Pieces of A Christmas Sunday Service

I had the honor of leading our worship service this Christmas Sunday. Here is how we began and ended our service.

Call to Worship     (written by Cheryl Lawrie of holdthisspace)
We are here because we have heard a promise of peace
      and we have faith its day will come.
we have heard a rumor of justice
     and we have faith its day will come.
we have heard a whisper of hope
     and we have faith its day will come.
we have heard a hint of love
     and we have faith its day will come.
we have heard of the birth of the Christ-child
     and we have faith his day is here.
Welcome to Christmas.
Welcome to worship.

Prayer
Father God, we thank you for sending your Son to earth to live and minister and bring new life to the lost—to us. How wise and wonderful you are to chose this way, the humble birth of a baby, to dwell with us forever. We look forward to unwrapping more of this wondrous mystery today.

Jesus, on your birthday, we welcome you again into the human story, and into our lives. We are deeply grateful that you came as the Prince of Peace and we grasp tightly to your promises of peace, of justice, of hope, and of love. We confess that we need you and your gifts to live this life. May we not forget to open our hands and hearts to share your promised gifts with those around us.

Holy Spirit, you are with us always, everywhere, reminding us of God’s big story of love, and our part in that story. May we know your presence today, and your wisdom guiding us tomorrow. Continue to teach us how to be your disciples, your storytellers, and your just and joyful witnesses to the world. We celebrate that you are here now, joining in our worship. May all that we do, say, and sing, be a blessing to your kingdom come. Amen.

Benediction
Now go, wrapped in the deep love and great blessing of God, your Father. You hold the gift of the Christ-child in your hearts. So go, give it away. Amen.

12 Ways to Bless your Pastor in December

December is to pastors what April is to CPAs.

This month begins the triple crown of holy celebrations: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Christmas is our Kentucky Derby, but without the garish hats.

It takes weeks months to plan and prepare – not just events but hearts – to receive the spiritual feast that is Christmas. This work gets piled atop our regular work. Pastoral care and counseling skyrocket as the holidays trigger grief, pain, loneliness, and disappointment for so many. And like you, pastors navigate the extra expectations that come to family life this month.

Prepare-Him-Room-close

Chances are that your pastor’s inner life is a mess of scattered thoughts and mixed feelings right now. She or he is pushing (or crawling) toward December 25th fueled by stubbornness, waning hope, and the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, many pastors are too busy or drained to partake in the spiritual feast of Christmas themselves.

If you want help your pastor thrive this month, here are some practical ways you can dole out blessing.

  1. Send a festive card, but do more than sign your name next to the printed text. Tell them three things you’ve noticed them do in service to the church and why it matters.
  2. Better yet, whether by card or in person, affirm something of your pastor’s character or spirit. This will help them know you value them for who they are, not just for the role they play at church.
  3. By all means, invite the pastor to your Christmas party every year, but please do not be offended if they decline. Realize that their absence might be an important chance to rest, reflect, and spend time with their family or alone with God.
  4. There’s a time and place for constructive feedback. 5 minutes after the Christmas concert/play/service is not one of them. (That’s kind of like going up to a bride and groom during their wedding reception and telling them it was a lovely ceremony, but her dress is not to your taste.) Wait a week or two if you must pass on your critique.
  5. Better yet, volunteer your thoughts or time in the weeks or months prior to these extra events. If you have a great idea or a concern, take it to your pastor when they are rested and free to share their time with you. They’ll likely listen better and have time to consider/incorporate your ideas.
  6. If you want to offer positive feedback or affirmation about an event, sermon or service, try giving more than a “thanks” or “good job.” A pastor’s dearest hope is that their work is more than a pleasant experience; they hope it nurtures your soul. Please thank your pastor, but try something like this: “That was a great service because the silence allowed me time to hear God’s voice,” or “the music and scripture readings encouraged me to be more hopeful when life seems dark.” (If you’re not good with words, pretend my examples are Mad Libs and fill in the blanks with your own thoughts.) Trust me, specific feedback is more gratifying in the present, and very helpful when planning for the future.
  7. With a congested December calendar, things like grocery shopping or getting to the post office tumble down the priority list. If you are one of those rare people with spare time this season, how about dropping off a simple meal (thanks for the split-pea soup Sarah!) or offering to run some simple errands?
  8. Encourage your pastor to rest. Sabbath is never more important than when our hearts and energy are in higher demand. If your pastor is regularly open to your feedback and accountability, then they’ll certainly need it this month. Feel free to cut through their excuses (i.e. “I don’t have time to rest”) with a gentle but firm reminder that rest is essential to doing their work well, and to their souls!
  9. It’s super nice of you to gift your pastor some Christmas cookies or peanut brittle, but the sugar highs and crashes will make these long days even more challenging. Tired people need nutrients. How about trading high-carb gifts for fresh or dried fruit, nuts, or even a gift card to the local grocer? If your cookies are truly a prized gift, how about 1 or 2 sweets nicely wrapped instead of an entire dozen?
  10. Help clean up. This one might sound silly, but I can’t tell you many times I’ve planned an event and forgot to ask volunteers to stay to the end and help me stack chairs, wipe tables, take out the trash, etc. Not every church has staff to do this, so your pastor might be working for hours after everyone else goes home. Many hands make light work!
  11. Friends, your needs and concerns are legitimate and important, but in your pastor’s busiest season, it’s caring and wise to ask yourself whether your issue is time-sensitive or emergent. If it’s neither, consider blessing your pastor by postponing your meeting until the new year. That way he or she gets some restorative downtime at the end of a very full month.
  12. Gift your pastor time away. Being a pastor is unlike most jobs today; It’s not 9-5, Monday through Friday. Pastors work odd days and hours to accommodate their congregants’ schedules. They respond whenever there’s a crisis, no matter the day or holiday. And many pastors make a modest income, which limits their ability to travel or retreat. Your church may not have the means to give your pastor a raise, but can you afford to beef up their vacation package? Or maybe you have airmiles, a country cottage, or a guest pass to an amusement park? Gifts of time and experiences in a different setting will be sweet refreshment after a busy season.

