Think And Let Think’s Top 10 – 2017

I started Think And Let Think a few years ago as a way to compile my thoughts, sermons, and devotionals. After starting at my first church in 2013 it became an easy way for parishioners to access the sermons from Sunday if they were unable to attend. Over the years the scope of the blog has grown far beyond the people I serve in the local church, and 2017 saw a tremendous increase in readership. Below are the 10 most popular posts from 2017.

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  1. Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

I preached exclusively from Romans during Lent. After reading through Barth’s Romans for the nth time, I felt like I needed to stay in the letter through a liturgical season and dragged my congregation along for the ride. This sermon was prompted by Paul’s reflections on Abraham’s righteousness and my contempt for the United Methodist Church’s slogan of open hearts, open minds, and open doors.

“We can have the perfect advertising campaign, with our slogan in big capital letters, but that does not redeem our sinful actions and behaviors. We might think we are righteous and that we are “color-blind” or “LGBTQ affirming” or “economically transparent” but we are nevertheless sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can even leave the church doors unlocked all week long, but we will still be broken and in need of God’s redeeming love.”

 

  1. God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

At the beginning of the year I preached through a series on Dumb Things Christians Say. One of the dumbest things Christians say on a regular basis is, “God Wont’ Give You More Than You Can Handle.” Oddly enough, it’s not true. This sermon works through the phrase and attempt to show that God doesn’t give us what we can handle, but that God helps us handle what we are given.

“Sometimes, we say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” because we don’t know what else to say. We encounter the shadow of suffering that is so suffocating we don’t know how to respond. So instead, we will that awful void with awful words. And we make God into a monster.”

 

  1. A Reminder For Those Attending Annual Conference

Annual Conference can be a time of great renewal and great cynicism. 2017 was no different. In the days leading up to the Virginia Annual Conference gathering I collected my thoughts in hopes that all of would remember that the church is primarily about God, and only secondarily about us.

“God is the one who first breathed life into John Wesley and sent him on a course that would forever reorient the fabric of the church. God is the one who breathed life into all of the churches of the Virginia Conference, who empowers the pastors to proclaim the Word from their respective pulpits, who shows up in the bread and in the cup at the table. God is the one who gathers us together for a time of holiness, who moves in the words we sing, who rests in the spaces between us when we worship, who calls us to serve the kingdom instead of serving ourselves.”

 

  1. The Mystery Of Marriage

I was privileged to preside over the wedding of one of my oldest friends this year and it prompted a wedding homily that gets at the heart of why getting married is such a strange act of faith.

“Love, the kind of love that will sustain your marriage, holy love, is Godly love. It is a love unlike anything else on this earth. It is beyond definition and explanation. It is deeper than the deepest ocean, and greater than the tallest mountain. It is sacrifice and resolution. It is compromise and dedication. The love that God has for you is the kind of love you are promising to one another and it is a mystery. It is only something you can figure out while you’re figuring it out.”

 

  1. The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

It took five years of full time ministry before I received my first piece of anonymous hate mail. Because it was anonymous and therefore could not have a dialogue with the individual, I wrote a reflection about their complaint in hopes they would one day see it.

“Christians in America have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, than it’s not worth our time and attention. In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.”

 

  1. Thoughts On The Cross Flag

In the days immediately following President Trump’s response to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, the lectionary reading was Psalm 25.5: “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” That week I found myself surrounded by conversations that had everything to do with politics, and nothing to do with God. And after reading the psalm, my thoughts on the Cross/Flag came flying out.

“It’s one thing for talking heads to ramble about the pros and cons of kneeling during the anthem but it’s another thing entirely when it comes to the realm of the church. These days the church seems to revolve around tweets from the White House more than the revealed Word of God. These days the church appears to spend more of it’s time debating the values of our country’s democracy than our Savior’s teachings and ethics. These days the church seems to believe that our salvation will come from Congress more than from Jesus Christ.”

 

  1. Ten Things I Learned From My First Week At A New Church

I moved from St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA to Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA this year. It was my first pastoral reappointment and after finishing my first week at the new church, I put together a list of ten things I learned.

“Like being surprised, it’s important to remember that something will go wrong. On my first Sunday at St. John’s I completely forgot to give the offering plates to the ushers and they just stood by the altar patiently waiting until one of the choir members waved her hands to get my attention. For my first Sunday at Cokesbury we didn’t have anyone to play music. The long time organist retired the day before I arrived and the back up players were either out of town or don’t know how to read music. So instead of singing along to an organ or a piano or a guitar we did everything acapella and (thanks be to God) we made it through the service.”

