I am in that part of the Christmas season where my best intentions for the season are starting to come undone.
Each year, I resolve to get started early with my wrapping, make time for quiet and prayer, listen to more music (Annie Lennox’s Christmas CD remains my favorite, at least in principle), and let myself really settle into the festivity.
I also have this vision that I’ll have found the perfect gift for each person, and secured it, months ago, leaving me little to do in December except watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and drink hot chocolate.
Well, once again I’m not quite there yet.
Advent, the season before Christmas, is often described as one of “waiting and expectation.”
But in our world, “expectations” have come to mean something different than they once did. When we talk about “expectations,” we’re often referring to measurement and evaluation in some way. I shudder to think of the offices where Monday morning post-mortems of Christmas will unfold: “So did Christmas meet or exceed your expectations this year?”
If I’m honest, I know that my intentions for the season are, in their own way, about that sort of expectations, too — was I organized enough about the tasks of Christmas this year? Was I tracking who-likes-what closely enough that I was “ready to go” ahead of the predictable bottlenecks?
If I’m not careful, that kind of “expectation” can turn Christmas into little more than an exercise in clearing my desk before a vacation.
Advent is supposed to take us outside of all that — to remind us about a bigger sort of hope and imagination. It’s about Expectation with a capital “E.”
It’s less about practicalities (important as those are) and more about remembering what it feels like to dream.
This seems to have gotten harder for us, and is all the more important for just that reason.
Our gathering, our exchanging gifts, our effort at getting lights on a tree and remembering to water it — all “the things” of Christmas aren’t just another to-do list to get through. They’re invitations to dream again. To say how much we love and feel grateful for one another. To practice caring.
Because the expectations that matter most are not the little performance measures we can come to live by all too easily. The expectations that matter are the ones that give us life and hope — the expectation of an even greater love that is to come, for us and for all people.
May we all find our spirits brightened by that kind of expectations in these coming weeks.
See you in church,
I knew she would ask me one day and I promised I’d never lie to her about it. I was picking Molly up from school and as I lifted her up into her car seat she asked me,
“Dad, is Santa real?”
She caught me off guard.
“Um…” I blurted out as I now was facing a question I thought I was prepared to answer.
Should I tell her? Will she understand? Will people think I’m some kind of Scrooge for ruining her childhood? I did what any good pastor would do, I quoted the Bible. Molly, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child I reasoned like a child; when I was a became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11). It worked. I was proud of myself but it triggered a thought about the way people wrestle with Scripture today. When they approach Scripture as adults using the logic they held as children, the story of Scripture becomes as silly as Santa. I hear it all the time,
Issues with “that angry white-bearded God” in the Old Testament.
The way they treated women and children.
Wrapping our heads around the idea of miracles.
How dare God let evil exist?
Talking snakes, donkeys, and Jonah living in the belly of a whale.
It’s just a book of myths and fairy tales!
These were stories that were told to us as children but for many they lost value for us as adults. It’s likely this is the reason a book we consider handed down to us by God often becomes an untouched accessory on our bookshelves and in our pews.
And so we are left with a choice. Do we continue to tell these stories in the same way we were told growing up? Or, do we dare to have the courage to face the narrative of Scripture as adults. We may be uncomfortable with what we find but I believe it’s in that discomfort that we can hear Scripture no longer as children but as adults. When I face it now I see a new story in Scripture that prods my understanding,
Why was God so angry with humanity in the Old Testament?
How can we give women and children a voice today?
Can God use our church to miraculously feed 50 people at a mens homeless shelter?
What can I do to partner with God and stop injustice in this world?
What is creation crying out for us to hear?
All Christians are called to spiritually grow, to spiritually evolve, and to spiritually adapt. Peter expresses this in his first letter by saying, “grow up in your salvation.”
For now, I’ll tell Molly that she can believe in Santa, that Jonah was in the belly of a whale, and that an apple is why there is bad in the world. But as she grows I’ll teach her that the story has a deeper meaning. That Santa embodies a spirit of giving and even though Old St. Nick doesn’t come down our chimney, that spirit can come forth out from her soul.
