From The Pastor At St. Paul's UCC, Freeburg, IL


Faith and Gambling

OK, you know how I feel about casinos and gambling (I’m agin’ it!) – but here is one man’s story that illustrates the theology behind my feeling. No, it’s not about some guy who’s life was crushed because he won the lottery. It does make me ask what real trust is, and how it works.


Advent Beauty

You probably know that John Piper has been one of my spiritual and theological mentors during my recent growing years. While he’s a terrific public speaker and preacher, and I love his writing, you may be surprised to know that he’s also unafraid to try his hand at poetry. I ran across this on his website. May it be a blessing to you this Advent!

Tilting on her yearly track
Advent beauty circles back,
Flying faster with the years,
Hardly giving time for tears
First to dry upon the cheek—
Has it been more than a week
Since we laid both young and old
In the ground now winter cold?
Has there really been a spring
When the birds began to sing?
Has there been both summer, fall
Since the Baby in the stall
Called us with a Christmas bell
to sing, O Come, Immanuel?
Tilting on her yearly track
Advent beauty circles back,
Flying faster with the years—
Ah, but overtaking fears.
Let the Lord of advent lift
Every care (an early gift!);
See the Savior and the Son
Shine in advent candle one.

By John Piper. ©2012 Desiring God Foundation. Website:

Daily Advent Devotions

Product_permalinkDesiring God ministries has put together an e-book of daily devotions which you can get for free. It’s called “Good News of Great Joy”, and is designed especially for Advent 2012 which begins this Sunday. Here’s some of what Desiring God has to say about it:

The team here at Desiring God did a deep dive into our thirty-plus-year reservoir of sermons and articles, and selected brief devotional readings for each day of Advent. Our hope is that God would use these readings to deepen and sweeten your adoration of Jesus this Advent. These daily devotionals correspond to the daily readings in our devotional app Solid Joys, which is available for free download in the iTunes store. If you find short daily reflections like these helpful, we’d hope you’ll keep using Solid Joys once Advent is done. Our prayer is that this new eBook might help you keep Jesus as the center and greatest treasure of your Advent season. The candles and candies have their place, but we want to make sure that in all the Christmas rush and hubbub we adore Jesus above all.

I’ve read the introduction and first daily devotion – it’s meaty and Christ centered. If you’re looking for a simple way to anchor your life during these hectic days, I can commend this booklet to you. It comes in e-pub format for your e-reader but you can also download it in pdf form so you can read it on your computer or print it out for family use. You can download either by going here.

This Sunday Dec. 2: Advent 1

When we first starting planning Advent, I thought about a series on the Psalms – there are several particular Psalms assigned to Advent and I thought it might be good for us to explore them. In discussing it with my worship team, however, it seemed to them exceedingly strange not to have the gospel readings on Sundays. After further discussion, we came up with the idea of looking at the songs in Luke 1 – Zecharaiah’s and Mary’s – and pair those readings up with an appropriate Psalm.

So this Sunday’s reading is Luke 1:5-23 which will be paired with Psalm 42:

5  In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” 18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

You’ll see several parallels and contrasts between this passage, and that of Gabriel’s visit to Mary (verses 26-38) – one is old, one young; both are afraid; both ask a question of Gabriel; one sings and the other struck dumb. You can spend profitable time meditating on these passages, but for Sunday I’m going to focus on Zechariah’s silence.

Interesting first because this series of three sermons will be focussing on songs, music. But here it begins in silence. The major insight for me has been seeing that Zechariah’s silencing is not punishment – think of Jerry Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi: “No song for you!” Instead it’s the answer to Zechariah’s question.

