Sunday, December 30, 2012

High Altitude Christmas Worship on Skis

Pastors in blue, dad in white, me in brown. 
Rode the Copper Mountain American Eagle quad lift up the mountain today in time for mountain top worship. Just down from the lift puts you at the "nature center" (state park speak for "chapel"), an open air viewing structure built by Copper Mountain Community Church members a few years ago. Their goal is to continue providing worship for employees and guests of Copper on the mountain. 

I'm not certain, but my impression was about half of those in attendance for worship are employees of Copper in some capacity. The rest of us just happened to be on the mountain at the right time and skied up to sing some hymns and pray.

Prior to building the chapel, the community church used to gather under some trees near a cross (still standing) just down from the lift.

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Worship at 11,000 feet in December is cold, bright, and beautiful. For our prayers, we prayed with eyes open looking out over the Gore Mountain range. I think the service lasted about 30 minutes. We sang simple praise songs from the songbook they distributed. In observance of the 12 days of Christmas, I requested Joy to the World. They sing Go Tell It On the Mountain basically every Sunday, for obvious reasons, but of course it was especially meaningful today on the first Sunday after Christmas. The sermon, very brief, was thoughtful. Considering The Good Samaritan and the Christ Hymn of Philippians, we were offered a glimpse of what it might mean to consider humility as our new year's resolution for 2013.

The pastor who delivered the message, Dick Jacquin, took the photos above. They update their banner weekly with a photo of the worshiping community. An altogether friendly gathering appropriate to context. We wanted to pray. We also all wanted to ski. This allowed space in the midst of good Sabbath recreation for good Sabbath worship.

Very cool ministry. They especially work to reach the employees of Copper. They hand deliver homemade cookies to every worker at every lift Sunday mornings, and offer two services, one down hill at 8:30, one mountain top at 12:30. In addition to the cookies, they organize a monthly community meal (the day before paychecks are issued), which usually has 300-400 folks in attendance. 

I think this is what you call indigenous missional ministry. Great stuff. Meeting the needs of the employees and residence of Copper in a way that builds community and goes to where they are. That it requires skiing all the great slopes of Copper to get to the lifts is, as the pastors say, a small sacrifice.

To learn more about the congregation, and see some great photos of their community, visit:

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Eve

I'm biased, but I do think our congregation puts on some of the best music and liturgy for Christmas Eve worship. Check out our two Christmas Candlelight services here: 

Separate sermons and different special music at each service.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Lutheran Confessions readers!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime: A "First Nations" Christmas Carol

The first time I heard this Christmas carol, I couldn't help but think of the Song of the Dwarves from The Hobbit. The tunes are not dissimilar.

What I love about this carol is its deep sense of place. It transports the birth of Jesus into a forest, among hunters, with rabbit skins and beaver pelts. It is the nativity of Christ saturated and mystified under moon of French and Canadian 17th century hills.

"Swaddling clothes become rabbit skin, the manger is a lodge of broken bark, the wise men are chiefs, and the gifts they bring are not frankincense and myrrh but gifts of fox and beaver pelt. The point is not to alter the truth but to tell it: 'the holy child of earth and heaven is born today for you,' whoever and wherever you are" (Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion for ELW)

"This is the earliest 'first nations' Christmas carol and the earliest Canadian hymn we know about. It can be traced to Jean de Brébeuf, Jesuit priest and missionary... Jesse Edgar Middleton, a journalist born in Ontario wrote this free English rendering of it, which contains more Huron imagery than the original."

The tune itself is a French noël, "Une jeune pucelle de noble coeur." It has influences of the same period, but the underlying musical material likely predates the sixteenth-century Reformation (which may be why it sounds like the Dwarves Song).

