Month: December 2009

Ten Trends to Watch in 2010

The end of the year brings out the list-maker in all of us.  Not to disappoint you, here are the 10 trends that I’m going to be watching in 2010:

  1. Mobile everything. As the mobile phone morphs into the mobile communications device, 2010 will be a break-through year.  Google will introduce the first “unchained” phone in a a few days, giving Americans a taste of what the rest of the world already has — the ability to buy a phone separate from the mobile service provider.  Also, watch for “carrier billing” on phones, allowing you to purchase directly from your cell phone and have the item billed by your mobile provider.  Apple should introduce its new tablet, which will revolutionize the whole mobile entertainment world.  Think video, ebooks, ezines,  iTunes, podcasts, email, gaming, web browsing, and more, all from a tablet device that’s always on, always connected, and multi-capable.  The YouVersion Bible mobile app is a great example of how one church,, recognizes and is capitalizing on this mobile trend.
  2. Economic recalibration. We are quickly learning to live on less, save more, and hedge against the next financial shockwave.  Paul Krugman writes of a contraction of the economy in mid-2010, so the pain of the past 15-months will extend another 6-9 months at least.  But economic recalibration is already taking place at the state and local government level — government will deliver fewer services and more of us will be on our own than ever before.  This economic adjustment will be longer lasting that other pull-backs and may mark a new attitude toward money and material goods on the part of Americans across the board.  Charitable giving, including church giving, will be affected by this adjustment.
  3. Prolonged polarization. The nation continues to be divided almost evenly into increasingly rigid camps.  What passes for political and social debate will continue to be little more than playing to the entrenched positions of the base of each party, ideology, and theology.  With the fading culture wars of the last century, of which The Manhattan Declaration is probably the last vestige, churches have a unique opportunity to bridge the social, racial, political, gender, class, and theological divide.  It remains to be seen if we will take that challenge.
  4. Weariness with war. With the battlefield focus shifting to Afghanistan, and possibly Yemen, we’ll grow increasingly tired of the whole idea of War, including the costs both human and financial.  Again the church may or may not grapple with the theology of war, but the issue will not go away in 2010.
  5. Multiple church models. Tall Skinny Kiwi has pronounced 2009 as the year the emerging church movement ended, and I think he’s probably right.  But the bright spot in its fading is that the emerging church discussion opened the way for multiple models of church to find legitimate expression.  The traditional, attractional, missional, postmodern, house, monastic, marketplace, mega, multi-site, multi-ethnic, and other models now exist and flourish in communities all across America.  For the first time in my lifetime, no one church model is THE model that everyone must follow.  The good news in all of this is that small churches are viable in many of these expressions, and small churches are receiving recognition as a healthy, legitimate church model.
  6. Denominational disinterest. Okay, this one is pretty obvious already, but it will only continue into the next decade which begins in a few days.  Rather than use the word “decline,” I am using “disinterest” because that is the attitude I see toward the centralized denominational headquarters model.  There is not a big push to dismantle denominations either, unless you’re a Baptist or Episcopalian, both of which are self-destructing without outside interference.  Mostly, the question of denominations is a big yawn for the next ten years.
  7. Spiritual longing. The opposite pole of denominational disinterest is spiritual longing, the desire for a meaningful spiritual connection to something bigger and better that can help us live life with more satisfaction.  Americans are taking a “do-it-yourself” approach to creating their own spirituality.  Churches can address this desire, or miss this moment.  As Andrew Jones says, we aren’t going to meet this kind of longing with a church like grandpa’s.
  8. Limited access. Fewer students will be able to afford the college of their choice, or any college.  Fewer families will rise out of poverty into the middle class. Fewer opportunities for advancement will accompany the flat job market.  In short, access to many of the possibilities we took for granted in the decade just passing will be limited in the decade just arriving.  The question for churches is, “How does hope flourish in a world of diminishing opportunity?”
  9. The problems of pluralism. We are just learning to recognize other faith traditions, and in 2010 the problems of religious (and non-religious) pluralism will continue to present themselves.  The traditional American response of “this is a Christian nation” will prove to be an inadequate response to other faiths and traditions claiming their place on the religious, or non-religious, smorgasbord.  Churches will adopt either an attitude of defensiveness, or of dialogue with non-Christian groups.
  10. Age, gender, and sex. These issues will continue into the coming decade as the baby boomers reach their 70’s, gay marriage becomes both accepted and rejected in various jurisdictions, and churches are increasingly challenged on the issues of gender in leadership of both ordained and laypersons.  The Anglicans have center stage in this drama right now, but no religious group will escape this discussion in the years ahead.

Obviously, I don’t have a crystal ball, and most of these things are already self-evident, but I believe we will continue to see these issues impact what and how we do church in the next year, and in the next ten years.  What would you add to this list?  Or what do you take issue with?  What are your 10 trends for the 2010?

Are Angels The New Vampires?

Are angels the new vampires?