I’ve suggested 12 ways to bless your pastor this month, but I’m sure there are many more. Have fun exploring ways to bless!

P.S. – This post is not a hint to any of my congregants. I am well cared for and thank you for your wonderful, consistent support. 

The Prince and the People of Peace

The Creator of the universe entered the human story like sunlight piercing a deep cave. Jesus’ birth brought hope to a dim and decaying world. He would grow with a wisdom able to satisfy thirsty souls. His compassion for sinners, and wanderers, and the poor in spirit would be contagious, and become an unstoppable force of peace that we call the church.

A Different Kind of King

— An advent reading by Corrie Gustafson

Emmanuel means God with us. The Bible tells us that, “this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him.”

Do you believe this story we’re sharing? This true story about a loving God who sent his son to earth?

Jesus entered our world humbly,
as a baby,
but grew to be king.

Jesus never sat on a gilded throne in a lavish throne room.
His first throne room was a stable;
His first throne, a manger full of hay.
Now heaven is his throne,
and earth his footstool.

Jesus never sought a palace or storehouses filled with gold.
He walked the dusty roads of his country
meeting the poor in spirit,
eating with outcasts,
touching the diseased,
healing the sick.

Jesus never ruled by intimidation, or control, or arrogance.
His power was in his love.
His authority was to forgive sin.
His desire was to rule over human hearts.

Jesus never led an army of charioteers to crush kingdoms and build an earthly empire.
He called fishermen to follow him.
He proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God;
A heavenly kingdom that set slaves free.
His great victory was over sin and death.

Jesus is Emmanuel — God with us.

He is the Prince of Peace —
a conqueror who came to die
so that we might live.

He is the Great King —
who was,
and is,
and is to come.

A New Year’s Walk

Today we begin another year, 2014. I started my day with a walk in the January sunshine, still reflecting on the Advent and Christmas realities — they have captivated me anew. Things are in bloom here in Arizona, just as there are spaces opening within me, ready to be filled with new life and wonder. The sky is a brilliant blue. The sun is warm. A soft breeze brushes my skin and fills my nose with fragrances of spring. There is too much beauty and bloom here to capture with my amateur photography skills, but every corner seems to have something to proclaim, so I went back for my camera. As I uploaded the images I caught, I read through the Gospel of Luke again and read the story in the vibrant blooming life all around me. Would you take this walk with me?

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

HEARD

HEARD

Zechariah’s wife became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

favor

FAVOR

Greetings you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

OVERSHADOW

OVERSHADOW

Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.

POSSIBLE

POSSIBLE

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear…Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.

BLESSED

BLESSED

His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. He has filled the hungry with good things…

FILLED

FILLED

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people…to show mercy…to rescue us…to enable us to serve him without fear.

FEARLESS

FEARLESS

Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.

SHINE

SHINE

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people…This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.

RISING

RISING

There was also a prophetess Anna…She was very old…eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to Mary and Joseph, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

LOOKING FORWARD

LOOKING FORWARD

And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him.

GRACE

GRACE

May the Lord bless you with the faith to see his story living in and around you each day. Happy New Year!

Advent: All About the Details

Every Christmas season my extended family traveled to my maternal grandparents’ home. Like every family, we had a few traditions. There was, of course, the obligatory ham dinner with creamy mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon, buttery sweet rolls coated with cinnamon and always some kind of unnaturally colored jello salad rife with fruit chunks and marshmallows. (Just the sight of these “salads” gave me the heebie-jeebies so I learned to serve myself a very small portion, chew once or twice and quickly wash it down with a swig of apple juice.) Though our ham dinner was a feast of smells and tastes (except for the jello salad), food was so abundant in the Ford household that it was almost unremarkable.

