Advent Book Club: Week 1


Advent Book Club is using Almost Christmas: A Wesleyan Advent Experience by Magrey R. Devega, et al.

                Our time together will use each chapter of the book as a starting point for discussion, but may not flow exactly as each chapter of the book does. That’s OK. It’s really just a time to talk about our experiences throughout this season of hopeful anticipation while we await Christ coming in fulness and the celebration of Christ’s first coming.

                Almost Christmas uses John Wesley’s sermon “The Almost Christian” as a starting place for experiencing the themes of Advent: Peace, Hope, Love, and Joy. So a quick review of that sermon of Wesley’s is a good place to start our journey together.

                The sermon was preached on July 25, 1741 at St. Mary’s, Oxford University. It was not an Advent sermon, nor is there any indication of which I am aware that John Wesley observed the season of Advent. However, my heart gave a gleeful skip as I recalled the times I’ve experienced “Christmas in July,” often on July 25.

                “The Almost Christian” contrasted the “almost” Christian and the “altogether” Christian. In it, Wesley describes the almost Christian as living an outward life that seems indistinguishable from that of an altogether Christian. An almost Christian may attend services regularly, give tithes and offerings, receive the sacrament regularly, demonstrate kindness to others. The almost Christian is, indeed, a good person. However the almost Christian stops short of the true inward change that comes when Christ is truly Lord of one’s life. An altogether Christian, on the other hand, has surrendered themselves to Christ, and lives a life marked by love of God and neighbor, genuine faith in God’s love for them through the merits of Jesus Christ.

                “The Altogether Christian” has had some experience in life reflective of John Wesley’s Aldersgate Experience on May 24, 1738. During that heart-warming experience at a religious meeting on Aldersgate Street, London, Wesley describes a moment at which he felt his heart strangely warmed, and describes receiving an assurance that he describes in this way: “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

                Thus it would appear that in the sermon “The Almost Christian,” Wesley was contrasting the change wrought in his own heart and life that evening at Aldersgate with his live before having his heart warmed. Prior to that conversion experience, Wesley was in every was the picture of a true Christian. A clergyman, missionary, serving others, establishing and maintaining the “holy club” which challenged himself and others to live lives of piety and devotion to God and others. Yet following that May 1738 experience, Wesley’s ministry more than flourished, as he preached with renewed passion, and established a system of radical accountability through small bands of 8 to 10 persons who meet regularly to confess their failings and receive support and prayer from one another.

                This system which was intended to lead to revival and reformation withing The Church of England, and lead to the eventual formation of The Methodist Church here in the United States.

The first question from Wesley for this Advent experience (taken from Almost Christmas, introduction, page 9): Do I practice justice, mercy, and truth as even the world requires?

We will reflect more on that question and this week’s chapter, “Altogether Peace” throughout the week.

Thanks for being here. I look forward to engaging in our Advent Experience together.

Advent 2022

During Advent this year I will be reading Almost Christmas: A Wesleyan Advent Experience, by Magrey deVega and others. I will post my thoughts on this page each week. If you’d like to follow along, the book is available at Cokesbury, Amazon, and other retailers. I found the lowest cost at Cokesbury. Our church book club will be meeting on Thursdays, and the posts will be available weekly beginning December 1.

Hope to “see” you around during Advent!


This morning I sewed a button on my shirt. Actually, I replaced a broken button (now that I’ve written that, I’m not sure it’s more impressive). And it is the third button I’ve replaced since I found my sewing kit a few weeks ago (Yeah, really sounding less and less impressive with each keystroke). I can assure you, that button is not going anywhere. Unless, of course, it breaks again (well, I guess it would be the first time for that particular button, but I digress).

I think I should start every day by doing some task that is not particularly difficult but provides a sense of accomplishment. Sure, I could have worn the shirt with the half button, hoping no one would notice, or that they’d assume the button broke after I put on the shirt. But instead, I took a few minutes to replace the broken button, and am far prouder of that accomplishment than I should be.

