SpiritStirrer

sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

Complicit: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ash Wednesday forces us to face our mortality. It reminds us that there is only one God and we are not! It invites us into self-reflection about how we miss the mark as individuals and as a community of faith. The purpose is not to shame us or to make us feel guilty, instead, it is to awaken us, to shake us from our apathy, and to invite us into a deeper relationship with God, self, and neighbor.

Today we witnessed the fruit of our bent to sinning. Another act of senseless violence has visited a school. A place that we think of as safe, life-giving, and alive became a place of violence, life-taking, and death. It is healthy to ask: How long O Lord?! It is healthy to pray, to seek for direction, to ask the difficult questions. It is healthy to recognize that we feel powerless in the face of such tragedy.

It is not healthy to ignore it, to not speak about all the implications, and it is not healthy to wash our hands of it. We must do the difficult work, for me, it centers around one question: How am I complicit in these acts of violence?

Each morning I sit and pray:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer 1979

Today I am wondering: What have I done that continues to perpetuate gun violence in our country, state, and city? What have I failed to do? What have I left undone?

These questions force me to identify my attachments. These are the attitudes, worldviews, understandings, positions, ethics, and beliefs that might keep me from living into God’s call to be a peace-maker in the world. God’s call to the recognition that violence is never the answer for all it does is breed more violence. What is holding me back from speaking, having conversations, and demand action? What do I fear?

I recognize that these are difficult issues. But with Oscár Romero I also recognize that:

I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.

As people of faith, we must begin to live into our discipleship more faithfully. We cannot continue to only pray but must act. We must have conversations together, we must stop our obsession with our own personal security and begin to ask how we can be agents for the common good. We must stop scapegoating the mentally ill and allowing our individualist culture to convince us that now is not the time.

What structures in our society make gun violence possible? What is the difference between assault weapons and other types of firearms? Why is talking about guns such an emotionally charged conversation? Are we as followers of Jesus called to support “gun culture? Why? How do we sustain better systems of mutual care in a pluralistic society? What conversations do we need to have in our churches, neighborhoods, and cities?

I have so many questions. I refrain from speaking at times like this because I am afraid, afraid of how many will get upset at me, afraid at any congregant leaving the church, afraid to be labeled anything but one who is attempting to follow Jesus, afraid to add fuel to the snarky fire in social media and in conversations.

On this Ash Wednesday though I realized that my biggest sin as it relates to the violence we experienced today was my silence. I realize that we must speak out, with tenderness, compassion, and listening ears, but also with courage and strength. I must be a pastor/prophet shining a light to our cultural structures that open the door to these heinous acts and to the violent structures around me, including in the church.

Today, I reflect, discern, and act. May God forgive me for empty prayers and for what I purposely leave “undone.”

Do This and Live: Part 3

SOC Image 3The Fuel for Our Mission: People, Facility, and Money
Three years ago I shared with you that there are three resources that fuel our calling: People (staff and all of you), Facilities, and Money. How are we doing? How do our resources reflect our becoming a growing movement?

People

Our average worship attendance has dropped 30% since I arrived in the summer of 2014. This number is surprising since everywhere I go in this city I hear people longing for a congregation like ours. A congregation that is open to all people, that is willing to struggle with the difficult issues of life, that it’s guiding ethos is the love of God and neighbor, no judgment just grace.

So if we want this kind of congregation to be here for decades to come and to make the difference that we feel called to make in this community on behalf of Jesus, all of us must become loud evangelist, confident storytellers, and loving inviters to the thousands of people that need connection to a community like ours.

This year we MUST grow, not so that we can brag about it, but so that we can fully live into our unique call in this city and beyond. So that we can model that a community of faith rooted in love of ALL people, in the messiness of life in diversity, and in living the way of Jesus in everyday life (the places where we live, work, and play) can be fruitful, sustainable, and shining light in a city like ours.

Our video ministry continues to grow. In 2017 we average 385 people per week who viewed us on livestream and/or recorded services. With our series When Christians Get it Wrong as the most watched of all time and with the most favorable marks of any of our series with people online.

In order to balance the budget, the congregation’s Leadership Team called upon our Staff-Parish Relations Committee (Personnel Committee) to reduce staff costs by $90,000. To that end the committee recommended and the Leadership Team approved the following changes:

  • Eliminate the Director of Discipleship & Missional Life position upon Pete Bollinger’s retirement.
  • Eliminate one of the custodial positions.
  • Eliminate the Rehearsal Director position; George Hancock is shifting to a more affordable Musician-in-Residence position.
  • Continue a freeze in current salary levels.
  • End the executive level Director of Worship Arts search and hire two part-time positions: Our new Director of Worship is Amber Dent and our new Director of Music is Mollie Corbett.
  • Thanks to the generosity of our Youth Parents, we have added Chris Bolin as our Youth Intern.

Thanks to the generosity of our Youth Parents we have added Chris Bolin as our Youth Intern.

