Reviving Advent for the Twenty-first Century

For as long as I can remember, Advent has been crowded out by the secular season of Christmas.  These days, you no longer have to wait until Thanksgiving is over, but can go “Christmas” shopping even before the turkey is cold. Never mind Black Friday,” Christmas” is everywhere the day after Halloween, and Cyber Monday is THE day to shop.

The secular season starts so early that the tree – which goes up Thanksgiving weekend – has to come down the day after Christmas Day, just when the actual season of Christmas begins. Originally, this was necessary because live trees become big dry bundles of kindling in a few weeks. Never mind that church tradition had been to decorate the tree as part of the Christmas Eve service, and that it would remain the entire twelve days of Christmas, being taken down after Epiphany on January 6th. Somewhere, someone came up with the excuse (aka superstition) that it was “bad luck” to keep the tree up past December 31st … go figure.

The larger issue is that this season of the church that we call Advent has pretty much lost its meaning for us church people.  Oddly enough, this may be truer in the Bible Belt than anywhere.  Some protestant denominations were and remain so anti-Catholic, that many of the ancient traditions of the church were discarded along with the positive changes brought about by the Reformation. You might say that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.  It was not until 1985 that the United Methodist Church began to revive many of the long standing traditions of the church as part of what became known as “liturgical renewal.” A new hymnal and Book of Worship came out of that movement as did a reclaiming of other spiritual practices.

That does not mean that there was a ground swell of support for recovering our discarded traditions such as defining the “Christian Year” as beginning with the Frist Sunday of Advent, keeping a holy Lent and Advent, recovering the Christmas Season (those 12 days from Christmas Day to Epiphany), or returning to the practice of communion every Sunday. It has taken quite a few years for some of these things to begin to take hold. We even struggle to get some of our pastors to surrender their old Book of Worship, so the process has been slow. The publicity surrounding the release of Mel Gibson’s  Passion of the Christ on Ash Wednesday is responsible for the rediscovery of Ash Wednesday and Lent than anything we had tried.

 I have tried a number of approaches over the years to reclaim the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season for the church from ignoring the secular as if it were not everywhere, to going head-to-head with it. Neither are particularly constructive strategies being either too “out of touch” or too shrill and bitter. So, after much thought and prayer, I have a notion that (perhaps) we can live alongside the secular.

That’s why we started Advent two Sundays early, and increased it from four to six Sundays.  Lest you think that I am introducing something new, in my study of the season, I learned that Advent was a six Sunday season for orthodox (aka the oldest) churches. This made it more like the 40 day period of Lent, and therefore an equivalent period of preparation for the two most important events for the Christian church: the birth and the death/resurrection of Christ.  Six weeks give us time to read the preparatory texts that call us to make the path straight, straight from the manger to our hearts. This leaves us with two Sundays to sing all the Christmas Carols we can. Two Sundays to gather around the manger before we move on to the temple, the magi, and the second temple trip when Jesus drives his parents crazy.

More than ever, I think we need manger time. We need time to journey with Mary & Joseph, time to kneel with the shepherds, time to sing Christmas Carols. We need time to rekindle hope, peace and joy in a world that seems short on all three.

We are gradually decorating the nave and sanctuary this year. The season of anticipation seems to call for this gradual unfolding.  The characters in this story will move toward the stable each week – and soon the life-size nativity will be a dynamic picture as well. By Christmas Eve all the Advent candles will be lit and all the decorations in place, and we will have sung Christmas Carols and walked the long road again to kneel in Bethlehem.

Even with the expanded Advent, we are still able to use the lectionary texts because the texts continue to work well for the first four Sundays when the emphasis is on preparation (especially for the return of Christ).  The standard lectionary gives a year each to Matthew (Year A), Mark (Year B), and Luke (Year C, so as we move through the three year cycle, the last two Sundays can naturally follow along with Matthew’s emphasis on Joseph (Year A) and Luke’s emphasis on Mary (Year C).  You might say that Years A & C allow us to look at the story of Christ’s birth from the perspective of men and women, respectively.  Since this is Luke’s year, the women in the story will be emphasized.

Now, some of you (I hope) will be wondering what to do with Mark’s year.  If you aren’t wondering, take out your Bible and have a look at the beginning of Mark. So, what do we do during year B, Mark’s year?

