SpiritStirrer

sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

Author: spiritstirrer (Page 1 of 2)

Peace Binding You Together: A Sermon

Photo by Thomas Rey on Unsplash

Like the believers in Ephesus we have a challenge: How do we remain a body, how do we remain one, in light of our many disagreements?

Wesley knew that the only way that we could live into the way of Jesus was together. Just like Jesus told his disciples and prayed that his disciples would be one. One people who under the Lordship of Jesus become bearers of the kingdom of God in the world. One people from different places, languages and cultures as the vision of Revelation tells us, coming alongside one another, praising God and witnessing to the world.

Oneness is difficult work!

On seasons like these I am even more thankful for the witness of scripture. For it reminds us over and over again that we are not alone, that the tensions that we feel so strongly today are not isolated, that the struggle of living life together has been the same since the beginning of time (remember the blame game in Genesis 3?).

You know well the tensions that we face today in our country, in our state, cities, and in our local churches. Even among people that look alike, even among families, workplaces and neighborhoods.

Now imagine the tensions that Paul was addressing in today’s scripture. Two very distinct communities, at least two different ethnic groups (Jewish and Gentile), two different religious traditions that seem to be incompatible with one another, two cultures, and ways of looking at the world.

They were coming together because of their shared experience with the resurrected Jesus. A Jewish community with its commitments to be a set apart people and a gentile community called the Ephesians who were themselves a cosmopolitan diverse group of people. In fact in Jewish culture at the time gentiles were not to be trusted, as a early Jewish writing commented:

“we may not keep an animal in the inns of Gentiles, for they are suspected of bestiality, and a woman should not be alone with them, for they are suspected of adultery, and a Jewish man should be alone with them for they are suspected of murder.”[1]

You can imagine the tension that is created when the early Christian leaders decided that these gentile believers did not have to follow the law as prescribed to the Jewish people.

When many of the converts were coming from the temple down the street they were coming from a different set of religious traditions, it was an obvious contrast, between them and the Jewish believers. Now they come together.

You can imagine the the church’s patriarch’s and matriarchs wondering: If we don’t have these requirements, these laws in place how will we be able to be “set apart? What do we have left?

I am thankful that the story of our faith, our sacred text, tells us what we have left is our encounter with Holy Spirit!

As Paul testified in Acts:

“God who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us.” (15:8, CEB)

This encounter changes absolutely everything, including our perspective in the world. This is an encounter of connection, an encounter of reconciliation, an encounter of new creation, an encounter that grafted them to one another. This new way provided is rooted in their continued encounter with the risen Lord and their shared witness to others of that encounter.

Now I acknowledge that this sounds wonderful and beautiful as we speak. It has a poetic tone, it rolls off the tongue easily, WE Jewish and gentile alike, our only common denominator being the claim that we have seen the LORD!

You can imagine those potlucks, those gatherings for worship, you can imagine those Sunday School classes, the tensions are real!! Here comes Paul to remind them, to help them re-member (to bring back into being), that they are One people.

They are One people because of their encounter with Jesus, their re-creation, and their reconciliation. They are one people because the wall that had separated them from the beginning of time has been broken, the curtain has been torn, and now by the power of the Holy Spirit, they are one people in their practice of becoming like Jesus, with love of God, self, and neighbor as their primary characteristic.

They needed each other in their difference to grow in that love, to practice that love, they needed each other to see that love incarnate. They needed that love to get beyond their natural tendencies to live their life in an “us vs. them posture,” in a posture that required them to be identical in their way of life and in their religious observance, they needed that love to be free so they could grow in it!

Therefore – because you are a people who have encountered Jesus.
Therefore – because you are a new creation.
Therefore – because you have been reconciled.
Therefore – because the Holy Spirit lives in you.
Therefore – live a life worthy of your calling.

A life together! Yes, it will get difficult, we will have disagreement, we are going to wonder if we are meant to live life together, if the gap in our understanding of God and how God works in the world can be bridged. We are going to argue, we are going to forget, and we are going to clash. But remember that we are One people!

One body, One faith, One Baptism, and One Lord. We are incomplete without one another for it is in the patient living alongside one another that we will become more and more like Jesus.

The temptations will be great, the tensions will be high, and there will be seasons when we will not get along. But let us not forget to live a life worthy of the calling, because as we live this life together by the power of the Spirit we will become more loving, joy-filled, peaceful, forbearing, kind, we will be able to practice goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Sisters and brothers we are not alone. Today two of us stand before you who have very different ways of looking at scripture, theology, and the future of the United Methodist Church, we stand together from two sides of the same road, you can take a Shreveport map and draw a straight line from 1st Church to Grace Community.