I am excited to announce our 2018 Lay Leadership. These are the people that guide our congregation alongside our staff into Mission and Ministry. You can see our 2018 Leadership here.

Facilities

With our renovation, we will be more than ready to live into our call to welcome, love, and serve ALL people in our community. The new space will host us in this next season of our life together.

Money

Due to the struggles in attendance, we saw a decrease of $20,000 in our revenue towards the operating budget. This includes the $15,000 a month that we have lost on average since the flood.

Though I am disappointed about decreasing revenues I am also encouraged.

I am encouraged because you gave over $200,000 to initiatives outside the budget including the #restoregrace campaign that will allow us to remodel the sanctuary without incurring additional debt. I am encouraged because we had 160 Pledges (20 pledges more than last year!) with over 40 Pledges made online as late at December 29, 2017. More of you giving, more of you carrying us into the future with hope.

I am encouraged because our Finance Committee proposed a budget for 2018 of $940,000. This budget is true to our expected revenue, it is very fiscally conservative, and it places us in a stronger financial trajectory in the years to come. The changes in staffing allowed us to bring the staffing percentage against the budget within the sustainable margins of 64%. It is our hope that we continue increasing revenue without increasing our staff budget so that our percentage of the budget for staffing is no more than 60% by 2020.

(you can check out the 2018 Budget here.)

Some of you have asked about the resurfacing of the parking lot following our sinkholes from last fall. We need to raise another $100,000 for the Restore Grace Fund in order to pave the north parking lot from the Fire Station to the Prayer Garden.

It is not too late to go online and get your pledge in for 2018. When you give, ministry happens!

Do This And Live: No Judgement — Just GRACE!
In 2018 we are going to “Do This and Live!” We are going to reach the unchurched and de-churched, especially the ones who’s relationship with the church “is complicated,” we will reclaim our gift sets for narrative leadership, cutting-edge communication, and forming people in the way of Jesus. We will recall again our gifts for incarnational ministry — ministry in the mess, in the real, in the complexity of life, in the struggle, that pushes us to see neighbor where we are, as we continue in ministry to ALL people.

The question is can we reclaim our creativity, can we recall our ability to push the envelope, to be courageous, to take risks, to be mission minded and mission focus while continuing to be an exciting community!

This is us!! So this year we must live it fully, proudly, and engaged beyond us. We must become accountable to one another in our worship attendance, in our generosity towards our shared life, and in our engagement with the people that Jesus called us to be engaged in, with and for. The people next to us, our neighbors, our “kin” not because they live in our neighborhood but because they are fellow human, people in whom God’s image is seen.

Let’s do this and live!

Our place of worship filled with people as diverse as our city, no matter the color, creed, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity. Gathering because they want to worship God, to rehearse community, to be empowered to serve neighbor, to follow the way of Jesus.

Let’s do this and live!

We hosting conversations, inviting key thinkers, leaders, and partners to help us shape others in the ways of Jesus, in the ways of compassion, peace, and love in the midst of difference. To the ways, religion, faith, and community come together.

Let’s do this and live!

We helping our missional partners the Common Ground Community and University Elementary become places that sustainably enable their constituencies (our neighbors) to excellence, empowerment, and interdependence. Coming alongside these important institutions with curiosity about what God is doing in their neighborhoods, becoming participants in what God is already doing and what might emerge.

Let’s do this and live!

We becoming a greenhouse for Leaders in the way of Jesus. People who answer the call to lead congregations, who go into the international mission field, and who provide leadership to key institutions in our community (teachers, principals, healthcare, government, the list is endless). People loving God, self, and neighbor in their workplaces because we have modeled the way.

Let’s do this and live!

We being present in the many cultural and entertainment events in our city. We like Jesus attending the community celebrations, the places where the religious leaders would not enter. Zacchaeus’ house, wedding at Cana, Samaria, cemeteries, the wilderness, and the places where people of “ill repute” would hang out. We present in those places because that’s where Jesus would be found. We, there, with “no judgement, just Grace.” With water, listening ears, and purple t-shirts!

Let’s do this and live!

At each step of the way we finding life. Because when we do this we live!! Live more than ever before! Even in our failed attempts at it, we find new life, we are propelled into kinship.

The Spirit sailing like she did long ago at the beginning of time. The Spirit’s wings flashing like the sun, coming down, again and again, to remind us who we are, to empower us to be Christ in the world, the Spirit flying on through us, in us, around us, the Spirit calling, healing, and turning our mourning into dancing.

The Spirit healing our broken hearts, restoring our isolated souls, renewing our neighborliness (our relationships with fellow ones made in God’s image). The Spirit giving us a “fire under our bellies” for the Way of Jesus, no matter how difficult, for compassion in the midst of difference, and for the determination to be who we are with courage, boldness, and grit.

Come Holy Spirit! Come sailing,
Come Holy Spirit! Come with you song,
Come Holy Spirit! Come full of laughter,
Come Holy Spirit! Come wings unfurled,
Come Holy Spirit! Call us again, empowering us to be your people in the World!
Come Holy Spirit! We are ready!
Call us, empower us, Holy Spirit for we are ready to do this and live!

