Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"And When the Strife is Fierce, the Warfare Long:” A Season of Saints for 2013 (Year C)

Orthodox All Saints Icon. Public Domain.

And when the strife is fierce,
      the warfare long, 
steals on the ear 
     the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave again, 
     and arms are strong.

Alleluia! Alleluia!
William W. How, 1864 (UMH 711, verse 5).

Scripture everywhere reminds us of the struggles, challenges and costs of faithfulness to God. Hebrews 11:35b-38 sums them up eloquently: 

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheeps and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground” (NRSV). 

While some may think of these persons as exceptional, or as “hero-saints,” the record we have of most of them was they did not and still do not. They were not trying to “show off” their personal capacity to endure or even God’s power to give them endurance. 

Rather, they were “showing up” as those seeking to be faithful in challenging times. These, some of whom we also call martyrs, generally understood their actions as the simple obedience required at the moment.  

During this third cycle of A Season of Saints, we invite you and your worshiping community to take the month of October to discover, remember and celebrate those saints whose strife was fierce, and whose warfare was long. Some were martyrs, killed for their faith. Others were persecuted, or faced what seemed to be endlessly uphill climbs in their quest for righteousness, holiness and peace. 

All were, and some you know still are, both in and despite such struggles, continually spurred on by “the distant triumph song.”

We are aided this year by the musical and video work of a United Methodist deacon and an Episcopal priest, Michael Bell and Duane Arnold, in their multi-media project called,
Martyrs Prayers.  

As in the previous two cycles, A Season of Saints offers your congregation the opportunity to focus attention to three categories of saints each week: one widely recognized across all of Christian history, one from our United Methodist heritages, and a “living saint” you identify from your congregation or local community.  Lift up one or more during weekly worship, and the others throughout the week.

The saints for each Sunday from the first two categories are chosen based on the connection of their lives or witness with the lectionary texts assigned for that day. By all means feel free to change any of these names, or mix and match with resources for
Year B or Year A, or add others.

Here is a suggested list of saints from Church history and United Methodist history to consider for each of the five Sundays this year. Hyperlinks are provided for persons who may be less well known.

Date    Denominational Event      Christian Saint        UMC Saint

10/13    Children’s Sabbath          Sadoth of Persia (music)Hiram Rhoades Revels
10/20    Laity Sunday                         John Ri (music)        Sarah Dickey    

10/27                                                     Vibia Perpetua (music)* Kanichi Miyama

11/4    All Saints Sunday           Anonymous Woman of     Trott, McCleod, and
                                                         Ravensbr├╝ck (music)         others on the Trail of
                                                                                                             Tears (p. 50-61)**

To help you share your stories and find stories of other living saints, we have a page describing this project on the United Methodist Worship blog. Just leave your story in the comments section.

Think about creative ways to tell their stories—maybe saints videos, or children telling the stories. Use them part of a testimony time after the sermon during these weeks. Post information about them on Facebook or Twitter during the week. Schedule an “All Saints Parade” on All Saints Sunday, with everyone coming to the event dressed as a saint whose life and witness speaks deeply to them. 

Whatever you do, make this a congregation-wide emphasis, involving not just worship, but also Sunday Schools, youth groups, mission teams, caring ministries, small groups, and of course the choir and/or praise team.

We'll provide more specific ideas and information about the saints listed above for each Sunday during October in our
weekly Worship Planning Helps.

So remember these saints who “nobly fought “ of old, and celebrate and pray for those who continue to “fight the good fight.”  Our own calling to faithfulness is no less, even if our circumstances may not require the degree of suffering these have known and many know still.  That calling comes down, always, to the same question: “What will you suffer and die for?” For them, the answer was and is Jesus Christ. May this Season of Saints renew in you and your congregation that singular commitment to Jesus, that you may join with that 

“countless host,
singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia! Alleluia!”

* The linked music is for the martyr Carpus, but works well with the witness of Perpetua as well.

** Find ways to remember and honor all our forebears who were forced to relocate as well as those who chose to go with them, or advocated to prevent this action in the first place. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Summer of Prophets: Divinely Called or Dangerously Crazy?

