Blog Space of Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D, pastor at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD

Monday, December 11, 2017

Advent Joy

Here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church we continue to travel through the Advent season. Last Sunday we lit a candle for peace and heard a message about John the Baptist, titled “Make A Straight Path.

On the upcoming third Sunday of Advent we light a candle for “Joy.” Advent 3 will also be the Sunday that the Sunday School children and the Mount Hebron Presbyterian youth present their annual Christmas pageant. This years program is titled “A Christmas Window” and invites us to consider some of the secular and religious traditions we associate with the season.

As a person who has been involved in more Christmas play rehearsals than he cares to mention, I can testify that one of the true miracles of Christmas is when the Nativity play actually turns out to be a great success!

Along with the Christmas play we will be receiving a Christmas Joy Offering. This is one of the annual opportunities for giving that is offered to us through the larger Presbyterian Church. The gifts we offer will be used to support Presbyterian-related racial ethnic schools and to provide critical financial assistance for Presbyterian Church workers who are passing through a time of need.

Despite all the good feelings that the season evokes, this time of year can be a difficult one to travel though if we have suffered loss during the year. Memories of loved ones, no longer with us, can really sap the joy out of our attempts at celebrating. Bereavement may not be the only sense of loss we feel. Life circumstances can change in both the public and private arena of our lives. Many are concerned with the current state of the life of our churches and with the combative atmosphere in the nation.

This year we have added to our opportunities for worship a Winter Solstice Service of Remembrance, that will take place in our sanctuary, 7:00 pm,on the evening of Thursday, December 21. This will be a time to light candles, listen to reflective music and readings and seek the comfort God offers, to lift us from any darkness we feel. Hopefully such a time will allow our often frayed and fragile hearts to recognize the joyful embrace of a God who promises to walk with us through the changing seasons of our lives.

Surely that is the message of every Christmas play. In Jesus Christ, God comes to where we are. He takes on all the vulnerability of being a human on this sometimes hostile and unfriendly planet. We see the One through whom the world was created being told that there was no room for Him to stay. We witness a revelation of glory that comes to a selection of working folk in the fields as well as to wise dignitaries from far off lands.

For some music, a beautiful version of the traditional carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” performed by Dan Fogelberg. As we light a candle of joy this coming Sunday let us pray that the light of God's love will penetrate the darkness of many hearts... including any difficult places that may exist in our own lives.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, December 4, 2017

Advent Peace

Last week here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church we lit a candle for hope and reflected on a message titled “Restore Us O God.” On the second Sunday of Advent we light a candle for “Peace.”

Our reading will be from Mark 1:1-8. The second gospel opens abruptly. No birth narrative. No childhood stories. After quoting Isaiah and briefly introducing “John the baptizer,” the reader is left expectantly hanging on to the hope that an even “more powerful” character is coming!

From these first verses we are well aware that Mark is telling us a story. We are at the “Beginning” of that account. His story will tell of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It will be “Good news.” In Rome such terms were used exclusively of the emperor. The emperor was a “Son of God” and his decrees alone were described as “Good news.” So begins the dramatic tale!

From John's mouth come the words of a great prophet who came before him. "In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:3-4)

This highway that John and Isaiah speak of is a highway towards peace. The people have strayed from the path of obedience and blessing and landed themselves in a desert like situation. Their lives are not being refreshed. Every step seems to be a struggle. Molehills have become mountains and valleys have become canyons that threaten to swallow them up.

“No more!” declare Isaiah and John. God is at work. Doing something new. Doing something unexpected. It was time to get with the program. It was time to “turn around” (or “repent” as John would phrase it.) And just so everybody knew that something awesome was taking place, John requests that you let him dunk you in the river and immerse you beneath the waters, to mark the fact that this was a time of “Good news” beginnings.

Neither John, nor Isaiah, are to be the One to fulfill the promise. They are just preparing the way. As John says, “I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." (Mark 1:8). During Advent, we prepare our hearts to follow the Christ. We hear Him described as “The Prince of Peace” prophesied from days of old.

We light a candle for peace and we pray, that in this world where “Peace” is still a dream to be fulfilled, our lives will manifest the peace that Jesus offers. Maybe during this season we will have the opportunity to sing that wonderful carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and reflect on Christ's birth, as we sing “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” Here is a gentle version of the carol performed by Sarah McLachlan from her album “Wintersong.”