Do This and Live: Part 2

The Parable of the Good ______________.
Chapter ten of Luke begins with disciples, not twelve but 70, maybe 72, being sent out two by two to enact, rehearse, make known, God’s kingdom. Healings, and freeing from evil Spirits, hospitality, and the acceptance of it, knowing when to stay and knowing when to move on.

The effects of this are electric!! The disciples return pumped up, excited, transformed!

But just like in our lives and our day, there is always one who refuses to celebrate, the glass half-empty, the pessimist, the cranky . . . the one that wants to change the subject.

In this case, it was a teacher of the law, a lawyer, an expert in the meaning and application of Old Testament law.

What must I do to inherit life eternal (the ability to live/act/behave in ways that reflect the quality of God’s life/the characteristics of God today)?

Again Jesus is talking to one who would normally be the one that we would go to in order for this question to be answered.

What is written in the Law? What’s your take on it,? You’re the expert!

“You shall love—“love the Eternal One your God with everything you have: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind”d—and “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Luke 10:27 (The Voice Bible)

Yes, you are right, Do this and live! Do this habitually — as the Amplified Bible tells us — and live. Make it a natural response, like breathing, walking, and loving response to those that are closest to you.

We hear this story and finds ourselves at the edge of our seats. We too want to know, we too want to make sure that we are doing the right things.

So . . . one more thing Jesus, I just want to make sure that I understand, I want to make sure that I have not missed anything.

The scripture tells us that this religious one, this expert, this anal retentive keeper of the scriptural law, wanted to “justify, vindicate, himself,” He wanted to make himself feel better, he’s doing enough, right? I’m good, I’m ok, I have met the minimum requirements.

Who’s my neighbor? What do you think it means? Again, I just want to make sure.

The Greek word for “neighbor“ that the Gospel writer chooses is the word “plesíon” whose roots are in the concept of proximity, near to, side by side.

πλησίον – near one/neighbor/prójimo

Who is my “plesíon?” who is this “near one?” Is this a geographical context? (especially in an era where we live next to those most like us)

So Jesus tells him a story:

This fellow was traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho when some robbers mugged him. They took his clothes, beat him to a pulp, and left him naked and bleeding and in critical condition. By chance, a priest was going down that same road, and when he saw the wounded man, he crossed over to the other side and passed by. Then a Levite who was on his way to assist in the temple also came and saw the victim lying there, and he too kept his distance. Then a despised Samaritan journeyed by. When he saw the fellow, he felt compassion for him. The Samaritan went over to him, stopped the bleeding, applied some first aid, and put the poor fellow on his donkey. He brought the man to an inn and cared for him through the night.

The next day, the Samaritan took out some money—two days’ wages to be exact—and paid the innkeeper, saying, “Please take care of this fellow, and if this isn’t enough, I’ll repay you next time I pass through.”

Luke 10:30-35 (The Voice)

Samaritans and Jews were mortal enemies. Both staked a claim at the right belief, the right worship, and the right way of thinking. Both saw the other as unfaithful, unclean, and unworthy. In this story the ones most likely to help: the local church pastor & the seminary professor, both kept their distance. Were not interested in getting “near,” not interested in being neighbor.

The despised one though . . . made the decision to come near, to get next to, to get involved in the messiness of his situation — did you hear it? — stopped the bleeding (got this despised one’s blood on him), lifted him up (coming face to face, skin to skin, body to body), and placed him on his mode of transportation, now having to walk alongside (sacrificing his ease), spent the night caring for him (little sleep, much mess), and finally this despised one used his financial resources to care for his enemy.

We know it as the “The Good Samaritan,” but maybe as scholar Amy-Jill Levine tells us we should probably call it: The Parable of the Good (insert name of your enemy here/of your despised one here).

For Dr. Levine, as a Jewish scholar it would be, she says, “The Parable of the Good Hamas Member,” For me, and I am not proud to say it,  it would be the “Parable of the Good Christian Fundamentalist.”

Dr. King, in his sermon “I See the Promised Land,” refers to this parable saying:

“And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

A Missioned People — Conviction Meets Hope
This is my fourth State of the Church address. Each time I’ve stood before you deeply convicted. Convicted about my own need for God, forgiveness, and grace. Convicted about the ways that my own fears, anxieties, and struggles are keeping me from leading you into the fruitful work of God’s kingdom. Convicted of my need to surrender and begin again.

This year is no different. But this past year I have been more deeply shaped in the coming together of conviction and hope.

See about this same time last year I was approached by one of my colleagues to join him in writing a book called The Marks of Hope. It is a series of reflections by three of us on how congregations can become beacons of hope in the midst of all the divisions happening in our culture, country, and church.