I preferred other traditions like presents. We children connived, cajoled, complained and otherwise sweet-talked our way through a multi-year campaign to win the right to open a gift on Christmas Eve. Of course, we each chose the gift that was the largest or made the most noise when jiggled. We always knew if the gift was from our grandparents; those were labeled from Frosty the Snowman, Mrs. Claus, Rudolf, and even, occasionally, friends like Betty Boop or Strawberry Shortcake.

Perhaps our finest and most under-appreciated tradition was packing our five family units into defrosted vehicles to crunch over the snowy streets of Youngstown, Ohio on our way to Evangel Baptist Church for the candle light Christmas Eve service. We arrived after twenty minutes, the car heaters just starting to thaw tingly toes stuffed in our Sunday-best but winter-worst shoes. We’d enter Evangel, drape our heavy coats on the clanging metal hangers and move into the sanctuary to be hand-shaken, bear-hugged and cheek-pinched into a bashful warmth. The Ford family filled two pews in the front, closest to where our grandmother perched at the organ. We children sat, hushed and squirming in the reverent low light of candles, the silence broken only by the sniffling of our thawing noses.

candlelt1-main_fullThe service was always the same. Hark the Herald sung, the nativity story pieced together like quilt squares from Matthew and Luke presented in monotone by a man in a drab suit with a scarlet or powdery blue tie, my grandmother traveling from the organ to the center microphone to offer another soulful rendition of Sweet Little Jesus Boy. The service concluded as we passed a small flame person to person, one taper candle bowed to its neighbor, turning glossy white wicks to blackened tinder. Once the unison melody of Silent Night drifted into quiet, we extinguished our candles, quietly bundled in our coats and braved the cold again for our return trip to the Ford home.

Our arrival home was like the clanging of a bell, marking a new chapter of life. We went from hushed, taper-lit reverence, to the bustle and brilliance of the kitchen preparing for a party. Wassail was passed into waiting hands as grandma uncovered the frosted marble sheet cake, dotted it with pastel colored candles and lit the wicks with a match. Then, with nearly 20 bodies packed into the small eat-in kitchen, we sang a boisterous rendition of Happy Birthday, for Jesus.

Twenty years later, I can close my eyes and see those Decembers like cherished memorabilia framed, thick and gold, and hung above the mantel. I wouldn’t change them if I could. But as an adult, and as a pastor, I don’t want to perpetuate only the sentiment of Christmas. This is more than a holiday, it is a holy day. There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia. I don’t want to scrooge all the merriment, but I do want to focus on the spiritual gifts of this season. I want to cherish the family traditions, but hang my heart on the miracle of what began two thousand years ago when Christ was born.  

For years I’ve read the early chapters of Matthew and Luke and skimmed the parts about Elizabeth, Anna and even Mary. Because I’ve always loved babies and Jesus, I skipped to the good part about Jesus being born, about him bundled in something soft to protect him from the hay of his trough bed while surrounded by a cuddly petting zoo. I zeroed in on the fairy-tale moments like the prismic star that led foreigners to the new infant king and to the choir of angels singing in the night sky. But as an adult, I’ve learned something about stories, and about life, that I missed as a child. When reading, it’s the skimmed over parts, the slow parts, the seemingly unremarkable details that build to that unimaginable moment, to the moment of discovery, to a new spark of life within.

It was the smell of cinnamon, my grandmother’s vibrato, the heat of wax sliding onto my fingers during Silent Night, the way the candlelight flickered across my cousins’ faces, the crunch of snow under our tires – all of that led up to the moment were we sang Happy Birthday to Jesus. It’s the details that build the arc in any story. I’m a better writer than I was five years ago and a much better reader than I was twenty years ago because I’ve learned to I slow down and pay attention to the details. And that’s exactly how I can enhance my experience of Christmas and my understanding of Christ’s birth.

This month we’ll spend hours planning, shopping, wrapping gifts, decorating, attending parties and baking and that’s on top of our regular schedules. We’ll be like jack rabbits leaping through December at a frenzied pace, zigzagging all over the place in search of a tasty morsel. To keep Christmas about Christ, we have to choose to slow down, to stop, and to settle into the details of Advent.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’m taking walks so I can get away from the distractions in my house. While I walk, I focus on breathing deeply and praying. I’m reading the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew daily, now with an eye for detail, seeking out the snippets that I may have glossed over. Suddenly the bits about Elizabeth, Mary and Anna glow from the pages like taper candles. The stories of these women are significant in ways that I never saw before. These sages of Advent are helping me understand not just the miraculous birth of Jesus, but the grandeur of his entire story.