The icon to the right is a Russian Orthodox "writing" of the prophet Jeremiah. Christians using the Revised Common Lectionary will start a six week series from Jeremiah's prophecy beginning on August 25 this year (2013). If you use the Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings you'll be reading from Jeremiah almost every day through these weeks.

I have to admit, this time in the three year cycle is tough going for me. We read the prophets all summer in Year C (winter in the global South). It's hard enough to hear the constant prophecies of doom and judgment for the Northern and then the Southern Kingdoms.

But then we run into this six week stint in Jeremiah. It's the toughest of them all. It's not the vocabulary. It's actually fairly simple Hebrew, simple enough to make it a standard text for second semester Hebrew classes in seminaries.  It's not even the "plot" , though as we have the book, the plot is a bit jumbled.

It's the content.

Jeremiah is a tortured soul. He feels utterly compelled to say what he's saying and do what he's doing. More than this, he believes delivering his awful pronouncements is what he was made for-- indeed, that God has told him this is what he was made for. There are many days where he's not at all happy about what he feels he must do (we don't call him "the weeping prophet" for nothing) and he blames God for deceiving him into this work (Jeremiah 20:7 ff).  

I read his words, and my heart is torn.

As a pastor with training in pastoral counseling, I also wonder: If this man were to come to me as his pastor or spiritual counselor and share with me what he has shared in his book, mightn't I be compelled to refer him to licensed therapist and perhaps a psychiatrist? Doesn't he show all the classic DSM V validated signs of several serious personality and behavior disorders? In fact, might I be obliged to seek to have him committed for psychiatric observation as a person who may be dangerous to himself or others?

If that's what I'd have to consider if Jeremiah showed up in my study, if I sometimes have a hard time hearing such texts as anything other than the ravings of a dangerously insane man, how do I, and how do we, help our congregations to hear what Jeremiah has to say truly as "the word of God for the people of God?"

I have to wonder, honestly, whether our immediate, culturally reinforced, visceral reaction a voice like Jeremiah's may make us immune if not allergic to any truth he have to convey, then or now.

One of the hazards of my job (and perhaps some of yours!) with its widely publicized email address (worship@gbod.org) is I often receive missives from folks claiming to be prophets today.

Here's a sample that came to me a few years ago after the BP Gulf oil spill:

My Little One, do you see what I have done? Do you see? For, I have taken My axe to a dry tree and I have hewn it down!I have taken My axe to an unproductive tree and I have hewn it down!  Great is the fall of this tree!

Wickedness and gross wickedness has continually spewed forth from this tree until it has killed itself; for the whole tree has made itself a haven for what is evil and abominable in My sight! A foul stench has continually come up into My face from the wickedness of this evil tree; and I have hewn it down!

My Lord, what is this evil tree and where is this evil tree?

My Little One, this evil tree is the whole coastal region of the Gulf States! This tree is but one offshoot of a greater tree; and this greater tree is the whole of the United States of America! What you do not see from this vision is that this hewn tree is but one very large branch of a large tree; but to you it will surely appear to be a very great tree!  And, it is a tree, unto itself, but still a branch of something much larger!

(It goes on and gets weirder!)

As I read this, I have to admit the kind of language used here is consistent with that of the biblical prophets. It sounds a lot like the "almond tree" or the "plumb line" discourses in Amos, or the potter discourse in Jeremiah. The interaction between prophet and the voice of YHWH is in the same mode as we see in Jeremiah, Exekiel, Amos, parts of Isaiah, Daniel and Revelation. And the almost sarcastic wrath in the "voice" of God is about the same, too.

Yet my immediate, visceral response, is to dismiss this as sheer crazy-talk. 

Which leads me to wonder how it is that I do not dismiss the biblical words of  the prophets, and especially Jeremiah.

Or how anyone really listening to the prophets with no prior exposure to such speech and no pre-disposition to consider the Bible as in any way authoritative for their lives could come to any conclusion other than, "These people, and their God, are dangerously crazy!"