Let us dare to see what others cannot see, to hear what others cannot hear, and to allow the Spirit to provoke our imagination from the stories we find in the Bible.
O’ the wonders Jesus still has yet to do through his people. He proclaims “you will do greater things than I.”
Be wrapped up in the gift of Christ as we move into Advent.
The Bible talks about a last day where Jesus is going to come and judge the earth. It says that one day, right out of nowhere, the end will come. There are many who believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who may have resembled one of those Times Square open air evangelists holding a sign saying, “Repent, for the end is near!” Like you, I think they are likely crazy, no offense to any in our congregation who may share such zeal. Now, it isn’t the message that they are preaching that is out of tune, it is the method, and I don’t recall Jesus, Paul, or any other disciples saying “wear a sign and scare them into the kingdom.”
We all are called, however, to repent and be mindful of the day God will call us, judge us, and place us where we are to spend eternity. So what exactly is God’s requirement for the kingdom of God? What will make it so that we won’t have to dread that final day? And let us be sure, all of us will face a last day, whether it is “the final day” or the day we depart from this temporary vessel of flesh.
Simply put, we are called to repentance.
Repentance is the act of realizing you have been doing something wrong and then turning around. It is a 180 degree turn in the direction away from those things that harm us or interfere in our relationships with others and with God. We don’t have to get into specifics, we both deal with them daily, you and I both know what those things are. We come to church, we meet in Bible study, we attend prayer group, and we participate in community life so that, like those who attend A.A., we can help one another overcome “our stuff.”
This weeks message, on Sunday, from the Gospel of Mark chapter 13: 24-37 will be a reminder to be on watch for that final day. For as long as we are alive we have the opportunity to right our wrongs and to start living lives that reflect the life of Christ revealed to us in Scripture. It is not an easy road we are called to. It is a right road and the sooner we turn around from walking the broad path the quicker we will find ourselves walking that narrow road with our Lord. A path that we also walk with the community of believers who have admitted their brokenness and who have committed themselves to the path of wholeness.
And so we watch.
Waiting for the day of the Lord. Not with dread, not with fear, but with joy. Knowing that we have played our part by living a repentant life. Waiting for the day that God whispers in your ear the same way the Spirit whispered in Christ’s ear, “well done, good and faithful child.”
I’ll see you Saturday evening at Evensong or Sunday morning at our morning services.
May God bless you, your family, and the works of your hands,
Seven hundred years before the time of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah began preaching in Jerusalem.
Called in a time of tremendous division and external threat, with widespread distrust of the people’s disagreeing leaders, and great disparities between haves and have-nots, Isaiah’s career as a prophet began as an attempt to warn his country about the direction it was heading.
About 150 years later, however, the armies of Babylon would surround and ultimately destroy the city, taking many captives to Babylon—a foreign city that was, ironically, not far from where the Hebrew people’s ancient patriarch, Abraham, had originally come. It seemed like so much of what God had done since then was now being undone. It was a difficult time, and difficult to remain faithful to God.
Yet in this moment, God spoke once again, offering words of comfort and soon, direction for the journey out of slavery and back to Jerusalem, which they were to rebuild. This part of the story is also remembered in the Book of Isaiah, and is known technically as “Second Isaiah.” Much of the church’s later imagery and understanding of the Messiah comes from this part of the Book of Isaiah.
Finally, after God’s people returned to Jerusalem, they found that rebuilding their lives and their beloved city was far more challenging than they had ever imagined. They were impatient. There were new threats on the horizon. They disagreed about how to care for neediest, and about under what terms strangers could be among them. Some said that those were worthy enough questions to consider, but that now was not the time—that the situation remained far too grave for that kind of sensitivity just then. The final section of the Book of Isaiah (known as “Third Isaiah”) describes this period, and challenges God’s people to look to the future, when God’s final triumph of light over darkness, and justice over injustice would be complete. Let us look for that day, Isaiah suggested, but in the meantime, there was still a great deal of important work to do.