Christmas is not a story in itself; it is the beginning of a story. We don’t celebrate Advent simply because a baby named Jesus was born. We celebrate because Jesus grew up to travel his land preaching good news to the world-weary. Strangely enough, we celebrate Jesus’ birth because he died, and because through his death he defeated sin and death. We celebrate because Jesus rose again to life and because he ascended to heaven where he lives and reigns eternally. And we celebrate because his story, and ours, is not over.

To celebrate well, we need to begin well. That’s why I advocate for Advent, the season of anticipation that builds to the Christmas celebration. That’s why I’m slowing down and focusing on the details. That’s why I’m listening to the sages of Advent. Join me in looking closely at Elizabeth, Mary and Anna, so we can better celebrate Jesus.

Prayers for the Table

Feasting is an endangered cultural act.  In ancient times, feasts lasted for days, accompanied by delicacies, dancing, singing, storytelling, toasting and prayer.  Even if the harvest was small or times were bleak, communities, tribes, clans and families would scrounge up whatever edible treasures they had, travel from great distances and gather together to feast.  They would spread a lavish table filled with their best wine, choicest meats, freshest herbs and fill their lamps with oil.  All of it was a deliberate celebration of life, symbolic thanks to a God who richly provides.  Some holidays continue this celebratory tradition — Thanksgiving and Christmas are a few of the feast days we Americans preserve.  We still excel at the food — the lines at the grocery stores testify to that!  Exuberant music still fills the air and in some regions dancing remains the nightcap of a good feast.  And while prayer is not completely absent from our modern-day feasts, I wonder if our prayers have become cliché, bland, trite, etc.  Do we really carve out a few moments to reflect on what we have before us?

As a Christmas gift, I offer these prayers for your table.  Whether you borrow one that I wrote or pen your own, may your table be even richer this year, as you take the time to give word to the feast in your heart.

————

Abundant God, thank you for filling our table with food to nourish our bodies, people who bless our lives, and most of all, your presence. May we look at this table, this food, and see that you have given us more than we need.  May we learn to take only a fair portion and share with those beside us. Help us remember those who go without — without food, family, health, shelter, or hope. Show us how our riches can fill the hands of those in need.  This coming year, make room in our hearts and at our tables for people with whom we can share your abundant love.  Amen.

———-

The candles lit before us are symbols that the darkness is overcome. God of light, by the flame of your love, you made paths through shadowed wastelands. You led your people through bleakness, fear, doubt, and pain. You shepherded them through fields of twinkling stars, into dawn where the soft rays of day warmed their skin. In the same way, lead us out of the darkness of this past year. Give us the warm hope of new life, new opportunities, new vision. Help us see the Son each day, so that when dusk and midnight come, we can walk confidently toward morning. Amen.

———-

Comforter, we remember the loved ones we lost this year. In our hearts we lift before you the names of our beloved friends and family.  (silence)  We pray for those far way from us and from you. Bring them near. Give us patience as we wait for their return. (silence) We pray for strangers, for the aliens and foreigners in our country and in all countries; may they receive kindness and friendship. (silence) God, thank you that we are together, sharing our time, our stories, this food. May all we do and say show love, joy, peace and patience. May we give gifts of kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness. As we eat, may we have self-control. Fill us with your love. Amen.

———-

God, I’m desperately lonely. I have food but no friends. I have a house but no hope. I have disposable wealth but I’m spiritually poor. Where are you God? Who are you? If I ask, will you join my table? Do you even love people like me? Anyway, I’m here. There’s an empty chair and it’s yours if you want it.

———-

Hosts:  We are thankful for each person here tonight.

Guests:  We are glad to be here.

Hosts: We are thankful for this food.

Guests: May it bless our bodies.

Hosts:  God, help us recognize the gifts you have given each of us.

Guests:  Lord, teach us how to pass blessing to others.

Hosts:  Guide our conversation.

Guests:  May we encourage one another.

All:  Thank you for this table, this feast, this love.  Amen.

———-

Person 1: May this food fuel our bodies;

Person 2: May this laughter fill our spirits.

Person 3: May these friendships give us joy;

Person 4: May your love birth contentment.

Person 5: And however we are wanting,

Person 6: Grant us peace, faith and patience.

All:  Amen!

———-

Jesus, today we have come together to celebrate your birth. If you had not been born as a human child, grown and ministered as the wise Son of God, died like a thief and rose from the dead, we would not know forgiveness, freedom from sin, the delight of new life, or hope for an eternal future with you. We are profoundly grateful for your ultimate gift of sacrifice — to die in our place. Thank you Lord. Thank you Lord. Thank you Lord.  Amen.

———-

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

In love and faith, Corrie