Fears. Terrifying canyons to cross. Impossible mountains to climb. They can arise in all of our lives. So we pray that “The peace of God that passes all understanding will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Last Sunday we lit a candle for hope. This Sunday we light a candle for peace.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, November 27, 2017

Advent Hope

Last week, here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, we marked the end of the Christian Liturgical year with a sermon focusing on “Christ the King.” This Sunday we begin the New Liturgical Year, traveling towards Christmas, and celebrating the four Sundays of Advent. On December 3 @10:00 am we will be looking at verses from Psalm80:1-6,17-18 and meeting around a table laid with bread and wine.

Not long after Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern seaboard there was a story on the national news about a man in a Santa suit causing quite a stir on the streets of New York as he handed out $100 bills to people most impacted by that devastating Hurricane. When a news reporter asked him why he was doing it, he said “The ravages of the storm are not as strong as the hope in people’s spirit.” He knew that recovery from the hurricane was primarily about hope.

Advent, from the Latin word “adventus” meaning arrival, is the 4-week period prior to Christmas. It is a time to wonder about the great sacrifice that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, made for us by coming to earth as an infant. Scripture teaches us that He lived a perfect life, died a sacrificial death, and rose from the grave. One of the core beliefs of Christian faith is that because of His awesome death-defying love, all people are invited and welcomed into the family of God through their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

An advent wreath can be a teaching tool and a reminder for Christians of the true meaning of Christmas. Traditionally, the Advent wreath symbolizes the passage of the four weeks of Advent. It is typically a circular candle holder that holds five candles. During the season of Advent one candle on the wreath is lit each Sunday until all of the candles, including the fifth candle, are lit on Christmas Day.

Each candle customarily represents an aspect of the spiritual preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Most Advent wreaths use three colors of candles – purple, pink, and white. However, some may use blue in place of the purple. The first candle, often known as the “Prophecy Candle” or “Candle of Hope,” is lit to remind us that we can have hope, because God is faithful and will keep the promises made to us. Our hope comes from God!

In the biblical book of Romans Paul writes; “Isaiah says, ‘The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in Him.’ May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:12-13)

I like those words of the mysterious New York Santa in response to tragedy. “The ravages of the storm are not as strong as the hope in people’s spirit.” When the hope in our spirit is harnessed to our hope in God, hope truly can be a trans-formative experience. May “Hope” be a part of our advent journey as we travel towards our celebration of God's greatest gift.

For some music, a beautiful song of hope, composed by Michael Joncas; “On Eagles Wings.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, November 20, 2017

Christ The King

Here's hoping you are enjoying a blessed and fruitful Thanksgiving holiday. It is not only Thanksgiving, but this coming Sunday, for Christian traditions that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, it is “Christ the King” Sunday or (for United States observers) “Rule of Christ” Sunday. November 26 marks the end of the Liturgical year.

Last week at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church we finished up a series of sermons on Thessalonians with a message called “Blessed Assurance.” The reading for this coming Sunday is Matthew 25:31-46, a passage where a King is pictured as sorting out the righteous folk from the unrighteous ones, each group being characterized as being 'sheep' or 'goats.' The sheep are those who have both heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and acted upon it. The goats are those who have chosen to go their own way and failed to hear or respond to needs around them.

The message of the passage is plain. The validity of our claim to be Christ's followers is measured by our willingness to help those less fortunate than ourselves. This is the pattern we see in the life of Jesus, who teaches us that the commandments are summed up by “Loving God” and “Loving our Neighbor.”

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, the teaching of Jesus announces and illustrates the kingdom of God. God's kingdom does not function like a typical kingdom. God's divine reign has invaded the world and is described as “Good News!” especially to those on the fringes of society. This new rule welcomes those who have no status and seeks to serve others, rather than exploit them.

Jesus says to those who emulate His actions, that whenever they give food to the hungry, welcome a stranger, clothe the naked, or visit the sick or imprisoned, they are acting in kindness towards Him. Jesus identified with the “least of these” because He had walked in their shoes.

He offers this parable as His ministry on earth is about to reach a close. He is about to face His betrayal, trial and crucifixion. This parable is His way of saying; “You know all that other stuff I told you? Well it is important. But the REALLY important thing is that you care for each other, and particularly care for those members of your community who are not able to help themselves.”

