Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
In these strange and unusual days, when darkness wants to defeat us
and the futility of life oppresses so many souls,
when belief and unbelief appear indifferent
and what is left
is natural passion to express the pride of life,
or the empty void of nothingness
when the nerve to live and to create is weakened and suicides increase—
O Lord, forgive the failures of your Church to witness to the world
that justice should run down as water
and righteousness a mighty stream,
O Lord, forgive the failure of the Christian life
That lives so worldly
That few can see the Spirit that must proclaim the Kingdom of God’s love to
to glorify His Name.
Fr. Gilbert Shaw, 1886-1967 in George Appleton, ed., The Oxford Book of Prayer, Oxford University Press
I love the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t give us flowery language. He doesn’t elaborate in great detail the events of Jesus’ life. He gives us the clearest version of the life of Jesus. In Mark, Jesus’ primary vocation is that of a teacher, preaching the Kingdom of God. He is also a healer. However, in this text from Mark 8, he is teaching.
Most of us would have dropped the course after this lesson—when he tells his disciples that he must suffer many things…be rejected…and be killed. (vs. 31) With that, Peter gets on his soapbox and rebukes Jesus.
Then, Jesus turns and rebukes Peter calling him “Satan.” Whew!
Next the teaching begins…not only is a cross ahead for him, but for them as well. (vs 34)
We don’t speak of cross bearing much these days but the Gospels are clear…cross bearing and discipleship go together. Faithful discipleship is cross bearing.
The season of Lent focuses on the cross. Jesus points us there early in the gospel and the Church has taken the Lenten journey seriously to lead in the path of the cross. Here Jesus lays aside the pursuit of pleasure. He doesn’t do what we choose so often to do—avoid pain, sacrifice, gaining not losing. Mark tells us that Jesus lays these aside.
Bishop Will Willimon reminds us that these are laid aside for us. Not only is Jesus saying my way will be difficult. He is telling us, the way for us will not be free of struggle, pain or suffering. Peter really doesn’t want to hear this. And Willimon reminds us that this is no way for disciples to behave either.
I came across a story in my files this week. I don’t remember where I found it or if I ever used it in a sermon. However, as we come to end of Black History month and as I reflect on the racial tension that continues to find its way into our world and, unfortunately, the Church, it struck me as a call to discipleship for our time.
The writer begins:
I remember the day I learned to hate racism. I was five years old. The walk home from school was only about five blocks. I usually walked with some friends. On this day I walked alone. Happy, but in a hurry, I decided to take the shortcut through the ally. Without a care in world I careened around the corner. Then I looked up—too late to change course. I had walked in on a back-ally beating.
There were three big white kids. In retrospect they were probably no more than sixth graders, but they looked like giants from my kindergarten perspective. There was one black kid. He was standing against a garage, his hands behind his back. The three white kids were taking turns punching him. They laughed. He stood silently except for the involuntary groans that followed each blow.
And now I was caught. One of the three grabbed me and stood me in front of their victim. “You take a turn,” he said. “ Hit the boy!” I stood paralyzed. “Hit him or you’re next!” the giant shouted at me.
So I did. I feigned a punch. I can still feel the soft fuzz of that boy’s turquoise sweater as my knuckles gently touched his stomach. I don’t know how many punches there were. I don’t know how long he had to stand backed up against the garage. After my minute participation in the conspiracy they let me go and I ran. I ran home crying and sick to my stomach. I have never forgotten.
Thirty-five years later that event still preaches a sermon to me every time I remember it. One can despise, decry, denounce, and deplore something without ever being willing to suffer, or even be inconvenienced, to bring about change. If there is one thing that Jesus taught us it was how to suffer with and for others.
Jesus walked the way of the cross. He taught us the meaning of suffering as a servant. Perhaps my first chance to follow that example came in an ally by a garage thirty-five years ago.
I don’t know if that black boy from the alley grew up, or where he lives, or what he does today. I never knew his name. I wish I did. I wish I could find him. I need to ask his forgiveness—not for the blow I delivered—it was nothing, but for the blows I refused to stand by and receive. I think that’s what it takes. Source: Pulpit Resource Vol. 22, No. 1 January-March 1994 (Peter Velander—Editor’s Clip Sheets)
I can’t help but wonder today, how many of us fail in our willingness to take up our cross, to stand with those on the margins, to not shrink back. I invite you to reflect in these cross-bearing days of Lent to ask forgiveness for those failures of nerve and those failures of heart when we stood by or walked away or turned our head, shut our eyes to the pain and suffering and injustice around us. Then pick up whatever cross you have been given and walk to Jerusalem, to the Upper Room, to Calvary and the Empty Tomb.
For, in the end, we are Easter People. We are those whose power comes from two sources—the Resurrection and the Holy Spirit.
On this Sunday, the day when, in the midst of the 40-day journey of Lent, we celebrate the power of Easter, let us rise with Jesus.
Yesterday, the Commission on the General Conference announced that General Conference 2020 has been postponed yet again. This postponement is a result of the Global pandemic with which we have all come far too familiar. Additionally, the Council of Bishops have set May 8, 2021 for a Special Called Session of the General Conference to be convened virtually across the world.
