The Parson’s Handbook found online

From time to time, I consult Percy Dearmer‘s The Parson’s Handbook to test the standards of liturgical norms. I don’t always agree with him — little wonder as we come from very different places within Christianity — but you can’t fault him for his thoroughness and style. (To tell you the truth, I read it for pleasure, as I do travel guides and cookbooks.)

The book went through twelve editions in his lifetime, with a thirteenth (heavily altered, I gather) thereafter. Some are in the public domain, and I’m making a list below as a directory.

A new, favorite minister’s binder

So, ministers: how many of you, particularly in the free traditions, have your own “book” — often a three-ring binder — where you keep sermon and service texts, and perhaps a calendar and other flat items? (I keep Geneva bands in mine.)

I’ve written about this subject before and have bought several of these books myself but they tend to be utilitarian and covered in vinyl, and the best-looking of these are perversely the ones that fall apart the fastest.

Cloth-covered board and glazed paper covers are sometimes available. There’s one book I’ve had for years, with a textured surface looking more like leather, but made of paper; it’s falling apart, and no longer for public use.

A few weeks ago I found this binder from the Martha Stewart collection. I got it on Amazon for $6 and the red color seem suitably ecclesiastic. (There is also a teal version.)

The description wasn’t clear but it’s the same kind of pebbled paper that my old standby has and seems sturdy, if a bit stiff. I think it’s going to be a favorite.

New WordPress theme might be good for churches

There’s been a flood of new Bootstrap-y sites for churches made over the last couple of years, and I’m sure that’s the kind of thing that some other churches would want and cannot afford.

I’m looking at the new default business-minded WordPress theme — Twenty Seventeen — and it pushes some of the same buttons that those other sites push. Cutting edge design? Hardly? But it might what a church needs to refresh its look, and it has features that should make it easy to manage by non-pros.

For a week or so, I’ll have the default Twenty Seventeen theme up. (I’m not selling plants now.)

Christmas sermon, 2016

This is (almost) what I preached today at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. from the lessons from Titus and Luke.


I’d like to think Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me back into the pulpit this morning.

Merry Christmas to you all.

The Christmas story, as accounted in the Gospel of Luke, is so familiar that we might not hear the words. Even if you were not brought up in a church and are, say, under 50 years of age, there’s a good chance you learned this passage from Luke off television, from A Charlie Brown Christmas, in Linus’s staggering but guileless spotlight speech.

Mary and Joseph on to Bethlehem. No room in the inn. The manger. The angels and the shepherds: these are familiar and friendly.

But this year, it’s hard not to hear the words with renewed meaning, starting at the beginning of the passage from Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

This was no simple census. It was a foreign intrusion and assertion of power from Rome. Resented, sparking the political movement of Zealots we would meet later, in Jesus’ ministry. Judea, his home, was then administered from Syria, the eastern reach of the Roman Empire, and later united with it. The holy family were vulnerable, and then threatened under Herod’s murderous rage.

The name Syria leaps up from this passage. Aleppo, an ancient city, existed then under another name, so with our new focus on Aleppo, it’s possible to imagine how it was for Jesus’ family in those days, or others like them. The terror and the dying. The wanderings and hunger. Living just beyond the reach of help, but shaped by powerful forces.

That was a time in Judea of religious and political radicalization which ultimately led within a matter of decades to the end of the temple, a radical transformation of Judaism and the end of an independent Israel until living memory. I need not tell you the state of the world today In this telling, the gospel crashes into today.

But, apart from a historical curiosity, what does that show us? That there is suffering always? Are we stuck with endless violence and suffering. If so, what joy is there in Christmas then? Or, put another way, apart from the celebrating, what gospel is there in Christmas.

First, it’s worth owning that we have a lot invested in Christmas, perhaps too much, which has little to do with that first Christmas. Christmas today is a magical, mysterious, otherworldly, amazing, terrifying, bewildering and perplexing time of the year. Its power is palpable and recognizable. I can’t think of another religious holiday in the United States that is so easily made emotionally and socially available to all whatever their religious beliefs. In some ways it is an all-purpose celebration of goodness and hope and that should be available to everybody.