I used Garageband to record the track, and did some sleight vocal effects.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Twelve Days of Christmas

As we observe the twelve days of Christmas, from December 25th to January 6th, here are some ideas to continue devotionally meditating on the Christmas story in your household and as a family:

1. Watch the Sparkhouse video "The Magi"--

2. Read the Christmas narratives from different gospels out loud as a family, including Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-14, and Matthew 1-2

3. Check some great Christmas books out from the church or public library

4. Light a Christmas candle each day in honor of the presence of Christ in our lives

6. Pray morning, noon, evening, and night prayers using this great prayer resource from a Lutheran church in Hawaii:

7. Give things away: plan to participate in a January housecleaning, giving away at least one thing out of your house every day of January. Start cataloging what you will give, and who you will give it to.

8. Go visit someone: in a nursing home, a prison, the hospital, a homebound church member, a neighbor you know is lonely during the holidays. Call your church office and volunteer for a worship or service ministry.

9. In honor of the extravagant gifts given in the last few days of the twelve days, give a really big year-end gift (or a beginning of the year gift) to your favorite charity, perhaps your local church or a world relief agency like Lutheran World Relief:

10. Feast: shut everything off, fire up the oven, and enjoy a really great sit down meal together as a family that you all prepared together. Light a candle for Christ, and give thanks for another year of blessings. Pray the Lord's Prayer before you eat.

11. Worship during the twelve days: Gather with your own congregation for carols on the first Sunday after Christmas, then again the second Sunday after Christmas for an Epiphany celebration. If you are traveling, use this handy tool to find an ELCA congregation near you:

Share other great Twelve Days traditions your family observes in the comments below, and Merry Christmas! May the light of Christ shine in your hearts, and be the justice and reconciliation we seek in the world.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

15 Best Books About Being a Pastor

Over the course of the year, I tend to loan interns a few books. Maybe too many books. It occurred to me I should try to narrow the focus to a particular genre that would be especially helpful for interns. It would need to be compelling to read, but also theologically informative and pertinent to the tasks of ministry.

Memoirs and autobiographies are particularly well-suited to this task, and so I offer this Top 15 list of books for supervisors and interns to consider reading together during the course of the year. All of them are rich in wisdom, grace, and faith.

1) Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr: Notes from Niebuhr's early years as a pastor (1915-1928) in urban Detroit, this book has been formative in the careers of at least two generations of pastors.

2) Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church, Richard Lischer: Before becoming a professor of homiletics, Lischer was the pastor of a small rural congregation in southern Illinois. Open Secrets details his first three years of ministry, witnessing the joys and challenges that come from transitioning from university to parish life.

3) Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx
, Heidi Neumark: Neumark spent nearly 20 years serving a Lutheran congregation in the South Bronx, and this book details that incredible journey of faithful ministry in a challenging urban setting.

4) Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor: These are Taylor's early reflections on ministry as an Episcopalian priest, followed by 13 sample sermons from her exemplary career as a literate and thoughtful preacher.

5) The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church (Leadership Network Innovation Series), Dave Gibbons: Although not strictly a memoir, Gibbons weaves enough of his own story into the text that you get a powerful sense of what it means to be a missional pastor in the 21st century.

6) A pioneer churchman: J. W. C. Dietrichson in Wisconsin, 1844-1850 (Publications of the Norwegian-American Historical Association): I'm probably biased, because this is the founding pastor of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church, where I previously served as pastor, but this travel narrative gives a profound sense of the early immigrant church and the role of the pastor in that context.

7) Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene Peterson: Peterson weaves his own story into many of his books, and he has written lots of wonderful books on the pastoral ministry, but this may be the most refreshing, especially for pastors learning to self-differentiate.

8) The Pastor: A Spirituality
, Gordon Lathrop: Again, although not strictly a memoir, this book arises out of Lathrop's long wise look at the pastoral ministry from the perspective of liturgy and the catechism.

9) The Country Parson, George Herbert: This is the the classic of the genre, and though it is sometimes difficult and very distant in time and tone, it is worth the time.

10) Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works) (v. 5), Dietrich Bonhoeffer: More a memoir and theological treatise on Christian community than the life of the pastor per se, this book about the underground life of the seminary Bonhoeffer led during the Third Reich is seminal, and worth reading many, many times over.

11) Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas and A Broad Place: An Autobiographyby Jurgen Moltmann: Two of our greatest living theologians have written wonderful autobiographies, and they help place the work of a a theologian in the context of life in a way that will bear fruit for thoughtful readers who care about theology.

12) This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver: This is probably the most recent book published under the genre of "pastoral memoir", and it is unique in weaving the story of two pastors together, chapter after chapter. This is a really creative way to team-author a book.

13) Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry: Ok, this isn't a memoir, it's a novel, and it isn't about a pastor, it's about a barber. But I'm telling you, you might learn more about being a pastor from this book than any other book on the list.

14) Gilead: A Novel, Marilynne Robinson: This is a novel, but it actually is about a pastor, or more properly, it's letters from an aging pastor to his young son.

15) Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, Will Willimon: This is kind of like the comprehensive handbook for pastors, and the accompanying volume, a reader, is worth acquiring and reading together with Willimon's textbook.

I'm sure many internship supervisors would list others (when I was in seminary, a big one was Hammer of Godby Bo Giertz), and I'd love to hear what they are. In the meantime, I imagine anyone can find at least one book on this list that is worth digging into and living with this next year of ministry and study, and I would love to hear what you learn as you do so!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where is God in all of this tragedy?: One pastor's response to a parishioner about Sandy Hook

Parishioner: I hope you're doing well. My wife and I both appreciated your words on Sunday -- we're both finding it difficult to enjoy the holidays in the wake of Sandy Hook. My parents and I have a very good and close relationship, except in the arenas of church and politics. My family's embraced the Huckabeean stance on Sandy Hook -- that it's no surprise to see this kind of carnage when schools and a nation have, in their view, shut out God. In my Mom's words:

"If you look at Biblical history you would understand that when a nation continues to shut God out and defy Him, there is a price to pay. God did not turn His back on those children but have we as a nation turned our backs on God and as a result suffered the consequences, and I don't think we've seen the end of it."

I don't even know what to do with that. That logic, in my view, portrays -- at best -- a picture of a disturbingly ambivolent God. I'm so sick about this whole thing, the thought of going home in a few days to this is, well, not something I'm really looking forward to. If you have a minute or two, I'd love to hear some rational perspective on this kind of fatalism, even if it's just in the form of a few good verses where you've sought solace this week.


Jesus with the children
Pastor: I'm honored you've asked for insight, a "rational perspective." My best response is probably something like this. First, if you can avoid talking about it with your family, do so. I've found over the years, that most families do much better together over the holidays if they avoid the hot button issues. It's simply not worth the time. Spend the precious moments you have on those things close to your hearts that you share in common.

So avoid the topic altogether if you can. And inasmuch as you can, be a non-anxious presence when your family says stuff that bothers you. That's hard, but worthwhile.

As for a biblical insight, all I can say is that the Huckabee stance is, to put it in the clearest possible terms, hogwash. It's a bunch of theological drivel masquerading as piety.

First of all, our nation is clearly and manifestly religious, so to say that we have turned our backs on God is simply odd. He is claiming we only invoke God as a culture in times of tragedy. Nevermind that God is invoked every day people say the pledge, every game where the National Anthem is sung, every morning when congress opens session, God's name is printed on every dollar, and the president has throughout history always signed off with "God bless the…" in the State of the Union address.

You could, if you wished, probably make the opposite argument, that God lets tragedy happen in our nation because we too frequently (and blithely) invoke God's name. But that would equally be theological drivel.

It is pretty clear that you are on dangerous ground when you start interpreting the suffering of others as proof of their or our collective sin. Two example suffice: when the Pharisees ask Jesus who sinned that the blind man was born blind (John 9:2). Jesus' answer was, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned." Luke 13 has a similar story, again where Jesus is unwilling to directly connect specific suffering and death to specific levels of sinfulness. Certainly Jesus calls all to repentance, but he never makes connections between specific suffering, and specific cultural sins. That would be callous and unhelpful in a way Jesus never is.