 

  1. What Things?

After announcing to the church in Staunton that I was being appointed somewhere else, I discovered a tremendous freedom in my preaching (because like it or not, they were only stuck with me for a finite period of time). After reading the lectionary text for the week, Luke 24.13-19 (The Walk to Emmaus), I felt like the time had come to address a pertinent controversy in the community; naming the local High School after Robert E. Lee.

“We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.”

 

  1. God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It

Another sermon from the series about “Dumb Things Christians Say.” This one was based on “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” with thoughts on church bathrooms, women speaking in church, and caring for refugees. (This one got me in some trouble)

“People have used this book, with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward people of different religions. It has been used to incite fear and terror in those who do not believe. It has been used as a weapon again and again and again. And now we, the people of God, join together to say “no more!””

 

  1. On Not Looking Like A Pastor

I, apparently, don’t look, sound, or act like a pastor. And I think this is a good thing.

“We, Christians and Pastors alike, are more than how the world portrays us. We are broken people who are in need of grace. We are faithful people filled with the joy of the Spirit. We are hopeful people who believe the church is the better place God has made in the world. So I am grateful for not appearing like a pastor. I am grateful because I believe it will help me help others to see what the grace of God has done for me.”

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The Gospel In 4 Verses

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 1st Sunday after Christmas [Year B] (Isaiah 61.10-62.3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4.4-7, Luke 2.22-40). Our conversation covers a range of topics including what gifts we should offer to Jesus, The Bachelor, incarnational theology, the importance of sermon titles, and how to keep the joy of Christmas in Christmastide. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel In 4 Verses

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An Old-Fashioned Christmas

Isaiah 9.2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

           Merry Christmas! There’s just something different about Christmas. No matter how young or old we may be, no matter what kind of year precedes this night, Christmas Eve never fails to brighten our spirits. I look forward to this night unlike any other night with a kind of joyful anxiety: I know this holiday carries with it more meaning than can be contained in any sermon, and yet to share the story of the incarnation is one of my greatest privileges.

But there is a question I must ask: Why are you here tonight? Some of you were raised in this church and can’t imagine being anywhere else. Some of you have come alone, and others are with large families taking up an entire pew. Some of you have been planning to be in this place at this time for weeks, and some of you decided to come on a last minute impulse. Some of you have been dragged here against your will, out of loyalty or guilt. And some of you are here perhaps for the very first time.

Some of you are young and full of hope and anticipation; most of your Christmases are still in front of you. Some of you who are older are filled with memories of Christmases past that will never come again. Some of you are looking forward to getting back to the presents and the trees, and some of you dread going home. So hear this: whoever you are, and whatever you’re feeling, I’m glad you’re here.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

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I ask a lot of questions, it comes with the job. But around this time of year I tend to ask the same question over and over: “What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?” And the funny thing is, people have the hardest time answering. And not because they have so many gifts with which that have to weigh out and evaluate their answer, but because they just can’t remember.

For instance, can any of you remember what you opened three years ago on Christmas morning? What about last year?

Of course, there’s a better question to ask: “What’s one of your most beloved Christmas memories?” People can answer that one, and the response is almost always about spending time with a particular person; a beloved spouse, or child, or grandmother, or friend.

That’s what we remember most about Christmases past, the people we spend time with. It’s all we have to give to another, it’s all we really want to receive, and it’s what God gives to us.

Not a present under a tree, not a trite response to a prayerful need. God gives himself to us at Christmas.

There’s just something about Christmas that’s different. And there’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned Christmas. Do you know what I mean? A Christmas where all the kids actually showed up, all the presents were wrapped in time, there were no iPhones to distract us from conversations, no drones to charge before their first flight. Old-fashioned Christmases were all about the family, and the singing of carols, and feeling the warmth of the fire.

My father grew up in Germany, and his most vivid memories of old Christmases were waiting to see what would happen to the Christmas tree. Because unlike our contemporary trees filled with pre-lit LED lights that can do more than a stage production, his Christmas trees were covered in real candles. And on every Christmas Eve every candle would be painstakingly lit, and my father would sit there, like any young child would, waiting for the whole thing to catch on fire.

