Archive for category Christian Civility

All God Wants for Christmas Is You – Rev. Susan Sparks

The Christmas holiday is in full swing, which means that from now until December 25th, we will hear … Mariah Carey.
Every day.
Everywhere.At CVS and Walmart. At Ace Hardware and Macy’s. Even the Salvation Army volunteers will play it on the corner as they collect money.To what song am I referring?

“All I Want for Christmas is You.”

If this doesn’t sound familiar, then apparently, you have not left your home in the past 25 years. This catchy holiday love song from 1994, which reminds us about the joy of reuniting with loved ones, has sold over 16 million copies.

But I had a thought this week. What if we took this ubiquitous song and made it an anchor—a reminder of something deeper than human love? What if we heard it as a love song from God?

Sounds kind of crazy, right – God singing Mariah Carey’s song to us. But the lyrics are spot on, as God longs to reunite with us. Ezekiel 34:11 explains, For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.”

It’s true. God yearns to be with us – at all times, in all places.

Consider what happened a few years ago at the Holy Child Jesus Church in Richmond Hill, Queens. Jose Moran, the custodian, had just finished setting up the Nativity scene and gone to lunch. When he returned about an hour later, he heard the cry of an infant. He went into the sanctuary and found a tiny baby boy, umbilical cord still attached, swaddled in purple towels on the floor of the manger.

Later, the police identified camera footage from a local 99-cent store that showed a young mother with a baby, buying the purple towels. Minutes later, she appeared in the church and laid the baby swaddled in the purple towels in the church Nativity scene. The congregation named the baby “Emmanuel,” Hebrew for “God with us.”

Like the Christ child, this little baby entered the world in a place of shame, abandonment, and brokenness. But God was there—at the manger in Bethlehem, at that Nativity scene in Queens, and with us.


Now, if that is the power of God’s love for us, then shouldn’t we share that same love with others?

Recently, I met someone who did just that. It happened while I was in line at Walgreens. I was behind an elderly Russian woman who was bent over a walker packed with plastic bags that were stuffed to the brim. For several minutes, she shuffled through the bags looking for her wallet, and as the line got longer, people got more aggravated.

All of a sudden, a tall, smiling man with a Walgreens nametag reading “Ababacar” walked up to her. He turned out to be the manager of the store and was from Senegal. When she saw him, a huge smile broke across her face. He called her by name, gave her a hug, helped her find her purse, and walked her to the door.

I found out later that she lived by herself above the store, and that he’d been helping her for years, including preparing food, and bringing her medicine. When I thanked him for what he’d done, he simply said . . .

“If we don’t care for each other . . . who are we?”


This week, when you hear Mariah Carey’s song for the 97thtime, stop and imagine that God is singing it to you. Wherever you are, whoever you are. God is longing for you.

Then, take that love out and share it with others. Be a blessing for everyone you meet. Live each day knowing you are part of something greater.

Because all God wants for Christmas is you!

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Pastors feel the pain as churches hit ‘another low point’ in American culture

(Photo/Max-Leonhard von Schaper/Creative Commons)


Research once again shows that confidence in organized religion remains at all-time lows.

But what the numbers don’t reveal is the toll that the erosion of reputation and relevance has had on churches and ministers throughout the decline. It’s often described as an astonishing and disturbing experience.

“In the early part of my ministry you could go up to a door and introduce yourself as a pastor and you would get a cordial reception,” said Charles Updike, pastor emeritus at First Baptist Church in Glendale, California.

“Today in some neighborhoods of LA you’re asked, ‘why are you coming here?’ or ‘why do you want to pray for me?’” said Updike, who was ordained in 1973.

But it’s not just Los Angeles. A recent Gallup survey reports that respect for churches and other religious organizations has reached “another low point” across the U.S.

“Americans’ confidence in the church or organized religion continues to erode,” Gallup said in a summary of the survey conducted earlier this year. Only 36 percent of respondents reported having either “a great deal” or “quite a lot’ of confidence in faith groups.

