Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

We wish God's blessings upon you and we pray for peace for a weary world.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Do the Same This Christmas Lord

When the world was dark
and the city was quiet,
you came.

You crept in beside us.

And no one knew.
Only the few who dared to believe
that God might do something different.

Will you do the same this Christmas, Lord?

Will you come into the darkness of tonight's world;
not the friendly darkness
as when sleep rescues us from tiredness,
but the fearful darkness,in which people have stopped believing
that war will end
or that food will come
or that a government will change
or that the Church cares?

Will you come into that darkness
and do something different
to save your people from death and despair?

Will you come into the quietness of this town,
not the friendly quietness
as when lovers hold hands,
but the fearful silence when the phone has not rung
the letter has not come,
the friendly voice no longer speaks,
the doctor's face says it all?

Will you come into that darkness,
and do something different,
not to distract, but to embrace your people?

And will you come into the dark corners
and the quiet places of our lives?

We ask this not because we are guilt-ridden
or want to be,
but because the fullness our lives long for
depends upon us being as open and vulnerable to you
as you were to us,when you came,
wearing no more than diapers,
and trusting human hands
to hold their maker.

Will you come into our lives,
if we open them to you
and do something different?

When the world was dark
and the city was quiet
you came.

You crept in beside us.

Do the same this Christmas, Lord.

Do the same this Christmas.


This was posted at Gannet Girl's site, and it just spoke to me.

The Magic of Secret Santas

I recently learned in the news about the legacy of Larry Stewart, who is now deceased, but beofre his death spent fifteen years as Secret Santa. His work, detailed below, lives on.

Susan Dahl had spent four months homeless in Colorado and just been on a harrowing 10-hour bus trip through sleet and snow. Hungry and broke, all she wanted to do was get back to family in Minnesota.

That's when a tall man in a red coat and red hat sat next to her at the downtown bus station, talked to her quietly and then slipped her $100 on that recent December afternoon.

The man was doing the work of Larry Stewart, Kansas City's original Secret Santa who anonymously wandered city streets doling out $100 bills to anyone who looked like they needed it. Stewart died of cancer at age 58 earlier this year, but his legacy lives on.

"He said `Here's a $100 bill ... and this is in memory of Larry Stewart,'" said Dahl, 56.

During about a quarter century, Stewart quietly gave out more than $1.3 million to people in laundromats, diners, bus stations, shelters and thrift stores, saying it was his way of giving back at Christmas for all the wealth and generosity he had received in his lifetime.

For years, Stewart did not want his name known or want thanks or applause, but last December he acknowledged who he was and used his last few months while battling cancer to press his message of kindness toward others. He even trained some friends in the ways of Secret Santa.

This Christmas, a friend who told Stewart in the hospital that he would carry on for him is out on the streets, handing out $100 bills, each one stamped with "Larry Stewart, Secret Santa."

Between Kansas City and several other cities this Christmas, the new Secret Santa will give away $75,000 of his own money, mostly in $100 bills.

"I didn't want to be a Secret Santa," said the man, a business consultant who lives in the Kansas City area. "I wanted to give Larry money. But last year, he said I had to hand it out myself. So I did, and I got hooked."

This new Secret Santa talks about Larry Stewart to just about everyone he encounters. "Have you ever heard of a man named Larry Stewart?" he asks before handing out $100 or more.

Depending on who he's talking to, the new Secret Santa might say Stewart was a man who believed in making people happy by giving them money they didn't have to ask for, apply for or wait in line for.

"There was this fella named Larry Stewart," he tells a man in the bus station. "He was an old friend of mine. He was called Secret Santa, and every year he would find a few people who might need a little money and he would ask that you pass on the kindness."

People respond differently to the gesture. Some cry. Some scream. A rare few even say "No thanks."

Others take the money and offer their own gifts. like Robert Young, who was homeless and had only 20 cents in his pocket. When Secret Santa gave him $200, Young, 50, took out an old notebook and ripped out a song he had written.

