Posted by: rickcarter | December 23, 2016

Celebrating the Future Through Christmas

The meaning of Christmas keeps shifting as I go through life. For a large portion of my life, the focus of Christmas was the gifts. As a child, I was happy about Jesus, but happier about what lay under the tree. By late adolescence, I knew the gifts were less important than the Gift, but I still couldn’t imagine celebrating Christmas without getting some nice stuff.

In adulthood, the giving of gifts took prominence. Creative (inexpensive) gifts for my young bride, followed a few years later by the delight in provoking squeals of excitement for our sons.

Then came my mid-life crisis. I asked my entire extended family to please not give me any presents for Christmas, so that I could focus instead on the real meaning of the day. That didn’t work too well, as my mother insisted that I not deprive her of the joy of giving, and as other family members felt awkward at receiving gifts from me without returning the love.

However, a few years after my failed attempt at a present-free Christmas, that is pretty much what I have. Various family members have agreed to end the reciprocal gift exercise, and Becky and I sometimes gift each other with an experience rather than something to unwrap. Last Christmas morning, one wrapped present waited for me under the tree.

I should be happy. This is what I wanted, to break free from a preoccupation with gifts. What I found, instead, is that the absence of gifts does not necessarily free me to observe the spiritual heart of Christmas.

Who is less obsessed with material things, the rich or the poor? At either extreme, one can be preoccupied with getting and having. So it is for me with Christmas. Both the surfeit of gifts in earlier years and my recent, determined deprivation have an equal result: fixation with gifts. The dogged pursuit of a gift-free Christmas has not led automatically to a rich, substitute experience. Too many years focused on gifts: getting, then giving, and then not getting; too few years creating an alternate reality.

Nevertheless, an alternate reality is slowly forming, and it turns out that deprivation was the necessary catalyst. Getting the gifts out of the way helped, but other forms of deprivation moved me closer to the goal. The inevitable diminishment of life – health changes, loss of loved ones, dreams quietly set aside – forces a reevaluation of the shimmering excess of Christmas. Though in recent years I railed against that shimmering excess, now I am learning to see it differently, positively.

A friend of mine wrote about being overwhelmed this year, while decorating her house for Christmas, at the losses and disappointments she has suffered. The incongruity of glistening ornaments in a house of sadness was inescapable. Except. . . my friend knows an alternate reality, and I have every confidence that she will reframe those lustrous adornments as beacons pointing to a coming day.

I am discovering that the superabundance of Christmas is more satisfying when it is redirected toward the future. Put up the tree, place the wreath, light candles, yes, and let the festive glow become the means for entering more intentionally into God’s grand, ongoing reclamation of the world, centering in the incarnation.

God’s salvation project is not yet completed, but its fulfillment is assured, which is why for me, the light and beauty of Christmas points forward, summoning hope. By all means, deck the halls. They are an insistent witness to God’s promise of a new world, brimming with vitality and devoid of tears.

Posted by: rickcarter | May 6, 2016

Faith Formation – Again

I could never have imagined that this late in my life I would be on a journey of discovery into our Christian faith that would bring startling new insights. I would have thought that after decades of study, teaching and preaching, I would have things pretty well nailed down, but the nails are popping up and the floorboards are loose.

Maybe it’s the result of being untethered to a congregation, where resorting to time-honored perspectives on the faith is reassuring to both speaker and hearer. Maybe it comes from ample time to read and study scholars outside my traditional frame of reference. Maybe it’s a backlog of questions that I now have the freedom to pursue, no matter where that pursuit may lead.

Whatever the reasons, it feels like I am in a major period of faith formation, which is odd for someone who just turned 65 and has finished a long pastoral career. The timing is all off. How can this be right, that we finally figure things out when we’re past the time when we can do much about it?