If I understand what Mike Huckabee and others are saying on this correctly, they are saying that increased violence in our culture is a direct result of increasing godlessness in our culture. He then wants to be prophetic, and say that those children dying in that way is an outcome we should anticipate, even if it is not directly a cause-effect relationship.

That is "Christian prophecy" gone terribly awry. The prophets warned Israel of tragedies that might happen to them as a result of their sin and faithlessness. That's true. But the prophets were only collected in Scripture as Scripture after the words of the prophets were tested and found true.

The decisive point for all of this, and what I want to say, and what I tried to say in my sermon on Sunday--that in Christ we see the sufferings of others in a new light. Instead of dispassionately using the horrific deaths of children as a tool in the culture wars, an opportunity to prove a theological point, our responsibility as Christians is, now, to sit with those who suffer in the way Jesus Christ came to be with the suffering world.

Christ came and lived and suffered in the flesh. He didn't sit far off and mutter, "See, this is what you get for all your godlessness." Instead, Christ came into the world, into the flesh, to bring God in the flesh, that God might know pain, and suffering, and loss, and grief, and even death, right alongside us (see Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15).

Which means the proper Christian response (and Mike Huckabee ought to know this, maybe some other part of him that isn't on television all of the time actually does) is to say, in light of this situation, "I am so sorry. We are going to be here with you, Newtown. We will sit with you. We suffer and weep with you. You are not alone. And God goes with us in this time, and weeps for these children with us. God grieves. God hurts. This is not God's plan. This is not God's desire. This is terrible and tragic."

Not only that, but God is the God of justice, reconciliation, the God who seeks to restore that which is broken and make it whole. So if you want to know where God is now in all of this, don't look to interpretations on how God is punishing children for the godlessness of a culture. Look instead to all the small movements where people are actively trying to make the way for peace, turning swords into ploughshares, making a safe place for children, watching over and shepherding and keeping them. If you want to know where God is, God is with the teachers who went to school today to teach when they were scared, the police officers stationed by schools who so desperately want to make neighborhoods safe. God is with all of those trying to establish policies that won't let the demagogue of violence and retribution win the day.

God isn't judging the culture and exacting vengeance on innocent children. God certainly isn't available as a bludgeon in the culture war. God is far too free for that.

No, God is weeping with those parents, loving those children, and working for the peace and shalom of a hurting world. Our job is to figure out how best to join God in that work. I for one don't think the best place to start is giving any indication to those now mourning that their children died because our nation has lost its supposedly "Christian" moorings. The best place to start is together, in solidarity with the families, suffering with them, and joining in the very hard work that will make for true peace and safe schools for our children.

That was probably a much longer response than you had hoped for. Thank you for the question and opportunity to respond, and God's blessings as you travel and spend time with your family this Christmas.

Peace in Christ, and Christmas blessings.

ParishionerThanks so much for your time and these words. I really do appreciate it. In addition to being just sick over these events, I'm also dismayed that to a non-believer, the Church's response, at least the one portrayed in the press, is the one portrayed by Huckabee and the like. This is not a message people will flock to. They lament a godless country but paradoxically promote a theology of exclusion and division.

It's sage advice to simply try to avoid these topics altogether while home.

Please do put this in a blog post. I'm sure I'm not the only one struggling with these things.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Joseph: Be a Man

Whenever I think I have a fix on what we are talking about when we talk about gender, the terrain shifts. If I'm in a group of people and I utter what I think is a truism about gender, the supposed truism is frequently (and immediately) challenged.

For example, just the other day I was on the playground with a bunch of first graders. I was the only adult male outside with the kids for recess (this all by itself gives some indication regarding gender roles in our culture). A large group of children, perhaps thirty, mostly boys, decided to dog pile me. It was really fun, if also a bit dangerous. It was something I tend to think only or mostly a group of boys would do, and only to a dad they perceived open to the idea. My stereotype is that boys roughhouse more than girls, and dads roughhouse more than moms.