While I was sewing on the button, I had a flashback to elementary school. It would have been third grade or earlier, because I still liked school then. That day we were learning about sewing. I’m pretty sure we had cardboard with holes punched in it, yarn, a rather large dull needle, and several items to attach to the cardboard by sewing. None of that is the important part of the story. I clearly recall one of my classmates saying, “Sewing is for sissies. I’m not going to do this. Men don’t need to sew.” The teacher, a superhero – as is every teacher I know – very patiently explained that sewing is a skill that everyone should acquire (though she probably used more 3rd grade friendly language). My classmate said, “I’m not going to need any of that sissy stuff. I’m going to be an Army man!” The teacher didn’t miss a beat, “Oh, you’re going to be in the Army?” “Yes, I am!” he proudly stated. “Do you think you’ll be good at it?” she asked. “I’ll be the best Army man ever!” “Are you going to be one of the lower ranking soldiers who does whatever he is told?” she continued. “I’m going to be the best Army man. I’m going to be in charge.” “Well,” she said, “are you going to be one of those soldiers who has a lot of stripes on his sleeve?” “I’m going to have stripes from here to here!” he replied, indicating that his stripes would go from his shoulder all the way to his elbow. “And just who do you think is going to sew those stripes onto your sleeve for you?” she asked. He thought about it for a moment, and then picked up his cardboard, yarn, and needle, and began sewing cardboard buttons on his cardboard shirt.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, but to all those teachers who take a few minutes every day to help a kid learn something important: thanks. And you are not just teaching that troublesome kid. You are teaching everyone in the room. So, Ms. Bradbury, wherever you are, thanks for your patience fifty-ish years ago. I’ve graduated from cardboard, have sewn on a few stripes, and can still manage a button or two when I set my mind to it.

If you ain’t the big dog…

I have two dogs, one weighs about 10 pounds, the other about 80. My affectionate nicknames for them are “Little Dog” and “Big Dog” because I am nothing if not creative. When I feed them, I put their food bowls as far apart as possible, because Little Dog thinks all the food is his, and doesn’t want to share with Big Dog. She calmly ignores him as he snarls at her, or she surrenders the bowl from which she is eating, and goes to the other bowl to continue, which starts the process all over again. Sometimes I intervene and try to make him leave her alone, but it is the most exercise they get all day. The rest of the time they are buddies, they even cuddle together while they nap the day away.

Yesterday, I watched what felt like the death of the church I love. Well, I watched until I wept, and then I looked away (more about that later). This morning as Little Dog tried to claim all the morning food, I was reminded of what looked rather like a dog-fight in the closing hours of the General Conference. I know it is not a perfect analogy, but there were some on both sides, who, like Little Dog, didn’t seem to believe there was a place for the Other. And the extremes seemed to do a lot of “Othering.”

Here’s the thing. It felt like the death of the church not just because I don’t agree with the decisions made, but because of the way I saw people treating one another. Little Dog has more in common with us than I like to admit. So when I began to weep, I looked away.

Last night at Disciple Bible Study, while finishing up the Gospel according to Luke, I focused on the Resurrection story, but this morning I went back to re-read the part about the Cross. “And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” (Luke 23:48-49). I may have always read that wrong, I make a lot of mistakes, but I’ve always seen that “…at a distance” part as meaning the closest followers of Jesus watched the crucifixion from a distance, maybe even a “safe” distance. And if yesterday we did indeed crucify those on the margins, those who have been displaced from their families, friends, society, and now the church, I’ve got wonder if watching from a safe distance, and looking away when it got painful for me, is really the best place to stand.

And here’s the real clincher, this morning Big Dog seems better at following the example of our Lord than I am. When confronted, she doesn’t engage in the conflict. She lets Little Dog snarl his little heart out, and often, lets him have his way. But with one flick of her tail, she could sweep him away; with one of her paws, she could send him tumbling; she could easily fit half of him in her mouth and end his incessant barking and howling. But she doesn’t. She puts aside her self-interest for him.

And as the old Gospel song says, “He could have called ten-thousand angels…” but Christ didn’t. “He died alone for you and me.”

I have recently claimed what turns out to be a mashup of two churches’ mission statements as my own, “Loving all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ.” And it’s a catchy phrase, but as I Re-Think Church this morning, I realize I can’t do that from a safe distance.