An old-fashioned Christmas.

There’s a church in our community that worships in a new building, but they still have the original sanctuary on the property. And all year long it just stands there off in the corner like the forgotten island of misfit toys, until Christmas Eve when they open the doors, brush off the dust, light the kerosene lanterns and have an old-fashioned Christmas service. That was the case, until a few years ago when they forgot to open a window, and the kerosene lamps sucked up all the oxygen and parishioners started passing out left and right.

But a real old-fashioned Christmas, which is to say a biblical Christmas, is altogether different. The strange new world of scripture opens up for us a scene where kings rage and wickedness rules the day, where the threat of taxation forces young couples to retreat to the comfort of their parents’ homes, and countries who think of themselves as the very best have forgotten the very least.

            You know, completely unlike today.

It’s strange how Christmas, at least the version we encounter at the mall, becomes a dream. We escape into the Christmases of the past, falsely assuming they held a tinge of perfection. But in the bible, Christmas is no dream; it is reality. And it is one that begins in the dark.

The darkness – evil, sin, suffering, distress, destruction – they are very much part of the world, even if we’re made to believe they are absent during Christmas. We live in a time of war, violence, anger, and wrongful use of power. And the darkness is not just out there, beyond the comfort of the sanctuary, it is very much here as well. The darkness of family fights, disease and death, aging parents, rebellious children, fear and guilt, loneliness, and shame.

And we have to take the darkness seriously, even when we’d rather not. We take the darkness seriously because Isaiah certainly did, because darkness is very much part of our experience, and because darkness is what the light of Christ makes it’s way into.

This time of year challenges us to search for meaning. I mean, every bad Hallmark channel movie struggles to define the reason for this season, but the closest we can get to the meaning of Christmas is right here in Isaiah: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Light is how we experience the presence of God, the arrival of grace, mercy, and peace. Light shines in the darkness.

That’s why we always end Christmas Eve worship with the lighting of candles. It is a strange and beautiful thing because it begins in the dark!

Our candles, as a witness to the one Christ candle, burn as a promise, a pledge, and perhaps as an act of defiance. Our flickering candles are what the life of faith look like as it resists the evil temptations of the world.

It looks like our faith because it is fragile.

Our flames are as fragile as a new baby born into the worst circumstances.

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But new life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

It is a strange, subversive, and dynamic way to change the world. It runs counter to all our assumptions of what it means to hold power. It is fragile like a flame, like a baby born in a manger, and like our faith can be at times.

But one flame, one baby, one faithful hope can be all that it takes to spark a rebellion that changes everything.

An old-fashioned Christmas is challenging because it is truer than all of the perfect manger scenes on our mantles and inflated on our front lawns. The incarnation of God is not some spiritual and mythical concept; it is very much the totality of God taking on flesh to enter this world of ours with all its agonies and joys, sorrows and splendor.

For a fleeting moment, we might experience a time where all is calm and all is bright while we are in this place holding our candles high. But we do so with the knowledge that the world still marvels at the darkness. So come to feast at this, Christ’s table, greet one another in the love that Christ offers us, and declare your defiance of the world’s expectations through the fragile flickering flame.

Because tonight, a night unlike any other night, we join together to wonder at the mystery of God’s power embodied in the fragile flesh of a newborn baby. Tonight, we join together as God’s light that shines in the darkness. Tonight we remember what an old-fashioned Christmas really looks like. Amen.

We Start With The End

Luke 1.46-55

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

There’s a grocery right around the corner from my house and I go there way too often. I’d like to blame it on the strange hours of church work, or my incredible cooking skills that sends me off looking for strange and rare ingredients, but honestly having a toddler requires visiting the grocery store with regularity.

I go enough to know when not to go. For instance: Sunday afternoons are the absolute worst. They are the worst because people like me remember all the things they forget to pick up earlier in the week and decide to go at the exact same time as everyone else.

And during the holiday season, it’s all the worse.

So, of course, it was on Sunday afternoon that I found myself at the grocery store with the always wonderful assortment of necessary items in my basket: baby wipes, chocolate morsels, and deodorant.

And I was not alone: every aisle was filled with families and individuals frantically seeking out all the items on their list. Some moved at a snail’s pace checking all of the nutritional values for every single item, while others were just swiping items into their carts indiscriminately. Like all stores around this season, there were older couples smiling at babies, young couples avoiding the babies, and babies crying at everyone.