Yet, I do not dismiss the prophets, not even Jeremiah. And I don't consider Jeremiah's prophecy to be dangerously crazy. It's always a wild and painful ride through these weeks, to be sure. But I trust these words as word of God for God's people. And I do so not out of some kind of blind allegiance to the Bible, but out of profound respect for the voice of God that truly emerges from and in the midst of suffering people.

I am not Jewish. I am not part of these particular suffering people by birth or biological lineage. I am Goyim as far back as my family records can go (and they go back at least to the 10th century!). I do not have that kind of visceral connection with the sufferings of these people as "my people."

I did grow up in a profoundly Jewish neighborhood, however. As I've shared elsewhere, many of my friends were grandchildren, and some of their parents were children, of survivors of the holocausts inflicted by Hitler and Stalin in Europe and The Soviet Union. I didn't have to see filmed footage to have some visceral understanding of what happened there. I could see it in their faces, and hear it in their stories.

I do have some Cherokee ancestry on my mother's side. I am 1/16 Cherokee. But I was not raised with any social connections or any connections at all to this part of my biological family. Still, I feel some kind of visceral connection with what happened to part of my family on the Trail of Tears and in so many other ways and in so many other places in the United States before and since then.

But what I am coming to see more and more is that because I am a Christian, I have a real, visceral connection through the blood of Jesus Christ with all who suffer, anywhere. I cannot and should not pretend to "live above it all." That is to deny my identity in Christ. And it is to deny how Jesus lived and what he did and still does among us, and in and through and with all "the suffering ones" (Apostolic Tradition, ca 215).  

If my imagination of what is "normal" and "sane" is formed by the imagination of the triumphant and wealthy, those who find ways to "live above it all," then yes, I have to consider many of the prophets crazy at best, and Jeremiah perhaps dangerously crazy.

But if my imagination of the normal is formed by the imagination of Jesus, and of a God who draws near to give good news precisely among the weakest, poorest, most oppressed people on the planet-- which means I can keep it straight that this is the dominant imagination of God and his Christ presented across the whole of the scriptures-- then, painful and heartwrenching as it is, it is also deep solace to claim even Jeremiah as divinely called, and his words as word of God.

And when I can live out of that imagination, as choked or challenging as it sometimes is, I can even muster, "Thanks be to God." 

--Taylor Burton-Edwards

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Celebrate Advent and Christmas Season Fully in 2013/2014!

"The Lord Jesus Christ Will Return."
Used by permission. CC BY-SA 2.0. 

The Need

We all know there is much competition for attention between Advent and Christmas Season (Advent 1 through Epiphany, January 6), and the wider culture's "Christmastime" (November through December 25).

The result of this competition? Culture wins, and the primary focus of Advent on the second coming of Christ as fulfillment of all promised in his first coming, which we celebrate during Christmas Season, is lost.

That's a major loss. Advent is the one time of the church year specifically dedicated to this focus. While we rehearse and remember the second coming, new creation, and the fulfillment of all things every time we pray the Great Thanksgiving and celebration Holy Communion, Advent was developed from the beginnings to be the season where focus our worship and teaching around this explicitly. The Church Year starts with Advent precisely so we can "begin with the end in mind."

I've used the picture above in this kind of article for several years now because it still speaks so eloquently. Look at it closely. No one is paying attention to this man's sign except the photographer. Everyone else is walking by, as if the sign means nothing. The sign is there, yes. But it makes no difference in people's lives, except maybe for this man.

Of course, "Christmastime" causes us to lose more than just Advent. In effect, we often lose Christmas Season, too. These twelve days (December 25-January 6) were designed as a time of celebration and intensive contemplation of what the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ began to set loose in the world. Christmastime essentially ends with the babe in the manger and the comforting illusion that all is now well with the world. Christmas Season begins with the birth of Jesus and gives us two full weeks to encounter the extraordinary love, threats, dangers and opportunities God's Incarnation set off then and still sets off today. 

