they men or women? Were they well respected, or were they lower on the social ladder?

Shepherds were poor. Their work was a day to day sort of work where they were always dependent on the needs and desires of wealthy landowners.

Shepherds were young, mostly.

Shepherds were young men, but they were also young women.

Most important to know and reflect upon this day is that shepherds were not well respected in society. They were considered dirty and untrustworthy. In fact, the testimony of a shepherd was inadmissible in court because it was considered unreliable. Shepherds were nearly invisible members of society. The lowest of the low. Untouchables. This week I learned “To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property” I wonder who the modern day shepherds would be in our society. Migrant farm workers? Mentally ill homeless people? Refugees? Vagrants? Prisoners?

The shepherds speak to me this Christmas because I see them there, and I know what they mean to this story. I know that God came to the world wrapped up as a tiny baby in the midst of these shepherds for a reason and purpose. Shepherds might not have been able to serve as witnesses in court, but they were witnesses to the greatest act of love the world has ever known.

More than this, they are the ones that actually receive the good news. Luke tells us that it’s to the shepherds that the angel says “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,the Lord.” It gives me chills to think about who the angel is speaking to when the angel says this. To you is born this day.

We are blessed in this sanctuary with the soft glow of candlelight and the cozy comfort of companionship. As we sing carols and celebrate the birth of our savior together, we feel that God has done something amazing in this world.

Yet the shepherds remind us of an important fact that we must never forget: Jesus was not born in here. Jesus was born out there. The angel brings the good news to those who are the least worthy to receive it, to society’s forgotten bottom rung, to the least of the least.

It is my prayer that this is a message of hope and solace for those of us who are gathered here, as we think of those who are out there in some way. There are people we know who are lost and wandering and not with us in these pews. We trust that the angel brings the good news to them just as it brought the good news to the shepherds out in the fields.

For those who are in prison or homeless or marginalized in some way, we trust that this good news is heard, loud and clear. For us, too, when we feel like outsiders, when we feel like we are the lowest of the low, the least understood, the least worthy, this message is for us.

I wonder if the shepherds trusted much in God. I suspect that they might not have trusted much in God at all because they were not welcome in the synagogue or among the religious elite. They were invisible people. Yet God breaks through all of that, and talks to them through the angel.

What if this is you, today? What if you don’t feel like God speaks to you at all? What if you don’t normally come to church because it doesn’t seem like there is a message for you? What if God decides to speak to you anyway? What if it doesn’t feel like Christmas in your home or in your life or in your heart and somehow in some kind of way out there God speaks to you with a voice that is loud and clear?

It’s an unbelievable message really. It’s startling and shocking. It can not be dressed up or dressed down and the message is this: Jesus Christ is born to us where we need him most.

And so I invite you, I invite all of us, as we come to the table and light candles and sing carols to open our hearts and listen to how Jesus Christ is being born in our lives and in our world, right where we need him most.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer of us all, Amen.

The Confirmation Project: Guest Post by Katie Douglass, Co Director of the Confirmation Project

confirmationproject

Traci’s Note: One of the things that always seems strange to me in the protestant tradition is that of confirmation. If done right, I think confirmation can be a rich time where young people grow to understand their faith and their role in it. Many times, though, students report confirmation as a time where they are asked to “jump through hoops,” or are “kicked out of the church.”  It makes me sad and angry to hear stories of young people who are experiencing a normal part of faith development — questioning — and are then made to feel unwelcome in the church. I don’t believe the church should get rid of confirmation, but I do think it needs some serious evaluation and discussion.

Enter the confirmation project. The confirmation project, co directed by Katie Douglass and Richard Osmer is an academic study of confirmation. I can’t tell you what they’ve found yet because, well, they’re still finding it. Read a little from Katie below and if you are interested in participating in the survey, please get in touch with them via http://www.theconfirmationproject.com  I’ll keep you posted on their findings. This research is important to how we pass on faith to our kids!  

Katie-150x150

Katherine M. Douglass, Co-director of The Confirmation Project

Princeton Theological Seminary

December 2, 2014

Thanks for inviting me to share a guest blog post on your website Traci. Like you, I want to help parents and ministry leaders encourage growth in the faith of youth and their families. Confirmation is one of those traditional practices in the church that is meant to do just that. I currently co-direct a research project called The Confirmation Project with Richard Osmer that is aimed at discovering how congregations practice confirmation and equivalent practices. We are interested to discover how participation in confirmation intensifies faith in youth and integrates them into the body of Christ, the church.

For this project we are only studying five mainline Protestant congregations that practice infant baptism: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church. Through the survey and site visits we hope to hear from youth, parents, volunteers, mentors, and ministry leaders.

Every church in these five denominations is invited to participate. If your church has not received an email invitation, you can request one through the “Contact Us” link at our website. http://www.theconfirmationproject.com

The survey takes 15-20 minutes to complete and asks questions about what people believe, their involvement in the church, their interest in various topics, and what they think the point of confirmation is. The parent and leader survey ask many similar questions and, in a more detailed way, about how confirmation is conducted.

Some confirmation programs happen all year and some happen in the spring. Because of this we are keeping the survey open for almost all of the year (fall 2014-spring 2015). The goal is to have youth, parents, and ministry leaders take the survey at the beginning and at the end of confirmation. We are interested in seeing how participating in confirmation brings about spiritual formation in youth.

This study was inspired by a research project happening in Europe. In some European countries, like Finland, confirmation was something almost everyone participated in (over 80 percent of youth!), however, it did not result in high levels of congregational participation (only 2-3 percent of Finns attend church weekly.) In other countries, like Austria, only 10 percent of youth participate in confirmation, however, those who do are much more likely to be regular members of congregations. This study also showed that confirmation gives youth the opportunity to volunteers in ways that are otherwise inaccessible to them. Their study was very well received and as a result they have been awarded further funding to conduct two more waves of the study.

From talking with ministers and pastors early in our research we are interested in knowing if there is agreement between parents, youth, and ministers as to what “confirmation” actually is. If what we heard from the ministers is correct, there is quite a big disparity between what people think this practice is.

We also believe that we will see a higher correlation between participating in confirmation and being an active church-goer. In the US, congregations seem to have higher levels of retention than in Europe anyway, however, we have a hunch that “believing” and “belonging” will go together (i.e. when youth are convicted about their beliefs, they will be more likely to see these beliefs as part of their identity as a Christian, to belong to a church).

Our goal for this project is to help ministers grow in their awareness of what this practice can or could look like. Many ministers we have talked with feel like they are at a loss as to what they are supposed to be doing.  Many, although not all, feel frustrated that despite their efforts to help youth “confirm” their faith, they are seeing this function as the final graduation for youth out of the church. Some have seen great fruit from their confirmation ministry – and through our site visits, we plan to share these stories. I am hopeful that through our research, we will be able to help those frustrated ministry leaders have the resources they need to change confirmation into a practice that integrates youth into the body of Christ and intensifies their faith.