It all sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?
Yet I find myself drawn to different stages in the story at different moments of my own life.
There are times when Isaiah’s initial warnings call me to live differently and to make time for projects designed to make the world a better, fairer, place. At other times, I feel some of dislocation Isaiah describes, and it isn’t clear where God is or what God expects. And of course, there are those blessed moments when I feel a sense of homecoming and restoration, when an especially difficult part of life’s journey feels behind me at last, and I am at last sailing on smoother waters.
Reflecting on Isaiah, the theologian Jo Bailey Wells notes that the possibility of God’s transformation —of us, our general situation, and the world — remains active in all circumstances, “throughout times of prosperity, adversity and rehabilitation.”
That’s been my own experience, too. In any given moment, exactly where God is may not be clear. Yet soon enough, God’s presence emerges, and not as some sort of sudden arrival, but in my own gradual recognition of where God has been all along.
This Sunday, we will begin a three week consideration of the Book of Isaiah after church. I hope you will join us.
See you in church,
Dear Friends of Second Church,
This coming Sunday, we will mark Reformation Sunday at our 10:30 Worship Service — which will include a musical celebration with harpsichord, brass, strings, a boy soloist…in short, the works.
It is sure to be a great tribute on a day close to the 500th anniversary of when it is said that Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Saxony (the actual day is October 31st).
There are those who wonder if it happened exactly that way, with all the drama of a Spielberg movie, and I admit that I don’t know.
But it’s clear that a very different way of “being the Church” emerged as a result. Luther focused and then broadened a conversation about how we encounter God, how we understand God’s will for us, and what the world should look like in light of our faith.
Over the last 500 years, that conversation has continued, and what’s proven to be its most enduring feature are its perennial questions, rather than many of its specific answers. Those often turn out to be the testimonies of a particular place and time, with much to teach us, but also much we must respectfully, but courageously reinterpret.
The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “Tradition is not guarding the ashes, but fanning the flames.”
Along those lines, the thing about a Reformation faith is that each generation — and in a very real sense each person — is challenged to remake it anew. We have to fan those flames once again. We have to look for God in our midst and ask what God is doing now, in this place.
What are the urgent concerns of this moment, and how is it that the light of the Gospel and the love of God in Jesus Christ can transform them? What does God need the Church to see, which the world, in its brokenness, cannot? And what does that ask of us in the Church, and of all of us as the Church?
There is not one simple answer. How could there be?
Truly, it is no surprise that passionate debate has always been a part of Reformation faith.
Yet clearly, it’s not a passive way of being faithful. It never has been. Moreover, it must not be. That’s one of the Reformation’s most important and enduring insights.
The challenge of wrestling with God’s Word demanded that the first Reformers push for Bibles that people could read in their own languages. Then they saw the need to push for the broad, basic literacy that ensured the people could read for themselves. In this country, you can trace the migration of the Puritans and their descendants by following the founding of colleges across the American West.
But at a deeper level, those achievements came back to that fundamental commitment to wrestling.
Much has changed over the last 500 years. Some even say that we are at the very beginning of the next Great Reformation in Christian history, as the institution of the Church changes yet again to meet life circumstances and new social expectations that have shifted dramatically, especially in the last 50 years.
That commitment to wrestling has not changed.
From where I sit, the most vibrantly faithful, joyful, and committed of our own members today are those who live out that commitment, and the people who visit us and end up staying are those who are seeking a nurturing place to do that, too.
This tells me that, whatever the next 500 years will bring, the women and men whose lives are shaped by a Reformation faith across the generations will always share something much more fundamental than anything that might divide them.
I hope you’ll join us this Sunday to celebrate the last 500 years, and the next 500 years, and to engage for yourself in the deep wrestling that is the enduring heart of our faith.