During year B, we will take a look at the genealogies found in Matthew and Luke as a way to further delve into an understanding of the two audiences for Jesus’s message: Jews and Gentiles. Each genealogy provides insights into the message of Christ as presented to and understood by Jews and Gentiles of the time. The great variety of Bible characters included in one or both of these genealogies should provide fertile ground for our spiritual imaginations. This will be a third way to view the advent of Christ into the world.

Will this help us engage with the season? Could it be an antidote to all the shopping? Will it draw us closer to the manger, to the baby Jesus?

What we do in worship is less than half of what is required for us to engage, spiritually prepare, and draw closer.  The larger portion is whether or not each of us is willing to pay attend and prepare, to anticipate and approach the manger with hope and the knowledge that there we will find what makes for peace and good will toward all humankind.

Blessings,

Thanks!

I want to thank you all for your prayers, cards, food and understanding as I recover from PCL surgery. Thanks also to Rev. Koetje for filling in for me the Sunday after. The surgery was more complicated and recovery much longer than anticipated. Things have run a bit behind, and I appreciate everyone who has pitched in, including folks who took their time to help out with preparing the yard for getting the Conyers house on the market.  I hope that my next doctor appointment will be to approve physical therapy. God is good and I thank God for this church.

Now,  we have to get moving because the busiest and most exciting season of the church is upon us.

Pastor’s September Message

You are going to see a lot  this month in the Articles section on the upcoming Called General Conference. As you may already know, the world-wide United Methodist Church meets every 4 years – in Methodist-speak that is every quadrinnieum – to fellowship, worship, celebrate, plan and pass legislation for our denomination. We are schedule for our regular General Conference in 2020.  The called conference will be in February 2019.

The reason for this special conference is to discuss and vote on one set of issues: sexual orientation. (This has nothing to do with transgender individuals.)  People differ on what is most important about these issues, and what is at stake for the church as a whole. Some have stated that they must have a specific outcome or they cannot remain in the denomination. According to polls taken at annual conferences this year, a majority are seeking a resolution that will allow us to remain together, and find a way forward together.  The outcome will impact each local church and conference in one way or another. The decision will also impact all of our global ministries like UMCOR, and the hundreds of other ministries supported through The Advance.

What I learned from talking about these issues with my Bible study class is that studying scripture and applying our reason, tradition and experience to the texts was not especially helpful.  I had hoped that it would aid everyone in understanding where they stand and why, as well as where someone of a different opinion stands and why. We examined scripture that addresses who can marry whom, divorce in Hebrew scripture and the Gospels, circumcision, purity laws, definitions of sin, and even killing as ways to talk about what we think scripture says or doesn’t say, and whether or not we are still following or moving away from what scripture meant at the time it was written and what it means applied to us now.

I am not sure that there were any major breakthroughs. Our experience was pretty consist with what others have shared with me from other churches. So, how do we decide what to do? It doesn’t seem to be based on the answers to questions like these:

Is having a particular understanding of scripture that condemns this particular sin (sexual orientation) at the heart of what it means to be a united, holy and apostolic church? 

Should scientific and psychological understandings of different sexual orientations as normal variations from birth be accepted or rejected?

Is anything other than heterosexuality either a disease or a choice; both of which can and should be cured or changed, respectively?

So perhaps what we should ask is what is really most important about the decision we make?  Our decisions will define who we are as a church and what it means to be a disciple as well as who can make disciples.

Maybe we need to change the questions, and ask what is at stake? Obviously, the future of the UMC is at stake; but what does that mean?  Asking what is at stake as the church as the body of Christ (rather than the institution) really gets to the heart of the matter. I know this is very simplistic, but here is what it boils down to for me:

Is being open to all sinners what it means to be a united, holy and apostolic church? Or, is being united, holy and apostolic based on specific definitions of what is immoral such as homosexuality which has been stated as incompatible with Christian doctrine?

What decision is a better witness to the good news, the gospel, of Jesus Christ?

What impact will our decision make upon our ability to fulfill our mission as the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?

I will be participating in training to prepare for discussions with you, and we will be picking dates and times to have these important dialogues. 

In the meantime, please read the materials provided here, and view the videos and other information provided so that you will have the best understanding you can of where we are and how we have been striving to find a way forward. Otherwise simply pray for God’s will to be done, and do not worry.  Not worrying is a very Biblical teaching no matter your opinion on this issue. And remember, too, that the church is almost always in crisis of one kind or another; always under threat from one direction or the other; and that we struggle with each other and the Bible all the time if we are truly striving to be witnesses to the Gospel and imitators of Jesus.  He did argue quite a bit with people he cared about, didn’t he?