Anne Rice, the author who made vampires trendy in her Vampire Chronicles series, came back to the Christian faith in 1998.  Upon returning to the Roman Catholic Church, Rice published two books about the life of Christ. She has now turned her attention to the subject of angels.  Her new book, Angel Time, is the first in her Songs of the Seraphim series.

The question is — will Anne Rice do for angels what she did for vampires?  Rice was the author who spawned a virtual vampire industry.  Stephenie Meyer’s  The Twilight Series is being made into movies, and one blogger came up with the 10 most popular vampire book series.  Lots of vampires and lots of readers who love vampire stories apparently.

Time will tell if Rice is able to turn angels into the next cultural trend, which would be interesting if it happened.  Rather than the Goth look some kids love, we might get the Archangel look which parents would love.  Halos would become popular, and wings would make a big comeback.  But, I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

But let’s say angels do become the new vampires, trend-wise that is.  What do you know about angels?  Rice sets her novel in a time-shifting milieu that finds a 21st century assassin transported back to the middle ages to defend Jews who are being persecuted.  She believes angels move, not in linear time, but in another kind of time reserved only for — you guessed it — angels.  Hence the title of the book, Angel Time.

But, back to my question — What do you know about angels?  Did you know that the evangelical take on angels is pretty thin compared to the Roman Catholic Church?  Did you know that a guy named Pseudo-Dionysius (called that because he wasn’t the real Dionysius apparently) said there were 9 ranks of angelic beings including Powers, Principalities, Thrones, Dominions, Angels, Archangels, Cherubim, Virtues, and Seraphim?  And, finally, did you know that angels are charged with care of creation as well as people?

In my own internet search for theological books on angels, I ran across very few.  Most angel books tell accounts of how angels appeared to various people, but few give serious theological consideration to the subject of angels.  In light of this dearth of material on angels, should we just dismiss the whole angelic order as though we’ve out-grown the childish notion that there are guardian angels?  Or should we get to know more about angels because we might have to respond to questions about Rice’s books?

What do you think?  Are angels the new vampires?

Here’s Anne Rice’s statement to her fans about her Christian faith and the Vampire Chronicles.

Sermon: Favor with God and Man

Favor With God and Man
Luke 2:41-52

41Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. 42When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. 43After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

49“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

51Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

A Story About A Boy

Christmas has come and gone, and we are now in the season of Christmastide, those days between the feast of Christmas and Epiphany, the time when the wisemen come to pay homage to the Christ Child.  But other than the story of Jesus’ birth, and the visit of the wisemen, this is the only story we have of Jesus as a boy.

Some of the ancient writings that are not in our Bible have fanciful tales of Jesus making little birds out of clay, and then breathing life into them.  And there are other stories of the boy Jesus performing other miracles.  But somehow those stories don’t ring true today, and didn’t seem credible to those who gathered the sacred texts we now call the Bible.  So this is the only story we have of Jesus as a child between his birth and his baptism as a grown man.

I always liked this story when I was a boy because it was about another boy.  When I was 10 or 12, I would sometimes disappear from my backyard, too.  I grew up in Columbus, Georgia, where my dad was minister of education at Eastern Heights Baptist Church there.  From the time I got my very own red Schwinn bicycle, I was on it as much as possible.

Sometimes it got me into trouble.  Like the time my friend, Charles, and I rode our bikes to the Columbus Municipal Airport and lay on the hillside by the runway watching the planes land and take-off.  Or the time he and I wandered over to Phoenix City, Alabama, just across the Chattahoochee River bridge from downtown Columbus.  You could buy firecrackers in Phoenix City, and Charles and I wanted some.  We were successful in buying them, but not in getting them home because a couple of older boys pushed us down and took them away from us.

So, I knew what it was like to be some place and your parents not know where you were.

Of course, I thought Jesus’ parents were way too soft on him.  Mine weren’t.  On more than one occasion I got spanked for going too far from home.  So, I was kind of jealous of Jesus in a way for getting off so light.  But then he had a great answer when his parents finally found him —

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Well, I never could come up with an answer as good as that one, plus I wasn’t at church because I was either buying firecrackers or trespassing on airport property, neither of which were particularly spiritual pursuits.

But I always liked the story, nevertheless, just because it was about Jesus as a boy.  And I liked the verse that said in the King James Version —

“And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”

My mother had explained to me what that meant when I was younger.  Jesus grew wiser, he grew taller, and he found favor with both God and other people.  I am sure she encouraged me to do the same.

The growing in stature part was pretty well beyond my control, or I would have made myself taller.  But my mother pointed out, I am sure, that I could grow in wisdom and in favor with God and others.

The Point of the Story

Of course, most of the time the point of this story is the almost other-worldliness of Jesus.  He knew even as a kid what he was supposed to do.  And even as a 12-year old boy he was about his Father’s business.  We’re also pretty impressed, along with the teachers in the Temple, that a 12-year old was sitting with the teachers, the religious leaders, listening and talking.