In Spanish, my native language, hope is esperanza, translated literally it means “the state of waiting.” Writing about hope awakened me to how pivotal our role is as the Body of Christ — as bearers of the love of God, self, and neighbor. As a people who see neighbor in all who they encounter. A people who “choose” to make neighbor out of despised ones and who choose to allow despised ones to make neighbors out of us!

I’ve been reminded that when we become a people committed to living the way of Jesus, committed to doing what Jesus does, and being Jesus in the world — loving God, self, and neighbor — we must ask a different set of questions, questions that inspire us to live into the challenge of being the good Samaritan and the Jewish person who received the samaritan’s help:

What is the end towards which we are living our lives?

What is the common good?

What is the purpose for why we live life?

What are the habits and dispositions the allow us to live this kind of purpose?

This way of life is difficult and challenging. It constantly calls us to transformation, and to recognize the complexity in simplicity.

Theologian Justo Gonzalez speaking about this parable tells us:

“Quite often, what the Lord requires is clear; but the cost is also clear, and so we ask more and more questions.”

From the color of the carpet to political affiliation, from modes of baptism, to who is welcomed, we ask because it is easier to continue asking questions than to do what Jesus calls us to do. It is a helpful delay tactic that many of us learn as children.

One of my favorite conversation partners, Gregory Boyle tells us in his book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship:

That pure, simple, loving outlook is why we, the Choir, are drawn to the original program. It’s not a liberal or conservative view; it is a holy, radical take, precisely because it takes seriously what Jesus took seriously: inclusion, nonviolence, unconditionally compassionate loving-kindness, and acceptance. The Choir finds itself drawn like moths to the flame of its authenticity. What we discover when we embrace it is that true spirituality ought not end in the privacy of our soul but in real kinship with the poor. If we can find ourselves in this salvific relationship to those on the margins, we see as never before and it becomes our passageway. (p 155)

Living the way of Jesus – loving God, self, and neighbor leads us to live a life of kinship. As we live into kinship we find life, good life, abundant life, real life.

Our founder John Wesley called us to three practices that we might call practices of the Way — practices of kinship:

Do No Harm

Do Good

Stay in Love with God

Our faith, like our God, should be incarnational. Should always press us to look around and find the places where the Holy Spirit is already at work, the places where Jesus is visiting, the places where Good News are needed. Where salvation is to be found and where salvation is desperately required.

A congregation committed to this way, committed to the way of Jesus, to the way of peace, completion, wholeness, salvation, in the midst of the mess of life. A congregation where we at each moment remind ourselves and the world of what a wise nun told me this summer: NO judgment, just GRACE! For yourself, for your neighbor, for all that you encounter.

We are that community! And I believe that there are many in our city and region that are looking for this kind of community. A community that refuses to participate in the evils of exclusion, hatred, bigotry, and any of the -isms that so often describe our experience in our day to day life.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

We becoming a place that models what love for ALL people looks like. We becoming a place of empowerment, challenge, and growth. We becoming a hub for movements that seek the common good, that connects neighbors, and that reminds all of our duty to be agents of love, compassion, and justice.

  • We hosting conversations about the difficult topics of the day.
  • We worshiping in ways that open up our imaginations to God’s ways.
  • We shaping a new generation of people in the way of Jesus.
  • We advocating for the people that Jesus advocated for.
  • We sowing seeds in the neighborhoods across our city for peace, healing, and justice — seeds of God’s kingdom.
  • We becoming a movement ourselves. Our weekly gathering merely a stop along the way to be fueled, reminded and empowered by the Holy Spirit. A place to struggle, grow and find meaning.
  • We not afraid, we leaning on our unique call and loudly proclaiming – no judgment, just grace – do this and live!!! Unapologetically and courageously!!

________________

Part 3 coming tomorrow!

Do This and Live: State of the Church 2018

SOC Image 1Introduction

Ten years ago I gathered with a group of 50 young pastors and heard Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest United Methodist Church in the US, share three questions that he uses to help his congregation find their center. Help them remember why they exist. He encouraged us to share these questions with our congregations:

  1. Why do people need Jesus Christ?
  2. Why do people need the church?
  3. Why do people need this particular church?

Ever since I’ve asked this questions of all the congregations that I’ve served. The questions have always been a source for lively conversation. Many had never thought about it in this way before. I had not thought about it in this way before, so I thought this would be a good time for us to consider these questions as we enter into 2018.

Why do people need Jesus Christ?

People need Jesus Christ, because we have a desperate need to be made whole, healed, connected, reminded that we are beloved, God’s image living in us!

Our tendency to sin and death is a tendency that separates us from our true self, from others, and from God. A tendency that alienates us, separates us and sends us to the margins. It is a tendency that makes us alienate others, become separate from the other, and push others to the margins. No wonder Jesus came, God-self, in the flesh, and began visiting the margins. To show us what love looked like, what salvation looked like, that is is possible to be restored.

This is why I am so passionate about my call as a proclaimer of this message because I know how desperately we all need Jesus.

Why do people need the church?