"It's yours now," he told Secret Santa, who thanked Young, and carefully tucked the pages into his pocket.

The new Secret Santa has also started a Web site, and is trying to recruit other Secret Santas across the country. "Larry's dream was for a Secret Santa in every city," Kansas City's Santa said.

There are now a couple apprentices, with more candidates turning up all the time. But, he says, you don't have to be willing to hand out money to be a Secret Santa.

"Anyone can be a Secret Santa," he says. "You don't have to give away $100. You can give away kindness. Help someone." To learn more, or to be a part of the Secret Santa network, you may go this link.

But why stop at Christmas? You can give away kindness and help at any time of the year. This is the example of Christ.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What is it that we are waiting for?

This is a season of the year when there is a palpable energy among people who are eagerly awaiting really big things. For the very young, there is the interminable amount of time that still must pass until Santa comes, which in our church is mirrored by the "Get Ready, Jesus is Coming" theme. Our annual holiday Mission Fair was again huge success, with a throng in the church basement social room scooping up yummy Divine chocolate, LWR fair trade coffee, tea and cocoa, and fair trade crafts for gifts that they cannot wait to bestow on loved ones. There was a surprise visit by St. Nicholas, who distributed chocolate gold coins and candy canes while little hands industriously made gift bags for gifts lovingly, if chaotically selected for their families. And the ELCA Good Gifts table had a banner year as well. I bought my mother a goat and secured the "I've got your goat" card to send. And outside the church is the creche with close to life sized figures ( but not Baby Jesus yet!)and a large sign that proclaims, "Prepare for His Coming!" which is set up each year by our Men's Group. And this week the Chrismon trees will appear and we light my favorite candle, the pink one.

At home, now that all of my tests and papers are done ( brief moment of rejoicing),cookie baking has begun in earnest, and cards are flying out the door, because it all must be done! We are all, I think, carefully marking off the things that make for what we call "the holiday season."

What if ... Jesus came today?
Before our Christmas. Before we knew what we got in the work gift exchange. Before we got to do all of things we think we must to feel fulfilled?
I wonder if any of us, myself included, would be tempted to say, "can you come back a little later?" Michael W. Smith's Christmas song, "Welcome to our World" states it well," Hope that you don't mind our manger, how I wish we would have known.."

Two events are weighing upon my mind this season. My friend with cancer, who I have blogged about before, has received good news, and not good news. The good news is the tumor in her liver is gone and the tumor in her breast is smaller! The bad news is that they think the cancer has moved into bone. Instead of sinking into despondency, my friend is an example of how illness has given her greater clarity and purpose and unbounding faith. There is an intensity of purpose. Why is it that usually it is only when we think time is of the essence that we do the things we are created to do- to love deeply, to share meaningfully? Sometime ago, I had given her the book Praying with Cancer. She recently mailed me a page in which the author talked about how cancer was in one sense, a gift, because it brought her closer to God. My friend is going to get everything out of life until it is pried out of her hands, but she is ready to go. If Jesus came today, she has her party hat- she is ready.

Then there is my cousin, who died this week. At the age of 41, leaving a husband and three children. And there are those who say how tragic it is that she died "just before Christmas." Does mourning have a season from which we should be exempt? The truth is, my cousin was an alcoholic. For many years now, there have been hospital visits, and downhill slides, and starts in rehab, and failures. And children whose hearts have been broken, and a husband who wonders where the woman he married went. We were a contrast, she and I. Growing up in the 1970's, I envied her- she could get her hair to do the "Farrah Flip." From a wealthy family, she got to go see Peter Frampton live! She married her high school sweetheart. She got everything she wanted. What happened? She once said that getting everything she thought she wanted just didn't turn out the way she thought it would. Family tried everything they knew to avoid this week- everything but God. Christmas was the time to get all of the stuff you just had to have. If Jesus came today, he must be looking for someone else. Somewhere after baptism in 1967, there was nothing to wait for.

