Monday, December 28, 2020

What Kind of Normal Would You Like to Get Back To?

Second Sunday after Christmas, Year B

Lectionary Scripture: Jeremiah 31:7-14 (NRSV)

I love to get away and visit new places.  There is something special about finding the beauty in different places and cultures whether that be natural landmarks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or human-made architecture such as the Space Needle or the Washington Monument.  I like trying food from different regions and finding local restaurants that offer unique flavors native to that area.  But even on vacation, I will eventually tire from all of the "new" and "different."  Even when it is fun and exciting, I will find that I'm ready to go home.  

Lots of people have experienced this.  Sometimes it can apply to people visiting your home.  As an amateur genealogist, I have read old stories of ancestors that took extended stays with their kinfolk.  My first thought was "how did they keep their jobs?"  These were not wealthy people that didn't need to work.  Sometimes with regards to our relatives, we hear the phrase, "I'm glad to see them come and glad to see them leave."  This doesn't mean that we don't appreciate the visit but it has more to do with the idea of getting back to normal.  

Human beings function well with routine.  We do well when things go as expected.  While describing something as "routine" often has a negative connotation, people actually thrive with a normal structure.  There is less stress involved.  We sleep better.  Our diet is better.  We are more likely to get regular exercise.  We are also more likely to tend to our spiritual lives with prayer, Bible reading and worship.

So as we see the advent of vaccine distribution, we can anticipate getting back to normal after the worldwide disruption of the coronavirus. But what will this "normal" look like?  Our pause has been going on for so long that we may find that some of what we would classify as a regular part of our lives is not returning.  

As we begin life post-COVID-19, there are a lot of things we'll enjoy doing again.  Simply interacting with others without the worry of "am I going to make them sick" or "are they going to make me sick" would be helpful.  Talking to people in person while seeing the entirety of their faces will be healing for us.  Singing the hymns of our faith while standing shoulder to shoulder will give us a lift that we may not know we needed until we actually get to do it.

This is what I missed and look
forward to its return.

As we look at the reading from Jeremiah, we see a good word to a people who were in exile.  They were a people who had known the stress of being invaded by a foreign military and seen loved ones killed.  Then they were forcibly removed from the land they knew.  These were the people who wrote in Psalm 137:4, "How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?"  I like in verse 9 of today's scripture where it states, "With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back" indicating that this is an emotional return where support is needed.  Weeping comes when we joyfully recognize we are home.  Weeping also comes when we recognize and confront the turmoil that we've endured.  We've been through a real thing and it has been stressful.

I feel more akin to Jeremiah than I did before the pandemic.  I've certainly had it easier than he did.  We as a people in the United States have not experienced the same level of trauma that they went through.  But for what we have known, it has been uncomfortable.  And for some, it has been just as devastating.  It is not our preferred reality.

So what do we want?  What should life look like?  

According to Jeremiah, it looks like a watered garden where no one languishes.  Both young and old know joy.  Life should normally let us trade our sorrows for gladness.  This should be a model for our church.  If we share this dream, we can make it real.

We'll continue to examine this theme as we worship online together on Sunday.  We are continuing to hear of an increasing number of positive cases within our congregation so please be safe.  We are nearing the finish line and we will get through this!

In Christ,


Picture by Trey Witzel of the 11 pm Christmas Eve service at First United Methodist Church of Edmond from 2018.  Used with permission.  Maybe in 2021, even the two front rows of this late service will be filled!

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Christmas is Coming!

Christmas Eve

Lectionary: Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)

As we approach Christmas Eve, I recognize that things are going to be different this year.  This will be the first time in I don't know how many years that I'll be in bed before midnight on Christmas Eve.  It is not something I relish as the worship on this night really defines Christmas for me.

As I look back on all the various services we usually offer, I see that it is kind of a grueling schedule.  We would see lots of people and their families - some of which we hadn't seen for a long time.  But they might show up on Christmas.  Worshipping together makes Christmas special for so many families.

At home, we try to worship together as a family each Sunday morning at 11 am.  We access our service through YouTube on David's Xbox.  This way we get a good picture and good sound.  Kyla (who sings and plays violin in the recorded service) usually nitpicks her presentation.  I try not to nitpick my own errors.  Sometimes our dog Pepper will distract us by doing something cute.  It is not perfect but then worshipping in person has its own idiosyncrasies.  Errors are made when we're there "live" and distractions can also abound.