But when I told this story to a mixed group, most of my gender assumptions about the scenario were questioned at various levels.

Then this week I've been preparing my sermon for mid-week Advent worship. I'm offering a meditation on Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25). Joseph plays a crucial role in the early chapters of Matthew. He repeatedly receives messages in dreams, and responds faithfully to the angelic messengers. He keeps his family together, first into exile in Egypt, and later in a politically savvy fashion back to safety in Nazareth.

Then he disappears from the rest of the gospel of Matthew, without a trace. We don't know if he dies, or remains alive but unmentioned. All of which (in addition to the fact that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus) has made it rather difficult for the church over the centuries to engage Joseph as a model of faith or faithfulness in quite the same way as the mother of Christ.

This has me thinking about men. And men's ministries. And the connection between faith and gender. I invite you to ponder with me...

First, I have various gender-based assumptions. We all do. For example:
  • I think young males, placed in a cabin for the night in the woods, will after about 30 minutes stop speaking any human language, and will instead transition into animal noises, fake farting noises, and burps.
  • If you put a group of girls in a cabin in the same woods, they will stay up late talking about their day and how they felt.
As a former camp counselor and camp director, I have a bit of experiential data to back up these assumptions.

The church also has some gender stereotypes. For example:
  • Men tend to join the spit & shine crew and work on building and grounds projects. They are more likely to be council president. 
  • Women serve on altar guild and make quilts. Women do more personal care ministries (except that pastors, who do lots of care ministry, are more often men).
And many of those who watch demographic data on the church say these stereotypes contribute, overall, to a situation where there are more women in churches than men.

Which is why people write books like Why Men Hate Going to Church. Conversely, people also write awesome books like this one, Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives, giving indication of the great strides that have been made in terms of justice for women and the voice of women in the church.

Some church leaders try to address this situation by making church more masculine. My most widely read blog post of all time was addressed to Mark Driscoll, a shock jock pastor who encourages strongly stereotyped forms of masculinity in the church to try to correct the over-feminization of the church.

Other church leaders are addressing another set of questions by trying to make the church a safer and more just place for women.

But aside from the quite obvious reality that gender is very amorphous and diverse (we all know women who are masculine and men who are feminine, and seem just fine as they are), there is the identical reality that some of our gender-based assumptions are descriptively accurate and strategically helpful. And some forms of intentionally gender-focused ministry are truly helpful (like our current high school break out groups, where the guys gather with me, the pastor, and the girls gather with some volunteer moms--it's a win-win for discussion, faith development, behavior, and more).

So how are we supposed to think about gender in the church? I think there are four ways to speak faithfully about gender in the church that will prove helpful.

1) Accurate description of realities is helpful, as long as description isn't translated into constricting stereotypes. It is possible to describe without prescribing. The ELCA Social Statement on Human Sexuality is one such attempt. Good ethnographic and sociological research into gender-roles, nature vs. nurture, and more, are also helpful. Awareness is the key, without turning that to which we are aware into a strait-jacket for how everyone should be.

2) Let the Scriptures speak on their own terms, and learn from them. So, for example, in the opening birth narrative of the gospels, we can learn quite a bit about Mary as a mother, Joseph as a father, the disciples as men, the women followers of Jesus as women. We can understand them as being models for faithfulness, and we can even emulate the faithfulness of those of a different gender than our own. Furthermore, we can remember that although everyone is gendered, Paul also says in Galatians that there is longer male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:8). If we can maintain the paradox that we are both gendered beings, and that eschatologically speaking the body of Christ is beyond gender somehow, we will do well.

3) It will not help to reinforce gender stereotypes to try and recover some supposedly lost golden era of Christianity when men were "real" men and women were "real" women. This typically is simply us projecting our own gender biases back onto previous eras that likely didn't even hold the same assumptions about gender we now hold.

4) We can probably learn something from all sides of the conversation. I tend to think the people who are concerned about the lack of male participation in the church have a point. There's something missing in current North American church culture that leaves many men uninspired and marginalized. There is also something about current North American church culture that continues to be oppressive to and dismissive of the very real experience of women.