A friend has been part of a ministry that helps people escape the sex trade in a major metropolitan area (Wow, I really cleaned that up. What I mean is, she helps prostitutes escape from slavery). It’s messy work. She befriends people many of us would cross the street to avoid and she loves them unconditionally. She doesn’t judge them. She sees them as beloved children of God, helps them with basic needs, provides health care, and sometimes, gives them a safe place to stay if and when they are ready to begin a new life. That is “loving people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ.” She receives death threats from those who make their money selling the bodies of the marginalized, but she marches right up to that cross time after time and continues her mission of loving people. And a surprising number of those people she loves left home, or were kicked out, because they are LGBTQ+ persons. Their community, their family, their church told them they were not worth loving, and with no where else to turn, ended up enslaved and again vilified.

So when someone asks me, “Who won at general conference?” My answer has to be, “NO ONE.” We doubled down on discrimination and exclusion, and like Little Dog, can’t conceive that there is enough for all. I don’t know what will happen in the church over the coming months, other than that I will log off of twitter until May of 2020 for the next go-around. The plan which passed has been referred to the Judicial Council, the Supreme Court of the United Methodist Church, who have already declared much of the plan incompatible with the Church Constitution. But today, I want to love ALL people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. And if they don’t love me back, well, at least I’ll be a few steps closer to the Cross.


Happy New Year!

My resolution for the new year is to not make any resolutions this year. You see, in years past, I’ve spent a few minutes in the waning days of the year to set down some goals for the next year. Lose weight, keep a journal, read, exercise. And sometimes I’d also take some really simple steps toward those goals. Buy running shoes, enroll in a weight loss program, join a gym…read a book about running or cycling or weight loss, and feel as if I was off to a good start. And then I’d begin to make excuses: “January 1 is a holiday so that day doesn’t count.” “I’ve still got 363 more days, no need to rush into this thing.” “It’s too late to start this month, I’ll wait until February 1.” Followed by, “I’ll rerun my New Years resolutions as Lenten Disciplines.” And before I knew it, I’d have worn out my new running shoes by wearing them every day, will have read a few pages of a dozen books, and will be no closer to any of those goals, and feel…well…defeated.

For years I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression. They are frequent companions on my journey through life. And the setting of resolutions and subsequent failure at reaching them give my companions weapons they use against me. “I knew you wouldn’t actually get out and run this year.” “You wasted the money on that bicycle, idiot.” And so on.

The funny thing is, for the first few days after setting those resolutions, I’d actually feel as if I had made progress toward reaching the goals. I bought the shoes, opened the book, wrote the first page of the journal, pumped up the tires on the bike, walked around the block. And probably the most fulfilling, told people about all that I would accomplish in the coming year! And they’re good friends, so when they would see me, they’d ask, “How’s the __________ going? What progress have you made?” And I’d either have to pretend I was succeeding, or admit defeat. Both of which added to my shame, and made it less likely that I’d actually succeed at whatever goal I’d set.

So this year I’m not resolving to do anything. I have no plans to rush out to buy new running shoes, or add to the exercise equipment that already gathers dust in my house and garage. I won’t grow my self-help library by purchasing a few more books I’ll never finish.

Nope. This year is resolution free, well except for that one about not resolving… Instead I will take each day as it comes. I will enjoy time with friends without worrying about what they’ll ask. I will read the books that appeal to me without checking to see if they bring me closer to my goals. I will enjoy the outdoor activities that bring me joy. I will love God, my family, and my neighbor, and will seek to love all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

And in 365 days, I won’t pull out a scorecard to see how I’ve done.

“…while we were still sexist…”

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we should pray; but the Spirit pleads for us with groans and sighs that express what words cannot. And the One who searches hearts knows what the Spirit is thinking, because the Spirit pleads for God’s people according to God’s will. -Romans 8:26-27 (my translation)

“Love one another just as I have loved you,” John 15:12b (also mine, but pretty much just like everyone else’s)

But God’s love is demonstrated toward us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. -Romans 5:8 (yup, this one too)

This week, I don’t know how to pray. So, I’m trusting the Spirit to plead on my behalf with groans and sighs that express what words cannot.

