This was only the second time that Houston had revived its observation of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity holding an ecumenical prayer service. Last year’s was at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. This year we celebrated at Lakewood Church. The theme was prepared in Brazil and focused around John 4:7 where Jesus said to the woman at the well: “Give me to drink”.
As a symbol of unity pastors from various denominations and churches poured water into one fountain that unites us all. From the Baptist Preacher to the Cardinal of the Roman Catholic church we all brought a vessel to pour our own traditions into this event. I brought my Army canteen representing all the families that have suffered through wars over decades. One of the ushers at Lakewood Church saw that and shared his Vietnam story with me.
Since Lakewood was the host church this year music was mostly their style with many people in the audience waving there hands like they do in concerts. One great performance artist after another took the stage. Lakewood’s drama team did a fantastic job bringing the scene between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well to life.
The sermon was given by Mike Rinehart, the Lutheran bishop in Houston. In his thoughtful reflections he laid out a seven-point plan for the unity of the church in Houston:
1. Galatians 3:28
2. Make love your aim.
3. Humility. Have this mind among you…
4. Pray for unity
5. Work for unity
6. Serve together
7. Stop bickering
You can read the entire sermon on his blog.
The United Church of Christ was officially represented by Houston Association Minister Joshua Lawrence and myself as a member of the planning committee. Our denominational motto “That they may all be one” was quoted over and over again throughout the service. We understand that this kind of work is worth all our effort. Please plan to join us next year as well.
I was charged with an intercessory prayer for freedom of expression which you can read on my blog.
Rev. Lawrence said this benediction for the service:
“May Jesus Christ, the living water, be behind you to protect you, before you to guide you, by your side to accompany you, within you to console you, above you to bless you.”
You know what the biggest group of Americans say they DON’T do on any given Sunday?
– Be in church or watch football!
According to the January PRRI/RNS Religious News Survey most people forgo both of these Sunday activities. Now, as a pastor I am a regular at church but I must admit that I do not make time to watch afternoon TV except for the Super Bowl. So here it goes: The big game is coming up and I will be joining the minority elite by going to church at 10 and streaming the game later in the day.
But there were a couple more stunning results in that survey when it comes to football and faith:
1. Americans are split in half over the question as to whether God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success. Let me take sides here: No, God does not reward actions! Being a person of faith does not make your life any easier: Remember Job! If anything, faith makes your life more challenging. Because bad stuff happens to good people and as a person of faith you have to work that out with your image of God. Health and success as a reward? Job says: Hell no! All I got was pain and misery for nothing! Maybe signing multi-million dollar contracts can boost your success. Maybe exercising for a living can make you healthier. But please, don’t blame God for your good fortune.
2. One in four Americans say that God plays a role in determining which team wins the Super Bowl. Again, let me join the minority elite. Of course, God can do all things! Not a thing happens in the world that God couldn’t prevent. I am one of four! Every Sunday we sing “He’s got the whole world in his hands!” And yes, that includes the football and the scoreboard, he’s got the Patriots and the Seahawks, he’s got the whole world in his hands. “We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords”, states the Barmen Declaration. God Almighty rules over time and space so of course the result of a sporting event is within God’s reach.
BUT: Sometimes people have a tendency to forget that God is the Ultimate Free Agent. We can’t tell God what to do. We cannot predict a Super Bowl Winner by turning our praying ear toward God. Because the ruler of heaven and earth has been very clear as to who is in charge. Which ever team you will be rooting for on Sunday, America will most likely be split down the middle again and half of us will be utterly disappointed. The recommended prayer for that prospect is: “He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’”
On Friday, January 23, 2015, I will be part of the 2nd Annual Ecumenical Prayer Service for Christian Unity. This year it is hosted by Lakewood Church. You are now part of the lucky who can already read my prayer today. But still: Please make time to join us on Friday at 7pm.
I am free to do this hand sign right here, right now.
Being a demonstrator in Thailand such an act of defiance will get you arrested.
Military dictatorships are afraid of movies that promote freedom of expression.