This is a more complex question. It is a question that I have asked myself often, as you know I am one of those that has a love-hate relationship with the church.

As I told you earlier we have a core tendency to sin and death, to alienate, it convinces us that we do not belong, and separates us from our true humanity, and tries to make us believe that we are God. Our primal story, one of the great fables in human history, begins with two people that are deceived by a serpent. They fall into the belief that God does not care and if only they would satisfy their prideful, self-centered, and individualistic longings and impulses, they could be like God. In fact their becoming like God is exactly what God is trying to avoid. God is not to be trusted!

This is our story! Time and time we choose other gods, choosing our own selves as god, choosing fruit that looks good to the eye but lethal to our souls.

People need the church because our salvation calls us back to our nature as a people of community. Just like God is community in Father-Son-Spirit so are we, God’s communal image living in us. Our baptism initiatives us into this new (renewed) life, grafts us and binds us to the visible presence of Christ in the world – the church, the body of believers, to community of those who are growing in God’s love. This body’s sole purpose is to be a light for what community looks like to a growingly isolated, separated, and divided world. We exist as ancient writers have said: “for the life of the world.”

Who Are We and Why Are We Here?

Why do people need this particular church? This is a great question, especially as a people who live in Shreveport, Louisiana. I’ve read that Shreveport once had the most churches per capita in the United States. I believe it, all you have to do is drive up and down Ellerbe Rd and Line Ave and count the many congregations along the way.

Why this particular church? If we disappeared today if Grace Community was not here would Shreveport/Bossier be less just, compassionate, kind, loving? What effect are we having? Would we be missed if we were not here?

Grace Community is a gifted and unique congregation, a pivotal mission field not just for the Shreveport/Bossier area but for the entire State (and maybe even the region).

We are a congregation that from the beginning has been committed to reaching the unchurched and de-churched, narrative leadership, cutting-edge communication, spiritual formation, and incarnational ministry to ALL people.

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, of the Louisiana Area,  in a sermon to our congregation in the Spring of 2014 described Grace Community as creative, push es the envelope, courageous, risks taking, mission minded, and exciting. (you can see her sermon here.)

We are here for others to experience life, abundant life, heaven on earth, eternal life beginning today. Notice that we are not here for the afterlife, heaven, hell, the whole after you die thing. Not here for fear!

And yet we are still afraid, we still wonder . . .

We like the teacher of the law, we like this faithful, obedient, put together, intelligent people want to make sure that we have the right belief, the right intellectual assent.

The encounter between Jesus and the teacher of the law comes in the midst of the joy of living life, of being a kingdom people, this encounter comes in the midst of excitement, of Jesus thanking God for the way that is being revealed to the disciples around him. Did you notice?

_________________

Part II coming tomorrow . . .

Good News of Great Joy: A Christmas Eve Homily

luke-palmer-305429

Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

“Noel, Noel, Come to see
what God has done,
Noel, Noel, the story
Of amazing love,
The light of the world,
Given for us!”

(Noel – Chris Tomlin/Ed Cash/Matt Redman)

Today we celebrate what God has done! We celebrate God’s amazing love, We celebrate that God the eternal, almighty, and creator enters the world for us! All of us, all of creation!

We celebrate that God was pleased to come, wanted to come, desired and it was in God’s own nature to come!

Are we surprised by the way that God chose to break into history?

According to the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel God comes, God enters history through homelessness, filth, noise, uncomfortableness, anxiety, uncertainty, strangers, expectations, and promises that seem hard to keep.

In other words, God enters the world through the reality that is birth, like we all do!

This entering according to the Angels is Good News of Great Joy!!

We sing it in songs, we decorate with it, and we hear it again and again in our reading of the Christmas story: Good News of Great Joy!

But what does this mean?

God creator of the universe, God perfect, eternal, and holy. God pure, safe, and sure. God quiet, beautiful, and fragrant. God, outside of time, maker of time, and timeless. This God entering . . .

Good news of Great Joy!!

As we gather together on this holiest of days we do not just celebrate that God showed up 2,000 yrs ago; Oh, no, we gather because as it turns out God has been and continues to “show up” in history.

God showing up in both glorious and lowly ways:

In the smile of a child and in the tears of a toddler
In the fruitfulness of spring and the barrenness of winter
In the coming home of a loved one and in the quiet of an empty house
In the warmth of a sunny day and in the fragrance of a rainy morning.
In the joy of birth and in the sadness of death.
In the cool ocean breeze and in the devastating wind of the hurricane.
In unexpected people and unexpected places.

Think about it? God coming as one who “saves” people, one who frees people, heals people, one who makes broken people whole, one who restores, renews and redeems. A God who comes to create again and again.

Good News of Great Joy!!

Have you ever tried to mend something? Heal someone? Have you tried to recreate something?

At first, it looks easy, doesn’t it? It is like the challenge on a baking show when the bakers are given the ingredient list but only very basic instructions. If you are not familiar with the baked good you are supposed to make you have to try to figure it out.

