Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Road to Bethlehem

In churches that try to follow the "church year" this coming Sunday marks the beginning. 4 weeks of Advent and then Christmas. Strict liturgical traditions, Lutherans for example, don't let anyone sing the Christmas carols until Christmas eve. The days preceding Christmas eve are used to read the Old and New Testament prophecies concerning Jesus. Christians are taught to soberly prepare themsevles to recieve the Christ child in our hearts.
As a pastor I have tended to split the difference. To those "I love Christmas " folks I relent and introduce a couple Christmas carols starting in the second week of Advent. I think the Christams carols are the best songs in the hymnbook. People love them and sing them enthusiastically and the music is good (for classical music lovers, check out the famous composers listed on the tops of the carols)
There is no question that once you have been to Bethlehem it is hard to get back on the road again to do it all over. Advent is out of step with the prevailing mood most of us find ourselves during December. People want to get in the good and postive mood that Christmas brings. Parties, plays, gift exchanging, Christmas bonuses, family gatherings---all these things make Christmas in America a special time. It seems strnage then to enter the church in early December and listen to the scripture readings for the season talk about the predicted destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Psalms cry out in Lament "How long O Lord must we wait." Then John the Baptist brings his fire and brimstone message as he "prepares the Way of the Lord."
I like the Advent readings although I much prefer the carols to the minor keys of Advent hymns. I need to be reminded that Jesus came to change our world. He brings a message of nonviolence and forgiveness to a world that seems always to love war. I watched the movie about the Christmas one day truce in World War I and cried. How can you go back to hating and killing someone who shares your love of Christ and shares a meal and a worship service together.
The challenge of Advent is to examine our lives. We are to treat every person with dignity and to respect every person as a child of God. I wonder if the hectic schedules and the shopping demands serve to distract us from even thinking about what Jesus brith and life means for us and our world.
There is a group called "buy nothing for Christmas" that advertises their message of simplifying the season by showing a classic painting of Jesus. Next to the picture is a question: Where did I say that you should buy so much stuff to celebrate my birthday?
I guess I just don't want to put up any trees or enter any malls until I have sat with the scriptures sung the plaintive Advent hymns for a while. The parties can wait. Maybe even the carols. There will still be plenty of time to celebrate.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Real gifts always come with a person attached

We are approaching the Thanksgiving weekend and that means a whole lot of things come to mind. Families get together to celebrate their connectedness. These gatherings are fun for many, a necessary burden for others, and a disaster for far too many. I am traveling to see family in New Jersey and this will be both fun and exhausting. I am thankful that our families get along reasonably enough to make it festive.

Thanksgiving weekend also marks the official beginning of the cultural and commercial holiday season. I would call it Christmas Season but that would overstate the important most Americans place on Jesus Christ. I lived in New Jersey for 15 years and never saw the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade live. I have heard that some of the balloons...Kermit, Goofy, Miss Piggy...are a little worn out looking. They look the way shopper look when Christmas Day arrives. I will give you the theme of news coverage of this years shopping season..."fearful American consumer cuts down on holiday spending." Is it really bad if we spend less?

Gratitude is at the very heart of our faith. Gratitude is a fundamental Christian emotion. Theologians have always told us it is the basic human response to the goodness and mercy of God's grace. At the heart of Christian experience and teaching is not guilt (sorry pre-Vatican II Catholics out there) , nor obligation (as our grandparents taught) but gratitude--pure and simple. Everything we have is a gift from God. We need to be forever thankful and continuously praise God with all our heart, mind and soul.

Sunday's lesson is one of my favorites in Luke. It is Luke 17:11-19 the story of Jesus healing 10 Lepers and then instructing them (as was religious custom) to go to the priest and receive the ceremonial cleansing. The Ten were healed and set off to do their "religious obligation" but then one, a Samaritan, immediately turned around and headed back to thank Jesus. Jesus congratulated the man saying, "Your faith has made you well." Then he asked the man, "where are the other nine?"

My immediate reaction reading this again was that "hey, at least one person said thank you."
In a culture where we look out for number one and are so overly concerned about our personal well being ingratitude is the norm. I probably only send one out of 10 people who do above and beyond service to the church a thank you note. I usually get the same response--"you note was so thoughtful." I take this to mean, "Wow, for once somebody actually noticed my effort and said thank you." One way I thank those people who have mentored me and guided me is by telling sermon stories about their wisdom and faith. You can see that my college professors and the neighboring pastors from my first pastorate were very generous to me with their time.