We come together with different stories, backgrounds, and life experiences. But though it might surprise you I believe that I am a more faithful follower of Jesus because the Rev. Dr. Pat Day and I are in covenant with one another. I believe Grace Community is a better body of believers because 1st United Methodist in Shreveport is up the street. I believe that the Spirit of God lives in him and I have witnessed that Spirit. I believe that we are better able to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ together than apart.

This is not wishful thinking, instead is a deep conviction that the power of the Holy Spirit called upon us at our Baptism and Ordination is more important than the differences we hold. A conviction that our shared identity and witness as followers of Jesus in the Wesleyan movement is more important than the differences that we hold and will continue to hold. A conviction that our shared call to be bearers of the Good News of Jesus, the “inheritance of the saints” (Colossians 1:12b, NRSV), is more important than the differences that threaten to tear us apart.

Today we have a call! In the messiness of our disagreements, struggles, trials, tribulations, arguments, judicial council decisions, legislative petitions, and misunderstandings. The call of unity from long ago is not just a call for the Ephesian believers, it is a call for the Shreveport District believers, and the Louisiana believers, the South Central Jurisdictional believers, the Global United Methodist believers, it is a call for ALL of God’s people!

We don’t have to like each other, agree with each other, or be like each other, but we do have to model the unity that we have in Christ Jesus, model what it means to love like God loves (even the perceived enemy within) so that through our witness, the world learns that they too can be reconciled, that they too can be renewed, that they too can be born again, that they too can experience the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!

————–
This Sermon was preached on October 28 at the 2018 Shreveport District Charge Conference, First United Methodist Church, Bossier City, LA.

[1] “Ephesians.” The Jewish Annotated New Testament, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 391–391

On Forty

I’ve been thinking about 40. What it means to be forty. About the memories, the early memories of my life, the early moments of remembering.

Memories are interesting things, we tend to think that we have clear understandings of them and tend to think that those understandings, the moments that we are recalling, are perfect recollections of the past. Truth be told, all of us make sense of those memories and shape them, shape them to make sense of our lives, to make a narrative of our lives. I am sure that I too, like other human beings look back and provide a revised version a “revisionist version” of my story.

Remembering As Identity Seeking

I think what strikes me as I look back, is that as a child my parents would call me a “peacemaker.” I think what has happened throughout the years is that I’ve been living into that label, that identity. The work of peace making in this world is difficult and it takes different forms for different people. For me it meant always connecting and thinking about new ways to connect, thinking about all sorts of things, and finding ways to bridge.

I think at my core, as I learn a year or so ago, I am a person that is taken by and who lives—in some ways permanently—in border places and spaces. So I’ve been thinking about it because living in these spaces is messy work. At times it can be very traumatic, but I think about the ways that my story has been shaped over time and maybe I’ve been made for this, I’ve been gifted for living in the border.

I think my relationship to Jesus Christ, my encounter with Jesus–at times very alive, real, and concrete, at times very far away, at times magical, at times scary and mysterious–has shaped my imagination and continues to do so. I remember early on being so fascinated by the stories of scripture and by the Church with its gathering of God’s people to sing songs, pray prayers, to greet each other with love and joy, to hear a word for us (an ancient word, a new word), and gathering around simple things like crumbs of bread and sips of wine. So it has been the shaping and reshaping of memory.

I see deeply in my own story how long I’ve been in this work. But I do recognize that this world that I have created for myself, this world that I have imagined, this reality, this idea of myself, who I am, took a huge shift, turned (or re-calibrated maybe) when we decided to leave Puerto Rico and come to the United States.

I remember feeling lost in the new language and culture and struggled with my new reality. In some ways a part of me died then and little did I know that it would be reborn much later in my heart. This reclaiming would compel me to live differently. It turns out that the event, the movement, the diaspora, has changed me and shaped me, in ways unimaginable at the time, and not just because because there is no way to really know but because when you are a few months shy of 14 years of age, there is much that you do not understand, nor know about life, yourself, and the future.

The Bible as Battle Ground

Early on I fell in love with the text of scripture. I had all these questions about life, God, and meaning. I began to dig deeply into it and I loved it, loved the stories, loved the encounters I had in that text, and it has been part of my life since I began to read. Since then I have read it on my own so many times. Each time new discoveries have been made, new questions have emerged, and the Holy Spirit has come nearer.

