Saturday, November 30, 2013

Advent Resources

Our texts for this first Sunday in Advent are isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44, which you can read here:


Tomorrow we begin a new church year and a new season--my favorite season of the church year. Advent is a beautiful season of possibility, and this year we will be focusing on the Advent theme of "A Holy Pause"--our need to interrupt business as usual and prepare space in our hearts and lives for Christ to be born within and among us.

Need help pausing in this busy season? I would encourage you, this Advent season, to take on the discipline of a daily moment of pause--time to reflect, to engage scripture or other forms of inspiration, to breathe and find yourself rooted in God's goodness and peace amidst the chaos. Below are some resources I recommend. Which of these might you want to engage in this season?

  • Our theme is inspired by the small but beautiful book The Art of Pausing, a collection of images, poems, and reflections on the names of God. This is what I will be using during this season, and I encourage you to consider getting yourself a copy:
  • You can sign up to get daily emails from the "Following the Star" daily online Advent Devotional at I have written for this site in the past, which is geared towards teenagers but I think appropriate for all ages. It also includes some beautiful music.
  • My colleague Elizabeth Hagan edited an ecumenical collaboration called the "Baby Jesus Blog" that is making its debut this Advent, with daily reflections written by men and women who have waited or are waiting for babies. Check it out at at  
  • Upper Room is sponsoring a couple of really interesting online Advent retreats, where you can be led in your reflection and dialogue with others about what you are experiencing. Check them out at
  • Nancy and Joann recently went to a peacemaking conference addressing the conflict in the Middle East and found a lovely print daily devotional put together by the Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a ministry in Bethlehem sponsored in part by the Alliance of Baptists. I think Nancy is going to get some copies of this devotional for people who are interested in taking one home, or learn more about this ministry in Jesus' birth town at

Above all, I hope you will join us on Tuesday nights throughout the season for "A Holy Pause." At 6 pm each Tuesday, we will gather in the sanctuary for a simple time of prayer, singing, and reflection. For the first two Tuesdays, we will have Advent vespers in the sanctuary and also have a labyrinth laid out for you to walk. On the third Tuesday, Eloise's sister Trish, who is retired from running a retreat center in Canada, will be with us to teach a simple workshop on "A Introduction to Mindfulness" that can help us learn to be present. Finally, on Tuesday, December 24 we will gather to worship and welcome the Christ Child.

Be with us on Sundays and Tuesdays throughout the season so we can practice pausing together, making the space we need in our hearts and our lives. I look forward to hearing about the ways you find to pause during this holy season!

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Time to Celebrate

"Celebration" by John August Swanson
Our text for this Sunday--the last Sunday in Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday and, here in America, also the Sunday before Thanksgiving--is Esther 7:1-10 and 9:18-28, which you can read here.

This week, as we finish our three week series on Esther (and our 8 weeks on the little-read books of Nehemiah and Esther--congratulations, you have almost survived, and hopefully you have gleaned something from these stories!), we will be learning about the historical origins of the Jewish festival of Purim--a time for rejoicing and celebration observed every year and first "officially" introduced in the book of Esther.

As we read this story of celebration, and consider the importance of celebration in our own culture and lives, we also move towards a day that has been celebrated in American culture for centuries, if officially only for about 150 years--Thanksgiving. It is a day set aside to intentionally express gratitude, and to rejoice over the bounty of what we have been given, to give thanks for God's provision even through times of difficulty. As we prepare to celebrate next week, I would like to offer for your consideration and meditation a prayer from one of my favorite Christian thinkers, Walter Brueggeman. How might this prayer shape your celebration of Thanksgiving this year?

The witnesses tell of your boundless generosity,
and their telling is compelling to us:
You give your world to call the worlds into being;
You give your sovereign rule to emancipate the slaves and the oppressed;
You give your commanding fidelity to form your own people;
You give your life for the life of the world...
broken bread that feeds,
poured out wine and binds and heals.
You give...we receive...and are thankful.

We begin this day in gratitude,
thanks that is a match for your self-giving,
gratitude in gifts offered,
gratitude in tales told,
gratitude in lives lived.

Gratitude willed, but no so readily lived,
held back by old wounds turned to powerful resentment,
slowed by early fears become vague anxiety,
restrained by self-sufficiency in a can-do arrogance,
blocked by amnesia unable to recall gifts any longer.

Do this yet. Create innocent spaces for us this day
for the gratitude we intend.

