The Advent Calendar doesn't technically begin until December 1. As part of this year, on Sunday I will share our previous meditations on Hope, Peace, Love and Joy. Some of them are years old and cringe worthy. I feel like I'm sharing my baby pictures to the world, even though I willingly shared this when it was first published.
For "Hope" I really like the "It's a Wonderful Life" post.
Hello, it's Christmas! Summer is Coming?
Christmas Hope: It's a Wonderful Life
Hope: When We Feel Broken, Guest Devotion by Katie Bond
Prayer for Hope:
Dear God of new beginnings, and auld lang syne,
Light in us a hope born of new life. Give us the spark we need to begin the Advent season.
Starting December 1, Fig Tree Christian will go to daily meditations for the Advent Season. Join us as we go from the Beginning to a New Beginning in 24 days.
Come back on Sunday and begin Advent here!
Behind the Curtain
Dorothy sat with the Wizard in a huge cavern. They were reacquainted with one another the same way their paths were parted. The Wizard floated away and back again, in a hot air balloon. Now they were trapped underground. They could see the sun in the distance, but they had no way to reach it. Once again, the Wizard had survived by tricking the different people into believing he could do real magic. No one in this party believed he was a real Wizard. The curtain had been pulled back, and the trick had been learned. Dorothy knew what he really was. The Wizard was a humbug. The Wizard spoke those words in an injured tone. Dorothy spoke those words in love. Despite what he really was, Dorothy still loved him.
- Summary from Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz- pages 177-8
So many phrases stick out in my mind from my young adult life, but one has really come to mind today, "Once we learn the truth, it cannot be undone. We simply must move on to understand what that truth means." We are allowed to accept that truth can hurt us, like the Wizard. Yet like Dorothy, we are called to find the real magic and wonder once that truth is learned.
Dr. Rev. Fred Craddock was a Wizard of sorts. He was able to speak bold truths about the bible without pulling the curtain back. It made his sermons both relatable and educational. It's serious business preaching, because once you learn the truth, it cannot be undone. It's not like everyone is in the same place in their faith journey.We are not all walking into the great hall to get our heart, brain and courage at the same time. It's also not like there is some mystic age where these truths can be learned. We all have our own pace to accept these truths. A sixteen year old might be where a forty year old is when it comes to faith development. Eventually, there comes the time where the curtain has to be pulled back for the story to continue. For our faith to grow.
This is why I'm not going to give you a sermon on the Creation narrative. I'm going to show you my work. I'm going to pull back the curtain, and explain what I'm doing. Let's begin.
The bible begins with two Creation Narratives. The first is Genesis 1-2:1-3. The second is Genesis 2:4-25. (These audio captures are from Reddit Reads the Bible. It's a project of /r/Christianity.) We believe these are two different accounts of creation because certain things are happening again. Let's use those tools I mentioned last week to figure this out:
When I'm doing sermon prep, I'm not just doing the above work. I'm also trying to figure out what you can do with it. Like a surgeon doesn't cut upon a patient and just point out what he or she sees. They see a problem, and they find a solution to that problem. We must, as a people of God, find a way to close this up so we don't bleed out.
I am not an Atheist. I am not an Agnostic. I believe there is something beyond this realm of existence. It is something that cannot be easily quantified. I believe there is a God in that existence, and that God is a God of love. I believe Christ is the Son of that God, and the Spirit of Christ dwells in all of us.
We get to the Emerald City of our faith, and we give up when the curtain is pulled back. In actuality, the curtain is just the beginning. We can choose to get stuck with our green colored glasses, and not accept there's more. Many have made that choice, and many a faith have grown stagnant because of it. I'm moving forward. I'm taking a new path, knowing where I'm headed. I'm headed towards the Truth: the Word made flesh. Yes, when I first began my Christian journey I thought it would look different. That's the trick about Truth. We don't know until we get there. Do what Dorothy did. Love what was, and let it go. Our old faith will not help us as we begin this journey. Also, it will eventually come back to us, when we can reacquire it in a new way. Understand it in a new light, and to walk in that light.
Georgia Regional Assembly
I wanted to write something up on the 166 Georgia Regional Assembly. Especially since I was sitting in worship, and decided that was not the place to tweet pithy, but moving, comments. This is your Regional Assembly. We are anchored to the Georgia Region. (Whether you are from Michigan, Tennessee, Kalamazoo or Georgia. This is your Assembly.) In all honesty, as any church begins to incorporate a digital footprint, their identity will be more symbolically tied to a specific region.
