What I learned writing Advent devotions

This past season of Advent, I wrote daily devotions which I sent to anyone interested in receiving them. I had about twenty-five folks subscribe, so I was committed to twenty-four devotions, beginning December 1. I chose a selection of bible passages that mentioned darkness and light as the calendar moved us slowly but surely to the winter solstice. The increasing darkness each day was a perfect backdrop for the coming of light, fuel for both physical and spiritual insights. Here are a few things I learned writing this collection of devotions.

  • From the beginning to the end, there are a lot of verses in the bible that mention dark and light. While darkness is used to describe sin, wickedness and death, light brings hope, righteousness and life.
  • Writing daily devotions is hard work. Especially when you’re working from a theme. (I wrote devotions last Lent, too, but used two chapters of a gospel.) Even though each was only three- to five-hundred words, I often struggled to find meaning or application for the passages. This is actually a good thing. It made me stop and think, dig a little deeper, and find personal application. Each one had an important lesson for me.
  • I didn’t get much feedback. Maybe that’s a good thing. My writing could probably use some work. Anyway, you never know who is or who isn’t reading your work. Apart from a few, “I’m really enjoying your devotions,” I didn’t get many comments at all.
  • When you are writing every day, you develop a rhythm. You get into a groove. The more you write, the easier it is to write. I am sure the daily routine improved my writing. It is a good discipline to commit to.
  • I think I wrote more for myself than for others. I wanted to show myself that I could do it. I felt the need to create rather than just consume ideas and insights.

I’m not sure if I’ll do this again. I felt like I could only write once a day, so I put my blog on hold. It took time, maybe ninety minutes or so every day. That’s a lot of time to devote.

But I probably will.

A wonderful, beautiful, minor key.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

At noon and then again this evening at our midweek Advent worship services, I realized that all the hymns I picked out were in a minor key.

Songs in a minor key sound sad, melancholy, foreboding and desperate. And yet, I love the minor keys. They sound so real, passionate and gutsy. They don’t soar like major keys, lifting our hearts, but dive deeply, into the depths of our souls.

Really? At Christmas? The “most wonderful time of the year” which is designed to be “merry and bright?” Whoa, big guy, it’s not Christmas yet. It’s Advent. It’s still a time of reflection, repentance and even desperation. Good thing. We need help.

Like an endless line of dominoes, those in the public eye are falling to allegations of inappropriate sexual misconduct. A seemingly endless obituary of innocent victims shot at concerts, in schools and on the street floods our eyes with tears and minds with fears. Smartphones connect us with more people than ever, yet we sit home lonelier than ever. Rockets take us closer to Mars, and bring nuclear weapons closer to our homes.

Jesus steps into that world. He was condemned for inappropriate contact with people you weren’t supposed to be near. He was innocent, yet condemned and executed. Surrounded by crowds, he ended up on the cross alone. He spoke of leaving this world, which was coming to a violent end.

Anyone see a connection here? First, there’s nothing new under the sun. We’ve been struggling with these issues for a long, long time. Second, we can’t seem to fix the problems. They keep coming up over and over again. Third, our fears of the end are legitimate. This world will not last forever.

Thank God! This is not what He intended, nor what we were created for. We need a new heaven and a new earth. Soon. Churches like ours that observe Advent pray long and hard for that. We know that is our only hope.

But at least we have hope. We have something to look forward to. As a musician I know that if you raise the third just one half step, you will feel the lift of a major chord, and it never fails to thrill me. I love those hymns, so close, so achingly close to a resolution, a major key, and new life.

Five ways to stay close to God during a busy holiday season.

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Photo by Gareth Harper on Unsplash

It seems like a no-brainer. The holiday season, spanning Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas and New Years is rooted in Christian tradition, filled with special music and worship services, and fills our view with many Christian themes. The busyness of the season, whether it’s planning for guests, getting ready for travel, scheduling worship, buying and wrapping gifts or practicing for performances, we may discover that there isn’t a whole lot of room for Christ himself, a problem dating back to the birth of our Lord.

So, how do you stay close to God during this fun, amazing and busy time of the year?

Put him on the calendar. There’s worship at your church on Sunday mornings and maybe some midweek services during Lent. Ink them in and be there. Our Lord promises to join our worship gatherings of two, three or more, speaks to us as His Word is proclaimed, and brings His gifts of grace in the sacrament. These worship moments provide an anchor when you find yourself being pulled in many different directions.

Do a “plus one.” OK, you already have a morning quiet time or evening devotion. Grab a seasonal devotion and give him an extra five minutes. Our church gives them out. Many are available online. Here’s a great one from Lutheran Hour Ministries. Just like that first cup of coffee, jump start your day with His word rather than all the other things going on. It makes all the difference in the world. (Bonus points: get or make a little Advent wreath and burn the candles.)