The bake good looks amazing on the sample plate. The hosts and chief bakers taste it and celebrate it, then wonder how the amateur bakers will do.

The amateur bakers, on the other hand, find themselves, scratching their heads, experimenting and hoping . . .

So God chooses to come, God chooses to show us, to give us the recipe. God chooses to show up in the most vulnerable and human way, God choosing to enter fully, to not hold back, to make Godself known, to Love!!

Good News of Great Joy!

It turns out that God came to show us what being truly human looks like. God came to show us what being God really looked like. In Jesus we have the perfect example of what happens when humanity at its fullness meets every day of life–it looks like divine life!

We often put this idea aside, we convince ourselves that it is impossible to be like God, to do what Jesus did. We tell ourselves that our lives are too messy, complicated, and different. We settle for being good (according to what we think that looks like). Soon the god that we proclaim does not match what the biblical witness tells us. Christmas comes to remind us:

It’s like God says: You want to know what I look like? You want to know what love looks like? Here’s a baby!

A baby?
Yes, a baby,
wrapped in swaddling clothes,
Diapered, crying,
Eating, burping,
spitting up,
Nursing constantly,
And confusing his days
With nights;
a little bundle of joy.

In a manger,
Cows mooing,
Horses Neigh-ing
Sheep bleating,
Dogs barking,
a stinky and humid trough,
slobber all over it.

It makes you wonder why all of this is good news?

But then I think about our obsession with perfection, our constant worry about our security, our hoarding, and knack for self-centeredness. To make all of our life about us, to assume that our way is the best way, not just for us but for everyone around us, and our desperate need to come across as having it all together, as being “good,” special, and ok.

It does not seem to match with what God did . . .

We enter our safe neighborhoods,
God enters a risky creation.

We fill up our Christmas trees,
God empties God-self.

We lull ourselves with consumption
God wails into the world creating.

We constantly negating our mortality
God taking on human form.

We seeing the sin of the other,
God, seeing the beauty of ALL

We focusing on our inability to be like God,
God showing us what it looks like to truly be us!

The promise of this night is the promise of that night long ago. That our worst tendencies, our enmity, violence, strife, suspicion, anger, disagreements, divisions, and brokenness are not the last word. That our worst day does not define us, that our experience and view of the world is limited on a good day, that often what we call authenticity is nothing more than our protective ego living out a false self. That in the midst of our worst day, hour, moment, God appears. Vulnerable, open, ready, willing, God appears, in the most unexpected ways and shows us that there is another way.

In his book Barking to the Choir, Gregory Boyle tells us the story of Andres. Andres is a recovering gang member, who was abandoned by his mother and left homeless in Los Angeles at age 9. One day he came to work and tells Greg that he had gone through the park on his way home and in one of the park benches he encountered a homeless man, passed out, but shivering from the cold. He decided to take off his sweater and put it over the old man.

After a moment of silence He looks out and tells Greg, “I am not tellin’ ya this so you think I’m AAALLLLLLL that . . . I’m tellin ya all this cuz I know that bench . . . I’ve been on that bench.” (107)

God has been on our bench!! Good News of Great Joy!

So do not be afraid! Open your hearts and minds to the miracle and mystery that we celebrate this day. God has and is visiting us. God has and is re-making, re-creating, re-deeming. God is calling us, yes us . . .

Shepherd and Privileged,
forgotten and remembered,
poor and rich,
faithful and sell out,
fake and real,
us, all of us, into a new relationship,
a new status, a new being.

Good News of Great Joy!

This is good news! Love like God did us! See this baby? Love like that! Live like that!

I pray that today you are as baffled and as awestruck as I am. I pray that you awaken from your melancholic slumber and your syrupy sleep. Do you hear the angels sing?

Glory to God!! Peace to people on earth!

Our freedom and liberation are here!
Our humanity displayed,
Our divinity modeled.

Today We have a savior, healer, restorer, one who makes all things whole; today your salvation, our salvation, the salvation of the world has entered the world!

Good News of Great Joy Indeed!!

On Thirty-Nine

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We no longer have little ones at home. It really is hard to believe! It seems like yesterday that they were toddling, baby talking, and needed us for even the most basic things. I’m thankful for who they are becoming with each passing day and this year I’ve made a promise to myself not to miss a moment, not to miss a conversation, not to miss any opportunity to be with them. Living life with them is a humbling reminder that time is passing by!

Recently I’ve noticed some of those marks of time in me. I’ve looked at my hands and seen my father’s, the clippings at the barber shop have gray in them, my kids speak of my dad jokes and my receding hairline. Looking at myself in the mirror is a humbling reminder that time is passing by!

This year I took a sabbatical. I’m still trying to process the experience. I’m still trying to figure out what happened in those six weeks that made an impact, that changed me. What I do know is that it has awakened gratitude. For the steps I take every day, for the people I encounter, for the opportunity to be spouse, dad, son, brother, friend, and pastor. It might sound sappy or cliché but sabbatical has opened my eyes to the beauty of life and the importance of now.