The contrast could not be more stark.  Silencing the cries of baby Jesus is the mission of Christmastime, because his cries would break the illusion that all is well if we have played our role as "seasonal consumers" aright. But the readings of Christmas Season do not let us do that. We hear poignantly of the martyrdom of Stephen on December 26 and the wailing of Rachel renewed in the "slaughter of the innocents" on December 28. The stories of terrified then joyous shepherds in Luke, of wandering Iraqi astrologers in Matthew, and of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us in John provide at best a "strange comfort."

Christmastime lulls. Christmas Season awakens.

Christmastime offers a nostalgia- and consumerism-driven Lethean escape from this world. Christmas Season drives us directly into this world's deepest sufferings and most profound hope.

The powers of this world love Christmastime, because it gets them off the hook!  Christmas Season reveals the lengths to which the powers of this world will go to avoid, obstruct or halt the coming of God's kingdom. 

For the Church to keep Advent and Christmas Season need not call us to stand back from or in harsh judgment on what the surrounding culture has created (with our cooperation!) in Christmastime. Feelings of peace and comfort, the joy of giving and receiving, warmth in the midst of winter-- these are all fine things. We can still enjoy them with family, friends and siblings in Christ.

Keeping these seasons in worship and in the life of the congregation calls and equips us for something far more, and far richer, than what “Christmastime” offers.  A full celebration of Advent, four to seven weeks, followed by a full celebration of Christmas Season enables us to see what the wider culture often keeps invisible, to feel with a depth Christmastime may anesthetize, and to love with the fierce determination of “God with us, every one.”

Three Ways Forward: Modest, Restorationist, and Radical

A Modest Way

In our article, A Modest Proposal for Advent/Christmas Peace, Safiyah Fosua, Dean McIntyre and I suggested starting the singing of Advent music two weeks early, and Christmas music beginning with what is now the third Sunday in Advent. This would give four full weeks of Advent focus, at least musically, plus up to four full weeks for Christmas (counting Epiphany Day or Sunday), giving each some significant time and focus. This wouldn't require changing lectionary readings at all. 

A Restorationist Way

A similar approach is offered by The Advent Project. Developed by Rev. Dr. Bill Petersen, Episcopal priest and liturgical scholar, together with a seminar of other scholars and practitioners in the North American Academy of Liturgy, The Advent Project also suggests changing the liturgical calendar, but not the lectionary at all. Petersen and company note that Advent used to be a season of seven Sundays until Pope Gregory VI shortened it to four in the eleventh century.

While Pope Gregory VI shortened the celebration, he actually didn't change the lectionaries. This meant that the readings appropriate for a seven-week celebration of Advent were still being read for seven weeks, starting with the first Sunday after All Saints Day (November 1). The current lectionaries Western Christians now use, both Roman Catholic and Revised Common Lectionaries, have preserved that pattern as well. So the Advent Project's proposal, already tried in a number of Episcopal, Lutheran and United Methodist congregations, aligns our celebration of Advent with the lectionaries we already have. Nothing else changes. Just the starting date for Advent, and, perhaps, as the project notes, the number of candles that might in included in an Advent wreath (seven plus a central candle, rather than four).

The Advent Project website has not only rationale, but also a rich set of resources including suggested prayers and "O Antiphons" (related to verses for "O Come, O Come Emmanuel") for each Sunday to help congregations who want to try it get started with solid support.

The Advent Project proposal also seems also be to gaining some wider ecumenical traction. This year, United Methodist, Episcopal, United Church of Canada, Presbyterian Church USA, Anglican Church of Canada, and several other denominations will continue to raise awareness of this possibility through their websites. The Consultation on Common Texts (developers of the Revised Common Lectionary) hosted an ecumenical forum on the topic at our meeting in New York in March, 2012. 

A primary plus of The Advent Project proposal to me and to worship staff in other denominations lies in it being an actual restoration of an earlier Christian practice.

A Radical Way

Many of us recognize that while these proposals would restore a longer time of
The Peace Tower at Christmas. Ottawa, Canada.
Used by permission under a
Creative Commons License
Advent celebration, it may not yet directly address what for nearly all of us remains a serious truncation of Christmas Season. Our congregations seem to spend all their energy on Christmas Eve, few keep Christmas Day itself, and as for the rest-- it's one or two "low Sundays" at best until folks get back from various "Christmas vacation" schedules. While the church year calls for high celebration and deep contemplation together, we are most often more scattered and less focused on worship than at any other time of the year.