This past week, as I was studying for the last exam, I was searching for comfort food, and was feeling neglectful of my family, and decided that if I could spare 15 minutes, I could get a loaf of bread going in the bread machine. That night, my family, who had been feeling the coldness of my preoccupation with school, sat down to dinner of soup and salad with homemade bread! There were happy faces not just because the bread was so delectable, but that it was symbolic of our love for each other. I had thought of them, and I was taking a break from the slog, and they were telling me of their day, in animated ways- we had all emerged from our routine existence to laugh, and joke and share in a meal and prayer.

Magazines and ads exhort us to get everything on our lists, see everywhere we want to see, experience everything on top 10, top 100 charts. And if we don't, will our lives be unfulfilled? Will they fail to have meaning because they are incomplete? Will we be judged on whether we "did Christmas" or any other aspect of our material lives correctly? A simple meal and a prayer. Something that can happen anytime. Not something we do once a year to show we care. Not something that is on a magazine list. Not something that should wait until we are ready. Jesus burst into our midst, not in a flashy show, but in a simple, humble existence. Breaking bread and sharing a meal. Not when we were ready or worthy, but when it was so desperately needed. Not in a one-time performance, but for an eternity of love, grace, mercy and forgiveness.

Will we tell Jesus to come back a little later, when we are ready? Let's hope not. And let's not delay in sharing what we are created to share- love for one another- NOW.

Prayer: Loving God, we rejoice that you so loved us that you did not wait until we were ready or worthy, to send your Son into our midst. We rejoice that your love for us far exceeds our ability to fathom. Help us to stop waiting for just the right time to show others we love them, and to tell them of your unending love for us all. Come Lord Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Saw this over at RevGals BlogPals and decided to share it here.
Lord, help us to remember that as we engage in the busy-ness of this season, and all of our stuff, that there are many who long for the most basic of needs. Help us be mindful of the purpose for which we are created- to care for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, and those whom our world of busy-ness and stuff have left behind. We await the day when we will all share equally in your heavenly feast, when you will wipe away every tear. Amen

St Nicholas Day

In fourth-century Turkey there was a generous bishop by the name of St. Nicholas, now considered to be the patron saint, or protector, of children. St Nicholas was born in 280 AD, in Patara, a city of Lycia, in Asia Minor. He became the gift giver of Myra. His gifts were given late at night, so that the gift giver's identity would remain a secret. St Nicholas was eventually named the patron saint of children. Early in the Advent season some celebrate a feast that has been popular for centuries in Christian countries, especially in Northern Europe. In our over-commercialized society, this holiday gives us a good "teaching moment" to remind children that Jolly Santa Claus, is, in fact, Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop of the city of Myra in what is now Turkey.

     Saint Nicholas was renowned for his great kindness and his generous aid to those in distress. Traditional celebrations of Saint Nicholas Day in Northern Europe included gifts left in children's shoes (the origin of our American Christmas stockings). Good children receive treats - candies, cookies, apples and nuts, while naughty children receive lumps of coal. Sometimes coins were left in the shoes, reminiscent of the life-saving dowries the saint provided. Today - especially in families of German extraction - children still put a shoe outside their bedroom doors on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, and expect to find candy and coins or small gifts in their shoe on December 6th.

    In the spirit of St Nicholas, we honored the day by observing the tradition. Childrens' shoes were placed outside their doors before they went to bed. St Nicholas stopped by before dawn to leave a gift. May we encourage our children to follow the example of St Nicholas and make gifts for the special people in their lives or to give them whatever help they need.

Just as we can await the arrival of "Saint Nick", may we be ready to receive Christ, when he comes in glory and to share in the banquet of heaven, where he lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Prosperity Gospel and the IRS

Questions Surround TV Preacher Inquiry
2007-12-04 07:05:07
By RACHEL ZOLL AP Religion Writer

Among the many conservative Christians who feel misunderstood by the general public, the six televangelists under investigation by a Senate committee are an embarrassment.