The research also looked at other institutions, finding the church in sixth place behind the military, small business, police, the presidency and the U.S. Supreme Court.

That wasn’t always the case. Confidence in churches and other religious institutions reigned supreme from 1973 to 1985. The televangelist scandals of the 1980s and the Catholic sexual abuse revelations of the early 2000s eroded that trust, Gallup said.

“Since then, in 2018 and 2019, Americans’ confidence in religion has been below the 40% mark.”

‘We have blurred the lines’

But that shift in attitudes wasn’t limited to those outside the church, said Danny West, professor of preaching and pastoral studies at the Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity and previously a senior pastor ordained in 1979.

Danny West

West recalled a church he led in the 1990s where attendance began to dip as members had competing priorities, including youth travel sports teams, on Sunday mornings.

“They were much more affluent and had lots of opportunities to be gone – and they were,” he added. “That was a wake-up call to me that church was not as important.”

The trend stood in stark contrast to his own experiences growing up and even to the earlier part of his career.

“It was then I began to notice church was not as important to people as I imagined it would have been.”

Televangelist and sexual abuse scandals clearly have taken their toll, West said, but so did the “Baptist wars” within the Southern Baptist Convention and the church effort to cater to an ever-pluralistic society.

Changes in worship, embracing politics and watering down theology and Christology have served only to confuse a wider population that needs a clear, hopeful message from the church, he said.

“We have blurred the lines between the sacred and the secular virtually to the point where the two are indistinguishable,” he said.

Legalism hasn’t helped, either.

“Too often we worship the god of the (church) constitution and bylaws.”

‘The culture is more skeptical’

Grief was often present as clergy and church status diminished, said Ronald “Dee” Vaughan, who served as a chaplain and a youth minister before becoming a senior pastor in 1982.

Growing up in the church and attending seminary in the era he did provided no warning that change was coming.

“One thing I remember from my early days was the assumption of credibility” that came with ministry, said Vaughan, the pastor at St. Andrews Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ronald “Dee” Vaughan

“There was a basic feeling that you are a pretty good person if you are in ministry, that you are probably someone working for the good in people’s lives.”

That meant most first-time encounters with people were positive.

“While that is still sometimes true, I run into more situations now where the response is neutral or negative,” he said.

In part, the dim view people have of churches, and by extension ministers, is reflective of attitudes Americans have toward institutions in general.

“The culture is more skeptical of anyone who has any kind of authority,” he said. “There is an overall skepticism in our culture.”

‘More and more marginalized’

Yet, many Christians are in denial about those changes, said Robert Creech, professor of pastoral leadership at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas.

Creech previously served as a lead pastor after finishing seminary in 1976.

Throughout the decline some clergy and congregations have perceived themselves as a mistreated majority rather than an increasingly marginalized minority.

Robert Creech

“We think we have a lot larger market share of people’s loyalty and confidence than we really do,” he said.

Suspecting that was the case in the late 1980s, Creech led a group from his Houston congregation to ask local residents about the churches in their neighborhood. The results were startling.

“We might as well have been Buddhist temples – we were not on their radar,” Creech recalled. “Had I said ‘name three donut shops’ they would have done better. We were not in their field of vision.”

Nowadays, seminarians are being prepared for these realities, he said. This includes learning how to handle sexual abuse allegations and how be a minister in a society that doesn’t trust organized religion.

“It doesn’t mean you’re a trusted person, anymore,” he said. “You have to earn that confidence in the congregation as well as in the community.”

‘I can handle it myself’

Charles Updike

But even that is hard to do in a society that’s become increasingly unaware of the church, Updike said.

He witnessed that development as computers, the internet and social media dominated not only American culture, but church culture.

Meanwhile, trends such as destination weddings and the ability to parse scripture-without-context from apps has led many Americans to seek to do the tasks once associated with ministers and churches – such as weddings and funerals.