The purpose of the Special Called Session is in order to suspend the rules of the General Conference to consider using paper balloting for 12 items of legislation. As you may now know, the Book of Discipline is not designed to assist the Church in functioning well during a global pandemic. By approving these 12 items, the Church will be able to move forward until it becomes reasonable to hold an in person General Conference. By exercising the use of paper ballots, we will experience the best possible opportunity for all delegates to participate.
Attached you will find a General Conference FAQ which will assist in answering your questions. I suspect these answers are inadequate to fully respond to all of your questions. These are unprecedented times and we are seeking to be adaptive to the circumstances that this Global Pandemic has created.
I will be meeting next week with our General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference delegates to explore what this means for our life together. I anticipate the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference will meet in July of 2021 at which time those bishops eligible to retire would do so. It is also my hope that the final vote for the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference would be held. It is the Jurisdictional Conference that sets Conferences’ boundaries, so this is the last vote necessary for us to fully embrace our new conference. We then would anticipate our organizing conference to be in the fall of 2021.
While I understand the frustration of many regarding these decisions, the desire of both the Commission on the General Conference and the Council of Bishops is to allow our delegates to fully participate in the legislative process without disenfranchising anyone from full participation.
As we continue walking through this season of Lent, let us remember that our particular work in the Nashville Episcopal Area is to strengthen local churches to make Disciples of Jesus Christ so that the world might be changed. We continue to press forward with our work “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith.”
May the peace of Christ dwell richly within you.
Matthew 6:1-6, 19-21
These are strange times. It is as if Mother Nature wanted to remind us yet again with these winter storms that we are not in control—as if we had not already learned that lesson a hundredfold since Ash Wednesday last year. It seems as if we have been in a perpetual Lenten season for almost a year. It’s enough to wear even the most faithful of us to a frazzle as my daddy would say.
The observance of Lent is a call to a deeper faithfulness.
What is Ash Wednesday if not a reminder of our own humanity and the acknowledgement that we will all face the limits of life, one day coming face to face with our own frailty.
We’ve seen that frailty all around us. On March 13 a year ago, my mother crossed over to the church triumphant just fifteen months after my father’s death. Who of us has not known of a friend or a neighbor—a family member or a coworker who has succumbed to Covid-19? It reminds me of the words from our service of Death and Resurrection…in life we are in death.
Caught between the light of Epiphany and Easter we come to observe this Lenten season. “Lent is a time to stand against the strings someone else pulls,” Howard Thurman once said.
It is a time to look within, to determine that which I want to relinquish and that to which I want to give myself. This is, finally, the Lenten question.
In the words of Parker Palmer, “What can you not, not give yourself to?”
The corporate nature of our world is rooted in effectiveness. Stephen Covey captured our attention 25 years ago with his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I took the course. I got the big notebook. “Begin with the end in mind.”
And yet, what Covey did not ask was, what does it mean to be faithful? Is the Lenten journey one of effectiveness or one of faithfulness? Is your walk with Jesus one seeking to get results or is it one of faithfulness? In the end, with God, there are no final results.
St. Benedict said, “Daily keep death before your eyes.” This, above all, is the Lenten call. If we follow the lectionary readings for the season of Lent, our journey will take us along familiar roads. The Gospel readings for Lent place us within the heart of Jesus’ ministry. There is no avoiding the steps Jesus walked on our behalf. Pay close attention. Lent is not a time to have an egocentric posture about your faith journey.
In fact, in Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is taken from Matthew 6, right in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus begins in 6:1 with a warning: Beware.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
“Don’t sound a trumpet when you give alms.”
“When you pray, go to your room and shut the door. God will see you and hear you.”
Then Jesus teaches us how to pray… my Catholic friends refer to this as the “Our Father.”
We say “The Lord’s Prayer.”
In verse 16, Jesus says…oh yes… “and when you fast…don’t look so dismal.”
Lynn and I have been doing the intermittent fasting thing…and I can tell you, it’s easy to look dismal.
Finally, in verse 19—Jesus says, “Do not store up treasures on earth…but store up treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is…there will your heart be also.”
For me, beginning this Lenten journey is an examination of heart. I pray with the Psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Before the Christian walk can be a journey outward, it is a journey inward. Yet, often, we fall into the category against which Jesus is teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount.
We resemble Paul’s words in Romans 7, “The very good I would do I do not do.” In short, we are more concerned about how we appear than about who we are.
Let me illustrate with a story from the Jewish Talmud.
There is an old Hasidic tale about three pious Jews who decided to travel to a distant city to spend the high holy days with a famous rabbi. They set out on their journey, without food or money, intending to walk the entire way.
Several days into the journey, weak from hunger and still a long way from their destination, they knew they had made a mistake and they must do something. They came up with a plan. They decided that one of them would disguise himself as a rabbi. That way, when they came to the next village, the people would offer them food, honored to have a rabbi visit their town. None of the three, being pious, wished to be the deceitful one, so they drew straws, and the unlucky one who drew the short straw had to don the clothing of a rabbi. Another dressed as his assistant.
When they drew near to the next village, they were greeted with excited cries of joy, “A rabbi is coming! A rabbi is coming!” Escorted with great ceremony to the local inn, the hungry threesome was treated to a delicious meal.
When the meal was done, however, the innkeeper approached the “rabbi” and spoke with great sorrow. “Rabbi, you must pray for my son,” he said. “He is dying and the doctors have given up hope. But the Holy One, blessed be his name, may respond to our prayers.”