The Bible has shaped me deeply over the years. It continues to amaze me, and surprise me. It continues to give me life, and I am more convinced today than I was then that it contains “all things necessary for salvation.” That it shapes me, changes me, and convicts me.

My love for the text, for the way that it tells me about Jesus as God’s revelation, for the way that it shapes me by the power of the Holy Spirit is the reason that I struggle with what is happening around me today. The many arguments about the nature of the body called the church and the ways we continue to argue with one another about how we interpret the text and what the text might mean for us is an example of the current struggle. Another example is the continued ways in which we have these discussion with one another as people of God, ways that do not demonstrate the love of God towards our brothers and sisters, with whom we have disagreements.

I recognize that the conversation is not easy, that some of these conversations are deeply emotional conversations that come out of a love for God and for what we believe to be true. But I still struggle with how often we dehumanize, question if those we disagree with are believers or not and we do not witness to the love of God in the ways we disagree with one another.

I recognize that I too have my way of thinking about the text, out of love of that text, our of my encounter with Jesus, and out of the shared reading, reflecting, and hearing among and with the community of believers. But I am surprised at how narrow we read the biblical text.

As a native Spanish speaker who learned English and continues to do work of translation, I can say that translation is always, always interpretive. The fact that we have a sacred text that is to be translated into the languages of the people, that in and of itself says that this is the kind of text that begs for interpretation through the continued movement of the Spirit, in and through the Church. The same movement that inspired the body of believers to recognize the story of their encounter with God among the writings that we now call the bible, is the Spirit that has guided and will continue to guide the body of Christ in the continual interpretation of the text for us today.

I struggle while recognizing the difficulties. Through the years as a pastor I have attempted to bring the body of God’s people, the body of Christ, to learn and to engage in the interpretive work. This way we can have these conversations together, conversations that ask the questions: What is God up to in my life? What is a way of living that witnesses to the way of Jesus? What does love of God and neighbor look like in light of my current circumstance?

We ask these questions while recognizing that it is not about me, myself, and I. On the contrary it is about the body.  Seeing our relationship to God as a communal relationship is the reason why the body needs to learn about the work of the Spirit, about discernment, and about how to allow the Spirit to inspire us as we engage the text, so that it goes beyond us. Engaging the text together opens our eyes to our connection to the body, and to all of creation. Being inspired as we read the text helps us recognize the ways that we are allowing our own brokenness, our own sin, to get in the way of what God is communicating to us through the text.

The Bible and LGBTQ+ Persons

In this particular season of the church’s life and in our cultural life we are focusing our energies discussing the place, role, identity, and place of a particular group of people, made in God’s image and likeness, in this case who are LGBTQ+. We go to the text and we see there that their identity goes against what the text says is God’s will, against what some might call God’s natural design for the created order, then making a claim to this being a settled matter.

jordan-mcdonald-766295-unsplash

Photo by Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

I find it fascinating  that we are still arguing (and in the case of United Methodism close to dividing) about these persons. I struggle because many believers have dug deeply, have prayed, read, studied, encountered, discerned, gathered, and thought about all of this, in doing so we have come to the conclusion that the text does indeed speak about these issues in about five places, that the text in those places does not really tell us about God’s response to people who want to have healthy, whole, intimate relationships with persons of the same gender. These relationships are rooted in God’s love, in the desire to “not be alone,” a desire to live life in community, to make families, and to do so for the glory of God. People who want to live lives of holiness of heart of life, who demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, who want to live life within, among, and belonging to the community of believers, a life that honors God and neighbor, in and through who they have been created to be, LGBTQ+. The reality of their identity, including the natural and God given human desire for companionship, intimacy, and life together, does not make them unable to be full members of the body of Christ.

It is fascinating to me because we have been down this road before. I grew up in a Christian religious tradition that did not ordain women to pastoral ministry. This tradition believed that divorced people could not be pastors because Jesus says that to be divorced and remarried was committing adultery, believe that women should not wear pants because this meant that they were wearing “male clothing.” A tradition that believed that Christian people should not eat blood sausage because the bible says that we should not eat blood.