Anyway, I was thinking of what to write that spoke specifically to my experience as both a digital and physical pastor. (I fill in at various churches on Sunday. I spend a large amount of time at a specific church: Community Christian Church. To be honest, many of us live this double life.)
I realized, as my daughter played monkey in my lap during dinner Friday night, I had something very specific to discuss. It's a topic many can relate to without being a congregant here, or even a Disciple of Christ. I want to discuss being a mother, and being a minister.
It was Saturday afternoon. The business meeting had just let out, and people were going to their respective places for lunch. Specifically, the men were going to the Disciple's Men's meeting. The women were going to the Disciple's Women's Meeting. Everyone who hadn't paid for their ticket was going out to eat. I had a women's DoC ticket, so I grabbed the kids and we waited in line to get our food. The plan was to talk with the women from Community Christian Church. One of the congregants had saved a seat for me and everything. The only problem was, I had two kids with me. Even if they could have saved three seats, the small round tables were too small.
I apologized to the congregant, taking my things to move to an empty table in the corner. After sitting down my son remarked, "Are there any men here at all!" I sighed deeply. I knew this was going to be a struggle. "No," I replied. This is a Disciple's Women meeting. "I don't want to be here! I'm a boy! Let me go to the guy meeting with [insert the male congregant he knew from Community]." Attempting to rub my face off in frustration, I replied, "No. He is not your responsibility. I am. You are not going to him."
I looked at the chicken nuggets on his plate. They were special for the kids in the room. I wondered, did the Men's DoC meeting have them too, or were we still living in a world where all children stayed with the females? I looked down, where the men were gathering in an enclosed Pavilion. They nonchalantly were laughing and conversing. At the time I couldn't tell.
After sitting down my daughter spilled her drink all over the table. There were two ladies sitting with us, and as the drink spread over the fabric tablecloth, I apologized over and over to the two women. "It's okay," the responded, "You are a mother. It happens." I knew this was the official socially acceptable response. I was completely embarrassed, as I pulled the tablecloth back in front of my daughter, so she would have a dry place to eat.
The meeting continued, and my son was getting restless. He knew he was out of place. In the opposite corner a group of children sat with their chicken nuggets. I already knew what Rev. Betty Brewer-Calvert (the head of Women's ministries for the state of Georgia) would say about my children. They were welcome, distractions and all. The problem was, my son didn't feel comfortable, and wouldn't feel comfortable. He kept asking to leave. Giving up, I took them out.
Taking my daughter's new drink, we went downstairs to the well. The well was a sunken in area set up like a mini-indoor amphitheater. Mandala's had been set up for prayerful contemplation. I gave the kid's crayons and told them to color. A few minutes later, I realized my daughter hadn't drunk hardly anything since lunch. I asked her to go to her drink and take a sip. In slow motion I watched her move her foot across the drink, and watched it fall into the well.
Running to the bathroom I grabbed a ton of paper towel. Sopping up the mess I thought, "Please don't let a member of this church see what I'm doing. Please don't let a member of this church see what I'm doing." Like I was calling their name a member of church rounded the corner and glared at me. Not a word was shared. No help was given. She continued walking down the hall.
"I give up," I mumbled. Leaning back, I watched the Men's meeting concluding. Most were laughing and patting each other on the back. I too wanted to be chatting it up and laughing. Taking the kids upstairs, I wanted to take a breath, but one of the ministers looked at me, "Stole up!"
I had completely forgotten. The ministers were entering worship in twenty minutes with their stoles. Also, I was in worship, and they were getting ready to pray. I had to get the kids back to their programs, get to my car for my stole, and get back in time to at least make the prayer! Gathering my children back up I began the process.
Just as I was headed downstairs to drop the kids off, a hand gently landed on my back. Turning around was Rev. Jamie Brame. I had been looking for him all weekend. "Oh, Jamie!" I must have looked as exasperated as I sounded, "I really want to talk." This was complete truth. "I can't. I have to run." This was also true. We shared about 15 seconds of a quick "Nice to see you," and I was running the kids downstairs. Then I was running upstairs and out the doors. By the time I was back upstairs with my stole, they were just ready to pray. Rev. Roger Sizemore whispered in my ear, "Rev. Denise was asking for you." (Rev. Denise Bell is the Georgia Regional Minister.) Making eye contact with Denise, I nodded my head, and she nodded hers. Our secret dialogue was complete, and she had nothing to fear. (I already knew what she wanted, and she knew I knew.) Then we prayed. I made it. Somehow, I made it.
