Advent Wreath Lighting – Narrative Lectionary, Year 3

danielNovember 27 – First Sunday of Advent (Daniel 6:6-27)

One: Sometime we pray, facing an unknown fate.
Many: Sometimes we pray, facing an uncertain world.
One: Although he would soon be thrown to the lions, Daniel trusted in God.
Many: We hold that hope.
One: When life takes us to the dangerous edge, we face our own lions.
Many: We stay awake through the night, trying to tame depression, debt, job loss, addiction, broken relationships.
One: We draw our hope from God.
Many: And at dawn, the light comes again.
(Light the first candle.)
One: “God is rescuer and savior; God performs signs and miracles in heaven and on earth.” (Daniel 6:27a, CEB)
Many: Our living God gives hope.

December 4 –  Second Sunday of Advent (Joel 2:12-13, 28-29)

One: In a torn world, we wonder how to act with compassion.
Many: In our own lives, we wonder where to find harmony.
One: Even when we don’t agree on the details, we want the same thing.
Many: We all want peace.
One: Like people in exile, we feel displaced.
Many: We try to find our way in a world where we cannot find our familiar landmarks, forgetting to look to God first.
One: Without God, there is no peace.
Many: Even now, we can return to God.
(Light the first and second candles.)
One: “Return to the Lord your God, for God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” (Joel 2:13b, CEB))
Many: Our forgiving God brings peace.

December 11 –  Third Sunday of Advent (Isaiah 61:1-11)

One: In this season of gift-buying, it’s easy to confuse possessions with happiness.
Many: Sometimes we choose the material when we need the mystical.
One: Sometimes we hesitate to really feel it; we’re bound up in other worries.
Many: We could all use some joy.
One: We have turned avoidance into a kind of exile.
Many: Now it’s time to come together again, to bind up broken hearts together.
One: Get ready for good news of great joy.
Many: Let us celebrate God’s goodness.
(Light the first, second, and third candles.)
One: “I surely rejoice in the Lord; my heart is joyful because of my God.” (Isaiah 61:10a, CEB)
Many: Our loving God promises everlasting joy.

December 18 –  Fourth Sunday of Advent (Luke 1:26-49)

One: There are many kinds of love in this world:
Many: Between parents and children, with extended family, for friends we have known all our lives,
One: romance pressured by the season, and the selfless kindness of strangers.
Many: We’re all looking for love.
One: The angel called on Mary to bring God-with-us into the world, to love and nurture Jesus.
Many: The conversation started with, “Do not be afraid!”
One: O, make us brave to say it!
Many: Love requires courage.
(Light the first, second, third, and fourth candles.)
One: “Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.” (Luke 1:45, CEB)
Many: Our in-breaking God is love.

December 24 – Christmas Eve (Luke 2:1-14 and Psalm 96)

One: Our living God gives hope. (Light the first candle.)
Many: Our forgiving God brings peace. (Light the second candle.)
One: Our loving God promises everlasting joy. (Light the third candle.)
Many: Our in-breaking God is love. (Light the fourth candle.)
One: Now our waiting comes to an end.
Many: The time for rejoicing is here!
One: Sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Many: We will sing to the Lord! We will bless God’s holy name!
(Light the Christ candle.)
One: “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.” (Luke 2:10, CEB)
Many: Jesus Christ is born!

You are welcome to use these liturgies in weekly worship at your local church. Looking for a carol of response? Now It’s Time to Light the Candle includes Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love. These liturgies were created, and are copyrighted, by the Rev. Martha K. Spong, 2016, adapted from the Common English Bible. You are also free to modify them to your circumstances (using multiple or single readers, for instance). Please leave a comment to let me know where they will be used. You are also welcome to share the blog links. You will find readings to go with Revised Common Lectionary Year A here.

This does not constitute permission to publish the readings as a set or to claim credit for them online or in print. 

Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility (a review)

15078564_1839375349671916_6555493755310983457_nIn Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility (Chalice Press, 2016), Elizabeth Hagan opens her heart, describing with exquisite intimacy her excruciating feelings of biological failure, human disappointment and divine abandonment. The reader looking for support while living through infertility will find a friend who understands, and the friend looking for ways to offer support will find answers, in this warm and real account of the author’s attempts to have the baby she so dearly wants.

The paragraph above was the “blurb” or endorsement I wrote for this wonderful, touching new book. I had the privilege of reading parts of the manuscript in development as part of a writing group and to see the process Elizabeth went through in coming to her conclusions about what the experience of infertility really did in and for her life. She is forthright about how hard it was, about the devastation of failed attempts at IVF and the loss of pregnancies. Women who have been through such losses will recognize the emotional pain, sleepless nights, and strain on a marriage.

If the reader is a pastor, a medical professional, or a friend, Hagan gives you some guidance on how to be present and how not to make things worse. When friends and loved ones really come through, they are treasured. As Hagan told a seminary classmate:

“Making a baby has broken my heart deeper than I’ve ever known. But, at the same time, I’ve also felt more seen and loved by a few of you than I’ve ever imagined.”

I took a breath and went on, “So I’m thinking that sometimes the only way that real love can go deep down inside of us is for our heart to be cracked open. And through the pain, love has the room to seep into us and live.” (p. 57)

Hagan’s writing voice is much like her “in real life” persona: approachable, authentic, frank, and funny. This makes it all the harder to live through her grief as a reader, and all the more beautiful to see her work to make sense of her situation, medically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I highly recommend “Birthed” to women grappling with infertility, to doctors and nurses, to pastors and counselors, and to women who want to better understand how to be a friend and a support.

Listen to Hagan read from the book in this video posted on Instagram.


I received a digital copy of the manuscript for the purposes of writing the endorsement, and a copy of the book as a gift from the author.

“All Creation Waits” and “The Advent Coloring Calendar”

As a local church pastor, I love to share resources with my church members designed to enhance their experience of Advent as a season of preparation as opposed to a season of shopping. I want to take on some kind of practice myself, but as a pastor and a parent, I’m often stretched to the limit getting both church and family Christmas ready. Paraclete Press has two beautiful possibilities for those of us who like to work with a book as a spiritual practice, and I am excited to share them with you.

all-creation-waitsAll Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, by Gayle Boss (and illustrated by David G. Klein), offers meditations on wild animals and the way they live into the increasing darkness as winter approaches. Boss places the animals (from meadow vole to firefly to cottontail to bear) in their habitats and describes their seeming states of mind as well as the way their bodies have evolved to survive the encroaching cold. Each two page meditation serves to take the reader out of the everyday scramble of human life and into the natural world, deeper and deeper into the shortening days.

He should not be here. Not in the basement window well where he fell sometime in the night, sniffing out food. Not in Michigan, nor in any other state where winter temperatures sit below freezing many days in succession. We lift the opossum, held in the clasp of two rakes. When we open those gates and he quick-waddles into the woods, I bow to him, to the wonder of his survival.

Klein’s woodcuts detail the world of each animal, yet leave room for imagination. While this is not a children’s book, it is a book for many ages, and one a family could read together. The paper, as is characteristic for Paraclete, is gorgeous, making this a book that feels good in the hand. We are all waiting for Jesus to arrive, for God to break in, and this beautiful book is a fine companion for the season.

the-advent-coloring-calendarNow, if reading one more thing feels like too much, here is another option. The Advent Coloring Calendar features coloring pages for the 24 days of Advent, each with a brief word of seasonally appropriate scripture, as well as images for Christmas Day and several more that incorporate familiar carol verses. The book is available for single purchase but also comes packaged with two different recordings: Keeping Christmas: Beloved Carols and the Christmas Story (which includes scripture readings and features a traditional choir with organ) or The Coming of Christ: Gregorian Chant (less my cup of tea, but helpful for being less likely to cause me to get lost in singing along).