This story then becomes a spiritual story for us, and we lose sight of the 12 year old boy sitting there.  Not to take anything away from the way we have traditionally understood the story, but I could identify with Jesus sitting and listening to the adults talk.

When we went to visit my mother’s family in south Georgia, the cousins would play outside all day in the hot Georgia sun.  We’d kick off our shoes and run in the sand road that passed by my grandparents’ farmhouse.  But in the evening, we’d all gather for supper — dinner was what you ate at lunchtime — and then after the supper dishes were cleared, everyone went out on the front porch.

There were two porch swings and several rocking chairs and all the adults would sit in the chairs or swings, while the kids played around the front porch steps.  But while we were playing, we were also listening.  And as we listened we heard stories about the neighbors, who was sick, or who had just had a baby; and we heard stories about the price of beef, or what corn was bringing, or how fertilizer had gone up.  But, we also heard stories about our relatives, some already gone to their reward.

It was sitting on that front porch on a Sunday afternoon that I heard my older cousin, Johnny Kitchens, talk about going to South America as a missionary, and what he was going to do down there.  That was the only conversation I remember because Johnny got polio in South America and died.  The little chapel at the First Methodist Church of Douglas, Georgia was dedicated in his memory later.

So Jesus was doing something kids have done for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  But, of course, he was also asking questions, and apparently answering them as well because all the teachers were amazed at his answers.  I had some teachers amazed at my answers in school, but not always because they were correct or profound.

The point of the story is to give us a clue that this 12 year old wasn’t just any 12 year old.  Even his parents were amazed at his response to them.

Favor with God and Man

Once we’ve told the story of Jesus in the Temple, and after we’ve read the last verse, we usually think about how we can grow in favor with God and man.  Which is a good thing to think about.  But we don’t get anymore clues about how Jesus did it — how he grew in favor with God and man.  There are no more stories about Jesus as a boy.  As a matter of fact, the next time we see Jesus, we see him at his baptism.  And, we hear God his Father saying,”This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased.”

So, Jesus kept growing in favor with God at least.  Man would be a different story because eventually some of the same teachers who were listening to Jesus in wonder that day might have been present when the cry went up, “Crucify him.”  But he continued to grow in favor with God right up until his baptism.

Which always made me wonder how I could do the same, and that usually was the point of sermons taken from this story.  Of course, it was a lot easier to explain how to fall out of favor with God.  There are a lot of ways you can do that.

This week I read Eli Weisel’s first book, Night.  Weisel is a Jew, and the Noble Peace Prize winner who survived the Holocaust.  I had read Weisel’s book, All Rivers Run To The Sea, but Night is his first book, the book that shocked a generation after World War II.

In Night, Weisel tells the story of how his family, and all the families of his small village in Transylvania, were forced from their homes, stripped of their possessions including their gold teeth, and taken in cattle cars by rail to a Nazi concentration camp.

Weisel recounts the horror of filth, degradation, genocide, and deprivation in this book of barely 100 pages.  His tone is not shrill or panicked, but he quietly tells the story of how his father and mother, and his sister and he are taken to an extermination camp.

One woman on the train appears to have a nervous breakdown.  Separated from her husband, she despairs to the point of madness.  Periodically during the train ride through the night, she stands and cries out, “Look at the fire! Look at the fire!”

The occupants of the cattle car strain to see through the slats, only to see the dark night outside.

Several times she jumps to her feet to shout the same message — “Look at the fire!”  Finally, two men gag and tie her up to keep her from disturbing everyone.

But as the train pulls into the concentration camp platform, Weisel says they were all stunned to see the giant smokestacks belching flames against the night sky.  Smokestacks that they would later learn were the crematoria where Jews were being burned.

The Holocaust stands as the epic example of how humanity can fail and fall so far from earning favor with either God or man.

The Father’s Favor

But I think the point of the story of Jesus in the Temple is just this — God loved him and, if possible, that Divine love grew.  God was more pleased each day with Jesus.

Jesus grew in favor the way a grandchild does.  Those of you who are grandparents know what I mean — when they’re born you love them, but as they grow older you delight in their learning to walk, to talk, and then in the funny things they say.  Each day, not because they do something to earn it, but each day they grow more precious to you without their having done anything.

I think that’s something of what growing in favor with God means.  Each day God loves us more and more.  Each day God’s grace shines upon us more fully than before.  Each day brings God’s delight in His creation, made in His own image, marred by sin, God takes such great delight in us that He sent Jesus to make all things new.

We think we have to earn God’s favor.  Of course, like Jesus, there are things we can do that please God greatly.  To be about God’s work, to love God’s word, to join with God’s people — these are all things that please God.  But God loves us without our deserving it.  Without our qualifying for it.  Without reservation, God loves us and Jesus is the proof of that love.

The Father’s favor comes to us in spite of ourselves, and in our worst moments.

So, how do we know when we have grown in favor with God?

