My ten-year-old son, James, sat at the dinner table one evening in late November. His siblings had all scarfed down their supper and had all retreated to their own corners of the house. James was still picking at his dinner. With a furrowed brow and a look of consternation, he said, “I don’t understand why it gets dark so early.” We talked about the time change and the winter solstice and how the days will keep shortening until the week of Christmas when the days will again lengthen, ever so slightly.
This is a hard time of year for lots of us, for lots of reasons. The dark and the cold seep into our bones and we feel poignantly the grief and the loneliness we carry (with us always but this time of year with us in a different way). As the December dark descends on us with its shortened daylight we fight the dying of the light with whatever light we can muster. We buy gifts and share our family newsletters. We make Christmas candy and cookies and string up lights and decorations. Our Christmas ornaments all hung on the tree, as we sing along to our favorite Christmas CD and watch our favorite Holiday movies. We feel the joy these things bring, but always too, the lingering, long dark.
The promise of Christmas is that those of us who have “walked in darkness have seen a great light; those of us who have lived in a land of deep darkness—on us light has shone” (Isaiah 9:2). The Roman occupied province of Judea in the first century (present-day Palestine) was likewise a dark place to live. Injustice and violence, grief and loss, sickness and death, were the lived reality of the day. But then Christ was born and a new light came into the world. Imperceptible at first—just a babe wrapped in swaddling cloth, laying in a manger—but the week of Christmas, the days began lengthening, ever so slightly. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
My hope for us this Advent and Christmas is that we will train our senses to watch for the light, and see the ways that Christ shines in us, even when the days are dark and the nights are long. May the light of Christ’s coming continue to pierce our darkness as we await the light!
As a dad part of my job is teaching my children to mind their manners. From the time that they were knee-high to a grasshopper, I would ask in sing-songy voice, “What do you say?” trying to get them to say please and thank you; however, while I can teach my kids to say thank you, and they are generally pretty good at that, I can’t make gratitude settle into their soul. As a parent this is the thing I really want. I think it would be terrible if my kids learned to say thank you and be well-mannered, but they never learned to be thankful.
Gratitude is much more than parroting the words thank you when someone holds a door for you (or yelling, “thank you” at those that they fail to say it after you held it for them). Gratitude is a deep sense that what we have, and all that we have, is a gift. It is looking at our circumstances and seeing the good and being thankful.
Cognitive Psychologist, Daniel Levitin tells us, “Gratitude causes us to focus on what’s good about our lives rather than what’s bad, shifting our outlook toward the positive.” He goes on to say that those of us who are grateful, feel happier, feel motivated toward generosity and compassion, and have a greater capacity for positive emotions and pleasure, because being grateful alters our brain chemistry. The grateful cross-examine whatever life throws at them, and look to see where the gift in it is and it frees them to enjoy all the blessings of God
Learning to see the gifts in life doesn’t mean pretending that everything is great. Bad stuff happens and pretending otherwise is not healthy. We go through hard things—we get sick, we have relational problems, we lose jobs, we struggle to keep our anxiety at bay during a global pandemic. These things are terrible, and I don’t think they are ‘gifts’ in the sense that God is giving them to us just to mess us up. But I do think that part of the spiritual life is learning to see God’s gifts for us in the midst of whatever we may be going through. We don’t have to say that any of the bad things that happens to us are gifts, but when we have eyes to see, we see God’s generous care for us amidst life’s difficulties. The Apostle Paul tells us to rejoice in all things and to come to God with thanksgiving when we find ourselves in dire straits:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4–7, NRSV)
What I want for my kids, I want for myself is to be a thankful person who doesn’t focus so much on the problems, but on where I’ve seen God’s provision and care. How do we learn thankfulness? It starts with learning to say thank you, the way we train our children to say it. But we learn gratitude by examining our life (even the bad stuff) with an eye for what is a gift. Counting our blessings, we see that even when life seems terrible, God is at work.