The counterfeit rabbi looked desperately to his friends for help. They motioned for him to go with the innkeeper to his son’s bedside. They had begun this hypocritical game, and now there was no choice but to keep on playing the game. The mock rabbi accompanied the distraught father to his son’s sick bed.
That night, the three travelers slept fitfully. They were eager to get out of town before their deception was discovered. In the morning, the innkeeper, still hoping for a miracle and grateful for the prayer of this visiting “rabbi,” sent the party off with the loan of a carriage and a team of horses.
They left the village and traveled to the great city where they spent magnificent holy days under the spell of the famous rabbi. His teaching of the Torah carried their spirits to the very vault of heaven. But too soon, the holy days were at an end, and the three companions had to go back home through the same village to return the borrowed carriage and horses.
Terrified, the mock rabbi resumed his disguise; his heart was in his throat as they approached the village, especially when he saw the innkeeper running toward them, waving his arms furiously. But to the pretender’s delight and surprise, the innkeeper embraced him with joy, exclaiming, “Thank you, rabbi. Only one hour after you left our village, my son arose from his bed well and strong. The doctors were amazed, but my son lives, and I am grateful for your faithful prayer.”
The two companions looked with astonishment at their phony “rabbi” companion. What had happened? Had his prayer healed the boy? Was he truly a rabbi all along, without telling them? When they were alone, they turned on him with their questions. “What had he done at the boy’s death bed?” they demanded to know.
He replied that he had stood at the boy’s side in silence and then began to lift his thought to heaven: “Master of the universe, please; this father and son should not be punished because they think I am a rabbi. What am I? I am nothing! A pretender! If this child dies, his father will think a rabbi can do nothing. So, Master of the universe, not because of me, but because of his father and his faith, can it hurt that his son would be healed?”
The Hasidim tell this story because of its profound insight into all of us. We are all pretenders, fall short of what God’s desire of us is.
My prayer for myself and for you is that this Lenten season, we remove the masks we hide behind. Take the inward, healing, cleansing journey and allow God’s gracious, merciful, and redemptive work to begin in us.
So that…by Easter Sunday, God will have renewed our spirits by the transforming of our minds.
I look forward to the journey with you.
We have learned much about ourselves, and our ability to adapt in the past year. The arrival of COVID-19 has had some impact on all of us, and tremendous impacts on many.
Our guest post today is from Richard H. Gentzler, Director of the Encore Ministry, part of the Golden Cross Foundation for the Tennessee Conference. Today, Richard brings us hope for a brighter tomorrow as well as words for the care of not just ourselves, but also our neighbor.
The Bible begins with God taking a formless, empty, and dark earth and creating life in God’s image and declaring everything good (Genesis 1:1-31). Since we are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), we understand ourselves to be co-creators with God. As co-creators, we can be grateful for the fact that the world’s scientists collaborated in new ways over a very short time frame to create several vaccines at an unprecedented speed. The development and rollout of the various vaccines to combat COVID-19 is a great benefit to humankind.
However, the virus is still present. We must keep in mind the pre-existing health conditions of many older adults. Even with the vaccines’ effectiveness and speed of their rollout, many more people will likely die in the months ahead. What continues to be of upmost importance for older adults’ safety over the next few months is a combination of mask wearing, social distancing, and getting vaccinated.
As church leaders, let us be vigilant and help older adults continue taking all necessary safety precautions. Encourage all members, including older adults, to get vaccinated. The State of Tennessee’s website, https://covid19.tn.gov/covid-19-vaccines/, informs Tennesseans about COVID-19 vaccinations and enables each person to sign up for special COVID-19 announcements from the state. Similar information for Kentuckians can be found at https://govstatus.egov.com/ky-covid-vaccine.
Share with your congregation the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines concerning daily activities during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- In general, the more closely you interact with others and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread
- If you engage in public activities, continue to protect yourself by practicing everyday preventive actions such as wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing or sanitizing your hands frequently
- Keep these items on hand when venturing out: a face mask, tissue, and hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol
Prayerfully, the pandemic won’t last forever and we will begin a new normal. May God bless and guide you in your ministry by, with, and for older adults.
Grace and peace,
Richard H. Gentzler, Jr., D.Min.
Director, ENCORE Ministry
In observation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and the upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, the Council of Bishops President Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey has issued a call to action letter.
A Call to Action for The United Methodist Church in Times of Challenge
Grace and Peace to you, Sisters and Brothers in Christ. These are challenging times that we live in. The continued rise of COVID-19 infections and deaths around the world, the attack on the US Capitol last week, and the undeniable expressions of racism, white supremacy and systemic inequity in our communities have provided a sobering start to the new year. And yet, I find that the upcoming commemoration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Inauguration Day in the US provide us, in the midst of turmoil, with much needed opportunities for reflection and rededication.
The images of insurrectionists storming the hallowed halls of the Capitol cannot be unseen. For the first time in history the President of the United States has been impeached for the second time. The deployment of thousands of National Guard troops to Washington, DC for the inauguration appear as scenes from a movie. As one who sits in a state capitol preparing for further disruption, I grieve for America, for democracy and for our Christian witness.
I ask myself, “what would Dr. King say? What would he do?”