In thankfulness,
we will give,
we will tell,
we will live,
your gift through us to gift the world. Amen

--from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Fortress Press, 2002)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Save Me From My Fear

Our scripture for this second week in our series on the book of Esther is Esther 3:1-6 and Esther 4
(yes, all of it). You can read them here:

One of the most interesting and discussed features of the book of Esther we get from the Hebrew Bible (and that is featured in our Bibles) is that the word "God" is never used. In fact, God is barely even implied in the text, and the story features few overt expressions of religion. It is, on the surface, an almost wholly secular book-except for the fact that, through coincidences, courage, and plot twists that lead to deliverance for God's people, you get this unshakable sense that God is always at work behind the scenes.

If you read the Greek version of Esther, however--which includes several additions to the manuscript we honor as part of our canon--God is mentioned all over the place. In fact, we get to hear a prayer Esther is said to pray just after the events of this week's story, before she approaches the king to seek mercy for her people. It is a pretty incredible prayer, even if it is not in our canon (it is included in the part of the Bible commonly called the "Apocrypha"). I thought it was worth taking time to read here:

Then Queen Esther, seized with deadly anxiety, fled to the Lord. She took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she utterly humbled her body; every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair. She prayed to the Lord God of Israel, and said:“O my Lord, you only are our king; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, for my danger is in my hand. Ever since I was born I have heard in the tribe of my family that you, O Lord, took Israel out of all the nations, and our ancestors from among all their forebears, for an everlasting inheritance, and that you did for them all that you promised. And now we have sinned before you, and you have handed us over to our enemies because we glorified their gods. You are righteous, O Lord! And now they are not satisfied that we are in bitter slavery, but they have covenanted with their idols to abolish what your mouth has ordained, and to destroy your inheritance, to stop the mouths of those who praise you and to quench your altar and the glory of your house, to open the mouths of the nations for the praise of vain idols, and to magnify forever a mortal king.
“O Lord, do not surrender your scepter to what has no being; and do not let them laugh at our downfall; but turn their plan against them, and make an example of him who began this against us. Remember, O Lord; make yourself known in this time of our affliction, and give me courage, O King of the gods and Master of all dominion! Put eloquent speech in my mouth before the lion, and turn his heart to hate the man who is fighting against us, so that there may be an end of him and those who agree with him. But save us by your hand, and help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, O Lord. You have knowledge of all things, and you know that I hate the splendor of the wicked and abhor the bed of the uncircumcised and of any alien. You know my necessity—that I abhor the sign of my proud position, which is upon my head on days when I appear in public. I abhor it like a filthy rag, and I do not wear it on the days when I am at leisure. And your servant has not eaten at Haman’s table, and I have not honored the king’s feast or drunk the wine of libations. Your servant has had no joy since the day that I was brought here until now, except in you, O Lord God of Abraham. O God, whose might is over all, hear the voice of the despairing, and save us from the hands of evildoers. And save me from my fear!”

I am totally captivated by the last line of that prayer, one that seems added in almost as an afterthought: "Save me from my fear." That is one of the best prayer, I think, I have ever heard. I wonder what would happen if we prayed to be saved from the fear that possesses us and keeps us from acting? I wonder what would happen if we meant that prayer as we offered it?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Esther? Who is That?

Our scripture text for this week is Esther 2:1-11 and will be preached upon by my dear friend Elizabeth Hagan. You can read the text here (I would also recommend reading Chapter 1 if you are not familiar with the overall arc of Esther), and you may read Elizabeth's blog here to start getting to know her better before Sunday!

True story: when I was in seminary, a classmate of mine came to me asking for advice. He was taking a class on Faith and Humor (he always seemed to find the classes that sounded made up), and he had to write a paper on humor in the Bible but did not know where to look. "How about Esther?" I suggested. In return I got a blank stare. "You know," I repeated, "Esther. In middle of Bible. Queen who saves her people amidst lots of irony, exaggeration and general ridiculousness from all the characters." He continued to stare at me cluelessly. My colleague had never even heard of this book of the Bible--one of two to be named after a female!

I sent my friend home with instructions to read Esther. For the next three weeks, we will be reading Esther together as well. We won't be reading it for its humor, though I hope you do enjoy the cleverness of some of the narrative. Rather, we will be reading it for the very, very real ways it relates, as the book of Nehemiah did before it, to the situations in which we find ourselves as Christians today. Esther's story, though unfamiliar and set in an ancient Persian culture foreign to us in most every way, resonates with ours as we seek to live a faithful life in the midst of a culture that pressures us to assimilate rather than live a distinctive life that reflects belief in a distinctive God. Esther's wise and bold decisions are ones from which we have much to learn--and the way this story is written overall has much to teach us as well.

So brush up on your Esther--or turn to her story for the first time if need be--and join us on this journey as we learn from her experience of God and how it connects to our own.