The ministers' on-air faith healings and fundraising, backed by self-serving misinterpretations of Scripture, reinforce offensive stereotypes of greedy preachers and put their followers at spiritual risk, critics say.

But traditional Christians aren't universally celebrating the inquiry. Some are wondering whether the investigation led by Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa is the right way to end any wrongdoing, especially if the result is more government oversight of all ministries.

"We're not representing any of the parties involved, but when I see a senator charging into organizations, wielding this kind of budget ax and laying bare religious figures and expenditures, huge constitutional questions are being raised," said Gary McCaleb, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious liberty legal group founded by James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other influential evangelicals.

Craig Parshall, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Religious Broadcasters, a trade association, said the questions that Grassley sent the six ministries about their finances were too broad. None of the televangelists is a member of the NRB.

"We don't have any inside information of the financial workings of the six ministries involved," Parshall said. "What we're concerned about is the future of Christian broadcasting and Christian ministries — nonprofit ones — if this inquiry is either broadened or ratcheted up and hearings are held and new legislation is considered."

Grassley, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, has asked the ministries to submit records by Thursday on compensation, board oversight and perks — from oceanside homes and expensive furniture to flights on private jets. IRS rules for nonprofits prevent pastors and other insiders from excessive personal gain through their tax-exempt work. Even so, the groups are not legally required to disclose financial information to the Senate.

The ministries under review include Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries of Tampa, Fla.; Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc. and Benny Hinn Ministries of Grapevine, Texas; David and Joyce Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo.; Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas; Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Bishop Eddie Long Ministries of Lithonia, Ga.; and Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries of College Park, Ga.

All the ministries preach a form of Word of Faith theology, known as prosperity gospel, which effectively teaches that God wants believers to be rich. The ministries have said separately that they are committed to following the tax laws, but it is not known whether they will all comply with Grassley's request by the deadline.

"This has nothing to do with church doctrine," said Grassley, who has been investigating nonprofit compliance with the tax code for years. "This has everything to do the with tax exemption of an organization."

But Grassley irked some religious leaders when he quipped about the lifestyles of the preachers under investigation, saying Jesus road into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a Rolls Royce.

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, said he believes Grassley has "the best of motives," but his donkey comment gave the impression that the inquiry pits one religious view against another.

"They're supposed to enforce the law evenhandedly without regard at all to religious expression," Walker said. "There is a fear of government theologizing and government overreacting to isolated problems."

Conservative Christians have worked hard for years to avoid this exact type of inquiry. In the late 1970s, then-Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon told influential Christians that they should create a voluntary financial watchdog agency to keep the government largely out of their work.

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability was formed in 1979, requiring its members to fully disclose their finances to donors. None of the six televangelists belongs to the group, according to its president, Kenneth Behr.

Pentecostal leaders and defenders of Christian orthodoxy have also challenged the TV preachers about their lifestyles or beliefs.

Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute, an evangelical apologetics group in Charlotte, N.C., has written and spoken extensively for more than a decade about what he considers the dangers of teachings by Hinn, Meyer, Dollar and others.

But even he says he has concerns about the impact of the Grassley investigation.

"I can assure you," said Walker, of the Baptist Joint Committee, "that people are watching this very closely."


On the Net:

Grassley's Senate Finance Committee page:

Trading on Christ???

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Happy New Year!