Dr. King lived during challenging times as well. In his sermon, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, he says, “One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”
Dr. King proclaimed and demonstrated a picture of peace for our world that has been so deeply violated. Those who participated in the act of sedition last week wanted the world to believe that it was a revolution, but it was not. It was insurrection rooted in racism.
The majority of persons on the capitol grounds were white.
The slurs shouted were not Christian.
The signs invoking the name of Jesus in the midst of these violations offensive.
The destruction of property is inexcusable.
The Confederate flag waving in the Rotunda was abhorrent.
All were signs of white supremacy that runs rampant in America today.
Despite this disheartening event and the history of violence and harm that has been fueling it for generations, I believe that we are in the midst of the revolution that Dr. King references. Social change is happening. Peaceful protests for racial justice which declare that Black Lives Matter are helping to make our voices heard and are changing the way we live together.
The lectionary gospel lesson for this Sunday (John 1:43-51) finds Jesus issuing a call to one of the disciples, Philip, to “follow me” and another, Nathaniel, deciding whether or not to say yes. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked. There are many who look upon the blemished history of our denomination and wonder if we will sleep through this revolution. They wonder if anything good can come from The United Methodist Church in the movement to dismantle racism. As members of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, we have rededicated ourselves to this work and are responding to this query as Phillip did saying, “Come and see.”
We invite you to join us as we take seriously the call to follow Jesus during these challenging times by renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of this world and repenting of our sin. In the coming weeks we will be offering and highlighting opportunities for spiritual formation, dialogue, and action so that we might, like Dr. King, serve as the ambassadors of love, grace, peace and justice that once and for all tear down the strongholds of hatred, oppression, and division among us.
My prayer is that the people of The United Methodist Church will not sleep through this revolution. We must be willing to adopt the new hearts, minds and skills necessary to build a church and world where all belong and are embraced as beloved of God.
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey
President-Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church
It’s been my pleasure to participate in some way at Warmth in Winter over the past few years, and this year is no exception. Even though the event will look very different than in the past, our young people and youth leaders will still come together virtually for a weekend of worship, music and fun. I am looking forward to being there to worship with them!
For those of you new to this event, Warmth in Winter is a place for our teens to deepen their faith, connect as a group, and grow together with the larger church. We usually host over 2,000 youth who gather together in a big hall. The pandemic has forced a redesign of the event for 2021.
The team planning Warmth in Winter put together a brief video to explain how things will work this year. I’m including it on my blog to help them get out the word – to the entire Episcopal Area. One of the big advantages of holding this event online is that ALL of our churches to the east AND west can easily participate. I encourage you to do so.
Over the past 40 years, Warmth in Winter has transformed the lives of many young people. I have no doubt it will again this year. I hope to “see” you there!
Message from WnW planning team members
While we know this is a little different, we are excited about what God is going to do through this new, and outside the box, year!
The cost is $35 per person and for all supplies -except for food- including a t-shirt for every person signed up. But, register soon! This cost will go up to $45 per person after January 15.
In the midst of an unusual year, many of our ministries found ways to flourish and grow. Trinity Community Commons is one such ministry. Our guest post today is from Nate Paulk, Director of Trinity Community Commons in East Nashville, a part of East Nashville that has not re-gentrified.
Trinity Community Commons is an example of a ministry that is seeing all the people and investing in their neighbors. For the last several years, TCC has been reaching the surrounding community, building relationships so that when schools went virtual the team at Trinity was able to provide a safe, virtual learning environment for children who otherwise would not have been able to receive online learning.
Seven years ago, I sat alone in an empty church building and wondered how it might be useful to the community.
This past year I caught a glimpse of what was possible. TCC quietly continued to be a gift to its community in ways that I could not really imagine. In a year that was so hard for so many of our community members, the space and the organization of TCC remained a refuge and a beacon of light when it was needed most.
Our team is entering into 2021 with clarity and vision: We leverage sacred space to affirm and activate the worth and potential of all people in our community.
There are so many accomplishments from this year which were unimaginable to me seven years ago. One of the most obvious was our creation of a Virtual Learning Support program for neighborhood families. Additionally, supplies were deployed, people were fed, families were supported, people were connected with resources to help them cope with an unbearable 2020.
All of this was achieved by a team of common people with a shared vision and belief that this sacred space says something about a community. We hold powerful beliefs about our community: that people are worthy of every gift, experience and opportunity that comes their way and the potential held in each child and adult will transform our world.
Thank you for your investment in the work of becoming common. Happy New Year!
TCC Executive Director
One hundred sixty-eight years ago this Advent season, the priest and the organist of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church combined their talents to create a carol which is perfect in its simplicity and wonder. For Phillip Brooks, the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were inspired by the profound memory of his 1865 visit to the Holy Land.
In the summer and fall of 1865, Brooks had the great joy of traveling in Europe.
By December, his travels took him to the holy places in Israel and Palestine. On Christmas Eve, he arrived in the little town across the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem. For those who have travelled to the Holy Land in recent years, Bethlehem is anything but a small quaint village. But in 1865, Bethlehem was a quaint small town. That night, Brooks visited the old Church of the Nativity where tradition indicates the birth of Jesus occurred. Brooks wrote: “I stood close to the spot where Jesus was born. The whole Church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.”
If life allows it, how wonderful it would be to spend Christmas in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity! Here’s the truth of the Advent journey: every Advent we are invited to go to Bethlehem. It is the culmination of our spiritual pilgrimage every Advent.