I love The United Methodist Church. When my family and I were searching for a faith home, we were welcomed with open hearts and open doors – and maybe even open minds. I know the UMC isn’t perfect, but I’ve held on to the hope that we are going on toward perfection.

Earlier this week, I learned that 2 of the 5 amendments to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church approved at the 2016 General Conference failed to be ratified by vote of the annual conferences. Many, myself included, reacted with dismay. Particularly regarding that first amendment – the one which would have clearly stated that both men and women are made in the image of God and are of equal value in the eyes of God. This amendment acknowledged the long history of discrimination against women and girls and pledged that The United Methodist Church would work with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of women’s and girls’ equality and well-being.

Women have always been a vital part of my spiritual development, both within The United Methodist Church and the church of my youth. My earliest experiences of God were guided by women, both clergy and lay. A clergy woman was instrumental in the ritual of dedication when I was an infant (that’s not really a Methodist thing). That same clergy woman’s influence was felt throughout my youth and as a young adult.

Women taught me in Sunday School, led my youth choir, and encouraged me throughout my early formation as a disciple. When I became a United Methodist, it was a woman layperson who first encouraged me to inquire about candidacy for ministry. It was from a clergy woman that I sought guidance as I started down the road to ministry. Clergy woman have encouraged me, mentored me, guided me, and helped shape me in ministry.

More times than I can count, when I was ready to throw in the towel and give up on this calling, it was women – both clergy and lay – who encouraged me to continue. Women have demonstrated courage, tenacity, and an inner strength that continues to make me want to be a better person.

Former Texas Governor Ann Richards once quipped, “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels” (Cut me a little slack. I know she attributed the line to others). That about sums up the status of women in our church and society. They’ve had to overcome obstacles I’ll never face just to have a seat at the table. And once at the table, must excel just to receive the same recognition I get for showing up. It’s not right. It’s not fair. And the amendment was a step toward justice.

So, I’m disappointed. Nope. I’m angry. I’m angry that people I love have been – and will continue to be – hurt by the Church that I love. I’m angry that I have been complicit in hurting them. And I’m absolutely amazed that around the globe on Sunday morning, my clergy sisters will stand in the pulpits of the churches they serve and proclaim the grace of God to the 66 percent who expressed their support AND to the 34ish percent who did not.

And Church, I’ve got to tell you the truth. We need to listen. Because we need the leadership of the women in our midst. To be honest, when someone slaps me in the face, I leave. I take what I bring to the table and try to find someone, some setting, some place, that appreciates it. But these dynamic women leaders in our Church? They’re stronger than I’ve ever been. And I – no WE – need to learn from them. They can teach us how to love, forgive, and serve – even when that love is not reciprocated, when forgiveness is not asked, and service is unappreciated.

Want to know what Jesus meant when he said to “Love one another just as I have loved you”? He meant love with our actions even when we don’t feel like it. He meant to give of ourselves, even to those who don’t appreciate it and especially to those who don’t deserve it. He meant to set aside our own desires and work for the good of those around us. Need an example of what that looks like? Look toward the women who lead our churches.

And then I’m asking you to do something. Right now. Don’t wait until later. If you’ve read this far, right this minute make a list. Seriously. Right. Now. On your phone, computer, a scrap of paper, a napkin, in the steam on the shower door, whatever you’ve got. Make a list of women who have contributed to your faith development. Those who have mentored, encouraged, guided, taught, befriended, equipped, or otherwise loved you. Drop what you’re doing and pray for them. Then grab a phone, a box of cards, your email account, or a carrier pigeon, and thank them. I know. It’s a long list. Start now. Thank them and pray for them.

You might even offer to buy them a cup of coffee.

I’m not here to argue. Remember, I’m the one who gives up when I get argued with. Whether you voted (or would have voted) yea or nay doesn’t matter right now. Some woman has invested in your life. And if she’s in my tribe, we just told her she wasn’t valued. That may not be what we meant, but that’s what she heard. So, take time right now to at least start the list, and pick one name from it.Thank. Her. Right. Now. And then get to the rest. You’ve got the rest of your life to finish, but since none of us know how long that really is, sooner is better than later.

Why? Because God’s love is demonstrated toward us in this: while we were still sexist, women gave of their lives for us. It’s time.