I think God’s favor shows itself in the little things of life.  Do you know why we don’t have any other stories about Jesus as a boy?  I think it was because his life was so very ordinary.  He helped Joseph in the shop, went to synagogue school, obeyed his mother, played with other kids, ran the hills of Nazareth with the rest of the boys, and if they had a baseball team, threw a mean curve ball.  Of course, they didn’t have a baseball team, but they had something like it, and I’m sure Jesus was involved with the rest of the boys, whatever it was.

It’s in the little things of life that we know we have grown in favor with God.  Not the big gigantic things, not the great achievements, but in small ways God let’s us know we have found favor.

Madeleine L’Engle tells one such story.  While speaking at Wheaton College, word came to her that her 9-year old granddaughter, Lena,  had been hit by a truck while she was walking home from swimming.  The news was not good — Lena had two broken legs, broken ribs, her jaw was fractured in two places, her arms and legs had bruises and contusions, and she had a head wound that laid open her scalp to the bone.

She finished her lecture at Wheaton, and asked there for prayer for her granddaughter.  Returning to her room, she tried to call both an Episcopal clergy friend of hers in New York, and the Episcopal Sisters who ran the school her granddaughters attended. Neither of her calls went through.  Finally, after ringing and ringing, one of the sisters answered.  Madeleine told her about Lena, and the sister said that all of New York was blacked out and that she had to feel her way through the dark building to find and answer the phone.  Later, the same sister would tell Madeleine that hers was the only call that came in that night, that afterward the phones quit working altogether.

As was her custom, that night in her hotel room, Madeleine L’Engle reached for the Episcopal Book of Prayer she carried with her.  She always read Evening Prayer.   However, that night when she turned to the Psalm for that evening, a photograph of Lena stood at the page.  Taken only a few days before, L’Engle had stuck it in her prayer book hastily without thinking.

She said she could barely stand to see the photo, but as she held the prayer book, a piece of paper fell from its pages.   Given to her years before by some Catholic nuns, the card contained a quote from St. John of the Cross, a medieval Christian mystic.  The quote read —

“One act of thanksgiving made when things go wrong is worth a thousand when things go well.”

And so she thanked God for Lena’s nine years of life, for their family, and for God’s blessings.  Ten days later, little Lena emerged from her coma.  Among her first words were “Read to me.”  And so they did, night and day, until little Lena recovered. — Walking on Water, p. 184-186.

God’s favor shines down on us in a forgotten photograph, a quote from another time, and the prayers of others.  The little things that make a big difference and remind us of how much God loves us.

“And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”

Doing God’s Work Pays Well If You’re Verizon or Goldman-Sachs

I thought we had heard it all when the chairman of Goldman-Sachs testified that they were “doing God’s work.” Apparently, that altruistic assertion went so well that Verizon has picked up the refrain.

In a response to the FTC’s request for justification for their high fees, Verizon claims their higher early termination fees “help the poor by making it more affordable for them to access the mobile internet,” according to

Of course, both companies made billions of dollars this year.  Apparently doing God’s work pays very well.

The E-book revolution

E-books are popping up everywhere suddenly.  As I write this,’s e-book summit is livestreaming on my office PC.   The hot nearly-new gift for Christmas this year is an e-reader — a Kindle, a Nook, a Sony Reader, or one of the others coming soon.  The entire publishing industry is all abuzz about e-books.  Simon & Schuster announced last week that they would delay e-book editions for four months, giving breathing room to their print editions. Stephen Covey has just broken ranks with his print publisher, asserting his ownership of digital rights, and has struck a deal with Amazon to sell his books at the Kindle store.

What does all this mean?  Here’s my take, for what’s its worth:

  • E-readers are transition devices. Just like PDAs and netbooks, dedicated e-readers are going to bridge the gap between the non-technology generation (baby boomers and older) and the technology natives (those who grew up with all this digital stuff).  In less than 5-years (maybe sooner) e-readers will look as quaint as PDAs do now.
  • Print publishing and print publishers are going away. Just like newspapers, it’s not the content people don’t want, it’s the format (print) and the super slow delivery system.  Even daily newspaper delivery looks really slow compared to instant access to anything you want to read or see. Having to go to a store to buy a book, or even wait for the Amazon delivery 1-2 days later will quickly fade.  This is the always-on era, including all media — books and magazines are just late to this party.
  • Creators will own the entire process, if they want to. People can now create, format, and upload to Amazon and other epub bookstores.  Good stuff will still find its market.
  • Creators may not want to own the entire process, and may outsource the editing and epublishing technicalities to others.  Hence, epublishers are born to deliver as much or as little assistance as needed, both editorially and technically.
  • Distribution can work across multiple channels like Amazon, Sony’s ebookstore, B&N’s ebookstore, and lesser knowns such as Boooklocker, etc.  But, Amazon rules the day now.  They created the instant delivery, the first e-reader that did not need to hook up to a computer, and the “first instantly available with no hassles” delivery system.
  • Print publishers are still trying to protect a dying format — the hardcover first edition.  Note the ill-conceived plan of Simon & Schuster to delay ebooks for 4 months after the hardcover edition.
  • New epublishers who do not think “print” will offer new perspectives on the whole publishing industry.
  • It’s all going mobile soon. Back to my fascination with mobile phones.  Obviously the iPhone was the game-changer that set a new paradigm of multiple uses for a mobile phone.  Tomi Ahonen had a piece last week citing stats that Americans now use their phones more for texting than for voice calls.  The transition has already started of mobile devices as total communication tools — voice, text, data, reader, video, photos, music, internet, pda, etc, etc.  Depending on what Apple does with its iTablet, if it exists, this could be another game changer.  However, the new, rumored Google Phone (bigger screen than the iPhone), which is set to work seamlessly with Google Books is really the future.  One device, that fits in your pocket, that does everything you want to do.
  • What, you ask, does this have to do with small churches, or churches of any size?  For the first time ever in the history of humankind (drumroll) you will be able to communicate directly, personally, and at any time with anyone you choose to.  This has huge implications for how churches communicate, gather people, do ministry, and publish their message.  What do you think are some ways churches could benefit from the epublishing, ebook, and mobile phone revolution?