I contend that we need this Advent journey this year as desperately as we have needed it in my lifetime. As I write this, 300,000 persons have died from Covid-19. I dare say not one of us is untouched by some friend or family member who has been infected. We know what it is to sing, “where in thy dark streets shineth” and “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
The beauty of this simple yet profound hymn is that God comes. God comes to the small, the insignificant. God came at Christmas through the lowly—a baby, a manger, a place called Bethlehem, to Mary and Joseph, shepherds far from the seat of power in Rome. To make this journey is to discover that truth.
Not only does God come to the small and insignificant, God comes in the silence. The hymn, “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. No ear can hear his coming.” It strikes me, when I read the Bible, that the world was created in silence. In the beginning. In creation…silence.
When I was a young adult, I did a little duck hunting. I remember going out before daylight in a boat to a duck blind and waiting in silence until the first light of day came through the trees. I can still hear the sound of ducks landing or taking off, breaking the silence of the morning. I gladly would go again and sit in the cold just to hear the profound sound of hundreds of ducks landing or taking flight.
I’m quite sure the first Christmas was not silent. Most certainly the baby Jesus cried. The barnyard animals made their noises. Mary and Joseph, no doubt, discussed this moment. Here’s the truth of it: God makes and remakes a world out of silence and saves it. The final word of truth from the hymn is this: God comes to bring salvation. Brooks penned these powerful words: “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”
Theologically, Brooks makes a move here few of us do in Advent and Christmas. He links the child to the savior who will cast out our sin. We are drawn, if we are paying any attention at all this Christmas, to the brokenness of our world. You know too well the brokenness of our country, the death of thousands, the suffering of many more. People are dying alone. Socially distanced funerals are the norm. We do not live in peace. Food lines are lengthening while our leaders in Washington debate a relief package for US citizens. Many have been unemployed for far too long. Others fear unemployment will soon come. Evictions from homes are dreaded. How we need the hope and confidence of these words today.
1. O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
2. For Christ is born of Mary,
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together,
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the king,
and peace to all on earth!
3. How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
4. O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
o come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!
In the spirit of Lectio Divina, I invite you to write down the word or phrase that speaks to you this day. Meditate on that phrase. Write it on your heart. Write as many word associations as you can think of to this phrase. Think deeply about your life. Offer your thoughts as a prayer. And trust that God will hear and shape your responding in ways you could never imagine.
For me this day, I pray “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” My longings for normalcy in this season are growing stronger every day. Too much of my time is lost in fretting over what I cannot control. So again, this Advent, I invite the Holy child of Bethlehem to come, to abide, to be little, Emmanuel.
This morning, in Sunday School, we reflected on memorable Christmas Eve Services. From the time I was 13 years old, my church home was First United Methodist Church, New Albany, MS. It remains to this day the place of meeting our Lord. It is my Bethel. From 13 until I was 28 years old, we celebrated Christmas Eve in the sanctuary there. In the years beyond college, I was often the liturgist in the service. Always, Phillip Brooks was with us in spirit as we sang this hymn.
As you journey to Bethlehem this year, reach back and touch your Bethel. Remember where Jesus entered in and sin no longer had power over you. Pray that God will impart God’s richest blessings on you and your family.
Until we can be together singing hymns and lifting candles, let God’s presence surround you with great grace and peace and hope.
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The lectionary Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent always centers on John the Baptist, “the voice crying in the wilderness.” In just a few verses, Mark will send Jesus out into the wilderness where he experiences temptation.
Mark was well acquainted with the wilderness, as was Jesus. In terms of the geography of the Holy Land, there is Galilee where things are lush and green and water is plentiful. Less than 100 miles to the south, there is the stark contrast of the wilderness where the land is barren and dry and dusty.
John the Baptizer was well acquainted with the wilderness.
So here he is, “A voice crying in the wilderness. Prepare. Make straight.” Get your affairs in order. There is One coming whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.
The wilderness isn’t a Condo at the beach.
The wilderness is not just somewhere out there.
For some of us, the wilderness is a place inside our hearts. It is an emptiness. It is longing.
It is an absence of the presence of God. It is a place where no grace is found.
In the Biblical sense, wilderness was a place where Israel lost its way. It was a place where there was no home. It was a place where the children of Israel bowed before other gods.
Wilderness, we will remember in just a few weeks, was the place where Jesus was tempted to abandon God’s will.
To be clear, wilderness is not so much a place as it is a terrifying experience. There are no clear paths. Much chaos, plenty of temptation and bewilderment sets in.
And yet, the music this text sings is that out in the wilderness God comes. In a wild place where the screams of wild animals are heard, there is a different song being sung.
“Prepare Ye the way of Lord.”
I can still hear in my mind the pure, steady voices from the musical Godspell (https://youtu.be/qzLrs3eKbXk ) that many church youth choirs sang in my years as a youth.
Maybe the reason John comes pointing the way to Jesus is that we can’t find our way to him on our own, so God has to come to us.
And this voice crying out is calling us to a different way of living—a call to listen to a different kind of voice. Not the voices that demand you to do something or go somewhere but rather a voice that calls for a change in direction. A chance to come clean. An opportunity to stop pretending. To start over. To get washed clean. This is the Lord’s voice, spoken through one of his very own.