One thing I really miss about the lack of in-person worship has been Holy Communion.  Minus a few times on zoom, we haven't been able to offer it since March.  It has always been a staple of the Christmas Eve candlelight service.  This year, we'll have a time of drive-by Communion at our church.  It will be on Christmas Eve from 2 to 4 pm.  There will be single serving elements set out on a table for you to receive.  I will consecrate them prior to this time and will be standing just inside the glass doors.  I'll offer a silent prayer of blessing for each family that comes by.  We will also have candles available if you would like to pick one up for each family member worshipping with you for our online service.  It will launch on YouTube at 4 pm or will launch as a "live" service on Facebook at 7 pm.  The service is then available on either platform for whenever you would like to watch.  Some die-hards will pull it up at 11 pm which is their normal time to worship on Christmas Eve!  So if you watch it after dark, we would encourage you to light your own candle at home and sing "Silent Night" with us to end the service with the electric lights out!

I always wonder how many services we should offer.  Our sanctuary is not as big as other churches who average what we do.  So on special days like Christmas Eve and Easter, we usually have more demand for our space.  Next year, I hope that we'll be able to gather in abundance.  I think our demand will be significantly higher just because it is something we've been denied.  So while we will miss gathering in person this year, let us make a pledge to not take for granted what we have.  I don't begrudge the present but rather I look forward with hope to a future.  This seems to sum up Advent for us pretty well.

On Sunday, we'll worship again in the morning (or you may later but that's when it's first available).  We'll have a service of lessons in carols.  It will be bittersweet because this will be Rev. Trey Witzel's last Sunday in worship with us as our associate pastor.  Trey's journey has intersected with mine for many years, starting at Canyon for church camp when he was an adolescent (he didn't have the impressive beard back then).  I was fortunate enough to be his candidacy mentor and then his senior pastor when he came back from seminary.  I knew it was just a matter of time that he would be moved - the bishop and the cabinet are always watching out for young talent!  But it has been a privilege serving with him and I'll miss our interaction throughout the week.

As I ponder the Christmas story anew this year, I'm reminded that there were no traditions that got upended that first Christmas.  It was new for Joseph and Mary.  It was new for the shepherds.  It was even new for the angels.  There was nothing to be disappointed about.  This is helpful to me as I think about this year.  Christmas is not about where I worship or celebrate.  It is not about what I did or didn't receive or even about what I gave.  It is about celebrating the Christ child born into the world.  The joy that I receive from this realization shouldn't sit and stay with me.  Rather it should be passed along.

We may have to be creative this year in how we do the passing.  But at least we won't be in a rut!

Merry Christmas!


The picture is of First United Methodist Church of Edmond where I serve and was taken by Jana Gray, one of our church members.  I like the fat snowflakes she got in the picture - it really speaks to me of Christmas!  Used by permission.

Monday, December 14, 2020

When it Takes Extra Strength to Do the Right Thing

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B

Lectionary Scripture: Romans 16:25-27 (NRSV)

Every child goes through a learning curve.  After you learn to speak, the lessons become more subtle.  We learn how to fit in with traditions and customs that may seem mysterious to a child.

I can remember angering my family members right before Christmas one year.  When I was three or four, my siblings were both teenagers and sometimes teens assume that everyone is at the same place they are developmentally.  I knew that Christmas was exciting - we had a Christmas tree and it was decorated with so many interesting objects.  There were wrapped presents under the tree - some with my name on them.  I was told that I couldn't open them until Christmas morning.  This may be where I learned to spell my name - incentive is a good teacher!

At some point, after much cajoling, I wormed the details out of some of the gifts my sister got the other members of my family.  It was so cool to know what was inside those wrapped presents.  I just knew they would love them.  So I told each person what they were getting.  I just knew this would make them happy and I couldn't wait until Christmas morning.

Amazingly, this backfired for me.  I didn't really understand the delayed gratification that came with waiting to open the gifts.  The nuance of surprise was lost on me.  But I did get that I had done something wrong.  I had betrayed a trust.  No one seemed very happy - even the people who got to discover what they were getting!  Yes, I was not very old, but these are the instances where we begin to learn how we are going to get along with each other.  I learned that part of the fun of Christmas was the anticipation for the actual day.  Of course, adults sometimes forget that time is relative and for children, waiting for Christmas involves a much larger percentage of their lifetimes.