    Grief as the surprising companion of cancer

    As cancers go, it was the best kind to have, the doctor said.  Basal cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, that lives at the base layer of the skin, but rarely metastasizes to other parts of the body.  The bad news, he said, was that it was in the worst place it could be — in the middle of Debbie’s upper lip.  It would have to be removed.  There would be a scar.  He couldn’t work miracles.  That was only for Hollywood, he said.

    Debbie had noticed what appeared to be an enlarged pore just at the bow of her lip.  Early last summer, she noticed a lump inside her lip just under this pore.  Summer was busy, though.  We had Vacation Bible School in June.  In July, my brother died and we made a week-long trip to south Georgia for his funeral.  In August, I spoke at a conference at Myrtle Beach, where we had a few days in the sun.  In October, Debbie went to a new dermatologist because the lump was bigger.

    The dermatologist immediately diagnosed the enlarged pore and the lump as skin cancer, probably basal cell.  We were both stunned.  Neither of us had thought about cancer.  A cyst, maybe.  A clogged pore.  But cancer was a complete surprise.  A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.  Then we had to wait for an appointment with the surgeon.  Debbie had the option of scheduling a consultation with the dermatological surgeon prior to her surgery.   On a November day we met him in his office.  That’s when he told us the good and bad news.  Most of it seemed bad to us.  Surgery was scheduled for December 11.

    Last Friday, she went in for what would be called minor surgery by a casual observer.  With Mohs surgery, they don’t even put you to sleep.  She walked into the clinic, then out again four hours later.  The cancer was excised, and the doctor, who is also a plastic surgeon, did a wonderful job of repairing her lip where the cancer had been.  It was larger than he thought it would be, he said.  About the size of a nickel, right on her upper lip.

    What surprised us both was the grief that was companion to the cancer.  Our first reaction was shock and disbelief.  How could this be cancer, even the least invasive kind?  It didn’t look like cancer.  Not like all the warning signs of cancer you typically see.  Our shock turned to anger at another doctor who had dismissed the enlarged pore with an “I don’t know what this is, but don’t worry about it.”

    And then we prayed.  And read books on healing, and wondered if somehow God would not heal her so she wouldn’t have to go through the surgery.  And we prayed until we could not pray about it anymore.  We had no more words, no ability to sit together and ask God for anything — healing, peace, grace, calm, nothing.  We had come to the end of our prayers.  We had to hope that Paul was right, that the Spirit would pray for us because we did not know how to pray for ourselves.

    And we cried.  We cried in our private moments, when we turned out the light at night, lying in bed.  We held each other and cried for the uncertainty, the loss, the fear, and the anxiety.  We wept because we had no words with which to comfort each other in the face of this disease that had crept into our life and now occupied almost our every thought.

    We cried for each other when we were not crying for ourselves.  We grieved the loss of this part of Debbie’s body, this part of her lip on which I had seen a million smiles take form and blossom.  We grieved because no one else could grieve for us.  Because all the well-intentioned assurances did not help.

    But the prayers of others did help, we believe.  The surgery went well, the doctor was skillful, and Debbie is healing.  Her lip no longer has its Cupid’s bow, as that little curved part is called.  But she’s well, the cancer is gone, and we’re on the other side of this experience.  What surprised us was the grief, whose shadow is just now fading.

    I have always tried to visit my members who were facing in-patient surgery, and I have sat with families waiting the outcome of open-heart, cancer, and other types of major surgical procedures.   Day surgeries don’t seem as serious.  Medically, I suppose, they are not.  But few will know the emotional and spiritual pain accompanying those procedures we call ‘minor.’  Grief, however, makes no distinction and visits us at surprising moments of our own vulnerability.  I’m going to remember that, I hope.

    Jesus never denied the presence of grief, never dismissed it, but always was present with those in grief.  “Blessed are those who mourn,” he said, “for they shall be comforted.”  I want to be among those who are the comforters, as well as the comforted.