This last and final point is probably a liberationist perspective (argument from experience) with a catholic bias (taking a wider entirety of experience than typical). I hope all of it is helpful.

And if nothing else, this blog post has helped me prepare that sermon on Joseph for tomorrow.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A sermon after the Newtown tragedy

The assigned biblical texts for the Third Sunday of Advent provided helpful resources for preaching this weekend, inasmuch as any texts or preaching can speak to such a horrible situation. If it is helpful, you are welcome to listen to the audio of the sermon here

God our hope, you are in the midst of all who suffer. Be with the people of Newtown, Connecticut, who, with your servant Rachel, weep and wail for the loss of innocent children. Hear their cries; embrace their pain, and bring peace to all victims of tragic violence. Amen.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Get your books for free

Books (at least some of them), can be got for free. Here's how.

I assume you care about books and are passionate about them. Even if you get some of them for free, you spend quite a bit of money on the rest.

You also spend time with books. Lots of time. For example, right now I'm reading a considerable amount of phenomenology, especially the work of Jean-luc Marion. Pushing through to comprehending perhaps the most important philosophical school of the 20th century--and its implications for things like theology and preaching--will hopefully result in a breakthrough in my own preaching and pastoral ministry. It is worth the time, both in terms of professional development and pastoral ministry.

This illustrates that, underneath any techniques, the best way to get books for free is to be passionate in your engagement with them.

But I digress. You want to learn how to get your books for free. Here are three books I have received for free for the new year, and plan to review for various publications. The story of how each one was gotten illustrates how you might get free books.

Write for an on-line journal

In this instance, because I've written content for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics in the past, they looked through their stack of books, and asked if I might review this one. Since I write the preaching column for JLE, this makes sense. Find your niche, then work it. Keep your name in front of the editor, and be in regular dialogue with them. That's the angle here.

Write for a print journal

Most journals can request review copies for you if they haven't already assigned the book to somebody else. In this case, I requested the book from the Book Review Editor, who wrote to the publisher. The publisher is doing a special printing of the book and sending it my way (apparently the print run is so small they are printing it on demand). Again, direct contact with the editors, and an established relationship with them, is essential.

Write to the author

This book is published at an institutional-buyer-only price-point. I doubt anyone other than libraries will purchase it, unless and until it sells enough copies for them to consider publishing it in soft cover. In cloth, it is jaw-droppingly expensive. You can actually read it on the publisher's web site as an e-book, but the subscription for that service is even more jaw-droppingly expensive.

Or you can just write to the author and see if they have a copy lying around to send. Which Professor Dorrien did, so is sending one my way for review here on the blog. Since the topic is of interest as philosophical/theological genealogy leading up to phenomenology (the topic I mentioned at the beginning of this post), the book was available because of a) my interest, b) my connection to the topic, and c) because I was willing to review it.

Almost any author you can think of has a web site, a faculty page at their institution, or is on Facebook. Make the connection. Write to them. The world is flat. These folks don't live on Laputa. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmas Eve Explained

Why Evening Services?

The church has for centuries celebrated services on the eve of holy days because the traditional Christian liturgical day starts at sunset. Examples include the Eve of Epiphany, the Easter Vigil, and All Hallow's Eve (Halloween or Eve of All Saints). Since Christian tradition has held that Jesus was born at night (Luke 2:6-8), it is especially appropriate, and poignant, to gather for Christmas worship on the eve of Christmas Day. Many churches around the world still hold midnight Mass, or at least one service close to midnight, to commemorate both the lateness of Christ's birth as well as the birth of the new day at midnight.

Our own congregation accommodates this pattern by offering three different services on Christmas Eve. We offer a 6 p.m. Children's Worship that is early in the evening, near dusk, and so at the end (beginning) of the day. This service is a service of word, carols, poems, special music, a time for meditation on the central text for Christmas, Luke 2. It is especially designed to be developmentally appropriate for children and their families.