If you are a longtime devotee of Praying in Color, you’ll appreciate the quote from Sybil Macbeth, reminding us that coloring causes the “mind and the body to slow down.” Or maybe you are new to the idea of adult coloring books, which you will find for sale this year everywhere from Barnes & Noble to Urban Outfitters. While I always encouraged my children to color outside the lines, I find coloring inside them to be pleasing, relaxing, even comforting. Think of coloring as a mini-Advent retreat in a season when we are far too likely to be goal-oriented, whether it’s finding that iWatch or writing that sermon.

I received copies of both books and both CDs from Paraclete Press in exchange for an honest review.

In over my head (a prayer for pastors)

Sometimes I am in over my head, Holy One.
(This is one of those times.)

over-my-headI want to say a lot of things,
some which are more about me than is helpful,
some that will upset people I want to think are nice,
some that will piss off people I don’t mind pissing off,
until it’s actually time to do it.

Sometimes I am in over my head, Holy One.
(This is one of those times.)

We really need to talk about these things,
some that make us squirm in our seats,
some that break our hearts or disgust us,
some that will piss those people off, see above –
do I really need to do it?

Sometimes I am in over my head, Holy One.
(This is one of those times.)

Help me, Jesus, help me find the words,
some that express your righteous indignation,
some that inform the unwilling listeners,
some that get through to wall-builders,
because now’s past time to do it.

Sometimes I am in over my head.
This is one of those times, Holy One.

Please help.


Falling Upward

I picture it as a beautiful day when the disciples, those small town guys, stood outside the Temple in Jerusalem and admired its workmanship.

It wasn’t Jesus’s first visit to the big city, according to Luke, who tells a story of 12-year-old Jesus going with his parents to Jerusalem for one of the high holidays. On the way home, his parents assumed he was hanging out with the other kids, somewhere in the throng of people on the dusty road. When they realize he was nowhere to be found, they went back to Jerusalem and searched for him for three days. Three days! Imagine how distressed they must have been. Finally they discovered he had been at the Temple all along, talking to the priests, discussing the Holy Book with brilliance well beyond his years.

This visit is different. This time the priests do not admire him. He’s turned over the tables in the Temple, one of the stories that finds its way into all the gospels. He arrives at the Temple and he absolutely goes off when he sees how his Father’s house is being used and misused.

This time they not only don’t like him. They decide he needs to die.

The Temple was in the process of being rebuilt, a huge public works project under Herod’s rule. You might remember that this second Temple, built after the exile, never felt quite like the original in spirit, and certainly was less elaborate. Herod set out to create a legacy for himself by making it more elaborate. So it’s fancy new construction that the disciples admire, only to have Jesus tell them that it won’t last. And it’s not a huge leap to take him literally, because it was only about forty years later that the Temple his companions admired would be laid waste, never to be rebuilt.

Everything’s going to fall down sometime.

Whether they want to hear it or not, Jesus is warning his friends of the troubles about to come. They will be challenged after his death and have to testify to their faith. Their families no doubt disassociated from them, perhaps because of genuine disagreement, but maybe also just to keep themselves safe from political danger. The only hope he offers is that if we endure, we will gain our souls.

It’s important to note that Jesus spoke to the very particular situations of the people around him that day, but that he also speaks to us, so many years later. It’s happened to me, and probably to you, too. Life is going along on the accustomed path, and then without much warning, or perhaps with hints you missed and can only see in hindsight, everything goes smash. It can happen at work, or school, or in our relationships.

We’re all going to fall sometime.

If our faith really matters to us, if we are truly committed to the values that go hand in hand with our beliefs, then we will almost certainly face times when we will be on the unpopular side of arguments, when we will have to speak up for what we believe and identify ourselves with Jesus at great cost.

The cost was certainly great for Jesus, in human terms.

Next week’s gospel reading will find him on the cross.

We all going to fall down sometime. Even Jesus.

It’s the human experience, one he shared with us.