    Study Links Luxury Goods and Selfishness

    A new study reveals a specific link between luxury goods and selfishness. Two experiments showed that “exposure to luxury led people to think more about themselves than others,” according to a Harvard Business School paper.

    Professor Roy Y. J. Chua and Xi Zou conducted two experiments in which one group of participants was exposed to pictures of luxury goods such as watches and shoes, and the other group was shown pictures of watches and shoes that were not luxury brands. After participants identified characteristics of the goods, they were then asked to take an unrelated survey about decision-making. Those exposed to luxury goods were significantly more likely to act in their own self-interest, even at the expense or harm of others.

    In a second experiment, those exposed to luxury goods were less able to identify words that expressed positive social actions, than those who were only exposed to non-luxury goods. In other words, the cognition, or thought process, of those exposed to luxury goods tended to be self-centered, and self-interested with less regard for others.

    All of this might explain why people like Tiger Woods make such absurdly self-centered choices. Tiger owns both a luxury yacht and private jet, not to mention the Cadillac Escalade he just wrecked, or the mansions he owns, and so on.   This might also explain why the head of Goldman Sachs described banks, including his, as “doing God’s work.” Luxury tends to blind us to the needs of others, and bias us toward our own self-interest.

    The Harvard Business article is playfully titled, “The Devil Wears Prada?” — an apparent play on the book and movie by the same name, only without the question mark.

    So, when Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear” he was telling us how to order our lives so that we have the basic necessities of life, but also are concerned that others have them too. It also puts the “prosperity gospel” (I hate to write those words together) in a new light. Preachers who drive around in luxury cars, fly in private jets, and tell their flocks how they can get ahead, may be creating the next generation of self-centered church members. Not that we haven’t seen that before, but this time we have proof that the more you have, the less concern you have for others. Something to think about during the Christmas season.

    Sermon 2nd Advent: God Prepares The Way

    God Prepares The Way

    Malachi 2:17-3:5
    17 You have wearied the LORD with your words.
    “How have we wearied him?” you ask.
    By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

    Malachi 3

    1 “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.

    2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

    5 “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.

    Good News and Bad News

    Two 90-year-old women, Rose and Barb, had been friends all of their lives. When it was clear that Rose was dying, Barb visited her every day. One day Barb said, “Rose, we both loved playing softball all our lives, and we played all through High School. Please do me one favor: when you get to Heaven, somehow you must let me know if there’s women’s softball there.”

    Rose looked up at Barb from her deathbed and said, “Barb, you’ve been my best friend for many years. If it’s at all possible, I’ll do this favor for you.” Shortly after that, Rose passed on.

    At midnight a few nights later, Barb was awakened from a sound sleep by a blinding flash of white light and a voice calling out to her, “Barb, Barb.”

    “Who is it?” asked Barb, sitting up suddenly. “Who is it?”

    “Barb, it’s me, Rose.”

    “You’re not Rose. Rose just died.”

    “I’m telling you, it’s me, Rose,” insisted the voice.

    “Rose! Where are you?”

    “In Heaven,” replied Rose. “I have some really good news and a little bad news.”

    “Tell me the good news first,” said Barb.

    “The good news,” Rose said, “is that there’s softball in Heaven. Better yet all of our old buddies who died before us are here, too. Better than that, we’re all young again. Better still, it’s always springtime, and it never rains or snows. And best of all, we can play softball all we want, and we never get tired.”

    “That’s fantastic,” said Barb. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams! So what’s the bad news?”

    “You’re pitching on Tuesday.”  (courtesy

    Of course, that’s a silly way to start a sermon, but it helps us to get some perspective on the text we read for today.  The actual lectionary text is Malachi 3:1-4.  But, if you read that part of the text, which is right in the middle of a speech that the prophet Malachi is giving, you only get the good news.

    Malachi’s news was that God is sending a messenger to prepare the way, and that the Lord is suddenly coming to his temple.

    Now, that sounds like good news.  But, when you know why God is coming to his temple, that’s the bad news — God is coming to sort things out, to refine and purify, to judge and to set right everything that’s wrong.  And, of course, a big part of what’s wrong is with the people of God.

    The back story to Malachi is this —

    • A rival group of priests have taken over the temple ministry, wrenching it from the descendants of the first priest, Levi.
    • As a result, life among the people of God is not good.
    • They have lowered the standards of worship so that now they sacrifice the worst of the flocks instead of the best.
    • The new priests have betrayed both God and the community by changing the standards, relaxing the teaching, and profaning their office.
    • The people have responded to this lack of leadership by dishonoring their marriages and stealing from God.
    • But, they also complain about the way things are, asking “Where is God?”  as though God were not looking out after them.

    So, God sends the prophet Malachi about 450 years before the birth of Jesus to say “God is coming, but before God comes, he’s sending someone to prepare the way for his coming.”