See you in church,
For the last week or so, my Facebook feed has offered testimony after testimony from women under the hashtag #metoo, sharing their experiences of unwanted sexual advances from men with positions of power in their lives -- elite music camp “star teachers,” coaches, dissertation advisors, bosses, pastors -- men of all kinds, sometimes drawing on even the slenderest forms of “leverage” to coerce women into doing what they wanted.
For the first couple of days, I was truly shocked. Then I got embarrassed that I was so shocked.
In so many cases, the stories were not accounts of a single time, or a single creep.
They were matter-of-fact lists of men named only by role, encountered through the years and in many different places.
Part of the point is that the details of any given one scarcely matter, because in some sense, of course, they are all the same story, told over and over again by women of all backgrounds, and often multiple times within the life of even one woman.
The details don’t matter because we might be too easily tempted to use them as a way to parse these stories, to identify some sort of behavior in the teller, some sort of mixed signal, some part of the context that meant that it was “all an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
We’d like so much to think so. There are mixed signals and unfortunate misunderstandings, to be sure. We can always look for those if we so choose.
Or we can seek to learn from the vast experience of all those for whom these are not isolated incidents, but rather all-too-predictable patterns of living and working alongside men.
Maybe an isolated story has the power to shock us.
But a fact of life that stands in plain view, testified to by countless family members, friends and coworkers, can only reveal how willful our blindness and astonishment truly are. That should embarrass us -- and challenge us, too.
The Church at its best has always been grounded in the understanding that all people are created in the image of God, and are precious to God.
That means they are never to be seen as objects for someone’s particular use or purposes, or as the means to an end. All are worthy in themselves, and always to be seen in light of the fact that God did not consider Creation complete without each of us -- and not for some to serve as “helpmeets” for others, but for all to serve together as coworkers in the vineyard.
This is never to be taken lightly. Particularly by those in a position to give particular help or hindrance, to do good or harm, to enact justice or injustice for others, or to act on behalf of neighbor or of self.
Sin should not shock us. But it must motivate us.
Jesus believed there was joy to be found in working together in service to the Kingdom.
May we work for a day when it is the stories of such joy that speak of our common lot, and not the heartbreak and shame of bearing someone else’s inhumanity.
See you in church,
Who wants to sleep here for a week during the summer?
I'd just returned from Israel, led the main station at VBS, and now had to sleep on a floor in Washington D.C...my wife missed me, my kids wondered where I had been...
And so again I asked...who wants to sleep here, at a five day mission trip, for a week during the summer?
Why would our young people give up a week of lounging around for a week of serving in 100 degree weather and sleeping on hardwood floors?
Little did we know that the media would find us amidst a volunteer shortage...
We toughed it out. Our small band of nine 2CC congregants partnered with about 25 others to serve, learn, and talk with our congressman about how we can help others in our community.
"I didn't think I would feel the way I do...serving others actually makes me feel...better" said Brenna Dodaj during a homeless lunch meal. "Your sermon gave me chills...seriously" said John Wailgum as I preached a message about how God can use us as advocates for those who are in need.
This was a rough week. Hard floors, long days, and the heat made serving others was the last thing on my mind...
But let me tell you...Not one...not one complaint. These kids inspired me and I wish there was some way I could show you that. I'm used to complaining and I just about expected it (Im a father of twins). But not once did our kids complain.
It bothered me a bit but then I realized...and maybe they hadn't either...but...
thats why they went...
They saw that even though they may not be the richest, the best, or the greatest, they realized how blessed they were. They didn't just praise and worship the fact that God had, for some reason, blessed them by giving them some upward mobility in life. The kids started asking the question, "how can I help others who don't have this type of opportunity...who maybe are missing out on 'blessings?'"