This call is more than a mild adjustment to our attitude or practices. It is an invitation to rewrite the script of our lives. It is an invitation to encounter the past we have lived through but have not fully experienced. It is to remember. Before we can more forward, we remember.
Eudora Welty comes close to this when she writes in her small volume, “One Writer’s Beginnings,” about what deep insight can come when people explore memories of experiences they thought they already fully understood. She writes, “connections slowly emerge…cause and effect begin to align themselves…and suddenly a light is thrown back, like when a train rounds a curve showing there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you have come…and is rising still.”
This is the terrain about which John is preaching. This is the territory of repentance.
Sometimes, if we are not careful, because of our familiarity with a particular passage of scripture, we will gloss over a text or will try to make it say something it does not mean.
There are other times when because of the circumstances of life or what we are enduring in a season we pause in a different way and hear the scripture anew. When we allow the Holy Spirit to speak in that way, the Bible will encounter us anew. The demanding possibilities will come front and center, and we will receive that new word for our lives. That is when, I contend, we are in a posture of repentance. We rise and go in a different direction, follow Christ into new places, in new ways.
And we see more of God’s hand at work than we ever knew or expected.
Then, then, we, too, begin to sing…prepare ye the way of the Lord.
I’m listening. The world needs your voice to join with the voices already singing. Together we can prepare to receive the Christ anew.
Bishop William T. McAlilly
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
In 1744, Charles Wesley penned these familiar words to this powerful Advent hymn, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Second only in popularity to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” this hymn ushers the Church into Advent by reminding us of the long awaited return of Jesus. In fact, Advent is a looking forward with expectation of that time when Jesus will return and looking back at a journey to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. Both sentiments find voice in this powerful hymn.
Charles Wesley was captured by the words of Haggai 2:7: “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” After reflecting on this text, Wesley began to imagine what the birth of the Christ child might mean to his community, indeed, to the entire world. In England in the mid 1700’s many were suffering in hunger and poverty. Children were abandoned and left as orphans. There were class distinctions, and slavery was on the rise. To Wesley, it seemed little had changed in the 1700 years since Christ was born. In fact, he wondered if humanity had improved at all.
In spite of the bleakness of the conditions around Wesley, a thread of hope began to emerge in his mind as he thought of Jesus’ birth. He found himself hoping for the return of Christ, likening that thought to the expectation of Haggai as he looked forward to the birth of Christ. In that hope, he penned the expectant words of this hymn.
1. Come thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.
2. Born Thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit, Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Wesley understood the power of the Christ to set people free. Jesus is the fulfilling of prophecy and the answer to the problems all persons know, as well as to the world. The hymn embraced both the loving nature of Christ and the power of that love to deliver the world from sin. Ultimately, it was the love of Christ that would change us into being more Christ like.
The year 2020 has been a year of waiting. And while we wait expectantly for some semblance of normalcy—in respect to the pandemic of Covid-19, the healing of relationships due to systemic racism, political divisions in the land—we are reminded in the lectionary texts for the Season of Advent that wilderness is a part of the journey to Bethlehem. John the Baptist quotes Isaiah in John 1:23, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
We have felt some sense of wilderness this year. Sometimes our wilderness is of our own making. At other times wilderness visits us and thrusts us into an unfamiliar place emotionally and sometimes physically. In that space, we hold on to one another even when we are distanced. We love each other well by distancing and mask-wearing. We stay connected via Zoom, texts, calls, Face Time, and FaceBook live. We trust that God is with us. We trust that God is calling us to a deeper walk in this wilderness time.
We pray, come thou long expected Jesus. Let our hearts rest in thee. Deliver us. Free us from the chains that bind us. Fill us with love that conquers. Let power and love combine to free us from fear and anxiety. Let us live with holiness of heart and life.
Advent is a season of waiting. It is the metaphor for 2020. We are waiting, Lord.
Make us whole.
Let us live with great expectation for a world that is healing in body, mind and spirit.
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, United Methodist Hymnal No. 196, 1989.
Collins, Ace (2006). “13: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”. More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Zondervan. p. 102. ISBN 0-310-26314-X.
I welcome Reverend Johnny Jeffords as a guest writer for today. Please read and share his excellent post.
Sisters and brothers,
As we enter the holiday season this year, we can’t help but be aware that so much is different. Even in the best of times the season is difficult for many. The irony of “the most wonderful time of the year” being the time most dark and painful is a present reality. Statistically we know that the season amplifies the mental and behavioral health issues with which many struggle, and so many live that struggle in silence or untreated altogether.
And now we have the not yet fully realized impact of a global pandemic in front of us. This year, 2020, it’s all been too much. I’ve heard many say how ready they are for 2020 to go away. It’s an understandable feeling. The number of times I’ve heard the word “unprecedented” in 2020, is, well, unprecedented. The never seen before doesn’t surprise us as it once did. The unprecedented has become common. And you know what? It’s exhausting.
The challenges of this year have made us rethink so much. What does it mean to be the church in a pandemic? What does it mean to live in community at a distance? What is it to school our children? To take care of the least of these? Add the holidays into this mix, what with all that they are that is joyous for many while triggers for anxiety and depression for others, and this season will unquestionably be unlike any we’ve known before. It’s, and there’s that word again, unprecedented.