As during this Thanksgiving time we give thanks to God for the many blessings we have received, let us be mindful of those less fortunate than ourselves and seek to respond to the needs of others in ways that reflect the love and grace God has offered to us in Jesus Christ.

We read in this parable the response of the King to those who practice compassion. The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me'” (Matthew 25:40.)

For some music; a song by Tim Hughes called “God of Justice (We must Go).

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, November 6, 2017

Blessed Assurance

 “Blessed Assurance” is the title of a hymn first published in 1873 which was composed by the multi-talented Fanny J. Crosby. It is still regularly sung in services across the denominational spectrum and has made it's way into numerous hymnals. She was one of the most prolific hymn composers in history, writing more than 8,000 hymns and gospel songs, despite being blind from shortly after birth. Aside from religious songs, she composed over 1000 folk songs, political anthems and a few Cantatas.

She was also known for her teaching and her rescue mission work, being associated with the Bowery Mission in New York for over thirty years. She was the first woman to speak in the United States Senate when she read a poem addressing the need for support for those who suffered from blindness. This was one of over a thousand poems she composed, many of which focused on nationalist or political themes.

On the first Sunday in November here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church we took as our theme “Thou art Worthy.” On Sunday 12 we welcome lay preacher Ledonia W. Kimball to our pulpit. 

Sunday November 19 we'll be singing a Fanny J Crosby hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” as we conclude a series of sermons on Paul's first letter to the church in Thessalonica. Our focus that day will be 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, a passage that speaks a lot about the future blessings of those who trust in God and of a time when all things will be well.

It appears that teaching about the “Second Coming of Christ” had caused some in the church to give up trying to make things work out in the present. Because they were a church going through hard times, some took the attitude that they would just sit it out, waiting for Jesus to return and sort everything out.

Paul, while not denying that the “Day of the Lord” would arrive, reminds them that such an event would come unexpectedly and take everybody by complete surprise. He teaches them to make their priority encouraging each other in the faith and getting on with the task of a mission, not to hunker down and wait for God to declare “Game Over.”

The hymn, “Blessed Assurance” is firmly rooted in the vision of a future kingdom in which the reign of Christ is perfectly experienced. Crosby writes, “I in my Savior am happy and blest, Watching and waiting, looking above, Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.” If you examine the life that lay behind those words you will be well aware that this was no deceleration of escapism or a shield from life's troubles and challenges.

The chorus declares “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.” For Fanny Crosby that meant seeing every day as an opportunity for service and sharing the blessings of God's Kingdom with others. She lived to the grand old age of 94. Her family erected a very small tombstone at her request which carried the simple words: “Aunt Fanny: She hath done what she could.

It truly is amazing what God can do through the lives of those who seek only to do God's will. May the lives of such faithful people inspire us to make God's love our own story and song!

As this recording from “Jeremy Riddle” demonstrates, the songs of Fanny Crosby such as “Blessed Assurance” are still being reinterpreted and sung today as songs of inspiration and blessing.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Thou Art Worthy

In recent decades there has been a change in many churches musical diet, from singing traditional hymns to using contemporary songs. But before that trend started, a genre of music known as “Choruses ” became popular among churches that described themselves as Pentecostal or Charismatic. “Choruses” were scripture based songs, set to worshipful melodies, that would be repeated two, three, or more times.

I recall attending a small Pentecostal church in the late 1970's and enthusiastically singing choruses such as “Great is the Lord,” “I will enter His gates with thanksgiving in my heart” and “This is the Day.” Some moved along at a speedy tempo, didn't require you to pick up a hymnbook (so you could clap along) and stayed in your mind long after their singing had finished. Others were slower and more adoration focused, such as “Turn Your eyes Upon Jesus” and the song we'll be considering today; “Thou Art Worthy.”

Here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church we are continuing a series of sermons on “Thessalonian Songs,” linking church music to passages from Paul's letter. Last week we were using a campfire song, “Pass It On.”

This week we'll be using a worship chorus and looking at 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, in which Paul exhorts his readers to Live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory.”(v12). Paul links Christian conduct to living a worshipful life. The church in Thessalonica faced unbelievable problems, but rather than despair, he challenges them to make God their focus and overflow with thanksgiving as they responded to the initiative of love God had taken towards them in Jesus Christ.

