SpiritStirrer

sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

Category: theology (Page 1 of 8)

And With Your Spirit

Ritual is the way we (learn to) believe with our bodies.
James K.A. Smith in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works

There were no announcements, no instructions, no words of welcome, and no introductions. We gathered, called by the melodious sounds of music. We settled into our places, hushed, by a few chords on the instrument. Before we knew it, we were worshipping.

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Abbey Church at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Benedict, Louisiana

I’ve been to mass many times. Parishioner’s family funeral, weddings, and the occasional “stop” to worship. I love the worship rhythms of this ancient tradition, its sensuality, earthiness, and aesthetic. I love how those around me know by heart the movements, gestures, and words. I love how you can “sneak in” and still feel part of what is happening, even if you don’t know the choreography.

I am not saying that it is perfect. Sitting in Mass reminded me how thankful I am that our tradition includes women as leaders. I also longed to partake of the Eucharist alongside my brothers and sisters. For the un-initiated it could be intimidating: with its movement, responses, and gesturing. And there are a series of other important theological differences that make Wesleyan Christianity my home.

In the end I’ll have to say that from the moment I entered the space — with its smell of incense, the baptismal waters, the gathered community kneeling as they prayed — I began to be transported into God’s presence.

I wish those of us in the protestant tradition would lean more towards this kind of kinetic aesthetic. I think at times we are too “chatty,” explaining too much, acknowledging too much, and moving too fast. We leave little room for silence and we certainly struggle with using our bodies.

It is our bodies that open the door for the holy to shape us into a sanctified people. It is our bodies that move us into a life of discipleship. Theologian James K.A. Smith tells us:

[P]ractices — communal, embodied rhythms, rituals, and routines that over time quietly and unconsciously prime and shape our desires and most fundamental longings.

We need these movements, silence, and common language to fully experience God’s transformative presence. Our ministry of hospitality should extend in worship as we “teach” each other what it means to worship in this place, at this time.

Our Christian tradition is rich with ritual, movement, and embodied practices. Our Wesleyan heritage is rooted in an experienced grace, through sacrament, through looking over one another in love, through study and reflection on God’s word, and through worship on the Lord’s Day.

My prayer is that we find ways to move, to bow, to kneel, to raise our hands, to pray together, to hear God in the silence, to allow the smells and sounds to call our bodies to a posture of prayer. Our bodies becoming visible temples of the Holy Spirit.

Reading, Writing, & Listening

The aim of church leaders should be to balance active ministry and compassion for our neighbors with prayer and a life of study and contemplation, so that our hearts dwell constantly with God and at the same time are mindful of the needs of others.

Christopher A. Beeley in Leading God’s People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today

2012-10-20 13.21.14I have heard it again and again. At the core of pastoral life is a life of prayer, study, solitude, and active listening. These are key postures of the Christian life, of our discipleship. If pastoral leaders are to lead the Christian community into a deeper relationship to God and neighbor, then it makes sense that we are leading the way by example.

Life happens though. Our plates get filled up with meetings, “emergencies,” and general “busyness.” I am not sure what my “busyness” was exactly in 2012 but I found myself in busy mode often. Then there are our other responsibilities in our home and in relationships, the “stuff of life.”

Some years ago I wrote a short New Year’s post called The Yearly Examen. There I called on all of us to look back at the year as part of our “examination of life” and begin to see the places and times where God seemed fully present and the places and times where God seemed absent. It has been an exercise that has produced much fruit in my life through the years.

This year as I began this exercise some weeks ago I began to notice a hunger in my soul for more prayer, more study, more contemplation. I recognize how little writing I had done outside of my weekly sermons and church communication, how little reading I had done outside of the “required” stuff, how little listening I had done in meetings, gatherings, and in daily life.

Now that I knew the places where I could shine a light on God’s work in me I had to do something about it. These are not resolutions, these are goals for the year. I am thankful that I have found some companions to share this journey with in 2013.