This, on its own, has religious value. As Christians, we should look towards that time that in both now and not-yet, when will we be whole and God will be all-in-all. As with the Lord’s Supper, we share our feasting and happiness in thanksgiving and preparation for that Heavenly Feast before us.

But Christmas is the foundation of an even greater hope, if we can move past the conventions of the telling — the peppermint and snow-flecked trimmings — we see the world around us is not what it seems. The Gospel of Christmas is the direction, pointing us on the way we should go.

We already know in our hearts that the world is not as it should be, as it must be. The soul craves a world refreshed and transformed, and we must bear witness to it. This is the source of true and lasting gladness.

In the passage from Paul’s letter to Titus, we learn to grow in confidence, knowing that our relationship to God is not from what we can provide God, but because of the relationship that God has initiated with us and which is manifested through Jesus’s life which we celebrate today, “we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

We have to remember that the Christmas story is not about one child who managed to attract God’s love and attention but as one child who leads us all back to God’s care. It’s also important how this happens.

The story itself is a story of a “reversal of Fortune”: a reversal of what is important.

Did God’s approved leader appear with strength and might, from a position of power, in a center of power to conquer? None of these happened.

Jesus was born to the Jewish nation, itself very small, and not in Rome, but far from the centers of power. And the promised savior appeared not as a political or military leader but as a newborn infant.

The hope of the ages is knowing that in our smallness, and our powerlessness, and our short lives, and that we might live richly and fully and yet without hurting or dominating one another.

(If you wonder why we gather in prayer the rest of the year, it’s to learn how.)

And yet we are not left alone. God dwells with us, another girt of Christmas. And so we live in hope, and with promises from God reflected in scripture and confirmed buy an inner voice of Truth.

If we are sad or distressed or perplexed or harassed, if we are troubled or menaced or persecuted or embarrassed remember that you are a child of the Living God and that God came to Earth to lead us through a child. And so we grow as children to adulthood with earnestness curiosity joyfulness and loving kindness.

So we celebrate Christmas, even if not in the conventional way. It’s not a prize for being good, but an orientation to how life should be, particularly when everything is going wrong.

The future does not belong to us. But it is before us. Let us approach it with a Christmas spirit: with kindness, love and boldness.

 

A “what I’d like” for order of service design

It’s not the most important thing in the world, but churches could do a better job with printed orders of service, which is keenly felt on Christmas Eve, when churches often get their largest congregations all year.

I’ve written about this over the years, and I’m far from convinced that that the two- or three-column theatrical program style is the best option, even when every last blessed word is printed out. (Such is the irony in too many Episcopal parishes, with an ignored prayerbook in the pew, and a veritable book published for each service.)  And there’s unlikely to be one solution that works everywhere. And, as before, it’s not the most pressing problem…

But, in any case, I’m always glad to see others join in.  Like David Schwartz, senior co-minister at First Unitarian, Chicago, a church with a long history of liturgical standard-raising, who presents the beginnings of order of service style guide. Good on him!

Read it on his own Tumblr blog. (Memory and Hope)

Need a Christmas hymn for your order of service? A song book?

Time again to point out the Open Hymnal Project, which has a special PDF booklet of public domain Christmas hymns, (direct link) and a ZIP (archive) file GIF (image) files of individual files that should make it easier for you to put individual hymns in an order of service, downloadable from the main page.

See this page for an index of available hymns, Christmas or not, from which you can download related files, including single PDFs and GIFs.

Publisher of universalist works has a sale

Wipf and Stock publishes more theological works that deal with issues of universal salvation (if not institutional Universalism) than anyone else — and probably on a scale unrivaled since the heyday of the Universalist Publishing House. (They have a wide-ranging catalog.)

So when I learned that they are having a sale — 30% off list and free media mail shipping — I said “yes, thank you.” I got The Renewal of All Things: An Alternative Missiology by Waldron Byron Scott, and All Set Free: How God is Revealed in Jesus and Why That is Really Good News by Matthew J. Distefano.

Looking forward to Christmas reading.

If your church needs a banner…

Counter to the prevailing opinion, I’m not a fan of church banners that highlight social or political issues — they seem to soak up the energy and capital that might be applied directly to the need — but if you do put one up, make it big and out of reach.

BLM banner on Church of the PilgrimsIn my neighborhood, at the Church of the Pilgrims (Presbyterian), Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. It just went up.