There were a few things going into this Assembly I wanted:
I might have come home disheartened that people saw me struggling with two kids, but I had an example myself. That example was there, at the assembly. Also, this example might surprise you, because the example is male. Leading Soul Fire during the closing worship, Rev. Jeff Shimizu played the guitar. He did not "stole up," but he is ordained. Back about a decade ago he had two boys that hung from his arms. They were messy, and distracting. He handled them with grace. I'm sure there were congregants that gave their own glares at his boys, as Jeff tried to lead Saturday worship and be a parent.
The boys were there too. All grown up, one was on drums and the other watched in a seat. In a world where their age group is avoiding church, his participate. Jeff, in a very real way, was and is a pastoral parent. So, I'm glad I was there with my kids. Maybe some day there will be another Pastoral Parent, struggling to juggle ministry and children. Maybe they will see my kids, all grown up and realize there is something sacred about the messy, and distracting.
Using Voice As a Theological Tool
What color were Dorothy Gale's magical shoes?
The answer all depends on the source. If you are trying to get to the original text the answer is silver. If you are going for more of a collective knowledge the answer is ruby. That was a softball question. Here is a hard hitter:
Are there horses in the land of Oz?
The novice would say yes. There was the "horse of a different color" in the MGM movie.
The intermediate would say no. In Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, a horse finds its way to Oz with Dorothy. Everyone is shocked because they have never seen a horse before.
An expert would say maybe. While both of the above are technically true, there are other things going on. Like there is a saw horse Tip/Ozma create in The Marvelous Land of Oz. Why is "horse" a known word at all in the land of Oz? Also, before the real horse ever shows up, Ozma describes the creature as walking as well as any real horse. Once again, if horses do not exist in Oz, how does Ozma correctly reference one?
When people learn CPR they start on dummies. When theologians talk about biblical interpretation they, for some reason, go right into the biblical text. Why? I think it's because most theologians forget the pastoral side of their educational call. Not only do you need to give these future minister the tools for Biblical interpretation, but you need to give them certification for teaching it in a pastoral setting. I believe, this should require finding a secondary text to use the tools on first. A text that is safe, and can be pulled apart without fear of faith getting crushed in the process. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (Or be awesome about explaining these touchy subjects in a caring way, like Dr. David L. Petersen, a Presbyterian minister. We all can't be Petersen.)
With Wizard of Oz we have the collective story being drastically different from the original. Even when people write about it today, most can't help but slip in the MGM variant. Sticking with the original canon is also problematic as there were 14 books written by Baum and multiple written by other authors. It is the perfect set of stories to practice critical thinking.
One of the tools theologians use to understand the Hebrew bible is called Documentary Hypothesis. Basically, there is reason to believe the Torah was multiple individual sources, brought together to create one central story. There are a few reasons to believe this.
Think of it this way:
Imagine all the Oz canon was to disappear, along with the MGM movie. You are left with "Return to Oz," "The Wiz," "Oz: The Great and Powerful," and "Syfy's: Tin Man." Then it was your job to try to figure out what sources were used. Where did the different aspects of the story come from? This is difficult enough having the sources at our disposal. Imagine the immense difficultly when they no longer exist. This is what we are dealing with when it comes to understanding the voices in Biblical text. The original story was oral tradition. When the story was finally written down the oral tradition was lost. Think of what written text cannot do: We come across it all the time on Reddit. Inflection, at the very least, has been lost. The feelings of the characters were left with the verbal tradition. That is our original source, and that source is gone. (Well, the original source was the actual event, so really we are two steps removed already from the story.)
Next week I'm going to wrap this series up by returning again to Genesis 1-2. I'm going to show you behind the curtain, so to speak. I'll give you the different tools I use in writing these meditations and sermons. Most importantly, I'm going to give some suggestions when talking about these texts with others.
What should we know biblically about first fruits? This offering is supposed to be “without blemish.” It’s not good enough that it’s the first of a crop. It has to be the crème de la crème of the first. If you are bringing your new grain, it better be the best grain. If you are bringing an animal, it better be a first born one year old male in good health. This is believed to be the reason Cain’s offering was not accepted but Abel’s offering was. Abel gave the best of this first born flock, while Cain just gave an offering. The result was, God rejected Cain’s offering, while accepting Abel’s.