I am so grateful for this church, for the privilege of journeying with you as your pastor and look forward to seeing all the things God has in store for us together. Happy Thanksgiving!
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers. – Psalm 24:1–2 (NRSV)
It never fails. When Autumn descends upon us, and the smoke clears enough for us to see and to breathe, I am blown away by the beauty that surrounds us in the Basin. The cool crisp air of the morning, with sunlight fingers poking through the trees. The green leaves only just beginning their process of letting go, begin their fade to red, and gold and brilliant orange. I feel the cool Fall breeze against my face and in the distance hear the gentle din of birdsong. Truly, the earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it!
And the fullness of God’s presence is not just in the beauty of nature, but in the people. Most days I’m at the church office, I make it a point to walk to lunch somewhere downtown, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. I stop to listen to musicians, smile at runners who are jogging by, and greet passersby. Sometimes I see faces I recognize from church, and from PALM. I see all kinds of people—the homeless, and the addicts, the shoppers, and the diners and those out running errands, those just hanging out. Sometimes I stop to talk with people. More often I say a silent prayer on their behalf of someone who looks distressed, asking for God’s shalom to reign. The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it!
As good church people, we are trained to think of our church building as a sacred space. It is here that we gather each Sunday for worship, encased in stained-glass, adorned by banners, and beautiful centerpieces on the altar, our vaulted ceilings drawing our eyes heavenward as we contemplate God’s presence in our lives. And there is something special about our gathering space. I meet God in this place. Just not only in this place.
Our church leadership has been talking these past months about what the church can do in our neighborhoods and out in the community. Part of this is because as the body of Christ, we are meant to be the presence of Christ in and for our world. But also, when we venture out into the world, we discover something else. The Spirit of God is already here—the wind blows where it may—and we meet God in new ways whenever we step outside. The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it; the world, and all who live in it. In what places does God’s presence feel most real to you? Where does God feel distant?
Recently, our small groups had been reading Dottie Escobedo-Frank’s Restart Your Church (Abingdon, 2012). We had two groups that were meeting, a mid-week group which met in the afternoon on days that I had office hours, and an after-church group, which met on Sundays. The mid-week group blazed through the book, but the after-church group couldn’t finish until near the end of August.
One of our thoughts behind the book study was that the pandemic had put worship on hold, so as we were getting back to a sense of normal meant we had to restart our church and it seemed like the right time to think about what sort of church we wanted to come back to. In both small groups we talked about where our church has struggled, the problems we have as a church community, and we dreamt together about what sorts of things we could do and be as a church.
During our final week, I asked what sort of church we wanted to become. We decided as a group that we wanted to be a church that:
· Was making a difference in people’s lives
· That communicated welcome
· That made time for us to share deeply with one another
· That got involved in the wider community of Klamath Falls
These are good goals and ones that I hope we live into, but I didn’t want to leave it in the abstract. So I asked, “What are some actionable steps we can take?”
We talked about the ‘upstairs church’ going downstairs and joining PALM—serving but also getting to know the people whose lives we touch through that ministry. We talked about being the Presence of Christ at community events and discovering where the Spirit of God is already at work in Klamath Falls. We talked about taking conscious steps to be the Church outside of our church walls, discovering what is going on in the community and getting involved in it.
One exciting way that we got to practice this recently was when our church joined in at Klamath Falls’ first Pride Festival on August 21. Our LGBTQIA+ neighbors are used to only hearing words of judgment and condemnation from the Christian church, and we got to be there and share our support and the love and welcome of Christ!
We are on a journey together, and in lots of ways we are just getting (re)started! But I am excited to pastor a church making an impact in our neighborhoods and in our city. I will be intentional about looking for things we can do to make a difference in people’s lives!