In American history we know that slave traders, government leaders, and slave owners would use scripture to sustain and support and justify the slave trade, we know that women have been subjugated and kept from being seen as fully human by the scriptures that speak about women’s lower status to men and in the Old Testament, property. We know that scripture tells us that there are many things that we should not eat because eating them would be an abomination to God. Early in European history when the church became a tool of the empire we conquered, destroyed, and pillaged in the name of Jesus. We broke the peace among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all in Christ’s name with the bible as the weapon of justification. During the colonial expansion of European powers we witnessed religious leaders using scripture to justify the genocide and/or indentured servitude of native peoples, the forced baptism of said people, and the continuation of systems that kept people of color in “their place,” the place that was “ordained by God.” In the America’s early settlers used scripture to justify the dehumanization of Native Americans, due to the ways that they thought of themselves, their land, and the world. White Christian settlers, identified the natives as “savages” so that they could take their land and conquer the new world.

Even after the Civil War white churches used their pulpits to fight against the reconstruction, to encourage the growth of Jim Crow legislation, to spread the myth of the pseudo-science called Eugenics (in many ways rooted and fueled by “biblical examples), and to sabotage the efforts of the Civil Rights movement. I could go on but I want you to keep reading.

The same Spirit that guided the early church to go against the Hebrew Scriptures and welcome gentiles into the way of Jesus, the same Spirit that guided the church in the 300’s to discern what writings should become our sacred text, the same Spirit that moved the Eastern Church to go their way, the same Spirit that moved John Wycliffe to translate the bible into English against the wishes of the Church and Martin Luther to recognize the Church’s abuses, the same Spirit that guided the founder of Methodism, John Wesley to preach outdoors, to set apart lay leaders, to allow women to lead, and to break the “scriptural understandings” of the church in his time in order to ordain leaders for America, the same Spirit that inspired African Americans to learn to read the bible and through that reading to recognize their identity as God’s own, the same Spirit that guided abolitionist, women fighting for suffrage, and black and white leaders to fight Jim Crow, the same Spirit that reminds us that all people are of sacred worth . . . is the same Spirit that continues to guide us as the body of Christ continues to discern the ways that the Word called Jesus Christ is at work in our lives and adjust, recalibrate, and change to be more like Jesus.

So what?

I am a United Methodist for a number of reasons but a primary one is that we have from the very beginning said that our encounter with Jesus Christ is one that moves us, propels us, into the world to be the life transforming and healing presence of Jesus in the world. We have from the very beginning been a Matthew 25 kind of movement. Even when it went against the scriptural understandings of the time. When factory owners used the new technology of distilled liquors to keep workers inebriated so that they could take advantage of them we initiated the temperance movement, when people of color were seen as property and as less than human we fought for the abolition of slavery, when women were seen as property, as extensions of their husbands, and/or as agents of procreation we fought for the rights of women, including the right to vote and their equality before God and the community of faith, including becoming Pastors and other leaders, when children were being used as labor we fought for laws against it, when Jim Crow continued slavery under another name, and when the Civil Rights movement began we stood alongside those fighting for justice, those wanting to come alongside the Spirit in making the world more like God wants it to be.

I am not claiming that I have it all together or that I am right. I do struggle as to why we continue to argue with one another as the body of Christ, continue to put each other down, and continue to question our faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a Gospel that tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor as we love ourselves, that Jesus is the “Lord of the sabbath” not scripture, that they would know that we follow Jesus when we love.

Our differences should not divide us! Those of us who have what some might call more progressive (I would maybe called them ‘non-traditional) positions love Jesus too and our impetus for our discernment and action is our encounter with the Risen Lord, scripture, the tradition of the Church, and our continued work at communal discernment.

Though I have these convictions I do not claim superiority over my brothers and sisters who disagree with me. And so I wish there was more room in the church and in the world. I grieve how in my own ministry over the last 13+ years this openness (or the lack thereof) has been a stumbling block for so many people. Yet God continues to call us and sending people our way who struggle with their identity, with their addictions, with their doubts, with feeling alienated from religious communities, who do not feel safe.

In my pastoral ministry I strive to help create spaces that are safe and open to be people who are at their most vulnerable. People who might feel lost so that they can find life again. I have this passion because in my encounters with the Risen Lord and through scripture I see and hear that this is our call as people who follow Jesus. That from the beginning of the story of our faith we have been called and set apart (made Holy) for the work of being a light to the world. A light of love, reconciliation, justice, forgiveness, new life, and transformation. Into God’s “shalom,” into God’s completion, peace, and wholeness. All of us, all people, together. All the created order.