I held my requisite items and dashed as quickly as I could to the “10 Items or Less” aisle which, of course, was filled with many people with way more than 10 items. And so, I practiced my Christian virtue, and I tried being patient and non-judgmental.

And that’s when the fight broke out.

Four people up from me in the line stood a young woman having just shoved the cashier across the conveyer belt. From my vantage point I could only make out brief words and lots of loud noises. There was some disagreement about payment, and then insults started flying, and then arms started moving, and the rest of us in line just stood there doing what we do best when we go to the grocery store: we distracted ourselves with the trite headlines on bad magazines, we glanced at our watches, and rechecked our email inboxes on our phones for the third time in a row.

Eventually, after the items had been sorted and the argument came to its conclusion with the manager stepping in, the young woman began weeping. “I’m just so hungry,” she said, “please let me take something.” And the cashier politely responded, “Ma’am, if we gave you something for free we’d have to give something to everybody.” And with that, they told her to leave or they’d call the police.

And we all stood there, doing nothing.

Today is the 4th, and final, Sunday of Advent. Some of you are here because you’re eagerly awaiting tonight and tomorrow morning, some of you are probably thinking more about what’s under the tree than what’s in store for worship, some of you are waiting in deep grief thinking about how all the best Christmases are behind you, and still yet some of you are here with the hope that you will receive a little more hope.

This is the day when the pre-Christmas frenzy is at its zenith. Many of you will rush out of church this morning to take care of all the remaining items on your list because Christmas hits us like a brick wall tomorrow. And it is at this precise moment, with all the fear and fervor, that we are treated to the voice of a poor young Jewish girl with a song of praise.

Mary sings her song in declaration of the new arrival of God made manifest in her womb. She not only accepts her call to bear God in the flesh, but also marvels at God’s amazing grace that will, and perhaps already has, come to fruition in the promise in her womb.

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Mary’s song, her Magnificat, begins by celebrating the greatness of God: among the entirety of the world, God chose to bestow God’s favor on Mary, a lowly servant of God. Then she proclaims God’s liberating compassion for the poor. She declares that God will flip the expectations of the world upside down, and that nothing will ever be the same. Mary identifies the God growing in her womb as the God who identifies with the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

And, at its best, Mary’s song is just another verse in God’s great song to humanity. A song that begins with “Let there be light” that transitions to “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” and finds its chorus in, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

But the tense has changed.

            In God’s initial covenant it is all about what will come to pass, but in Mary’s song, God has already acted and changed the cosmos, prior to Jesus’ birth.

Mary sings amidst a world suffering under oppression, and even though we are far removed from the days of Mary, things can look pretty grim these days as well.

I’ve come to find that because we know the story of Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem, the angels and shepherds, all of it so well, that it no longer shakes us the way that it once did. Instead of being rocked by the fulfilled promises of Mary’s Magnificat, we imagine Christmas as portrayed by little children wearing bed sheets and pipe cleaner angel wings.

But the story is as real as the person sitting next to you, and it demands our attention and reaction.

On the front of your bulletin you’ll find a modern Mary and Joseph.

I am almost positive that the image will offend most of us in church this morning. But, to be frank, if you’re here in worship on a Sunday morning that also falls on Christmas Eve, you’re probably the kind of Christian who can handle the offense.

The image shows Mary and Joseph as if they were waiting outside the 7-11 down the street from our church. And the attention to detail is what shakes me when I see the image: Mary wears a Nazareth High School hoodie, reminding us that she was truly a young woman. She wears an engagement ring around her finger, given to her by Jose, otherwise known as Joseph. There’s no vacancy at Dave’s City Motel (The city of David: Bethlehem). And Mary even rests under the star, though this one is neon and serves as an advertisement for an adult beverage.

This image might come across as upsetting, and if it does, it’s only because we’ve lost sight of how offensive the Christmas story really is: God chose these people to bring the incarnation into the world. God chose these people to right all the wrongs committed by the world. God chose Mary’s womb to start the story that ends with an empty tomb.

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I am not proud to admit that we all kept standing there while the woman in the grocery store ran away out of shame, fear, embarrassment, and hunger; a hunger that I will probably never know; a hunger that most of you will probably never experience. But I’m positive it’s a hunger that Mary knew.