We are in the middle of Southern Oregon’s fire season, and with too many hot days and far too little rain it has been a stressful season. With the irrigation waters closed off to our farmers and domestic wells drying up and wildfires raging, we struggle to maintain hope. And beyond the dry and the heat, we struggle with other things. Worries about the Delta variant of the Corona virus (will we see another outbreak? Will it propel us back into lockdown?), and our own personal struggles (finances, health, housing) have us feeling anxious.
Hope is a tricky thing to hold onto. We see all of kinds of reasons not to hope. Maybe some of the things I mentioned above, but maybe something else. Maybe you had hoped for something (e.g., a job, healing, transformation) and as time has worn on you find yourself butting against the same issues, without much change. Maybe we’ve grown cynical, or worse yet, realistic, about our expectations. We grow careful, never daring to hope too much.
The thing about hope is that if everything was the way it should be, we wouldn’t need to hope. We hope because there is enough wrong with the world, that we long for something better, more secure, surer. God’s people have always had a hard time holding on to hope.
The book of Habakkuk describes the suffering of God’s people, and their longing for God’s deliverance. There was a lot wrong in Habakkuk’s day (circa 612 BCE) The Babylonians were becoming a dominant force in the Ancient Near East, visiting Judea with war and hardship. Habakkuk writes:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
Everything in Habakkuk’s world mitigated against him holding out hope. The Babylonians were a militant force threatening Judea, the crops failed, and the livestock ran away or were killed. It would have been easy for Habakkuk to give up, grow cynical and resign himself to the destruction of his people, but he chose instead to trust in the LORD.
[Spoiler Alert]: Habakkuk didn’t get everything he hoped for. The Babylonian Empire would grow into a larger threat, destroy the Temple and Jerusalem, carrying its inhabitants into exile. But the God who Habakkuk hoped in, would not abandon the children of Israel in their exile but would bring them back home again.
Similarly, I don’t know how each of our stories will enfold. Fire, droughts, pandemics, and political turmoil happen, and we may be in for a hard road ahead. But I do know this, despite what happens, God will not abandon us. Despite war, famine, drought, destruction, difficult diagnoses, grief, despair, God loves each of us; each of us are held within the Triune God’s loving care.
What are the things that give you hope? How do you hold out hope for God’s deliverance amidst the struggles and uncertainty of this life?
At annual conference this year, they posted my picture and announced my appointment for the next year. Our conference was online, and I didn’t see myself in the list. They posted the appointments around the dinner hour, and I had broken away from being online to make dinner and sit down with my family for a moment. Jean texted to say, “nice picture.” And my friend Leroy also texted me, to congratulate me. I have known Leroy for about 17 years. When I was still in my twenties, my wife and I did a year-long-urban mission where I lived in intentional Christian community in an at-risk Atlanta neighborhood, worked a volunteer job, attended a local church in the neighborhood, and got intentional about loving that community. Leroy was our program director in Atlanta and became something of a mentor. I was not connected to the Methodist world then. Neither was Leroy.
But all these years later, I have begun my second year as your pastor, and Leroy has been serving our denomination for the past several years. He is the director of Innovation and Disruption for our conference and has worked alongside new congregations, coaching church planters, and helping our conference dream new Kingdom possibilities in their community. Additionally, Leroy and his wife Donna, have been actively raising up leaders of color both in our denomination and beyond.
So, when Leroy texted me, I texted back and said “we can use some innovation and disruption down here.” I got a text back, “Invite me this summer and I will make a weekend of it.” We did some back and forth around preaching dates before settling on July 18th, as a weekend that worked for him. As luck would have it, this is the week that we are scheduled for church at Wiard Park. “Great, I will talk about community engagement,” Leroy texted me back. This is something that Leroy is uniquely gifted and qualified to speak about.
I was excited about Worship in the Park anyway. Food, fellowship, and fresh air are always a good combination. But as we have been dreaming together, with our Restart book discussion, what sort of church we want to be and what kind of mission we want to live into, Leroy’s coming makes this a great opportunity. Plus, that man can preach! This is not a service you will want to miss, and it is a service you will want to invite people to! You will not want to miss it!