With my brother Joshua Hale (@expatminister) I plan to read four books this year and blog some reflections on them at Liturgical Nerds. We are beginning with Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life by Scott Cairns, followed by  Isabel Best’s The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, D. Stephen Long’s Keeping Faith: An Ecumenical Commentary on the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith of The United Methodist Church, and James K.A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. I look forward to this journey with Josh as we read, write, and listen to what God is up to in us through these texts.

On January 2011 I embarked on a Bible in 90 journey that included daily blogging on the portion of scripture that spoke to me that day. This year I embark again on a Bible in 90 adventure but this time I do so with a group of friends and colleagues. Some of us will probably post some reflections along the way. Reading the bible in this way has given me a renewed appreciation for the great narrative of scripture.

I am sure that along the way I’ll find a few more books to read, reflections to write, and conversations to listen to. My prayer is to be fully present to what God’s up to in my life and in the life of the congregation by prioritizing the life of study and contemplation that is at the core of pastoral life.

Thank you for being part of the journey!

On Thirty-Four

2012 06 18 13 53 41

Here I am in one of my favorite places Cannon Chapel at Emory University.

Age is such a relative thing. I am older than some, younger than others. There is a continuum and in that continuum we have the opportunity to come together. As a leader of a faith community it is interesting how often my “age” is part of the conversation. At first I was apologetic, then curious, now I am just amused. At 34 I acknowledge my “youth” compared to the average age of my congregants, while at the same time claiming my “adulthood” in life and in faith.

Part of growing up is the recognition that we are always growing in wisdom and love. In the life of faith we call it “sanctification,” growing in God’s love. No matter how “old” we are God is still at work in us, shaping us, calling us, and challenging us. This process is best lived in a diverse community, where people can live life together and learn from one another. The church is one of the places in our society where we can gather accross the generational spectrum and learn what it means to live life together.

In my life I have been blessed to have learned from the wisdom of many. Children have taught me to be silly, playful, and not so heady about God. Older parents help me become a better father and husband, college students have helped me reconnect with my passion for a renewed church and a 97 year old helped me form my pastoral identity by being thankful that her “pastor” came to visit.

Then there is the wisdom learned from life togehter with those you love the most. I am thankful for the opportunity to be a husband, father, brother, and pastor. In this last year I have become increasingly aware of how blessed I am to be living the life that I live. I am thankful for a faithful partner in Shannon, for the joy that our three children bring us, for the support and love of my sister, and for the great honor to be a leader among the baptized. All of these roles have deeply shaped me and will continue to shape me in the years ahead.

In a recent conversation with a church member my age came up again (it seems to come up often). I guess there’s the perception that youthful appearance (or youthfulness) means a lack of experience in life and faith. I heard carefully and responded that the one promise that I could make was that I was getting older everyday. The person laughed and we were both able to walk away better aquainted with one another.

I am blessed to be “getting older” in a community of family and faith. All of us helping one another grow in love of God and neighbor, all of us learning and growing from each other, all of us worshipping, praying, and serving together. All of us with different ages, personalities, and cultural backgrounds. All of us making a mosaic of the baptized in this community.

I doubt that 34 will make a difference to those who still see me as “young.” I have thankfully been blessed with the “youthful look gene” of my mother’s family. What I do know is that I will continue my work, will continue ministering, will continue leading, and I am sure that one day I will walk down the halls of the church and someone will tell me that we need a more youthful pastor  . . .

Here’s to 34 years and to many more!

Lent is About Discipleship: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

"Jesus in the French Quarter" © 2012 Todd Rossnagel

This past Sunday I had the great joy of baptizing three month old Jane. It is always an honor to gather people around these important times in their life. As she laid quietly in her mother’s arms I asked her mom to renew her own baptismal promises and to make a covenant to raise Jane into her baptism.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?

(The United Methodist Hymnal, p 34)

Living into these promises takes the community into which we have been initiated and it takes intentionality and a constant rehearsal of what these promises mean. After all renouncing, rejecting, and repenting takes the continued work of the Spirit in us, accepting, resisting and confessing requires the same.

So as I poured water upon her head I wondered if we ourselves recognized the magnitude of what was happening here? As we welcomed another into our community of the baptized, did we see it as an entrance into the community of those who have made covenant to the Lordship of Christ, to the way of sanctification?

