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Advent Wreath

During worship at our church on Sunday, we celebrated the first Sunday of Advent. As we do each year, we used the Advent Wreath as a way to mark the Sundays before Christmas. During worship, I shared a story about the origin of the Advent Wreath.

The first Advent Wreath was developed by a German pastor and missionary, Johann Hinrich Wichern. In 1833, he started a mission school in Hamburg, which taught children from poor neighborhoods nearby. Children were excited about the coming of Christmas, and as the holiday approached, they would ask repeatedly, “Is this Christmas Day? When will Christmas arrive?”

Pastor Wichern wanted to help the children learn when Christmas would arrive, so he took a wheel from a cart and attached four large candles to it. One candle marked each Sunday in Advent. Between the Sunday candles, he attached smaller candles for weekdays. He would light one candle each day during Advent. By watching the candles burning, children learned when Christmas was coming. In later years, Wichern attached pine boughs as a reminder that God offers new life through Jesus Christ.

Advent WreathIn our worship, we light one candle each of the four Sundays during Advent. Three blue candles remind us of Peace, Hope, and Love. One pink candle reminds us of Joy. In the center, a large white candle is the Christ Candle, which we will light during our Christmas Eve service.

I hope your Advent will be filled with Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love.

Only Five People

At our church on Sunday, we celebrated Reformation Sunday, joining with thousands of Christian sisters and brothers around the world singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and remembering Martin Luther and other faithful ones who helped form the church we have today.

Luther lived in Wittenberg, Germany during most of his adult life, and it was in Wittenberg that he posted the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church on October 31, 1517, igniting the Protestant Reformation.

Luther's Pulpit

Luther’s Pulpit

Luther was a fiery preacher, and It is estimated that he preached 7,000 sermons between 1510 and 1546.

Very near the end of his life, Luther returned to his hometown, Eisleben, to negotiate a dispute between local magistrates. Four days before his death, Luther – the renowned and sometimes reviled Reformer – preached his final sermon in Eisleben, and only five people were present!

Luther was angry and disappointed. He wrote to a colleague that he feared he had been involved in a failed Reformation. In those moments, Luther could not have envisioned the Protestant Christians who would follow through the centuries.

At times, I am disappointed because things do not turn out as I hoped they would — or people seem not to care about things that I feel are very important. Luther’s final sermon is a good reminder for me — good things can emerge even if I do not know it and cannot see it.

50th Anniversary of March on Washington

I was not alive in 1963 when a quarter of a million people gathered for the Great March on Washington, and I cannot remember the first time I saw the video and heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice resounding: “I have a dream.” It was such an important part of the world in which I grew up that I could hardly imagine a time when those words were not well known.March on Washington

Having grown up in South Carolina, I knew first-hand the red-clay soil about which Dr. King spoke when he said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

When I went to Washington, DC, as a young adult, I journeyed to the Lincoln Memorial and looked out on the National Mall from the spot where Dr. King made his speech.

I decided to pursue a Ph.D. degree in social ethics at Boston University in part because that was where Dr. King studied, and I studied with the Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Social Ethics. I learned more of the theological and philosophical underpinnings of King’s nonviolent social action designed to bring the Beloved Community.

I remember the first time I visited the space that was his former dormitory room on campus; I found myself taking a deep breath from the solemnity of the experience for me. I spent time in the King Reading Room in the university’s library, and I attended the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Event and joined in the loud chorus singing, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Today, I cannot claim to know the feelings of those who attended the March on Washington, but I do have a sense of the powerful depth of that moment and the important changes it helped bring to our country. So, I celebrate this day as one whose life has been dramatically improved by the Civil Rights Movement. And, I join my prayers with those who ask God’s guidance and direction as, together, we seek to make the dream a reality.

How to pray? What to say?

A church member submitted my name to the Carolina Panthers football team, and I have been asked to deliver the invocation prior to the preseason game on August 29. Accepting the invitation was fun and easy. Now that it is time to prepare the invocation, I have been wondering how I should pray and what I should say.Panthers Logo

I agree with the team’s requirement that prayers should be respectful and ecumenical. I also agree with the requirement that they should last less than one minute.

My challenge has been to craft words that recognize the importance of prayer, fit within the time limit, and respect all the people who will be present.