I have done very little preaching since retirement, but in April I preached four weeks straight at a nearby church. The sermons gave me an opportunity to see if all this study has brought only deconstruction. “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”

One of my texts was Acts 9, where Saul, after what he thought was a long obedience in the same direction, experienced profound disorientation through his encounter with the living Christ. Like Saul after his conversion, I am drawing on the old material, but it reads differently now. What a fascinating journey.

Posted by: rickcarter | March 7, 2014

Going for Broke

Either I was gutsy and prophetic or merely young and reckless. I am astonished at the bold statements in my sermons in my first months as a pastor. Reading through the manuscripts from my first year of preaching, one obvious conclusion is that upon ordination I immediately assumed the mantle of authority in the pulpit. Here is an excerpt from a sermon delivered only two months into my service with my first congregation.

“A lot of people have begun asking hard questions about where this church is going. I can’t promise that the Lord is not going to let this church die. The Lord is going to build his church in his own way. If the difficulties facing us look insurmountable, if it appears only a miracle could bring fresh life, if it seems there is no way we’re going to be able to make it as a church for too much longer, then that is just where God wants you to be: out over your head, where the risks are high, the chance of failure great, where you know only God could pull you through.”

That is frank talk on a magnitude of ten. What was going on? If I remember right, church members were telling their brand new pastor their genuine concern about the future. They had taken a risk in calling a twenty-five year-old, because they could see that theirs was a dwindling, aging congregation.

It appears that in this sermon I was putting the problem back in their hands. I was no messiah, and there was no guarantee that the Lord would turn things around. Instead, this was a moment to go for broke, to exercise maximum faith and entrust themselves fully to God.

That was 1976, a long time ago. When I recently read that old sermon, two things amazed me. One was the boldness of my approach, and the other was the continuity of message. Just last year at this time I wrote to the elders in my latest church almost the same challenge.

“I have no interest in serving as a chaplain, as merely a dispenser of pastoral services. I want to go with the group that is launching out into the deep water, who is ready to adopt the motto of William Carey, missionary to China: ‘Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.’ Any group that merely wants to escape difficulty and form a protective enclave is of no interest to me. . . This is why I urged the session to ask, . . . who are you, and what is God calling you to be? Are you being called to the safety of the shallow pool or to move out into the whitewater?”

For four decades now the American church has simultaneously worried about its future and resisted the bold strokes that would bring them there. Faith is a four-letter word: r-i-s-k. No one who has taken risky steps for God has regretted it. The discouragement and disappointment are found in those who played it safe.

Posted by: rickcarter | February 26, 2014

That 70s Religion

At first I thought I would make fun of my own past. I started out in ministry in the early 1970s, an era that is so far from present experience that it spawned a sitcom – That 70s Show – heavy on nostalgia among the Boomers and curiosity among younger viewers. Of course the show was a comedy: who could wear those crazy clothes with a straight face?

I’m in a reminiscing mood, taking a long view of my life and ministry. I assumed that whatever I was focused on in my early years – the 70s – would have very little connection with the concerns of today.

I pulled some of the old books from my shelves, blew the dust off the top, and browsed, expecting grist for humor, not unlike the 70s sitcom. Here I would find clichés and topics that were quaint but no longer important.

I also paged through the first year of sermons I preached as a beginning pastor in the mid-70s. I thought I could collect a page of overused expressions – “personal relationship,” “meaningful,” “relevant,” etc. – and poke fun at my earnest attempt to relate to the times.

Instead, to my considerable surprise I found that the themes and issues that captivated interest four decades ago remain urgent today. Here’s an illustration. In 1970 Bruce Larson and Ralph Osborne wrote a manifesto with the prescient title, The Emerging Church. With only a change of date, their opening paragraphs could be written today.

“When historians of the future look back at the 1970’s, they will doubtless see this as an era of chaotic change in the Church, a day of new beginnings, and a strange mixture of despair and hope, frustration and boldness, disillusionment and expectancy.

“Simply to read the chapter headings of books being written at this time is to note the confusion that marks the life of the Church today. For example, this is the day when the Church is. . .