Day by day I watched the kids empty their pockets to give money to those who didn't have. I watched Robbie Roth give his last dollar to a man sleeping on a park bench and then Nicole Segal empty her purse to contribute. When offered two slices of pizza by our mission group all of our kids decided to only eat one slice each. They then found a couple outside of a Seven Eleven who were asking for money but instead offered them this cornucopian feast. "Are you serious? Thank you so much!" said the man who was just handed two pies from the local pizza hot spot "We the Pizza." The man and his wife had just experienced Heaven. And so did we...
We learned that to give is better than to receive...
We learned that serving is where God is found...
And we learned that Jesus has called us to this work...
Some of us will be lawyers, writers, doctors, teachers, clerks and the like...but we all have been called to the work of Christ. It's these opportunities that Second Congregational Church provides that opens our eyes to this amazing call to serve and bless others.
Thanks to all of you who donate, who give their time and energy to the mission of 2CC. Know that there is budding fruit in the garden you have made.
Blessings upon blessings,
Reverend Shawn Garan
I received an article titled "The Teenage Spiritual Crisis." In short, it talked about young people, their faith, and how church has...simply put...failed them.
The spiritual yearning is there but these young people don't come to church, they don't see the Bible as God's authoritative word, and they are jaded in the reality that God seemingly hasn't done anything in our world since Moses. And so we confirm them, asking the confirmands if they believe all the stuff we told them to believe. They nod, take their certificate, and head off to celebrate with the family. Sent, likely not to be seen again.
Do young people not want God?
Don't they understand how church works?
I tend to blame teachers, institutions, and those charged with running the churches when people choose to walk away from Christianity. We're stuck in our ways, we know God, we come to church, and everyone who doesn't is lost.
But I think it's the church who is lost today.
Trying Something New
The other day we had our evening service (Evensong) in the labyrinth located in the back of the church. To our surprise, Ellie and I found a young couple actually walking it as we began to set up for our gathering. We introduced ourselves and let them know we were having service at 5pm. They had other plans but seemed genuinely interested.
It made me happy to see people seeking spirituality, pondering God, and even acting out in some expression of that.
We practiced for Evensong at a park on Greenwich Avenue earlier this week, guitars and all. A young lady who had been eating lunch, came up to us, and expressed her gratitude for the “nice backdrop” we had created for everyone. People were drawn to us, they are drawn to our church, they are drawn to God.
It's capitalizing on those moments where we find the person drawn.
What can we tell them about God, about faith, and how we integrate that in our everyday lives?
My hope is that we will be a community that can answer these questions because right now, I don't think we offer much for that couple in the labyrinth, for that young lady at the park, and the thousands that walk by our church, never daring to enter its doors.
Not to be fooled, these young people have observed that a lot of people can "play church" but as soon as those doors open and service is over, God can often get left behind. So they don't go into the building where people play religion. Young people want the real stuff, they want real Christianity, one that challenges how we think and behave. They want to follow Jesus who was a political radical teaching that down is the way up and that great people sit after everyone else is comfortable. They wouldn't see political figures as saviors because they'd already have one. They'd participate in outreach every single day and not once a month. Each day would be baptism, each day confirmation, for all Christians are called to lay their lives down at the foot of the cross, earning them that once derogatory slur, "wannabe Christ!" (that's what Christian literally means in its original context).
And so as someone who is part of the problem, working for the big house of God, I have to critique.
Why are people not attracted to our church?
Maybe it's because we're not doing anything that is attractive.
As that someone who is part of the problem, as someone who knows whats wrong, I can't be quiet. As an employee at God's house I have to reimagine a church for those who have left and given up. Resources need to be shifted, new songs need to emerge, and programming needs to be rethought as to how it serves the soul.
But not just me. Everyone of us called to follow Christ are pulled into the work of critiquing and reimagining.
No more hand me downs. God has called all of us to go. To do whatever it takes for those young people to be drawn to God...and when they are drawn, like the woman who met Jesus at the Well,
A conversation will begin.
Religious questions get answered.
Thirst will be quenched.
Chains will be broken.
And Saviors will be worshipped in that building that was designed to do this work daily.
TLDR: Maybe it's time we start doing more attractive and effective stuff.