My thirty-ninth year has been an adventure and a coming home.

It is so easy to forget who you are especially in a caring vocation. Easy to become so hyper focused on what you do that you forget what you be! Easy to not take the time to take stock, to examine, to reflect on what matters and who you are becoming. Easy to allow the expectations of others convince you that they reflect who your identity.

Today I’m thankful for those places and people that have shaped me and that remind me of who God has made me be. I’m thankful for my native land, its people, and its story. I’m thankful for my ancestors, all of them: colonizers, indigenous, and enslaved. I’m thankful that enemies and strangers became one, tragedy and violence birthed new life, and two young people decided that we would grow up together. I’m thankful for the companions in the journey that call me back and remind me. Companions who love me for who I am at that moment, and root me no matter where I am.

I am a blessed man. I am not alone. I am loved. I am . . . thirty-nine has taught me that, I’m ready for you 40th year!

In Memoriam X

 

Dear Garrett,

Welcome your spirit back from its wandering. It may return in pieces, in tatters. Gather them together. They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.

Joy Harjo from “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” in Conflict Resolution For Holy Beings: Poems

I’ve thought about you often in the last six weeks. As I was getting ready for my sabbatical I kept on thinking about those that would come alongside me on my journey. I thought about my ancestors, then I thought about those companions that have helped me find life in the midst of struggle. I knew for sure that you were with me!

More than once in the silence of hiking trails, prayer times, and monastery I could see you. In some ways, you cheered me on, reminded me again of what you taught me by your leaving. You, happy that I’m still living into the calling that I’m unable to live into without your intercession and the Spirit’s power.

A few months ago it came to mind that this was the 10th Anniversary of your leaving. In some ways, it is hard to believe, but then I look around at my own children and realize that time has indeed gone by, your playmates are now into their teen years, just like you would be.

Then there are those moments when the weight of these years without you make the time that has gone by so obvious. I can still see you waking up on that fateful day when I arrived and asking for your mom, I can still feel your warm forehead on my palm and your beautiful eyes. Eyes that I can still see, full of mischief, wonder, and possibility.

So you are still deeply missed!

There is a little boy in my congregation that has your eyes (mischief and wonder included). He’s become a reminder to me of your presence and the huge impact you’ve had in my life. Your leaving turned into life, eternal life, for me, today.

Some months ago I had a dream that I had died.  I felt peace as I closed my eyes one last time. Immediately I opened them again and I found myself in this perfect place. As I walked towards a group of buildings I saw a group of people that seemed to be gathered. There you were at the front of the group, with your smile and your eyes waiting for me. Behind you were many others that I’ve walked with during their leaving, all of you together waiting, smiles in your faces, making room for me.

I woke up thankful to have experienced the hope of resurrection. Thankful that even though not with us in body, you are with us and waiting for us. Thankful that life and love have been experienced, that your leaving did not ruin my call, my faith, and my hope even though it got close. Instead, it allowed me to experience a deeper understanding and a humbling awareness of the mysteries of life.

Today we’ll gather where you await resurrection. Today we grieve and celebrate with hopeful expectation. Today I know that you are waiting for me, till then I’ll keep on stirring, keep on praying, keep on inviting, keep on challenging, and I’ll keep on dreaming.

You have helped me welcome my spirit back, for that I am deeply grateful. Your leaving still bringing life. I’ll see you at the great feast!

Peace & Love, J+

Sunday Early Evening

Weekends are a flurry of activity. It is the one time of the week that we all gather. Worship has been prepared, rehearsals have taken place, and servant teams are ready to welcome, love, and serve. The sermon has been simmering, at times for months, but now it comes to life.

I’ve also prayed, worried, and wondered. Prayed that all who come will experience an encounter with God. Worried that something might not be in place, that people might not come, and that we are able to get out of the way. Wondered if I will see your faces, meet new people, and communicate the love of God in ways that will connect and transform.

I have also observed the world around us. This week we watched the struggle of immigrants and refugees. The continual animosity and division in our nation. As pastor and theologian I work hard at trying to listen to all who struggle while remembering that the bible tells us again and again that God sides with the struggling, the hungry, the forgotten, the stranger, the refugee, yes, no matter what political party or presidential candidate, the scriptures are clear about what our duty is as disciples of Jesus.

But even when it is clear, even when we know that love should guide all that we do, that we must proclaim the good news, I fear that my reminding the body of God’s call to love God, self, and neighbor might make some walk away from our shared life.

I have also observed and engaged our shared life. The illnesses, struggles, and challenges in your lives. The ways that God has seemed present and absent in your week. The need to remind you of God’s compassionate presence and grace. Our gathering a visible reminder that we are not alone and that salvation is near.

There is some relief once worship begins on Saturday at 5:30. We get to see you and meet your friends. We sing, pray, and hear a word. Saturdays are the beginning of the weekly assembly an important time of warming the space, of calling upon God to show up and make us God’s people again and again.