When The Interview came online I couldn’t resist but watch it and it really turns out to be hilariously offensive. Do you have to love it? – No! Is it important to have that kind of artistic expression out there? – You bet! Or as Evelyn Beatrice Hall put it in the mouth of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
As we gather this week to work toward Christian unity let us join our voices in prayer for freedom of expression:
Holy One: Your Word called the world into being. Your Word became flesh among us. When you express yourself in all your awesome and holy freedom everything changes. A voice like thunder, the loving whisper of a mother – a word can affect so much and you have freely spoken to all your people through the ages.
When Jesus came to the Samaritan woman at the well your Word was expanded to include even those Samaritans which have never been any good. Ultimately gentiles from all around the world were called into your beloved community. Like an author publishing a book you have set your Holy Word free.
You want our words to be free also:
when we laugh at ourselves for our shortsightedness,
when we poke fun at each other for our denominational oddities,
when caricature educates and enlightens the political public.
You call us to stand for freedom of expression: With Charlie Hebdo, with protesters in Thailand, with our Christian brothers and sisters in Brazil and all around the world. It takes loud people with radical symbols that keep on yelling: “Let my people go!” Holy One, hear our supplications that we can express so freely. Amen.
How hot does your faith burn?
Is your sense of calling as strong as Martin Luther King’s?
Last weekend they announced the concert lineup for the Rodeo Houston. Brad Paisley is going to perform. That is big for Mirjam and I for we really admire his work. On Saturday the tickets will go on sale and you have to pre-register and wait for an hour in an online waiting room before even being considered for the privilege to fork over your money. Can you tell it’s our first year at Rodeo Houston? – Very exciting times.
I need to share this this week for two reasons:
a) I don’t want you to miss your opportunity to get your tickets. Think of this as a public service announcement or a friendly reminder.
b) Next Monday is Martin Luther King Junior Day. And it is so easy and pleasant to remind ourselves of great thoughts from the past: “I have a dream”. But who is brave enough to tell a story of racial injustice that has happened in your own backyard? Well, Brad Paisley is one of those people who dare to share in his song “Welcome to the future”:
From this musical excursion let’s go to the cold hard facts of demographics. According to solid projections there will be fewer blacks and hispanics in Fort Bend County in five years. Whites are the only ethnical group with substantial growth:
Did you have a spontaneous gut reaction to those numbers?
What do those feelings tell you about race relations in America 2015?
When I drop off the kids at school in the morning I drive past two churches that could not be more different: One has a full fledged sanctuary with educational buildings attached. The second rents a store front in a failing strip mall. And I must admit I am partial. I have a hard time envisioning church life in a store front. I know the church is first and foremost the body of Christ, second the congregation and the people it is comprised of and only in the third place the church is the church building. But in my little thinking all three go hand in hand. I need a sense of sanctuary to connect me to the ancient roots of our faith. I need the sound of the organ to lift up my spirit beyond what I can hear on the radio every day. I need ancient canticles, time-tested rituals and historic places. No, I am not against change. The church has always evolved: From a radical preacher healer whose gang of twelve was persecuted and prosecuted to the established religion of the greatest empire the world has ever known. The house church has been the go to style of worship from the beginning and still has its merits in a variety of settings. But this week’s watchword is a nice reminder that God wants a nice place:
“Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.”
(Psalm 29:2 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 11 January 2015)
It makes sense to invest into the church building and put on a new roof. It makes sense to upgrade the Hymnals. It makes sense to tune all the pianos scattered around the buildings. It makes sense to change the paraments and restock candles and tapers. For worship we use things and words and gestures that are not necessarily part of everyday life. They are special, they are set apart, they are holy. I would not want an elaborate candelabrum at home but it serves its purpose in the sanctuary. Are all those bells and whistles really necessary? It depends! Do they prepare our hearts and minds to listen to the still speaking God? That is my litmus test. Tradition only makes sense as long as it accomplishes its mission to make straight the paths of our God.
All this tells you more about me than it tells you about the nature of the church. I hunger for the connection to the ancient roots of our faith and since you all have chosen to worship in this place in this style it is safe to assume that some of my reflections resonate with something inside of you. But how about the storefront worshipers? Their faith journey is just as sacred and valid. God does not need a traditional setting to reach hearts and minds. It just may be the case that people there do not need the deep roots of faith but are better at enjoying the moment and facing the challenges of the here and now. Maybe I envy them after all for being able to live life without the constant reminders that keep me rooted.
Around Christmas time Christians start bashing Santa Claus and get apprehensive if not aggressive against the good old Saint because he is presumably not part of the “real reason for the season”.