Zechariah’s question is “How shall I know this?” It’s similar but different from Mary’s question, “How will this be?” They’re both “how” questions, but Z seems to want to know more than just the mechanics of how it will happen. I think he wants some verification, a sign, a clincher. Seen that way, Gabriel’s response to Z’s question makes more sense. If I may paraphrase: You wanna know how you’ll know this? I’m freaking Gabriel! I’m an angel that makes you wet your pants when I show up! I spend my time standing in the presence of God Almighty and here I am giving you this promise and you ask how you’ll KNOW this?? Here’s how – if my angelic mightiness isn’t enough for you, then you’ll be quiet, silent, and you’ll watch God work.

It’s a rebuke but a graceful rebuke. Because Gabriel didn’t say “Can I speak with your supervisor? If you can’t believe this I’m just gonna find another priest with stronger faith than you”; he didn’t tell Z to forget it. The promise has been given, and it will be kept. And Z, despite his weak faith, will still come to know it for himself. But the way he’ll come to that knowledge is not thru big signs or concise argumentation, but thru silence.

There are lots of ways to go with this, sermonically speaking. But I’m going to link it to Psalm 42 as a psalm of longing; seeing silence as helpful in clarifying our longings and our truest longing, which is for God not stuff. It will be easy, too, to think of Z’s silence as something we feel – a void, an inarticulateness, an inability to control the things around us.

For me the biggest challenge for Sunday is timing. It’s a big service (Advent candles, communion, choral anthem, responsive Psalm reading, etc.) and I’m under the gun to keep at least the 8:00 service to 60 minutes. In my guts I think that’s silly. But I’m taking it as a challenge to write a 10-minute sermon (“sermonettes for Christianette’s!”) that will be theologically meaty and hearer accessible. Brief and to the point. I’ll need a little Z-grace for my mouth I think! 🙂

Christ The King

This Sunday is Christ The King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year. It’s put there, at the end of the Christian calendar, as a way of saying in all the months and seasons of our lives, Christ’s Kingship, his Lordship, is the capper, the finale, the end toward which we all go.

The Scripture reading for this Sunday is from the gospel of John, chapter 18, verses 33-37:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world— to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

So, what kind of king is Christ? His kingdom is not of this world – what does that mean? That all the rewards are elsewhere? That it functions differently from the kingdoms of this world? There’s a lot of fruitful thinking that can be done with those questions, but here’s the one I asked my Confirmation Class last Sunday – if you were king for a day, what would you do? We had much honest conversation about that – these kids are refreshingly, almost frighteningly honest!

So what would you do if you were king for a day? What did Jesus do as King for eternity?


Thanksgiving and Black Friday


Anne Lamotte

Anne LamottLast Sunday I made a reference to the conversion experience of Anne Lamotte, and a couple of folks have asked me about her. I’ve not read anything of her writings – apparently she’s fairly well known in some liberal/progressive circles and a best-selling author. For more info about her, including video interviews, go here.

I don’t know enough about her to recommend her, or her life. But I did read about her conversion experience and thought it powerful, especially for mainliners and those of us trying so hard to be good – running on the hamster wheel of righteousness, you might say. Because her experience is so different from that of me and my church people, I think the parallels are all the more powerful.

Here is her uncensored account:

“I didn’t go to the flea market the week of my abortion. I stayed home, and smoked dope and got drunk, and tried to write a little, and went for slow walks along the salt marsh with Pammy. On the seventh night, though, very drunk and just about to take a sleeping pill, I discovered that I was bleeding heavily. It did not stop over the next hour. I was going through a pad every fifteen minutes, and I thought I should call a doctor or Pammy, but I was so disgusted that I had gotten so drunk one week after an abortion that I just couldn’t wake someone up and ask for help. I kept on changing Kotex, and I got sober very quickly. Several hours later, the blood stopped flowing, and I got in bed, shaky and sad and too wild to have another drink or take a sleeping pill. I had a cigarette and turned off the light. After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there–of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

“And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, ‘I would rather die.’

“I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.

“Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.

“This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.  But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it says forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.

“And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape . It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling–and it washed over me.

“I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “Fuck it: I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”

So this is the beautiful moment of my conversion.”

Later, she writes, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

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