“totally irrelevant”;
“rediscovering its mission”;
“as archaic as the furniture of our ecclesiastical past”;
“alive and pregnant with the hope of tomorrow.”

I am quite astonished to realize that four decades later, the church has merely moved further on the same trajectory of “despair and hope, frustration and boldness, disillusionment and expectancy.” It feels as though the stakes are higher today, as the church and its message garner less respect than when Larson and Osborne were appealing for a new way of being God’s people. Who would have thought that “that 70s religion” would still be “relevant” today?

Posted by: rickcarter | December 25, 2013

Propheting from Christmas

Pay attention to that title; it is intentionally misspelled. For three months now the economic news has focused on whether America’s sluggish economy will profit from “holiday” sales. Now, here we are. The stores are closed; the Day has arrived. On this one day, at least, we are relieved from reports about profiting from Christmas.

It’s a wonderful day, because it is the beginning of the great reversal. Imagine Christmas morning like this:
“He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

That is Mary’s vision of the arrival of her son, the Messiah: Christmas morning with surprises all around, unexpected relief and astonishing rejection.

If across our land this morning there were giggles of delight among those who anticipated a dreary Christmas and wails of lament from those who looked forward to cashing in on the big day, this would be a Christmas for the history books.

I don’t think that is what Mary intended, however. She foresees something grander than a Robin Hood Christmas. In her world the hungry were unjustly oppressed and the rich took callous advantage of the poor. Messiah comes to upend that, not by redistributing Christmas goodies but by asserting God’s reign over a world that defies God’s will.

Every prophetic announcement of the coming of the Messiah has an edge to it. Salvation is disruptive to entrenched patterns of evil and restorative to a world caught in evil’s spell. Zechariah echoed Mary’s song with a similar vision of God’s new day.

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

On this Christmas morning I want to catch the spirit of Christmas. The birth of Jesus is the dawn of a new era, with God’s light shining into dark places and showing our world a better way to live. Messiah will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” The way of peace is not a momentary lull in consumer madness, but the prophets’ vision of shalom: well-being, prosperity, and justice, with every heart turned toward God.

Ebenezer Scrooge got it. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family. . .”

Ah, at last: someone propheting from Christmas.

Posted by: rickcarter | December 17, 2013

Recycling My Life

It took me six days to clean out my office and bring everything home in boxes: thirty-seven years of accumulated books and files. It wasn’t simply a matter of carting it home. There were decisions to be made. What do I want to keep and what can I discard? This was the right time to downsize, because I have much less room at home for all that work-related material.

But beyond the matter of storage space was the deeply personal issue of vocation. I have been insisting that my decision to conclude my pastoral work was not an intention to be done with ministry. I will be a participant in the ministry of Christ for as long as I am able.

Nevertheless, there I was, rifling though file drawer after file drawer filled with articles, program ideas, seminar notes, reports, minutes, letters. With every piece of paper I had to ask, Will I possibly need this in the future? Because my future is still rather nebulous, I did not want to be too drastic in pitching stuff.

Then there was the memorabilia. Some of what I sorted through represented creative work that I am really proud of. It may hold little interest to others, but for me it captures the heart and soul I poured into my work. That stuff went home.

I filled ten grocery bags with papers to be recycled; I lugged home about forty boxes of books and files. The proportion of tossing and keeping is not an admirable balance, and the result at the moment is a basement floor overrun with stuff. I had made a good faith effort to reduce my holdings, but. . . this is hard.

Reviewing the paper trail of my pastoral ministry was an emotional journey. Through changing times and circumstances there were common themes, core elements of the Christian life that have animated me. In the process of sorting through my stuff I rediscovered who I am.

While I recycled lots of material I will never use again, the books and papers I brought home will be recycled in a far more promising way. I sense that my very life is being recycled. The hard won insights, the convictions steeled through life experience, the strong current of gospel passion that carries me forward, all are about to be recycled: not lost, not wasted, but re-employed.