On my way home on Saturdays I hear my sermon, make notes of changes needed, and rehearse it at least once more.

It’s amazing how quickly Sunday morning arrives. My first cup of coffee is finished by the time I reach the parking lot, a second cup is consumed as last rehearsals are held and the welcome team arrives. Soon God’s people begin to gather, stories begin to be shared, places are found and coffee is consumed.

I still get nervous as worship begins, then again as I’m about to bring a word. For me, worship does not begin until we are gathered and it is not a sermon until I open my mouth and proclaim it to this body. As I proclaim I hear God’s word too, I watch you the body, trying as I proclaim to see what the Holy Spirit is doing among you as I hear what God is doing in me.

In between our times of worship, I listen. I hear your stories, I pray, I bless your children and grandchildren, and check in on your week.

As the last conversation is had, thoughts of the sermon for next week begin to flood my consciousness. Floating around are also the many stories I’ve heard, prayers said, and updates received.

As evening falls I walk around our common home, our place of worship, of gathering, and of stories. I sit in my office, look out the window and play through the day. I think about what God is doing among us, about our capacity to set the world on fire, about how our sufferings, struggles, and stories continue to shape us into a grace-full people, and about how blessed I am to be a leader among you.

 

The End is the Beginning

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Advent, a time of beginning, a time of ending. Advent, a time of expectation, of waiting, and of hoping. Advent, a time when salvation sneaks in, when needed most. A time when salvation shows up in the every day of life.

These are interesting days. Days when we wonder about God’s work in the world. Days when we are reminded that salvation is desperately needed, that our lives and our world do not reflect the fullness of God’s creation.

Unfortunately, year after year we must come face to face with our brokenness, with our need, with our sin-sick soul, and with the ways that all of creation still groans for salvation. We also must face our participation in structures of sin and death – the hatred, prejudice, and apathy about neighbor, the -isms too many to name, the ways we seem to have forgotten the centrality of the common good.

Advent invites us into reality, into the messiness of our condition, and into the hopeful expectation of new life. This requires that we are willing to embrace ending, death, and letting go. It also requires us, in this season filled with distraction, to stay rooted in the now, to sow seeds of peace, justice, and love today.

Completeness is coming, healing is near, new life is around the corner . . .

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
God with Us!
We need you, with us.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
God with and in the world,
We need you, in us.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
God through the most vulnerable,
We need you, through us.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
God for all of creation,
We need you, give us new life.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
We are hungry, hurt, haggard,
hopeful, end becoming beginning.

Why #givegrace?

© All rights reserved by mollie | corbett | photography

© All rights reserved by mollie | corbett | photography

This past Sunday we gathered as a community to eat together and to hear about how our financial resources continue to allow us to live into God’s call for our life together as a congregation. Some of us met each other for this first time — over half of attendees at the meal have been with us twelve months or less — others were able to finally catch up with friends and neighbors.

We have much to celebrate. Our children and youth ministry continue to grow and each weekend we have many guests that are looking for a place to call home. Those that are new to our community speak to our welcoming atmosphere as a primary reason why they choose to return. Our new people describe our congregation as loving, kind, and filled with energy. Wherever I go in Shreveport folks tell me that they have heard great things about our church.

We are blessed in so many ways!!

As I walked away from our time together on Sunday afternoon I began to wonder about the impact that our congregation has had, is having, and will have in the future. I began to wonder about the stories that illustrate our impact, that tell of the many ways that we are encountering God in this place and of the ways that this place is helping each of us see God in places unexpected.

I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because we have received it!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because we cannot help but respond in generosity!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because we know that our congregation is needed in this city and beyond!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because there are so many children, youth, and adults experiencing God’s unconditional love!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because we are finding healing from our addictions, freedom from the things that keep us bound, and redemption into new life, abundance, and joy!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because we are a unique community called by God to provide a place for ALL people!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because everywhere I go I meet people who have disconnected from the church and are looking for a place where they can be who God has called them to be!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because our identity is rooted in service of neighbor, especially those who would be easily forgotten, who have been ignored!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because we have been called to be a diverse community that reflects God’s love for ALL people, no matter our story!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because we are a community willing to live in the tension of unanswered questions and the messiness of life stories!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because we believe God is found in unexpected places!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because our only requirement to come to the table is to be hungry for Jesus!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because we know that being a follower of Jesus is more than just showing up at church or talking about Jesus, it’s about loving ALL and growing in that love!
I want us to #givegrace in 2017 because only together we can live into our call to welcome, love, and serve!

I am so thankful and honored to be one of your many leaders. Leading in this season towards a fruitful and life-giving future is challenging but extremely rewarding. Leading in this season inspires me because our unique community is sorely needed.

So why will you #givegrace in 2017? Tell me in the comments here on the blog or in the Facebook comments. I cannot wait to read of all the ways that inspire you to make our 2017 ministry possible!

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