In many ways Christians are called to be Saints. Like here by the Apostle Paul:
“May the God of peace sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:23 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 14 December 2014)
Santa is what Christmas is all about. Just keep in mind how we got him in the first place:
1. Santa Claus is named after St. Nicholas of Myra, the historic 4th-century Christian Saint and Greek Bishop of Myra (Demre, part of modern-day Turkey). He is the patron saint for children and the stockings we have on our mantles are derived from the boots that children in Europe get stuffed with little presents on St. Nick’s day, December 6th. Just they put them outside the front door so the original St. Nicholas does not have to invade homes. That’s what he looked like:
2. Father Frost is the Slavic personification of winter. He gave our current Santa his fluffy coat and heavy stature. He has all the warmth cold Russian winters lack and he brought presents to Russian children while Stalinism did not allow for St. Nicholas to make a religious appearance. Now the Russian church is having to wrestle with the fact that people have merged St. Nicholas and Father Frost in their hearts and minds. His coat for the most part was pictured green:
3. Even though there have been earlier attempts to bring a red version of this newly merged Turkish-Russian winter-spirit Saint to America, it took the marketing power of Coca Cola to ultimately give our modern day Saint his red coat and bring him fully into the center of American Christmas culture.
That’s what Christmas is all about:
1. A Saint helping poor little children
2. A resilient spirit keeping hope alive in hostile winters
3. A blending of different cultures and traditions that makes the holidays bright for everyone whether they call them Christmas, Chanukkah, Kwanzaa or just Holidays.
When we have family and friends visiting we like taking them for a tour of George Ranch Historical Park. Going through the four different residences of this huge complex is a wonderful invitation and introduction to our local history. Right when you come into the welcome center there is a permanent exhibit that blew my mind challenging my perspective of cowboys. I grew up with those classic western movies where cowboys were gun-toting, boot-wearing, white men – like John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood. But here on this most Texan ranch I learned that most cowboys did not look the way I thought they did in the 1800s: It is thought that, on some Texas trails, a third of cowboys were Mexicans and about a quarter of cowboys were former slaves: They were black!
In the ancient Middle East the most prominent livestock was sheep. Now again: My perspective of what shepherding looks like is fundamentally challenged: Who hasn’t heard of the good shepherd and Psalm 23 and all that biblical imagery portraying God as a shepherd? Here is another one:
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
(Isaiah 40:11 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 7 December 2014)
I always thought the shepherd’s crook was used to shove the sheep in the right direction. And I would have never thought that shepherds go around hugging the entire flock maybe exchanging a few friendly words like people whispering words of affection into their pets’ ears. We are talking livestock business after all, aren’t we? And “leading them gently”, really? Isn’t it more like unleashing the German Shepherd dogs that bark and bare their teeth in order to get the sheep in line?
Well, it seems like reality is always more complex than anticipated: Those rough tough cowboys were slaves once, just like the Word of God became a lowly human being and has come to us and shared our common lot. Or in biblical context: The shepherd put down his staff, abandoned his power and embraced the power of love because he knows what the whip feels like from own experience.
Oh yeah, FM 99.1 has been playing the most wonderful tunes for almost a week. Christmas baking is in full swing, the church and many homes are decorated. We’re fixin’ to have a jolly good time again. That’s what Advent is all about: Preparing for Christmas, right?
The first Sunday of Advent sets us straight:
“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”
(Mark 13:26 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 30 November 2014)
The first week of Advent is about the end of the world. While the whole season of Advent is about getting ready for Jesus’ first coming as a baby on Christmas, this first week is a reminder to also get ready for Jesus’ second coming at the end of all time. The people in Mark’s church fully expected Jesus to come back during their lifetime!
Imagine that: If I were to fully expect the world to end before I die, I wouldn’t worry about retirement planning. Also my holiday preparations would change: Do I really start the fermentation process for my home-brewed Christmas beer that takes from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve? And after the holidays: Do I bother boxing and labeling all the decorations? – I may not need them ever again! And what gifts should we give with the expectation they are our final act of love?
Christians have been wrestling with this tension for over 2000 years. 2000 times doing everything for maybe the last time. May this Word from God never get old but may the still-speaking God continue to challenge us when we get too comfortable.
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