Posted by: rickcarter | December 9, 2013

Sleeping in on Sunday

We didn’t intend to sleep in, but my alarm clock failed me on the first Sunday we were at home in this new condition called retirement. The church we intended to visit would have to wait for another week.

It turned out to be a delightful day. We followed a leisurely pace, enjoying a late breakfast, and then in early afternoon creating our own time of worship. As snow began to fall, we read a few scripture passages and then viewed online the magnificent sermon based on Philippians 2 by Mark Labberton. It was the inaugural message as he began as President of Fuller Seminary.

I have preached and taught many times about Sabbath. Pastors have to cobble together their own Sabbath time, since we are most definitely at work on Sunday mornings. Whether it is on Sunday or some other day, Sabbath includes rest, worship and play. The Westminster Confession adds two other aspects to Sabbath: acts of necessity, such as feeding your family, and acts of mercy. But the first three are the primary elements, because they direct us away from the concerns and obligations of the rest of the week.

So, it seems that the Lord granted a genuine Sabbath on my first day away from Sunday duties, and I appreciated every minute.

One thing was missing, however: community. Our worship at home was genuine, but two people can hardly replicate the experience of Christian community, or the valued exchange of talents and spiritual gifts that are mutually enriching.

As a pastor I wondered why certain people had a hard time getting out of their homes and into the worship service. Some, no doubt, found they needed the respite of Sabbath at home more than the upbuilding experience of congregational worship. Others found that sleeping in on Sunday became a hard habit to break. “But there is something to be gained by participating in worship with others that you cannot create on your own,” I would protest. I still believe that.

Bruce Main observes that “The problem with the traditional spiritual disciplines is that they can all be done in isolation – both privately and within groups – and simply reinforce what we want to believe. The problem with a spiritual life being exercised in isolation is that it allows people to grow without the perspective of others. . . We may ultimately experience a small fracture of what God wants for our lives, even with erroneous views going unchallenged. But ultimately our growth becomes biased, unbalanced and stunted.”*

Exactly, which is why I dare not allow sleeping in on Sunday to become routine.

* Bruce Main, Why Jesus Crossed the Road, pp. 7-8.

Posted by: rickcarter | November 24, 2013

Journey’s End

I have long been intrigued by the line commonly spoken at the succession of British monarchs: “The king is dead; long live the king.” There’s not even a pause. The investiture of the new king (or queen) immediately follows the death of the former, so that the nation is never without royal leadership.

But of course, no stiff upper lip can conceal the intense feelings among the subjects at the loss of their monarch. These leaders remain in power for decades. A period of mourning and reflection is called for. The efficient transfer of power may be necessary for public order, but the end of the known and the beginning of the unknown requires more than passing reflection.

I have reached one of those junctures, as I lead worship for the final time in the church I have served since January 1991. Moreover, after serving three churches in a row, I am concluding this long period of my life where for 37 years I have been known as a pastor. What lies ahead can await a future blog post. For now I am looking at the journey’s end.

One of the journeys, at least. The title of this web log, Journeys, expresses the idea that my life is not a single pursuit. On the page marked “About,” which now needs to be updated, I describe five simultaneous journeys. One of those journeys is ending, and it deserves thoughtful reflection.

In one respect, concluding the work at a particular church as the pastor is not an end at all. There is absolutely nothing finished. Just as every pastor ends each week with the overwhelming awareness of all that was left undone, so it must be when the pastor says goodbye to a congregation. At some point you just have to walk away.

In walking away, however, I will gain the distance to enable me to take stock. This was a journey led by our wise, sovereign God, who was simultaneously at work in me and in many others.

It is a quirk of the modern era that people strain to discover the meaning of their lives, or the meaning of one of the chapters in their story. Ask Jonathan Edwards the meaning of being kicked out of his church in Northampton and exiled to a lonely outpost in western Massachusetts, where he preached the gospel to the natives and the few settlers, and wrote the most brilliant theology America has produced. Ask him the meaning of being chosen to be President of Princeton, only to die two months after taking the position. He would look at us quizzically. “The meaning?”

“Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries,” the apostle Paul wrote. My journey as pastor was subsumed in a larger plan. For now, reaching the end of this particular journey, I am content to have been a servant and a steward.

Posted by: rickcarter | November 17, 2013

Which Way Does the Door Swing?

It is embarrassing and sometimes painful when we bam into a door that we were sure was hinged to allow a simple push to open. Hitting the door and quickly realizing it can only be opened in the other direction, we may look around to see if anyone caught sight of our folly. Right about then we notice there is no handle. Oh. . .

Most doors are designed to swing into the building. When you open your door at home to welcome guests inside, nearly always the door swings inward, allowing the guest to make an easy entrance. Mobile homes seem to be an exception, which makes for an awkward moment as the opening door nearly knocks the guest over.


Public buildings can fool us if we’re not careful. Sometimes it’s as simple as mistakenly pushing on the left door when “everyone knows” only the right door swings outward.


Which way does the church door swing? The traditional design features two wooden doors swinging out. Think about it: the doors open out toward the world. Today it’s not a matter of theology but of fire codes. Every public building must be designed for quick access in an emergency. Take your time coming in; pull on the door. But hit the door running if need be when you have to leave in a hurry.

There has been a lot of good conversation in the Christian community about hospitality, which stimulates our thinking about how to ease the transition when people make their way into the place where Christians gather. An unfortunate drawback to this focus on hospitality is that we can come to rely on people walking through the doorway to us.

We would do better to remember that the church door swings outward, drawing the followers of Jesus out to the settings where our cherished gospel can be proclaimed and demonstrated.

Posted by: rickcarter | November 10, 2013

Open the Door, Meet the Adversaries

One of the most fascinating statements in the Bible is the apostle Paul’s description of the new opportunity for ministry he was pursuing. “I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (I Corinthians 16:8-9).

What amazes me is that Paul brings together the effective work he will do with the adversaries he will face. He does not anticipate the coming work with dread because of the adversaries. He does not say, “but there are many adversaries;” he says “and.”

What’s more, when he writes about his venture after the fact, it is clear he got creamed. He writes about that episode, “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.” (II Corinthians 1:8)

Paul never expresses regret for having remained where a wide door for effective work was combined with many adversaries. I get the impression that danger and difficulty come with the territory for all who want to be on the leading edge of Christ’s mission to the world. Where the stakes are the highest, the power of God is the most evident.

Walter Brueggemann, a theologian and prolific writer, echoes Paul’s indomitable spirit in the face of daunting obstacles. Brueggemann believes that the changing environment for ministry in our day is an open door, if only Christians will follow God’s lead and depend on God’s Spirit.

“Everyone now agrees that we are at a new season in the life of the North American Church, a new season that is starkly different from what was but that has almost taken us by surprise. That new season of dislocation is surely to be seen as a profound challenge to the church. It is, moreover, widely felt, not without reason, to be an invitation for newness together that moves past old postures that predictably, perhaps inevitably, produced quarrels. The massive and unarguable dislocation of the conventional church may be an occasion for a common resubmission to the power of God’s spirit.” *

Is it possible that a wide door for effective work has opened for the American church and that there are many adversaries? If it is a package deal, will we sign up? I wonder if the very people we are being sent by God to meet are the adversaries themselves? Who wants to place a limit on what God can do in breaking through resistance through the power of the gospel?

Okay, I see that I just asked four questions, rapid fire. My answer is that adversity and opportunity are usually a package deal. If we can, to use Brueggemann’s words, reframe the “dislocation of the conventional church” as “an invitation for newness together,” maybe God will help us to see the obstacles before us as necessary conditions for Spirit-led, effective ministry.

* Walter Brueggemann, Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 29.

Older Posts »