There is a certain excitement that
only comes with the anticipation!

But this is also part of Christian discipleship.  We must each learn what it means to put off short-term pleasure for something that is even more lasting.  As we await Christmas this week, we reflect upon our own lives and see how this is true.  We often make sacrifices of what we want for the good of others or the gain of the whole.  It is part of our faith.

Paul mentions this in his doxology to the Romans in this week's epistle reading.  We don't have to wait to see what God got us this year - it has already been disclosed to us.  So God grants us the strength to be faithful.  This is good because it is not always easy.  Sometimes we are willing to shortchange people around us as long as we are getting what we want.  Of course, this is antithetical to the spirit of Christmas!

The strength we receive from God gives us the ability to be obedient to this faith.  We are getting extra-strength to do the right thing.  Of course, you know what I'm talking about.  As we share with relatives, friends and extended family members this year, there will be opportunities for your to bite your tongue.  Granted, there may not be as many chances this year due to the isolation we are experiencing but there will be phone calls, texts and emails.  

As I think about it, maybe we're all still on a learning curve!

For this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we'll continue our exploration of this passage of scripture.  Our words that I have chosen to focus on for Sunday are strength and obedience.  We could probably use more of both right now.  I hope you'll join us online for worship!

In Christ,


Photo by Richard Gillin via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Giving Thanks for Tests?

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

Lectionary Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (NRSV)

I look forward to the return of all the ways
we normally find joy as we celebrate Christmas!

We're approaching the Third Sunday of Advent.  Of course, after this, it seems like a rush to Christmas.  This year, it will be different.  It has been already.  I miss singing together but I especially miss singing the Christmas carols with a full congregation (and yes, I know that strictly, we should wait until Christmas Eve but that is another conversation).  The point is that we are on a different approach to Christmas.

The Third Sunday of Advent is often the "Joy" Sunday and you may have grown up with a pink candle for this particular day.  Our scripture reflects this with the beginning words, "Rejoice always."  As our restrictions (voluntary or involuntary) mount again because of the rise in cases and deaths, this may be an unrealistic expectation.  We have members of our congregation that currently have the coronavirus.  We have lost members from it and other members have lost family members and friends from it.

It seems rather obtuse to ask people to "give thanks in all circumstances."

But as the apostle Paul asks us to test everything, it seems that he means for us to filter out the bad and hold onto the good.  Can we give thanks for the seclusion?  Only if we use it productively as a time of spiritual growth.  Can we give thanks for illness?  Only if we recognize our ultimate dependence on God during these times.  Can we give thanks for the death of loved ones?  Not usually (unless they were ready to go after a life well-lived), but we can give thanks for a life that we loved - we are thankful for the time we had with them.

So I've tried to focus my own growth.  After my sermon series on the Fruit of the Spirit this fall, I started reading Galatians 5:22-23 (among others) to begin my day.  I wrote this prayer based on this scripture and also utilize it as I begin my day:
Gracious God, make me more loving today - in both giving and receiving love. Give me the ability to find and sow joy each day. May I have peace of mind, body and spirit, such that I become a peacemaker to conflict I encounter. Help me to be kinder to my neighbor in my thoughts and deeds. Grant me a more generous spirit in my perceptions of others so that I may be more ready to share the resources you have entrusted to me. May I be faithful in my daily walk with you, O God, as I seek to love you and my neighbor more fully as Christ has bid me. And as I do trod upon this earth, may I do so gently, leaving places and situations better than I found them. And when those things that are adverse to your Spirit rise up in me, give me the self control to pause and find a better path. I pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, who breathed the Holy Spirit upon us. Amen.
As Paul concludes in today's scripture about sanctification, it means that we are asking God to partner with us in our quest to become more Christ-like.  If we don't try to meet God half-way, this ideal becomes less likely for us.  And if we are not working on our spiritual lives, it may be that we'll rejoice less and complain more - no matter the circumstance.

We'll continue to explore this in worship on Sunday - I hope you'll join us online!  And I give thanks for the technology that allows us to continue to worship together in our isolation.

In Christ,


Photo by Funk Dooby via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.