Play a little sacred seasonal music. You can listen to non-stop Christian music every day beginning well before Thanksgiving. Much of it, however, will be secular rather than sacred. You can find it on Pandora, Spotify, YouTube and Amazon if you look. Most of your favorite artists have a Christmas album. I like “All I Want For Christmas is You” and “Sleigh Ride” as much as the next person, but you can do a whole lot better.

If you send Christmas cards, send one with a Christian message. You would not believe how many member of my church send me secular Christmas cards featuring cardinals, snowmen, and Santas! It’s usually around 50%! There are so many amazing and affordable cards that creatively capture the birth of Christ. Pick up a box of those to send out, for your sake and theirs.

Serve. Help out at church, help out a neighbor, help at a local ministry. Don’t just give something or send something. Be there. Jesus said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Jesus came and spent time with those who seemed furthest away from the kingdom. That’s where you’ll still find him in this world.

If those don’t work for you, I’m OK with that. If gingerbread, Burl Ives, Kris Kringle, mistletoe and the Hallmark Channel do it for you, go for it. If not, why not try something different this year?

A little dialogue

Last night at our Advent Midweek service, I tried to interact with the congregation during the sermon. I asked questions to get responses, to get at what they were thinking or their impressions of a person or situation. I’ve done this a little bit in the past, but tried to do even more. It’s an interesting process. In our church, they aren’t used to talking to me during a sermon, although we’ve had plenty of personal conversations in the past.

I believe they liked it. I believe it kept their attention on a warm, rainy evening. (Yes, in Florida, Advent is usually warm.) And it gives me a chance to respond to their thoughts, rather than simply guessing what they might be thinking.

The idea of some dialogue in a sermon requires a lot of flexibility, and the ability to keep moving towards the goal and conclusion. It requires a lot of faith, that people will respond and that you’ll be able to think on your feet, responding to what they say. You may need to abandon something you were going to say along the way, to make room for other thoughts. It works best, of course, in a smaller group. In front of 500 people, it just won’t happen. But with 50 or so, it has possibilities.

Advent midweek worship

Tomorrow is the first of our midweek Advent worship services. They are part of our worship tradition in my denomination (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) and my congregation (Shepherd of the Coast, Palm Coast, FL). But they are not a part of most people’s lives. In other words, few show up.

I believe that if you didn’t grow up with this tradition, it wouldn’t even occur to you to show up at a church for a Wednesday night worship service during Advent, Lent or any other time of the year. Even if it’s heavily promoted, the idea is a hard one to sell to busy people who figure they get enough religious input on Sunday mornings.

But I like it. I like night services. Things look and sound different to me. Rather than being at the beginning of the day, it’s the end, before bed, and our thoughts are on the day past, rather than  the day or week ahead.

This year, I’m going to try and be less formal and more conversational with those who are there, most of whom will be the choir and the youth group, who are there every Wednesday anyway. I want to hear from people, not just talk at them. We don’t do much of this, but it’s worth a try. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Advent begins

I wasn’t really sure what to expect in worship today. It was the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a church season I dearly love, from the Advent wreath and candles to the blue of the paraments. But it was also the Sunday after Thanksgiving, so I thought a lot of families might still be out of town or traveling back in time for work and school tomorrow. Even our organist was out of town, having sequenced all her music on the organ for our traditional service.

Though quiet, it turned out to be a moving morning for me. I focused on the Righteous branch of Jeremiah 33, who we know as Jesus. Our hope is found in the promise of his coming, just as it was for Jeremiah’s audience for whom invasion, destruction and exile were inevitable. Don’t let anyone fool you with the nice words, “Everything will be OK.” Both Jeremiah and Jesus tell us it won’t. Things are bad and getting worse, but we have a Savior who is coming. And that is why we have hope.

Rather than getting swept away in the hurried culture of Christmas preparation, the quiet assurance of Advent has already made an impression on me. I “get it” in a way that I don’t think I did before. I’m getting off the ride and spending some time focusing on the Son of God who came and is coming. Who was here and will be back. Who somehow gives me hope.

It’s over…for now

The party is over, kind of. My two oldest children have gone back to school and our home is suddenly a little emptier and much quieter. The last few days have been a blast with the five of us home. Twice as much conversation, food, games, mess, and laughter.

I know that everyone will be back again in just a few weeks, for Christmas, but when you all don’t get together too often, you take in and enjoy every minute you can.
Here are my favorite memories of this Thanksgiving:

  • Adam leading worship with me on Sunday and Wednesday.
  • Adam’s turkey made of olives and pickles, Katie’s pumpkin bread and green bean casserole, Lisa’s pumpkin pie, and Olivia’s mashed potatoes.Little ones hanging on the altar rail trying to see Pastor Bill.
  • Bike rides on two beautiful days.
  • Two posters filled with sticky “thank-you” notes.
  • The image of Jesus giving thanks right along side us.

As we head full steam ahead into Advent, these memories will quickly fade, so I’m glad I jotted them down here to remember.