And then there’s the health implications of coming together within the expectations of family traditions. How does that happen? Does it happen? There was a time earlier on when we thought that these months of inconvenience would give way quickly to the return to the normal we lived in before. But what we knew as normal will always remain in the past. The pandemic has left us indelibly marked, as we have been by the divisions of political and theological tribalism, and by the abuses of power writ large. Brought together, it’s a lot. It’s too much, really. Our need to care for one another has never been greater. Our need to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves has never been more important either.
No doubt public health leaders will give their best guidance on how to approach family gatherings during the holidays, and we’d do well to adapt our traditions to best protect those we love most. But each of us is feeling the pressure of the season in different ways. Some of us are finding that this year is more difficult than any before. We know we’re in trouble and scared about what to do next. In the absence of healthy resources, we revert to behaviors to numb our pain to the detriment of own health and to the relationships of those we love. What I’m encouraging each of you to do this season is be aware of your own inner struggles and know there are resources available to help you.
One such resource lives under the umbrella of Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare. It’s the Dennis H. Jones Living Well Network. The story of how LWN came to be is born out of the tragic death of a United Methodist layperson who lived in the silence of devastating depression. LWN is Dennis’ family’s ongoing gift of hope for those who need not struggle in silence anymore. LWN evaluates need and makes direct connections with resources that helps each person address their struggles. The Jones family’s gift to the community is available for any of us, all of us. The number is 901-762-8558. There is a counselor available to talk with you from 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday. You can find them on the internet at https://www.methodisthealth.org/the-living-well-network/ .
So, we’re looking for healing. People of faith always are. In the Greek, the word for healing, “sozo,” carries a wide range of resonant meanings among which are healing, wholeness and salvation. It concerns the totality of who we are with focus on our spiritual health, our physical health, and our mental health. If you’re struggling with stress, depression and anxiety, don’t be afraid. If you’re self-medicating to cope and are tired of living in the shadows, there is help. The totality of who you are is how God made you. And God desires restoration of our total selves, mind, body and spirit.
If you’re struggling, there is no shame. There is only care, only hope.
In June, a task force was established for the purpose of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and giving guidance about in person worship. The document they put forth assisted congregations in making wise decisions about proper protocols and protections. You can re-familiarize yourself with it here.
As many congregations have resumed some in-person worship and activity, it has gone reasonably well and great appreciation for being together has been expressed. After all, we are meant to be in fellowship with each other to worship our Lord and to serve our neighbors.
I am mindful that across the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences there have been ministers and laypersons who have contracted the virus. We give thanks for the recovery of many and grieve the loss of life among us that has been experienced in our churches.
As I am sure you know, the virus is spiking in areas across our future Tennessee Western Kentucky Conference. Therefore, I felt it wise to offer further guidance to assist your decision-making based on your context.
Some of our churches are making decisions about in-person worship based on data points such as the positivity rate, which is the percent of people being tested who receive a positive result.
Across Tennessee and Kentucky, we are seeing average positivity rates of over 13%. In Tennessee, 84% of our ICU beds are in use. These increases warrant consideration of suspending in-person worship for a season.
The wisdom of Dr. Scott Morris of our Church Health Center is that in-person worship should be suspended in favor of virtual worship for those communities with a positivity rate of 5% or higher.
You may find the rates for Tennessee and Kentucky from local media. You may also visit https://covidactnow.org/ where data points at the state and county level including positivity rate, transmission rate, ICU usage and more are available.
As the numbers increase in each community, more precaution is necessary. It is wise to await a 7- to 14-day trend of significant decrease in new cases before we relax safeguards.
If both clergy and lay leadership agree that it is safe to continue in person worship, it is important that each person in worship wears a mask. This is because we know that not all people who have contracted the virus show symptoms, which increases unknown spread.
All of these actions, virtual worship, mask wearing, social distancing, additional surface cleaning and frequent hand washing help to reduce the strain on our healthcare systems, and by so doing we are loving our neighbor well – in a tangible way.
I acknowledge that there are some who dismiss the threat of COVID-19, and that there are more still who are very anxious in this time. What we know to be true is this: 12 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 – almost 4% of the US population. There have been 256,000 deaths due to COVID – about .08% of the US population. On average, you have a 99.92% chance of not dying from COVID-19. You don’t need to be paralyzed in fear. However, most experts believe that these numbers can be decreased based upon the precautions we can take to reduce the spread of the virus.
Also, please take precautions during the Thanksgiving season to protect your family and friends. Our family has determined it is best not to gather in person.
As I reflect on the hardships of so many during 2020, I pray for those among us who have suffered diminished health, economic hardships, loss of employment, and loss of life of family and friends. I pray for our children, youth, and young adults who are struggling with their education as well as for those teachers and professors who are providing instruction in this environment. I pray for parents who are strained with childcare concerns and workloads. I pray for our healthcare workers as they provide care for those in their communities under stressful conditions. I pray for our pastors as they shepherd their congregations through these difficult days while in search of the green pastures and still waters that will surely come.
I pray for all of us to live with a spirit of gratitude as we approach Thanksgiving, knowing that, for many of us, Thanksgiving will look very different this year. I am grateful for the many ways you have continued to reach out in your neighborhoods to meet the needs of your friends and neighbors.
In 1974 I celebrated my eighteenth birthday. As I recall, there was no fanfare, no big celebration. I think my mother probably made her famous strawberry cake that was divine. However, this was a monumental milestone for I was now (legally) an adult.