“What I’ve seen is a shift away from letting church handle it or letting clergy handle it to ‘I can handle it myself,’” Updike said.



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I decided to make a list: 20 actions to cultivate hope – Mary Hix


Mary HixLast Advent, in the midst of a family crisis, I did not feel hopeful. More like cynical and terrified, actually. But I wanted to find a way to practice or cultivate hope as part of Advent. Is it possible to practice hope when despair seems easier or more realistic?

Turns out there is a good bit of research about the importance of hope. Hope is NOT positive thinking, but changing my mindset was foundational in cultivating hope. Paul claims in Romans 5:4 that hope is the final good that comes from the character that suffering can produce. Huh? Character produces hope?

If character is doing and thinking the right things, even in the midst of terrible circumstances or deep fear, then perhaps undertaking specific actions could foster hope. Maybe this was worth a try.

I came up with a list of items and asked my family to help me stay accountable in practicing hope. I wrote down a list of action steps on the glass of the French door by the breakfast table. We each chose an item every day to practice and agreed to talk about our experiences.

This activity didn’t eliminate my fear, but I did feel hopeful that I was doing something. Maybe I could tweak my feelings. Maybe I could experience Advent in a new way. Maybe I could lighten my darkness. Maybe I could celebrate the coming of the Light of the World with a new appreciation for both light and darkness.

Maybe you can, too.

  1. Read a positive story about someone helping others.
  2. Call a friend who is hopeful or will make you laugh.
  3. Do something kind for a stranger.
  4. Give a compliment to every coworker today.
  5. Think of a different thing you are grateful for at every stoplight or stop sign.
  6. Journal about ways God has helped you in the past.
  7. Reframe one automatic pessimistic thought about a specific situation or person.
  8. Write a positive post card or note to someone.
  9. Reconnect with nature by taking a short walk, watching the clouds, listening to the birds, counting the stars.
  10. Adopt a positive breath prayer in the form of a simple, memorable phrase or sentence, and say it 10 to 20 times throughout the day.
    A few examples:  My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.  The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.   Abba, I belong to you.   Holy One, heal me.   I am God’s beloved child.   Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
  11. Decide on one goal for 2020. Write it down and think about action steps for that goal.
  12. Watch a funny cat or dog video on YouTube – really!
  13. Pray a sentence prayer all day for someone else.
  14. Visualize a happy image, place or situation for 30 seconds.
  15. Keep a list of all the positive things that happened today.
  16. Fast from TV, radio, or Internet news.
  17. Make Romans 15:13 your prayer just before sleep.
    May the God of hope fill me with all joy and peace as I trust in him, so that I may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  18. Engage in conversations about what gives people hope and what practices cultivate hope.
  19. Plant a winter bulb that will bloom inside and watch it grow.
  20. Tell someone a specific prayer need and ask them to pray for you.

A year later, my family crisis has passed. But in a world that seems dangerously out of control, I have other compelling reasons to commit to cultivating hope. Maybe you do, too. After all, as Paul points out in Romans 5:5, “hope does not disappoint.”

May we all find the truth of the power of hope during this Advent and throughout the coming year.



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The Simple Gift of Attention an Antidote to Abstraction – Gregg Jarrell

On a Tuesday afternoon, Dave knocked on the door. His weathered face was covered in tears, his head held low. Dave is gruff even on his most pleasant days, always edges and elbows. This day, the sharpness was gone.

“I’ve hit bottom today,” he told me. “I’ve lived a rough 50-some years, and this day is the day I’m ready for it to come to an end.”

His head drooped lower. The dusty porch floor caught his tears. Between his sighs, he kept talking; the series of misfortunes, still piling up, had all collapsed into a single Tuesday afternoon. I just sat there, useless except to provide cool water and a snack.

And two ears.

Dave laughed at one point. He was holding the children’s book that was on the table next to him, which he had been reading while I was in the kitchen. Johnny Appleseed. He read me a page that tickled him. “That’s the first time I’ve laughed in weeks,” he said.