Mary was the “least of these,” a phrase we throw around far too often without contemplation. She, in the midst of a frightening life, perhaps among the pangs of hunger, declared that in her womb was the coming change that would reverse the doom.

She, as the favored one, saw what would be accomplished by God’s promise before it even happened. She, like us, knew the end of the story. God’s story in Christ, in Mary, is offensive simply because it is so contrary to the world’s expectations, and even our own.

If we encountered the couple on the front of our bulletin, there’s a good chance that we would treat them the same way that others and I treated that woman at the grocery store: with indifference.

We’ve got our own problems to worry about: children to feed, presents to wrap, in-laws to impress. We haven’t got time to feed the hungry when we’ve got bills to pay. It’s hard to think about bringing down the mighty when we feel so powerless.

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s okay because this transformative work is God’s business. We get to participate in this work with God for sure, but in Mary’s song she rightly points away from herself to the one who is, was, and is to come:

            God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

            God has demonstrated his incredible strength.

            God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

            God has brought down the powerful from their thrones.

            God has lifted up the lowly.

            God has filled the hungry with good things.

            God has sent the rich away empty.

            And God did, and does, all of this in Christ Jesus, his Son, our Lord.

Like Mary, we start at the end. We read the Magnificat in the knowledge that the tomb will be empty. We hear Mary’s song as a triumphant declaration about how God changed, and changes, the world in the incarnation and the resurrection. In these words we experience the past, present, and future of God’s reign.

The great challenge of following Jesus is cultivating the ability, like Mary, to see God’s promises as already having come to pass. Such that, instead of ignoring the woman at the store, or the couple on the corner, we see them as intimately involved in God’s toppling of the powers and principalities; that, instead of accepting the status quo, we recognize how all of us are works in progress; that instead of passively accepting this song, we hear it for the controversy that it truly is.

Our God is scandalous. Our God chooses an old couple in Abraham and Sarah to mark the covenant between God and humanity, a couple we might relegate to a retirement home. Our God chooses a little shepherd boy named David to bring down the mighty Goliath, a boy we might chastise in church for being too loud. Our God chooses an unwed pregnant teenager to bring about the one who will lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty, a girl that we might judge from afar without offering assistance.

We are so steeped in the world of our own making that we forget how scandalous our God truly is. This season in particular has the capacity to bring out the very best, and the very worst in us. But Mary, in her remarkable song, reminds us that wealth and power have no ultimate influence in the realm of God’s kingdom. In fact, they are used to serve the lowly.

            That’s not a popular message to bear during Christmas, but it wasn’t popular during the time of Mary either. In fact, that’s the message that got Jesus killed. But, thanks be to God, we know that what started in the womb was also there in the empty tomb. Amen.

Q&A with Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass [Live]

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The Crackers & Grape Juice team recently hosted a live podcast event in Alexandria, VA where we invited Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass to offer their reflections about the first and second Advents. Tripp is the founder of Homebrewed Christianity which produces podcasts and publishes books and Diana is an author, speaker, and scholar specializing in American religion and culture. In the final part of the evening, we invited Tripp and Diana to respond to questions from the audience including: Why is the second Advent necessary? What about Advent is important for white people in a world full of racial inequality? and What’s right with the Church? Also – The episode ends with a Christmas sing-a-long led by Tripp… If you would like to listen to the live recording, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Diana Butler Bass & Tripp Fuller – Q&A [Live]

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Advent Longing [Live]

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The Crackers & Grape Juice team recently hosted a live podcast event in Alexandria, VA where we invited Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass to offer their reflections about the first and second Advents. In the second part of the evening, we invited Diana to join us at the front and she explored the the ramifications of announcing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the importance of the second Advent, human agency vs. divine agency, and how to teach children about the already but not yet of God’s Advent in Christ. Diana is an author, speaker, and scholar specializing in American religion and culture. If you would like to listen to the live recording, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Advent Longing

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Make Advent Great Again [Live]

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The Crackers & Grape Juice team recently hosted a live podcast event in Alexandria, VA where we invited Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass to offer their reflections about the first and second Advents. In the first part of the evening, we invited Tripp to join us at the front and he waxed lyrical about what its like to experience Advent from the pews (rather than the pulpit), the inherent politics of the season, the virgin birth, and how to teach children about this liturgical moment. Tripp is the founder of Homebrewed Christianity which produces podcasts and publishes books. If you would like to listen to the live recording, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Make Advent Great Again

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