Such is the theme of the short chorus, “Thou Art Worthy,” composed by a lady called Pauline Michael in which she puts to music words from Revelation 4:11;Thou art worthy, O Lord, To receive glory, glory and honor, for Thou hast created, hast all things created, Thou art worthy, O Lord.”

Pauline Michael was a lady well ahead of her time and wrote this chorus of worshipful expression at a time when such pieces were not readily accepted by those who held the keys of liturgy and worship publishing. She was born on October 13, 1898 in Portland, Indiana. When her mother was unable to make it to a funeral service to play the organ, she sent Pauline. That was her first experience, at age 12, of playing in public. She claimed her abilities were a gift of the Holy Spirit.

In 1940 she began to set scriptures to music. "Thou Art Worthy" came about when Pauline was traveling with her son on an Evangelistic tour. He asked the congregation to send up their favorite scripture and told them that his mother would write music to the song before the service was over. She did not know that he was going to do this!

By the end of the service the song had formed in her heart. Though many times at meetings she would sing the song, and it proved to be a great blessing, it would be another 25 years before it was ever published. It has now appeared in many volumes of hymns and songs and been translated into 16 languages. Pauline Michael passed away at the age of 94, on December 18, 1991.

Truly our God is worthy of all praise. This little gem of a chorus (and others like it) can inspire us to lay our lives before God and open our hearts to the influence of God's love! Here's a version from an album called “America's Favorite Praise And Worship” by the Brentwood Music Company. May it lift our hearts to focus away from ourselves and into God's presence.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Pass It On

It only takes a spark , To get a fire going
And soon all those around, Can warm up in its glowing
That's how it is with God's love, Once you've experienced it
You spread His love to everyone, You want to pass it on”
(Verse 1 “Pass It On” by Kurt Kaiser)

Last week at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church we began a sermon series with the title “Thessalonian Songs,” relating a Christian song or hymn to a passage from the First letter to the Thessalonians. Our first sermon looked at a hymn by Baltimore's own R. Kelso Carter, “Standing on the Promises.” 

This week we move on to consider 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 and I'll be referencing a more recent song, written by Kurt Kaiser, called “Pass It On.” The song first became known as part of a musical called “Tell It Like It Is” that Kurt co-wrote in 1969 with Ralph Carmichael. The late 1960s and 1970s saw the genesis of many Christian youth musicals, a genre that would be replicated on Broadway. In 1971, “Godspell” by Stephen Schwartz, and the rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Jesus Christ Superstar” became part of popular culture.

Many first discovered “Pass It On” when they attended a Christian Camp or Conference in their youth. It still functions as a popular guitar based folk song to sing around a roaring camp fire. This fits with Kurt's original intentions. 

He writes; "On a Sunday night I was sitting in our den by the fireplace where there were remnants of a fire, and it occurred to me that it only takes a spark to get a fire going . . . and the rest came very quickly. My wife suggested that I should say something about shouting it from mountain tops, and that ended up in the third verse. It only took about 20 minutes to write the lyrics. Afterwards my wife and I went for a walk, letting the song ruminate in our minds.

This song reflects the power of a simple idea set to a singable tune. Such songs take on a life that the composer never considered. Kurt says, "I am always amazed how the Lord can take a little song and use it to reach so many people. It has been sung at countless weddings and funerals, at ordination services, by the Sea of Galilee, in Rhodesia, on the aircraft carrier Enterprise... and lots of camps."

The church in Thessalonica was born in the midst of conflict. Things hadn't been easy for Paul when he first preached the gospel to them. When he left them, there were people who spread rumors that could have invalidated his ministry. There was a danger that the fire he had lit in their hearts was about to be quenched! Paul seeks to remind them of both the way he had acted while with them and points them to the core of the gospel message – the love of Jesus Christ. It was that love which he had proclaimed, and it was that same love that would sustain them in the future.

The spark to rekindle the fire in their hearts was his suggestion that if they focused on passing the love of God to others, through their words and actions, then everything else would fall into place. When we focus in on ourselves we easily become distracted. When we seek to enrich our communities through our gifts and talents, it offers our lives a new purpose and gives them a deeper meaning. I suspect Paul would agree with the third verse of Kurt's song:

I wish for you my friend, This happiness that I've found,
You can depend on Him, It matters not where you're bound,
I'll shout it from the mountain top, I want the world to know,
The Lord of love has come to me, I want to pass it on.”

For some music, a sing a long video from Brad Guldemond, "Pass It On."

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.