I believe that a spirit of gratitude is essential for our mental and spiritual well being. I would rephrase Jesus' statement, "You faith has made you well," this way.: "Your gratitude has healed and saved you." Gratitude is a worldview, a way of looking at and living life. The grateful person who wrote Psalm 23 says, "my cup runneth over." Gratitude is more then just saying thank you. Gratitude is looking at the world, and our place in it, and recognizing that God has given you the power to make your life more enjoyable. Being grateful does not change the facts(The person in the 23rd Psalm was going through the valley of the shadow of death) but it sure does help you face the future with the firm expectation that better days are ahead.

On Sunday morning I plan on sharing some ways we can encourage a greater sense of gratitude in our every day life. I have an Oprah suggestion (she is the great church lady of America) and a couple others (one by Fred Rogers.."Oh I miss him.")
I am interested in what things you have found helpful in encouraging this life affirming spirit of gratitude.

I would also like some funny family thanksgiving dinner stories.

Finally, I am sincerely grateful for you folks who read this and comment. I do find the comments helpful in the thought process.

Peace and joy, James Brassard

Monday, November 5, 2007

Giving and Gratitude

It is stewardship time. We did the Time and Talent Survey last week. The response was good and since the areas of service were expanded (including new things people might actually want to do!) we might have some new energy to assist the long time volunteers.
In the next few weeks we will talk about the giving of money. I used to dread this annual event. Who likes to get people to give? I now kind of like talking about giving. Here is my evolution. Several years ago my Stewardship committee was frustrated. The standard stewardship drive was not working. People were giving the same (low) amount regardless of what was said in worship. So out of desperation we tried another approach. The approach was to simply share the bibles teachings on giving. Here is what I learned.
1. The bible talks about giving as a response to God's generosity. In I Corinthians 16:2 Paul tells us to make giving a regular part of our spiritual disciplines. "On the first day of the week, each of you is to put aside money based on what you that you can give it during collection of offerings." Paul took legalism and obligation out of the law. Christians worship and give in joyful response to God's loving offering in Jesus Christ--not because it is a requirement set down way back during the Exodus. Paul simplified Christian charity:
We give proportionally based on what we earn.
We do it regularly to meet needs.
We give it joyfully.

The Old Testament has a strict standard of giving. The first 1/10th was expected to be given to the Priests at harvest time and special appeals were made in addition to that tithe. The New Testament talks about giving based on ability. The concept of percentage or proportional giving was established. People have different income levels and different responsibilities. If everyone gave the same dollar amount this would be unfair because incomes vary widely. Unfortunately in America, the most generous are the poorest. People with incomes under $25,000 give 8% of income but people over $100,000 give less then 2%. Something is wrong here. Part of the problems is that we spend everything we make and our expectations for what we "need" to live rises with our incomes. The Methodist founder Wesley used to say save 10% and give 10% (my personal rule) and live off the rest. But Wesley was frugal and as his income rose (he sold lots of books) he lived at the same level and gave away more each year. Rick Warren makes so much on "The Purpose Driven Life" book sales that he gives away 90% of his royalties. He simply doesn't need the money.
When your income reaches the level of Maryland residents (did you see that Maryland now has the highest per person income in the nation) truly giving 5% or 10% of your income means writing checks that add up to real money. Recently Andrea and i figured that if we didn't tithe we could easily afford this lakeside home we stayed at on our summer vacation.

2. We need to learn to be contend with our place in life. In other words, money shouldn't change who we are and what we believe. Philippians 4:11 "I have learned to be content with whatever I have."

The issue of contentment opens a whole can of worms. Are we spiritually grounded so that we don't judge our happiness based on comparisons with other people? If God has graciously overwhelmed us with more then we could ever need, why are people so unhappy and so worried about the economy?
I believe that if we were growing spiritually and we were connected with people who affirmed our values and shared our commitments, we wouldn't worry about having more and better things. I happen to hate spending money on stuff for myself but love sending checks to organizations I feel are doing good work. I seldom eat dinner out because it takes too much time and it reduces the amount of money I can use better elsewhere. My level of contentment has far less to do with money and much more to do if I think I am being an effect pastor and if I am doing a competent job as a father and husband.

What factors have to do with your level of contentment?

I need some help on this topic for Nov 18th.