Each time I begin ministry with a new congregation I am thankful for the season of Lent. Here in Louisiana it is common for many to give something up, chocolate, cokes, alcohol . . . As I enter these new spaces I remind the community of something that has transformed my own Lenten journey: Lent is not primarily about giving up instead, at its core, is about discipleship, about those who are preparing to make baptismal vows and our renewal of those vows in light of Easter.

This Lenten season I am thinking about Jane, about how we as a community of believers will model for her the meaning of what John Wesley called Christian perfection, our journey towards a fully sanctified life.  How do we help one another open ourselves to the work of God’s Spirit in sanctification? How do we allow our worship, our devotional life, our service to the world shape our souls into reconciling love? How do we grow into justice seeking, forgiveness, and radical hospitality?

So it begins today, with our recognition of our humanity and our need for divine grace. It begins with God’s invitation to change our hearts and life, to turn from sin and death, and believe the good news. It begins with our gathering as God’s people and the mark of our baptism being made visible.

Here we go again Jane, your family is about to begin a journey we’ll take together for the rest of our lives. A journey into the promise of our constant conversion, our perfection in love, our sanctification, the Risen Lord made evident in us, for the life of the world!

Let us observe our Lent thus, giving our sufferings, our bloodshed, our sorrow the same value that Christ gave to his own condition of poverty, oppression, abandonment, and injustice. Let us change all that into the cross of salvation that redeems the world and our people. And with hatred for none, let us be converted and share both joys and material aids, in our poverty, with those who may be even needier.

Archbishop Oscar Romero

What Next? – Gospels in 90

“The women went out quickly; and when they were outside the tomb, they ran away trembling and astonished. Along their way, they didn’t stop to say anything to anyone because they were too afraid.”

Mark 16:8 (The Voice NT)

The Gospel according to Mark has three endings: verses, 8, 20, 21 (or later part of 20 depending on translation). All of these possibilities are vying for attention, each of them making a significant difference in the way the story is heard.

I join the group of biblical scholars that believe that verse 8 is the “original” ending to this amazing gospel. It makes sense that this gospel would end as it opened up, fast, to the point, open-ended. It almost seems like the writer wants us to place ourselves in the narrative and come to our own conclusions based upon our own experience with the risen Christ.

As we continue to think about our life together and our way forward we might feel the same kind of whiplash that this gospel closes with . . . we might have many questions, it all might seem “fuzzy,” and we might still be wondering what is coming next.

The most repeated phrase asked of me is: “Tell us what’s next? What is the plan? What are the next steps?”

I can honestly say that I do not know. I stand with you, like the women who came to see Jesus, experiencing the risen Lord. We are wondering together what all of this might mean to us and to our community of believers. There are no clear answers, but there is the reality of what the risen Lord has done, is doing, and will do through us. There is also an awareness that at times the way of discipleship is scary, uncertain, and difficult.

Early Christian communities encountered the abrupt ending and added their own take on what happened next. These were amazing tales of the invincible nature of true discipleship. Today we stand at verse 8 and I want us to ask ourselves, who are we going to be as followers of Jesus in light of our encounter with an empty tomb? What will our discipleship look like? What does that discipleship mean for our life as a congregation?

Disciple Them! – Gospels in 90

Go out and make disciples in all the nations. Wash them ceremonially in the name of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then disciple them. Form them in the practices and postures that I have taught you, and show them how to follow the commands I have laid down for you. And I will be with you, day after day, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:19-20 (The Voice NT)

It turns out that the real challenge in our life together as a congregation is the issue of discipleship. Guiding others to learn the “practices and postures” that Jesus taught is difficult work. No amount of sermon hearing and hymn singing can truly accomplish this task. In fact I would venture to say that worship reinforces and reminds the community of what they need to be modeling and learning in weekly gatherings with a small group of fellow believers.