    The Coming of God To The People of God

    When we think of Christmas, when we look forward during Advent to the coming of the Christ, we seldom think of God’s coming in judgment.  And, we even less often think that we’re the ones God is coming to judge.

    But in the first century, as in Malachi’s day 450-years before Christ, the religious system was corrupt, the priests were on the payroll of the pagan Roman empire, the religious leaders were an extension of the politics of Rome, and worship in the Temple was ritualistic and meaningless.

    Okay, we get that part, but why should we be wary of the “good news and bad news” of God’s coming?  After all, we’re not Pharisees or chief priests and we aren’t part of the evil Roman empire.  Why should we be concerned?

    We are God’s people.  We are the community of the one true God.  When God comes, He comes to his own, he comes to God’s own people.

    Let me back up a bit.  One of the things that God through Malachi accuses the people of is betraying the covenant with God.

    It starts with God’s love.  In Malachi 1:2, Malachi says —

    “I have loved you, says the Lord.”

    So, the community of faith begins with God’s love.  God loved and called Abraham and made a promise to be Abraham’s God, and to make Abraham the father of a great nation.  That nation in turn would be blessed, and was then to be a blessing to the whole world.

    So, God has a lot at stake in his relationship with the nation of Israel.  They are God’s plan for the future, for the salvation of the world.  And, God expected that they would follow him, obey him, and love him in return.  The 10 Commandments and the other laws of the Torah were to given, not to punish the people of God, but to distinguish them from all other peoples and nations on the earth.

    So, God’s people were to

    • Worship Yahweh, God, only, and not worship idols or other gods.
    • Respect the name of God, and not invoke it lightly or profanely.
    • Take one day out of seven to give to God.
    • Honor their parents.
    • Not murder.
    • Be faithful in their marriages.
    • Not steal.
    • Not give false witness or testimony.
    • Not covet anything anyone else had.

    These laws, this new code of ethics, was unheard of in the very primitive and pagan world of Moses.  Power was the rule of the day, and it was not unusual for the powerful to have their wives, their parents, or their families killed at a whim.  Not to mention taking by force what was not theirs, and so on.

    The 10 Commandments distinguised God’s people from all other people of that day.

    So, when God shows up, He shows up where His people are.  God showed up to provide a sacrifice for Abraham, so that Isaac would be spared.  God showed up for Moses when he and Aaron appeared before Pharaoh.  God showed up to preserve the Israelites through the Exodus experience.

    Then, as they are on their way to the land of promise, God shows up to lead them, and to dwell among them in the Tabernacle first, and later the Temple.

    God then shows up in the form of the judges, such as Samuel to guide the nation.  He shows up to select Saul, and then David, as King.  He shows up to guide the nation, but always calling His people to faithfulness, and dealing with their unfaithfulness when necessary.

    God shows up and speaks through the prophets when the nation forgets Him.  And then, God sends John the Baptist to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ to God’s people.

    God comes to His people out of love, but not with lenience.  It is important that the people of God fulfill the mission of God, which is to save the world.  So, when God comes, he always comes to His people.

    God Comes To His People For A Purpose and With A Mission

    So, the first thing we need to learn about looking for the coming of God during Advent, is that God comes to His people.

    The second thing we need to know is that God isn’t just dropping in to say “hello.”  God has a purpose for showing up, and a mission to accomplish.

    God’s purpose is to preserve the community begun with Abraham that is to be the salvation of the world.

    We are now that community.  Of course, we’re not alone.  There are millions of us — over 1-billion to be exact — who have named the name of Jesus Christ as our own.

    And, we as God’s people are gathered in an extraordinary variety of communities.  From those who claim to be the descendants of King David in Ethiopia, to pentecostals in Africa and South America, to Chinese Christians meeting in thousands of clandestine house churches, to expressions of faith most familiar to us as Americans — we are all God’s people.

    But what is it that precedes God sending someone to prepare the way for God’s coming?  It is this statement in Malachi 2:17 —

    You have wearied the LORD with your words.
    “How have we wearied him?” you ask.
    By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

    Here’s the problem:  God’s people think they know more about how God should do his job than God does.
    In Malachi’s day they were wearing God out with their complaints.  Those complaints were that God didn’t see things like they saw them. That God wasn’t judging everyone else harshly enough.
    In other words, God’s people had grown so accustomed to the privilege of being God’s people, that they thought they knew more than God about how things ought to be handled.
    The Problem With Arrogance