Concerned for him, and knowing my own limitations – I’m a pastor, not a mental health professional – I offered to take Dave to a crisis center where they could help him get reconnected with himself and treat any physiological or chemical issues before he returned home on his own. When we arrived, we walked in together and exchanged a hug. I watched as he shuffled behind a nurse, down the hallway and into a treatment room.

“Our attention is especially rich when lavished on those whom the world ignores.”

None of my actions was remarkable in any way. I just sat down and paid attention. And yet I’m aware of how rare attention is in this wired world. Attention is a gift, but I often withhold it, usually for reasons I cannot explain. That afternoon on my porch was an exception to the way I usually move about on my block.

I know I am not alone in this. The world constantly trains us into distraction. Buzzing, noise, notifications. “How’s that book?” my wife asks sarcastically, seeing the book lying open, face-down on the table as I stare at my mobile phone. Reading for a few minutes is not simple. It requires conscious effort – silencing gadgets, quieting children, hiding from the basket of clean laundry that needs folding. It is easier to drown in the distractions.

Sustained, uninterrupted attention is an unusual gift, both to ourselves and to others. It may be the thing that saves us. The moment of pure attention contains within it the possibility of a future worth having.

”Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace. It is the seed of a revolution, a break from the fantasies of distraction and the alienations of rumination. Our attention is especially rich when lavished on those whom the world ignores. It makes us active creators of the world we want to live in, the one of justice and equity and beauty.

“An antidote – maybe the antidote – to abstraction and alienation is to return to the tangible: neighbor, porch, story; park bench, stranger, song; table, bread, wine.”

The future we long for begins in the present – often on a porch, or maybe a park bench or perhaps around a kitchen table. Along the way, true attention touches every place. It especially touches those places where the concentration of wealth and power have isolated people from themselves and one another. In those places, neighbors are an abstraction at best, and enemies at worst.

Culture and policy begin to reflect the impulse against neighborliness as the powerful exert their will through political and economic institutions and willful blindness. The current trajectory of the United States, moving headlong toward human rights atrocities, is fueled by the abstraction of neighbors. In the soul deadened by excess, there are no stories worth hearing, no life that matters but your own. There is no porch, no park, no commons.

The only place that matters is the balance sheet. Nothing is sacred but money, nothing worth sustained attention but the making of it.

An antidote – maybe the antidote – to abstraction and alienation is to return to the tangible: neighbor, porch, story; park bench, stranger, song; table, bread, wine. Paying attention to the details of the person nearby does not fix everything, but we won’t fix anything without that sort of careful attention.

Dave came back a few days later. He is better for now, but he is still alone. In a crisis, a trained professional will help. But for the mundane days, the ones where discontent simmers without boiling over, where folks stumble from one distraction to the next, what Dave needs is not a professional but a neighbor.

I suspect that is what we all need. The best neighborhoods are the ones that help us to tell good stories about ourselves. They are the spaces where we pay close attention to the details – where the birds nest, how long the pothole repair took, when we last saw Miss Evelyn on her porch. Our lives get caught up in those places. We get rooted in them, and they sustain us.

Neighbors know you with a casual intimacy. They know your schedule, how you greet your kids when they get off the bus, what music you blast while cleaning the house, what color flowers you tend to plant. Those daily acts of noticing – of attention – make the world a bit more gentle. They help us to tell better stories about ourselves.

“The best neighborhoods are the ones that help us to tell good stories about ourselves.”

A good neighborhood makes it easier to find someone who can tell you about the goodness of your story on the days you cannot see it for yourself.

Without neighbors, and without the careful attention that a good neighborhood encourages, people don’t know how to tell their stories well. A human needs to be seen, to be heard, to have a voice to sing in harmony with. For that, we have stories, and we have porches.

We have the choice to listen, and to live in the way of peace.


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