The Draft for military service was winding down, as was the Vietnam War. In fact, the 1967 Selective Service Act expired in 1973 ending the authority to induct draft registrants. However, those of us turning 18 in 1974 were still required to register. I was grateful the war was coming to a close.
The second marker of 1974 was that I was now eligible to vote in United States elections so I was eager to register. I did so and since 1974 have exercised my privilege to vote. It is a sacred honor of our democracy.
Over the years I have cast my ballot most often for the person, regardless of the party, who I believed could best serve our country, state, city and county governments.
I have already exercised that privilege this year by voting with a mail-in ballot in the State of Tennessee.
As I consider this election season, at the heart are two significant concerns:
The first one is civil—that is, the preservation of democratic norms and institutions. In Abraham Lincoln’s powerful address at Gettysburg, these now famous words come to mind: “that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
This is the beauty of being an American and the privilege of being a United States citizen. We participate in sharing in the preservation of democracy every time we cast our vote. If our preferred candidate is defeated in an election, we accept it and move on until the next opportunity to support our preferred candidate.
The second one is ecclesial—that is, our ability and willingness to love one another through this civil process. It is the heart of our Christian faith. Neighbor love is how our dear friend Dr. Doug Meeks speaks of Jesus’ instruction to love God and love neighbor. When we love our neighbor we are concerned for all the dimensions of a person’s life.
Perhaps you are familiar with John Wesley’s instructions about an upcoming election in Parliament. He wrote in his 1774 Journal:
“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them:
- To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy.
- To speak no evil of the person they voted against,
- And, to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.“
My sense is this: these two concerns are at stake in the November election: 1) Civil—the preservation of our democracy and 2) Ecclesial—the exercising of the call of Christ on our lives to neighbor love.
A lot has changed in our country since 1974. I have travelled many roads. I still remember in one of my early appointments two members of the same church. In the home of one hung a picture of President Ronald Reagan, in the other, a picture of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
That’s who we United Methodist’s are—those with the ability to disagree and hold hands at the same time. Love God and love our neighbor.
It’s not 1974 anymore, not that I wish it were. I simply acknowledge that the landscape has shifted and continues to shift. It often feels as if we are in the wilderness, and it is yet unclear when we will come to the Promised Land. The cultural shifting of partisanship politics bleeds into the Church. The margin for misunderstanding grows wider and wider in this politically polarizing season. Contrary to what some might like to believe, Jesus is not a Republican, nor a Democrat.
Voter suppression is real and has been for 150 years in this country. Historically, voters of color and low-income voters have had their right to vote suppressed by those in power. What does voter suppression look like today? State and local governments making it harder for people to register to vote; purging voter rolls; disenfranchising criminal justice populations; reducing the number of polling places; restricting early voting; enforcing rigid voter ID requirements; restricting alternatives to physical voting and registration.
All those who seek to cast votes need to have the privilege granted to every American citizen. Those votes need to be cast with integrity and honesty.
It is my prayer that regardless of your political preferences, you will participate in helping make our country more loving and just.
It is in that spirit that I offer this prayer from the Moravian Daily Text, November 4, 2018:
God of love, may our love for you mirror your love for us. May others know us to be your disciples—through our love for our enemies and those with whom we differ—as well as those with whom we have affinity. Amen.
O God, give us clarity of mind and spirit. Bring us to a place of deep understanding and peace within our land. Keep us from harming one another. Give us courage to speak our truth in love as we exercise the privilege given to us to vote in this country. These and all things we pray in the name of the one who taught us to love You and love those you love. Amen.
I encourage each of you to VOTE in the upcoming election. And then, no matter the outcome, let’s come together to be the people of God in our land, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, and in our families.
We have work to do…offering Christ to a hurting world one neighborhood at a time.
Perhaps you have seen in United Methodist News Service or other sources the news of the tragedy that occurred September 27 in Eastern Congo.
Six United Methodists were among 19 civilians killed in a massacre in Mamove that has been blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces, an armed rebel group that operates in Eastern Congo and Uganda. ADF, a radical Islamist group, is believed to be responsible for the Sept. 27 attack as well as a series of massacres in Eastern Congo since January that involved some other rebel groups.
Many of those who lost their lives were among our United Methodist brothers and sisters. On Oct. 6 those who died were memorialized at the Kivu Annual Conference . The Rev. Dumas Balaganire, District Superintendent of the Beni District, reports that there are four local United Methodist Churches in the Mamove area.
Balaganire said the United Methodists who were killed are:
— Kakule Olenga, who led the choir at Mamove United Methodist Church.
— Okenge Junior, a member of the Mutuei church and the district evangelist.
— Abibu Chantal, president of United Methodist Women at the Samboko church.
— Mwayuma Shabani, secretary of the women’s group at Mutuei United Methodist Church.
— Augustin Omeno, president of the United Methodist Men at the Mamove church.
— Muyisa Kambale, the treasurer of the Mamove church.
This is a devastating loss to these communities and to the United Methodist family. As you might imagine, several children lost a parent.
We would like to support these communities with a financial gift. If you or your congregation wishes to make a love offering to the Bini District, please do so through the Memphis Conference or the Tennessee Conference Office of Administrative Services.
Our prayers continue to surround these brothers and sisters in Christ during this tragic and devasting loss.