In his book, “Falling Upward,” the Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr writes,

“Failure and suffering are the great equalizers and levelers among humans. Success is just the opposite. Communities and commitment can form around suffering much more than around how wonderful or superior we are.” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 158)

Out of what looked like failure to the world’s eyes would come a movement following Jesus, a movement passed down to us over millennia, continually formed and reformed in the face of loss and death and endings, continually born into new expressions of faithful testimony and action.

I’ll be honest. When I planned ahead for this sermon I expected a different outcome for this week’s election. I worried about the aftermath, but I worried about a different set of people being upset and disappointed. Maybe the signs were there, as they should have been for the disciples, but I didn’t see them, or I didn’t want to see them.

Now I’m concerned about my family’s future, and for others who wonder if we will lose rights we gained so recently. At a medical appointment the other day I found myself stammering, hesitant to name my relationship to my wife. We’ve had to reassure our son that no change in a law can unmake our family. And maybe we’re catastrophizing; maybe there is nothing to worry about for us. But the same racism and misogyny I named in recent weeks has been on display for the past five days, making the world seem less safe for some of Will’s classmates. He’s worried about whether kids will bully his friend,

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the "wall of solidarity" sponsored by the United Minority Council. (
Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the “wall of solidarity” sponsored by the United Minority Council. (

Meyhar, and we’ve talked with him about sticking up for the students who fall into the category of “other,” labeled for their race or religion or national origin. It breaks my heart for children, for anyone, to be at risk simply for being who they are. You may have read the story about the racist messages sent to all the black freshman at Penn this week, and that is just one instance. For me this feels like the Temple falling down, the structure I built around my beliefs that everyone could have a place in America.


Father Rohr says,

The genius of the gospel was that it included the problem inside the solution. The falling became the standing. The stumbling became the finding. The dying became the rising.  (Rohr, p. 159)

We all fall down sometime. Sometimes, even when we try not to, we mess it all up ourselves. It’s human to want some reassurance that everything will come out all right in the end, and this speech from Jesus that stirs up our anxieties gives us only an eternal hope. He doesn’t promise us our lives. He won’t get to keep his own.

Next week, you’re going to take a vote on the future of this church, and some of you already have ballots ready to return to be counted as absentee. One of the ideals of our congregational polity is the give and take that happens in the meeting itself, the noble principle that we give equal consideration to each speaker, letting each opinion be heard, and counting each vote equally. We reach our conclusions in our own ways. Maybe we’ve prayed long and hard about our decision – whether in church business or national politics – or maybe we go with our gut.

Up in Maine, the last community I served still has an annual Town Meeting where decisions are made. It can be scary to share our thoughts that way, right out in front of everybody, but in this case, it’s so important for discerning how you will vote in the end. That’s why there have been so many opportunities offered for conversation with the Consistory, in hopes that all voices will be heard, and there will be one more chance in the meeting itself. If you haven’t spoken, or feel worried about making your voice heard, remember that Jesus promised his disciples words and wisdom for the moment they would be most needed.

And if you get it wrong, well, we’re all going to fall sometime.

But don’t let people tell you falling down means everything comes to an end.

As Father Rohr puts it,

I fell many times relationally, professionally, emotionally, and physically in my life, but there was always a trampoline effect that allowed me to finally fall upward. No falling down was final, but actually contributed to the bounce! (Rohr, p. 158)

Believe me when I say this truth is hard-won for me right now. I haven’t come around to it through platitudes or sentiment. I’ve been down in the abyss having words with God this week, and I know it’s true God was right there with me because Christ has been in the abyss of hell himself.

I am disillusioned and disappointed and even distraught, yet I still believe this is the truth. We are people of the Good News. We are people of God’s Hope. We are people of Christ’s Resurrection.

So we do not despair.

We do the work of letting go, and the work of building up again, and the work of arguing with God, and the work of listening to God, which for most of us is a lot harder. We try, knowing another fall will come, another disappointment, another loss, but remembering that whatever happens, we are not alone. It’s the truth, even in the moments when we’ve fallen, and especially when we’re falling upward. In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.