Well, today is the first Sunday of Advent and we are getting ready to do our at-home Advent devotions. The wreath is ready and so are our Divine Chocolate Advent Calendars. In my teaching parish, today, I distributed these advent calendars during the children's sermon. Behind each window is a part of the story of the birth of Jesus and a yummy Divine chocolate heart. We spent a moment talking about how the chocolate was one way that families can earn the money they should for the crops they grow. Several of the adults were trying to be "kids" just to get a calendar.
Today was also my last Sunday in the parish until February because of finals and a January term project. I just finished my reflection on the core convictions of the congregation and their theology for my Teaching Parish seminar.
These are good people, but they are a stuck people. Change is not just a challenge, it is almost insurmountable. There is a lot that is lifeless and methodical.It can feel like a seminar about God rather than a place where God is. There is not energy for ministry or mission here. Stuck in time.I have contemplated how the historic tensions have affected the view today and how the group is in many ways closed off. Wonderful people who have somehow lost their way.I have prayed about them, that something might be stirred.
So last week, as Fellowship was drawing to a close, there were about 8 members who were still sitting and chatting with me- all people who did not grow up in this parish; people who have come here within the last 5 to 20 years. They were chatting about the upcoming annual congregation meeting, worried about the fact that the budget for the year has not been met. They worried about attracting more members and more families. I was asked if my home parish struggled with these issues. For the next 35 minutes we had a candid sharing about being a welcoming place, discipleship and the various reasons why many parishes struggle with these issues. We talked about the difficulties in encouraging growth in stewardship and in drawing others to the congregation and the faith. We talked about the gifts different members might have and how often people struggle with identity. Each shared that when the congregation was in transition, people rolled up sleeves and did what needed to be done; how they did a building project “without a pastor”; how there had been energy, but now that there was a pastor, people just kind of left the work to the pastor.
They commented on how hard is to do the work of the church without a lot of help. And a comment I have heard before- "We used to sing, but we don't now- I don't know why. I think we should know why." I asked if they had considered that a pastor could feel the same way.
We discussed how congregations can share struggles, but also ideas- we are not alone in this. Not only there eight people who feel a tug to seek more, there is the presence of the Spirit to guide and sustain this work. Dialogue led to “more questions than answers, ” but also a desire to explore further. Anthony Robinson indicates in the closing lines of his book, What's Theology Got to Do With It?, states“ … teaching will be in the midst of the life of the congregation and its people. This does not mean always having the answers; indeed it may mean having the question. It does mean putting the little dramas of life in community and our lives individually into the context of the great story of God’s redeeming and relentless love and purpose. It means taking connections between God’s story and our stories, because in reality they are not two different stories, but one story.” Perhaps this is an opportunity in response to prayer that will bear fruit.
So I spent a couple of minutes during parish announcements today thanking all of them for welcoming me into their midst and for sharing with me what it means to be God's people here in this place and time. After a little humor and telling them I will continue to hold them in prayer and blessings for them, it seemed important to leave something else to think about. I encouraged them in this "new" year of the church to ponder anew. What does it mean to know God's message of grace, mercy and forgiveness and how can I share that message with someone who desperately needs to hear it?
We all know people who yearn for this news- how can we in our own ways tell the story?
These questions are universal for all of us. May we toss them around in our heads, ponder them in our hearts, listen for God.
The church was packed today. There was a buzz in the air. Many people were wearing their advent blue. Fellowship and the Advent craft were aglow with cheerful souls today. There were lots of hugs and best wishes for my exams, and genuine expressions of how I will be missed by them. There is an eagerness for me to return. Give my family their best wishes ( easier since last Sunday I brought the whole family to worship).
Amidst all of the festivity of the day was the common refrain- they really liked what I had to say about telling the story. They know they need to hear this and do this and they want to I look forward to coming back in February to continuing the journey with them.
I leave you today with the ELCA World Hunger Calendar thought for the day, and a prayer from our Seminary devotions by Dr. Mark Vitalis-Hoffman.

Each day collect change for World Hunger. Do you have an Advent wreath? If so, give 25 cents; if not, give 50 cents.

Gracious Lord, grant us to walk in your light! Teach us to know your ways and walk in your paths. Guide us so that we make right judgments that reflect your will for us and for all peoples. Help us especially to know and pursue the ways that make for peace. Gracious Lord, grant us to walk in your light! Amen