When it’s God taking our first fruit, instead of us giving it, it could be a curse. Think of the last Egyptian plague, where God took the first born sons of the Egyptians.
Meanwhile, when we are offering our first fruits, biblically we are supposed to to understand it will be followed by God’s blessing. Our giving is a sign of trust in God’s grace. It is mentioned in scripture in multiple areas, if we give our best, God will bless what we have left. Because of this, these scriptures have also been misused and abused over the years, especially by those I unabashedly call the “Snake Oil Salesmen” of the faith. Let me just say, a few things in life make me livid. People using faith to con others out of their hard earned money is one of those things that just make me angry.
I guess when talking about first fruits it is easiest to start with what it isn’t. It isn’t a magic candy machine. Let me explain. When one gives because they want God to bless them in return it gives the illusion that God is just one cosmic candy machine. Put in your quarter, get blessings in return. When I was a teenager and young adult I saw giving this way. I may have found blessing through giving, but it wasn’t like I gave $10 and I miraculously came upon $100 the next week. There was a Spiritual blessing, for sure, but I would be bummed when my giving wouldn’t pay out. (You know, the further I get from my childhood, the more it embarrasses me.)
Anyway, there came a point where I had to learn what giving (and giving from our best and first) was all about.
First, we give because it all belongs to God anyway. This is possibly the most preached subject by every Disciple minister I have ever heard ever. I would fathom to guess you too have heard it. “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give unto God what is God’s. The catch is, even when you are paying your taxes, it is still all Gods. Therefore, when it comes time to give to God, we should always keep that fact in mind. Great message.
Second, the gift to God was a thank you for saving the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. Every year they spent in the Promised Land was another year they were a free people. Salvation, in a very real way was a physical reality for them. They were literally saved. As Christians, we receive our salvation through the redeeming acts of Jesus Christ. Our gifts are a thank you for that salvation. Once again, a stewardship sermon I’ve heard over and over. Another great message.
Third, we give because our first fruits always goes to what we are most dedicated to anyway. A couple of years before I entered High School, South Cobb received the title, “Georgia School of Excellence.” They invited Monica Kaufman-Pierce to come speak the students. Nothing remains of that speech today except one line painted over the senior hall: “What you do, with what you have, is who you are.” As someone who came from a less than perfect childhood, that sentence was a motivator. It pushed me in great ways. I say it all the time, so much, I’m guessing my husband is tired of me saying it. What you do, with what you have, is who you are.
When it comes to first fruits, what we do first with our time and money speaks of who we are. It speaks to what our greatest want really is. Play this game with me. Imagine you walk out of church, and somehow you came upon $1,000. (Legally, of course. No one pretend to rob the local Panera. We’re in church.) It’s just an unexpected windfall. What is the first thing you want to do with that money? What was the first thought that came in your head? I submit that immediate desire is what you naturally give your first fruits to. Was it God?
There is a reason why giving a speech about paying the bills never works. We are not dedicated to the electricity or water bill. We are not here because of the air conditioning. We are here because of the mission and the community. Electricity, maintenance, water gas… these are things that support and help the mission and community.
I took a course with the former General Minister and President Dr. Rev. Dick Hamm. In one of the lessons he talked about Bullard’s life cycles of the church. In a new church plant it all begins with the vision. With the vision, relationships are formed. With those relationships, programs develop. Finally, some form of management is put in place to act as an accountability system. When a church begins to fail the first thing they lose is the vision. The object the church hangs on to at the last moments is the management. Then, that is what they try to sell at stewardship campaigns. “Hey, were not meeting the needs to pay the bills. Everyone needs to give a little more so we can keep the doors open.” No! It doesn’t work that way. Finally, these churches try to throw new programs at the problem thinking that will solve the issue, but without a real vision (a desire to do God’s work in the world) the programs fail and so does the church.
That being said, what excites you about church? What is going on that you just have to support it? Is it a clothes closet? Is it adult and youth ministries? Is it Godly Play? It is the church's involvement in the local community? What fires you up here and gets you giving your first fruits? Is it Christian education? Is it the fellowship? What you do, with what you have, is who you are. Who are you? What are you doing with what you have? Find the fire here, the passion for God work. When that offering burns with living fire that will be the offering God will accept. That, my friends, is what stewardship means, and how it works. Find your desire here, and give your first fruits in response. In that, God will bless the church and all who worship.