That is why I have offered a third, much more radical approach. In my article, ReThink Christmas Season I have offered an approach that rearranges the lectionary readings to produce for  a four-week Advent and a four-week Christmastide.

Here's how it works. Start Advent two weeks early, and celebrate it for four weeks, ending with Advent 2 on the current calendar. There are no changes in the lectionary so far. You just back up and use the previous last two weeks of Year C as Advent readings.

Then, on what would have been the Third Sunday of Advent, start celebrating Christmas Season by using the readings for the Day of Epiphany. For what had been Advent 4, use the readings for the Sunday after Christmas. For Christmas Day and Eve, use the established readings-- except use John 1 on Christmas Eve and Luke 2 on Christmas Day, so the Incarnation is front and center on what is likely to be the most widely attended service. Then, for the next two Sundays, use the readings for Advent 3 and 4 as further reflection on the implications of the Incarnation and as lead-ins to Baptism of the Lord Sunday (first Sunday after January 6).

Here's a proposed set of readings for Advent and Christmas Season 2013/2014 based on this plan:

Advent 1
: November 17

Isaiah 65:17-25 Isaiah 12 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19

Advent 2: November 24 (Christ the King)

Jeremiah 23:1-6 Luke 1:68-79 OR Psalm 46 Colossians 1:11-20 Luke 23:33-43

Advent 3: December 1
Isaiah 2:1-5 Psalm 122 Romans 13:11-14 Matthew 24:36-44

Advent 4: December 8

Isaiah 11:1-10 Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12

Christmastide 1: December 15

Isaiah 60:1-6 Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 Ephesians 3:1-12 Matthew 2:1-12

Christmastide 2: December 22

Isaiah 63:7-9 Psalm 148 Hebrews 2:10-18 Matthew 2:13-23

Christmas Eve: December 24

Isaiah 9:2-7 Psalm 96 Titus 2:11-14
 John 1:1-14

Christmas Day: December 25

Isaiah 52:7-10 Psalm 98 Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12) Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Christmastide 3: December 29

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
Luke 1:46b-55
James 5:7-10Matthew 11:2-11

Christmastide 4: January 5

Isaiah 7:10-16 Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25

This way, even if the people in your congregation are scattered after Christmas Eve, you will still have given two full Sundays while more people are around to the established Christmas Season Sunday readings, not to mention Christmas Eve and Christmas Day itself, and you will have a different of readings to explore for the Sundays after Christmas.

I acknowledge in "ReThink Christmas Season" this proposal is also problematic.  It seriously messes with the calendar and the order of the lectionary we have and share with many other Christians worldwide. It widely separates Epiphany from Baptism of the Lord, while the two had originated as celebrations kept on the same day. It may represent too much of a concession to the pressures of US culture. And because it is such a radical change, it may also be very unwelcome, despite the fact it may address our theological, liturgical and cultural needs for giving serious attention to both seasons.

How Will You Respond?

The time has come, clearly come, to celebrate both Advent and Christmas as fully as possible in the lives and worship of the Christians called United Methodists.  So let me suggest you prayerfully consider how you will do something to ensure your congregations have a richer celebration this year than last of Advent and Christmas. 

Pick one of these proposals, and give it a serious try. Or try something else, such as a full regular celebration of Advent and Christmas Season using the calendar and readings we already have, celebrating Advent for a full four weeks beginning December 1, 2013, and then a full Christmas Season (12 days) beginning December 24 after sunset-- finding some way to keep the energy of Christmas going well after Christmas Eve and its focus well beyond the babe in the manger.

We have a powerful message to proclaim, celebrate and contemplate as fully as we can at this time of the year. Resolve to do what it takes to make that happen where you are.

And know you have the full support of the worship office at your General Board of Discipleship and our counterparts in many other denominations as you do!