    So, in short, God’s people have a problem with arrogance.  They have all the answers, they know that God isn’t doing what God ought to be about certain types of people, and because their society doesn’t favor them, they complain not just to God, but about God.
    Now, here is where this gets really difficult.  Because the problems God’s people had in Malachi’s day and in the first century, are problems God’s people still have today.  Let’s go through the list found in Malachi 3:5.  This is what God is going to do when He comes:
    “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.
    • He’s going to bear witness against the sorcerers. This doesn’t mean burn your Harry Potter books.  Sorcery, in Malachi’s day, was calling on the power of something other than the God of Israel.  Idolatry and idol worship in another form.  Two commandments that begin the agreement of God with God’s people.
    • God will testify against the adulterers and perjurers.  I don’t want to pick on Tiger Woods here, but he’s the latest example of celebrity “transgressions” as he put it.  A writer this week said we used to call “transgressions” sin.  But, that’s not really my point here.  My point is that the people of God break their covenant agreements with each other, and 2 of the 10 commandments in the process.  God’s people aren’t living according to their agreement with God to be different.
    • God will testify against those who defraud the hired workers in their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, and who “thrust aside the alien.” In other words, God’s people are not only not taking care of the worker, the widow, the orphan, and the alien, they are taking advantage of them.    God is always on the side of the poor and the weak.  Always.  Write that down.  Always.  No exceptions.  That’s why we have the story of the Good Samaritan, the strong story of the sheep and the goats, the story of Jesus healing, eating with, and ministering to the outcasts of society.
    Let me put it this way. The coming of God in the form of baby Jesus should be a time for us to examine our own lives and see if we are living our lives differently than the rest of the world.
    That means that we don’t rely on the power of the stock market or international economics, but we look to God.  That means that we keep our commitments to our families, our spouses, and tell the truth in all our dealings.  Those things are corny and old-fashioned, and there are new examples every week of celebrities, sports figures, politicians, and movie stars who violate those values.  But we are the people of God, we are the contrast society, we are the ones different from all the world.
    God Prepares The Way
    In Malachi 4:5-6, the last two verses of Malachi, God says —

    Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.  — Malachi 4:5-6 NRSV

    So, the preparation for the coming of the Lord is receiving the word of the Lord from the messenger of the Lord, which heals the most basic of relationships.  In theological terms, we call this “reconciliation” — making peace between one party and another.  In other words, remembering what we are supposed to be with those closest to us because of God’s covenant with us.

    Madeleine L’Engle has this to say about remembering who we are supposed to be —

    “When spring-fed Dog Pond warms up enough for swimming, which usually isn’t until June, I often go there in the late afternoon.  Sometimes I will sit on a sun-warmed rock to dry, and think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus.  As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”

    “If Jesus of Nazareth was God become truly man for us, as I believe he was, then we should be able to walk on water, to heal the sick, even to accept the Father’s answer to our prayers when it is not the answer we hope for, when it is no.”

    “In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.”

    “One of the great sorrows which came to human beings when Adam and Eve left the Garden was the loss of memory, memory of all God’s children are meant to be.”

    “Perhaps one day I will remember how to walk across Dog Pond.”  Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, p. 11-12.

    We may not remember how to walk on water this Advent season, but we can remember this — we are God’s people, and God has come, is coming, and will come to us over and over again.
    Cardinal Suhard said, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery.  It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”  Walking on Water, p. 26.
    The mystery no longer resides in the manger, but in our lives.  We are the living presence of God in this world, and when God comes to us, He comes to this place, to our church, so that we might live out His mystery in this community.

    In New Survey, Moms Say Dads Can Do Better

    What do the mothers of America think of the fathers of their children?  The National Fatherhood Initiative released a survey this week that asked 1,533 mothers with at least one child under 18, “How are fathers doing?”  Their responses might surprise you.

    Here are 10 of the top 14 responses from the survey:

    1. 93% of moms believe there is a father absence crisis.
    2. Most moms think dad is replaceable.
    3. Married and cohabiting moms were happier with dads’ performance than moms not living with dad.
    4. Married moms believe more in the power of marriage to help dad be the best he can be than moms who are cohabitating or separated from dad.
    5. Dads of young children got better marks than dads of teens.
    6. Closeness to children and work-family balance were the biggest predictors of mom’s satisfaction with dad (after living arrangement).
    7. Most moms said they could do a better job of work-family balance if dad provided more help.
    8. Moms said that “work responsibilities” were the biggest obstacle to dad’s success in fathering.
    9. Strong religious values are beneficial to helping dads be better fathers.
    10. Moms think communities of faith are the top place for dads to get fathering help.

    The results I found most compelling were:

    • Almost all the mothers (93%) believe a crisis of absent fathers exists.
    • Most mothers believe that all fathers are replaceable.
    • Mothers who are married believe more in the power of marriage than do those who are cohabiting or don’t live with their child’s father.
    • Mothers believe that religious values are important, and that faith communities are the best places for dads to get support and resources.

    You can access the entire survey here. File this away for Father’s Day because it is jam-packed with good stuff.  In light of these attitudes, values, and lifestyles, what should we be doing in our churches to help both mothers and fathers?  What is your church doing that you have found helpful and effective?

    For Tiger Woods

    “We have become so accustomed to thinking of repentance as an unpleasant, though necessary and obligatory rejection of the sin we ‘enjoy,’ that we have tended to lose sight of repentance as a fundamentally joyous, restorative return to life in its fullness.”

    — from Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction by John Chryssavgis, page 1.