I keep considering a question: what is prayer in a setting like this?

I think it is an effort to lift our sights beyond ourselves, to affirm good things about the event and participants, and to offer a good word.

Is there something else or something more? If you have ideas, I would appreciate knowing them. You may reply to this post, or you may send them to Dean@FernwoodChurch.org.

This is the Word of the Lord . . .

Each week during worship at our church, after the readings from the Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel, the reader says, “This is the Word of the Lord.” The congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”
Normally, the readings are either familiar passages many of us have heard for years or nice and helpful teachings that guide, encourage, or inspire us. Thus, uttering our thanks to God is easy and comfortable.Bible 3 with glasses CROPPED
Last Sunday’s reading, from Ecclesiastes chapters 1 and 2, was different. The most familiar passage from Ecclesiastes is found in chapter 3: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
Just prior to this passage, however, we hear challenging words from Qoheleth, the book’s author who often is named “Teacher” or “Preacher” in English.
My wife, Lisa, read chapters 1 and 2, and after reading, she held up the Bible and said, “Like it or not, this is the Word of the Lord.” The congregation said, in rather hushed tones, “Thanks be to God.”
In Ecclesiastes 1 and 2, Qoheleth reflects on his life and says, “All is vanity and chasing after the wind. I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates these words in this manner: “I’ve seen it all and it’s nothing but smoke – smoke, and spitting in the wind. I hate life. As far as I can see, what happens on earth is bad business. It’s smoke – and spitting in the wind.”
You don’t usually hear these words from the pulpit!
The Bible is a wonderful book because it contains many lessons for faithful living, stories of faithful people, and prayers of praise and lament. When we read the Scripture in its entirety, we receive both words of comfort and words of challenge. We hear words of joy, and we hear cries of despair. And, the good news is this: God is in the midst of all of them.
The first two chapters of Ecclesiastes are, for me, more challenging than comforting – yet it is important to read them, to reflect on them, to be challenged by them. They are indeed, “The Word of the Lord.”

Thanks be to God.

“Where Christ is, there he always goes against the flow.”

During July, our family (my wife and our son and daughter) spent three weeks traveling around Europe. My wife spent part of her childhood years in Germany and England, and the trip allowed our children to visit the homes in which their Mom grew up. The trip also allowed us to visit other places of significance.

One of the highlights was our visit to the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt where Martin Luther lived as a monk from 1505-1511. Luther entered the monastery following his promise to God if he were spared in a thunderstorm. Luther himself described his years at the monastery in Erfurt as the most important of his life.

While in Erfurt, we worshipped with the congregation at St. Augustine’s Church. This church is where Luther, with trembling hands and trembling spirit, led his first Mass on May 2, 1507. We received the Eucharist at the same altar where Luther had been worship leader and where he had spent hours in meditation.

It was deeply moving to join with faithful followers of Christ Jesus in a place so important to the development of Protestant Christianity.

Luther's CellAfter worship, Dr. Irene Mildenberger, Pastor of the Church, graciously led our family on a tour of the monastery, including a stop at the cell in which Luther spent much time.

As I followed the footsteps on Luther – from Erfurt to Wartburg Castle to Wittenburg – I was deeply grateful for Luther’s willingness to study Scripture and for his courage to have his conscience held captive to the Word of God.

In 1517, Luther uttered this quote: “Where Christ is, there he always goes against the flow.”

Amen and amen!

Where is Zarephath?

At our church on Sunday, our worship focused on a passage from First Kings, chapter 17, in which the prophet Elijah travels to Zarephath. I asked the congregation a question: “Where is Zarephath?”
As expected, the response was silence, and truth be told, I could not have answered the question before I studied in preparation for worship.
The short answer is this: Zarephath was a town near Sidon, a Phoenician city known for exporting many goods, on the Mediterranean coast in present-day Lebanon. Perhaps that information may help if you’re a contestant on game shows like “Jeopardy” or “The American Bible Challenge.”
A longer answer is this: Zarephath was a town to which the prophet Elijah traveled after receiving a word from God. It was located in the home region of Queen Jezebel where worship of Baal was prevalent, outside of Elijah’s home area in Israel. Zarephath was an area under control of powerful people to which the prophet was directed to travel.

Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta

Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta

An even longer answer is this: Zarephath was an area in which God surprisingly chose to act through people with no credentials and no authority. In Zarephath, Elijah went to a widow, asking her to provide him with water and food. As a widow, she was a vulnerable person on the fringes of society. She and her son were down to their last bits of food, and she feared that she would run out of meal and oil when the prophet asked her to feed him.
Elijah’s reply – “Do not be afraid” – may have spoken as much to him as to the widow because he was far away from his home, venturing into an area where people worshipped a different god, trusting his well-being to a poor person with meager resources. And, thankfully, the resources were sufficient to provide for the widow, her son, and Elijah. After sharing what little she had with Elijah, the widow’s meal and oil never ran out. There was enough!
So, where is Zarephath? It is a place that seems unfamiliar, foreign, and fear-inducing.
Where might that be for you? Like Elijah and the widow, would you be willing to move into that unfamiliar place and trust that God’s provision will be sufficient for you?

Peddlers

At our church on Sunday, I preached a sermon about the encounter between Paul and Lydia found in Acts, chapter 16. I described both of them as peddlers, which can describe both someone who sells goods door-to-door and someone who promotes a cause.

Paul was a well-known peddler of the Christian message, and he eventually encountered Lydia in Philippi after several attempts to go other places were blocked or denied. Rather than giving up when he faced adversity, Paul remained steadfast and continued traveling to tell others about Jesus.

St. Lydia

St. Lydia

Lydia also was a peddler – a purple peddler who apparently achieved success by selling highly-valued purple dye or purple cloth. Extracting purple dye from mollusk shells was difficult, and people were willing to pay high prices to attain it.

One Sabbath, while gathering with other women outside Philippi for prayer, Lydia met Paul, listened to his stories about Jesus, and became a follower of Jesus. She was baptized, along with her household, and, like Paul, she became a peddler for Jesus. Lydia appears to have been the first Christian convert in Europe, and her faithfulness to Jesus was deeply influential in the early church. Lydia offered hospitality to Paul, supported his ministry, received Paul and Silas after they were imprisoned, and hosted the Philippian church in her home.

Both Paul and Lydia were open to unplanned and unexpected possibilities that came their way. Surely neither of them could have imagined their meeting and their relationship as siblings in faith that would form. As they were peddling – going about their regular activities – they were open to new possibilities in life and ministry.

So, here is a question for you. As you proceed along your peddling paths, in what ways might you be faithful to opportunities that arise? If, like Paul and Lydia, you are open to unplanned and unexpected possibilities, where might you be led?

Creative Extremists

Letter from Birmingham Jail by Joseph Holston (2008)

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Joseph Holston (2008)

Today, April 16, 2013, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King was imprisoned on a charge of parading without the required permit. He wrote the letter in response to a statement issued by eight clergymen calling his activities “unwise and untimely.” In the letter King offered several phrases that are well known and deeply moving:
• Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects on directly, affects all indirectly.
• We know through painful experience that freedom in never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to enegage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.
• An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him [or her] is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

In response to critics who called King and other extremists for the nonviolent, direct action, King said, “Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist,I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Jesus was an extremist for love, truth and goodness. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
During her sermon on Sunday at our church, my wife, Lisa, asked members of the congregation to consider ways in which we might respond, like Peter in Acts chapter: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Are there settings in your life where a creative extremist might be needed? How will you respond?

Hope Springs Eternal

Green Monstah, Fenway Park

Green Monstah, Fenway Park

Having lived in Boston for a dozen years, part of my heart still is there! I confess to loving the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics. I was fortunate to live in Beantown when the Sox finally broke the Curse of the Bambino, and the Patriots won three Super Bowls. And, the Celtics improved, finally winning a championship a couple of years after I moved.
In October 2004, our daughter was born on the day the Red Sox came back from three games down to defeat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. We celebrated for two reasons!
One of the rituals of life this time of year is Opening Day in the baseball season. And, no matter what happened last season, there always is hope in Spring! The last two years have been tough on Red Sox Nation with the collapse in 2011 and last year’s debacle. But, hope springs eternal!
The new season begins on April 1 as the Sox head to Yankee Stadium to take on the Yankees. Then, Opening Day at Fenway is April 8. I’ll put on my Sox cap and root for the team.Green Monstah Left Field - Rotated
Go Sox!