I pray that we will all listen, really listen, to each other; and courageously and humbly take the next steps after we hear and are fully heard, whatever those steps turn out to be. Maybe this is the most important thing no matter what the decision.

The Good News

When John & Charles Wesley took the Good News to the working poor of England, they received no encouragement or support from The Church.  Good church people and church authorities thought that preaching in the fields and in mining villages was vulgar and inappropriate. The word of God, according to proper church folks, should only be preached from a pulpit in a church. Official reprimands were issued. John and others among these “field preachers” were barred from many pulpits for these practices along with their unpopular messages.

Regrettably part of their opposition was based on an aversion to “those people,”  referring to people who had migrated from the country Side. There the village church was in the center of town life, literally and figuratively, In London where the churches were cathedrals, their shabby clothing and limited financial resources simply did not fit in with the educated, wealth church goers.

These migrants entered an entirely different economy when their arrived in these cities and mining towns. In the countryside, they grew or raised a significant part of what they needed and bartered for others things. Selling something they produced or made earned them money to buy the few things they could not grow, made or barter. Once in the city, their earnings from a factory or mining job was what they had to live on.

In those days, there were no laws to prohibit extremely long working hours.  A 40-hour work week and weekends off were unknown.  Even young children worked to help support their families, and education was a luxury. Debtors’ prisons were a reality for many.

All of this meant that the growing population in the cities were unchurched, uneducated and unable to rise above the poverty level.  In those days, health care in these communities was scare, and there were no protections for workers from dangerous environments or duties. Life spans were short.

The Wesley brothers and other members of the Holy Club they organized at Oxford did not limit themselves, therefore, to the care of souls.  They knew that physical needs and hardships made hearing the gospel as good news rather unbelievable. So, their ministry was to the real material needs of the people they served as well as what we would call evangelism and Christian education.  Thrift institutions were established to help them learn how to manage their money.  John Wesley even wrote a book of medical and healthy living advice. They also visited people in prison, providing prisoners and their families with help.

The bands and classes they established (what would be called small groups or covenant discipleship today) taught literacy as well as scripture. In these small groups people were prepared to go to church: spiritual preparation along with what we might call basic hygiene and etiquette.

The Wesleys and those who joined their Methodist movement were not popular among people who exploited the working poor either. They were attacked by tavern owners and others who profited from the hopeless situation of the poor, encouraging them to “drown their sorrows” in alcohol, and flaming the hope of increasing their wages through gambling. And when I say attacked, I mean with fists and rocks. Being run out of town was common with or without a beating first.

When the Methodist movement came to the US, there were similar issues among the general population.  To be sure, churches were  uncommon outside the cities, and circuit riders covered dozens of churches spread across hundreds of miles.  Lay preachers (both men and women), called exhorters, kept the preaching going; but communion was only possible when an ordained priest (who we call elders today) were present.  As a result, the sacrament was offered quarterly, or even less often. Camp meetings were a major evangelism tool across the country side.

It may seem that we are light years away from the birth of Methodism, but today there are a many people in the communities that surround NFUMC who have are without means and have no relationship with a faith community. The church is rarely at the center of a community’s life.  And, that is true for many churches.

Our Global Board of Discipleship has focused attention on the fact that there are many people just outside our campus with the #SeeAllThePeople initiative. Dr. Junius Dotson who heads the board has assembled some outstanding materials to help churches see all the people that are around them, and make disciples of Jesus Christ.  A number of you picked up some of these materials from the North Georgia Conference table that we had in the sanctuary last month.

In conjunction with this, you may have heard of Fresh Expressions, a movement that began in the UK in the Anglican church, and was introduced successfully in the US in the Florida Conference.  Much like the early Methodist movement these fresh expressions of church, take the gospel out to people where they are.  These non-typical settings, bring church to places that are as different as the fields of Wesley’s day. The point is to gather with people at a point of need or around an activity or interest that important to them. The goal is to bring people into relationship with each other, with Christ, and eventually to lead them into a life of discipleship. The success of these efforts is amazing and inspirational. Some examples have been shared on our UNFUMC Facebook page. Both these initiatives provide an avenue for evangelism for our times.

The question for us is simple. Will we be a part of this great awakening!