I have this passion because the people of God set me apart over a decade ago for the work of leading them into ministry in the world. As the vows I took at my ordination say:

An elder is called to share in the ministry of Christ and of the whole church:
to preach and teach the Word of God
and faithfully administer the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion;
to lead the people of God in worship and prayer;
to lead persons to faith in Jesus Christ;
to exercise pastoral supervision,
to order the life of the congregation and the connection,
to counsel the troubled,
and declare the forgiveness of sin;
to lead the people of God
in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world;
to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people;
and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church
and in service in and to the community.
This is the rule of life and work of an elder.

From “Services for the Ordering of Ministry in The United Methodist Church, 2017-2020” as Revised by Action of the 2016 General Conference

The Next 40+ Years

At 40 I am doing a lot of thinking about what it means to live the next 40 years of my life. If the age expectancy of someone my age in this time is 80 (give or take a few years) then I am in mid-life. So what does it look life? How do I want to live? What adjustments do I want to make?

I want to live them in a way that most closely follows Jesus’s call for me to love, especially when it is difficult, for me to come alongside those who feel the most marginalized, forgotten, pushed away. For me to stand up to the powerful on behalf of those who feel powerless, for me to remind the community of believers of that call, that if we do this together, by the power of the Spirit, we would see the kingdom of God appear in our midst, we would see a glimpse of what God will do at the end of time. I believe this!

I know that this is difficult work and at times it is full of Joy. But as I lean into the second half of my life I do not want to waste my time in other things. I want the Spirit to give me the courage of people like Oscàr Romero, someone who is a saint for me, a model for what it looks like to follow Jesus, especially in difficult times. To have the courage to roll out of bed in the morning and speak on behalf of those who have no voice, and love the ones who are hard to love, to speak to power in ways that honor their own humanity at the same time reminding them of what it means to follow the way.

The transcendence that the church preaches is not alienation; it is not going to heaven to think about eternal life and forget about the problems on earth. It’s a transcendence from the human heart. It is entering into the reality of a child, of the poor, of those wearing rags, of the sick, of a hovel, of a shack. It is going to share with them. And from the very heart of misery, of this situation, to transcend it, to elevate it, to promote it, and to say to them, “You aren’t trash. You aren’t marginalized.” It is to say exactly the opposite, “You are valuable.”
So I am inviting those who read this, many of whom are people that God has called me to shepherd to come alongside me in this journey. Because God is calling the church into this way, into the continuation of the work begun long ago by apostles, God’s people, leaders, founders, and other servants.

Oscár Romero

What I have found by struggling with all of this is a deeper love and dedication to the bible as sacred text that guides the church’s life and my life. This journey pushes me to continue to study it, reflect on it, proclaim it, engage it, struggle with it, and allow it to convict me. I’ve also found that I am humbled time and time again by the stories of faith, by how little I know, and how beyond my comprehension God is.

So . . .

At 40 I reclaim my identity as a Puertorriqueño – a colonized person, a descendant of African Slaves, Indentured Taínos, and Spanish Colonizers. A part of a people, of el barrio, la gente, and los caminos.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as a follow of Jesucristo – a jewish folk rabbi who proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand, and that kingdom was kinship with the least, the poor, and the powerless.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as Husband – to a white anglo-saxon protestant southern woman who took my name and continues to take the prejudice against my people.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as father – to “mix children” who continue to ask questions of identity, who are proud that Puerto Rican blood runs through their veins, and whose future in a more just world is uncertain.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as a presbyter/elder in the Church – a church that has a sad history of encounter with people life me. A church that continues to struggle with where my people fit in, and who I really am. A church that needs to face the difficulty of its white supremacist identity.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as one in diaspora – one who is a stranger is a strange land, one who will never belong and yet will make home, grow roots, and work towards the betterment of my adoptive home.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as one who does not know – the mystery of life and faith will never be solved but through Jesus we are able to receive a glimpse of divine life. Not all is clear, sin and death are still at work in us and in the world, I only see through a glass darkly.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as kin – to all people, at all times, to my fellow people of color, and to those who live on the margin, to the forgotten, rejected, and deported, to trouble makers, resistors, and rebels, to the relentless, hard headed, and misunderstood.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as a human being whose image is the image of the creator, a child of God, committed to being the incarnate presence of the divine in all places. A human being who is a committed hearer, sojourner, and follower.

At 40 I continue, begin again, and do so with the many who come alongside me to dream dreams and see visions. I continue in the company of my ancestors, the community of saints, the blood relatives, and chosen family.

At 40 I recomitt to la lucha para mi, para mis hijos, mi gente, y para el pueblo the Dios!

Con mucha gratitud, paz, y amor . . . let’s go!

 

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

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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.

 

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