Then, because our sanctuary cannot actually hold the number of people who would attend one Christmas Eve Mass, we offer two, one at 7:30 p.m. and one at 9:30 p.m. These two services are mostly identical, a traditional liturgy of Word & Communion, that then include some additional aspects appropriate for a high festival eve service. We read the proclamation of the birth of Christ at the beginning of the liturgy. We sing as many Christmas carols as possible during the service. We conclude  the service with a candlelight vigil and night prayer. As we sing Silent Night, all those gathered light vigil candles that have been distributed during the service. As the sanctuary is darkened, the candles are lit, and soon the light of the hundreds of candles fills the space, invoking the light of Christ coming into the world.

This year, we will at the conclusion of these services pray the traditional night prayer: 

"Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen."

It will be my goal as a preacher to help us meditate especially on the news the angels share, and what it means to be messengers of this good news. It is the goal of all our worship leaders to evoke both the solemnity and joy that accompanies the celebration of the incarnation of Christ.

Different Lessons/The Whole Christmas Story

I offer separate lessons and sermon for the 7:30 and 9:30 services. There are actually three lectionary texts on offer for the series of Christmas Eve/Day services. These differ somewhat between denominational traditions. For examples, see Textweek.

Essentially, this will mean the sermon for the first service will focus on the early verses of Luke 2, and the second service will focus on the latter verses of the chapter. In anticipate this year especially meditating on the psalms selected for these services (Psalm 96 and Psalm 97) both of which have deep resonances with the gospel lessons for Christmas Eve.

Sunday morning, we invite families to read John 1:1-14 and pray Psalm 98 as part of their morning Christmas day household prayers. 

The Mood

The overriding memory I have each time I hear Luke 2:1-20 read—and this is one of those memories that is so evocative and strong that I can smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it, and hear it—is the memory of reading this text out loud each year at my grandparents house on our farm in eastern Iowa. Their sitting room had been converted into the Christmas room. My grandmother beautifully decorated a real tree each year that sat in the front window, visible and bright for all those who drove past on the snow-encrusted highway. Inside, the room was warm and carpeted. Grandma played piano, and accompanied us in song as we sang carols. Finally, after too long of a wait to open all of those temptingly wrapped gifts, it was the tradition in our family for one cousin each year to read the gospel. I trembled with anticipation the years in which I read it out loud, and proudly listened on when my younger cousins were able to read it for the first time.

I tell this story not because it is particularly unique, or because you need to know that much about one family story in order to understand the Christmas narrative, but because this is how so many of those in worship will contextualize readings from the gospel during the season of Christmas. They are not simply lectionary texts read in worship. They are warm, relational, almost edible texts that evoke memories and feelings beyond anything we can say or do in our worship leadership or preaching. Christmas, like weddings and funerals, is one of those services of Christian worship where what we already bring to the service can in many ways over-ride what we hear or sing there. So much more is being evoked in these days by the texts that are read than can be encompassed in what we preach, but mindfulness of that fact shapes our pacing and approach. The wisest thing we try to do is go slowly, deliberately, prayerfully, letting hearers and worshippers have as much space for their feelings and memories as for our words or ritual actions.

And overall, we try to let the service evoke what we sing every Sunday in Christian worship, the Gloria:

         Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.
         Lord, God heavenly King, Almighty God and Father,
         We worship you, we give you thanks,
         We praise you for your glory.
         Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,
         Have mercy on us.
         You are seated at the right hand of the Father—receive our prayer!
         For you alone are the holy One, you alone are the Lord,
         You alone are the most high, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit,
         In the Glory of God the Father, Amen.

Ideas for Christmas morning

Many families are on the road visiting family Christmas Day. Others cozy in at home and observe long-standing traditions. Still others attend Eucharist. Still others engage in service, visiting those who would otherwise be alone, lacking shelter, or hungry on Christmas day.

I'd love, as conclusion for this meditation, to hear from readers how they observe Christmas Day. Perhaps we can learn from each other.