As I look at our congregational life I recognize the need for us to become a pathway for these opportunities for disciple forming. The pathway to these in our midst is not clear. There are many in our congregation who gather for these conversations, they gather at the church, in their homes, and even in their workplaces. It is exciting that these actually exist in our community of faith. What is missing is the path to these, the open invitation for new comers to know that we are the kind of congregation that encourages and makes the way of discipleship a priority. We also need some new groups to form as a large portion of recent attenders and members have not plugged in to these opportunities. Along the way we need to be better at communicating the importance of these communities of discipleship to the life of faith.

As a congregation we are recognizing that as we grow deeper in our life with Jesus, as we engage in the ministry of Jesus in our community, and as we keep each other accountable to our life with God and one another that we are tilling the ground of God’s kingdom in our midst. As we continue this journey through the story of Jesus I am thankful that we are experiencing these stories and their effect in our lives together . . . now let us “disciple them” making a commitment to become the kind of congregation, the kind of community of proclamation, that becomes a pathway to communities of discipleship.

Amazing Things! – Gospels in 90

The people saw the mute speaking, the lame walking, the maimed made whole, the crippled dancing, and the blind seeing; and the people were amazed, and they praised the God of Israel.

Matthew 15:31 (The Voice NT)

There is a little chorus that I learned as child called “When the People of the Lord” it says: “When God’s people worship, amazing things happen! There’s healing, liberation, blessing, there’s healing, liberation, God’s presence made known!”

So far in our journey through the gospel according to Matthew we have seen some amazing things! Angels bring “messages” from God, a “savior” born like the rest of us, strangers recognizing what community of promise does not, a baby who is a threat to the powers of the day, a prophet of the Lord after years of silence, a showdown between a savior and the evil one, everyday people (including sinners!!) being called to follow a great teacher, healings, exorcisms, restorations, feedings, liberations . . .

Sometimes in our reason-oriented society we might be convinced that no amazing things like this could happen today. We’ve reduced the presence of Jesus as a catalyst to becoming nice, happy, comfortable, and “feeling good.”

Today I am reminded how powerful and life changing the presence of Jesus is!

I often remind the congregation to expect something when we gather, that the creator of the universe will indeed be present in our worship, that the presence of Christ proclaimed in prayer, song, and homily will be made real in Eucharist. That grace abundant will outpour and amazing things will indeed take place in and through our gathering.

So what would it look like for us to recover a sense of joyful expectation for God’s presence in our worship and in our everyday life?

If discipleship is about our participation in divine life through our surrendering to the Lordship of Christ, what are the effects of that discipleship in our community of believers, in our homes, and in the marketplaces we inhabit?

Exciting journey indeed . . .

The Gospels in 90 Days

As readers of this space know I am a believer in systematic reading of scripture. I have used different reading plans throughout the years from the fast and furious bible in 90 to the two year daily office lectionary. For me is about having a method to my engagement with the narrative of faith. Last year I began 2011 with the Bible in 90 days, this year I have invited my staff and leadership team at the church to join me in reading the gospels in 90 days (actually 89 days, one chapter a day).

My prayer is that we’ll have a common narrative as we engage our leadership this year. Each time I engage the story of faith I am amazed at what I hear, learn, and struggle with, I am sure this time it will not be any different. I am not promising a daily blog on the chapter of the day but I can guarantee that I will have things to say along the way. I am excited to be reading the gospels in The Voice New Testament translation, a different translation forces us to hear the story in a different way, and this one is truly different.

Jacob was the father of Joseph, who married a woman named Mary. It was Mary who gave birth to Jesus, and it is Jesus who is the Savior, the Anointed One, the Liberating King.

Matthew 1:16 (The Voice)

Jesus is the savior, the anointed one, the one who frees us from sin and death. I tell this to myself often as I engage in ministry everyday. It is difficult to recognize our need for a savior, our need for an anointed one, it is even more difficult to recognize our need to be freed. This is why we need this story so desperately, this is also why we need the community of faith to remind us of our common need for God.

In my own life I am still trying to understand what this savior means in my everyday life. And as a father of three children I also struggle with what it means to raise our children in the way that leads to life. Then we read the narrative and recognize that we are not alone, that many others have struggled with it too.

In the end a savior is needed, we need to be made whole, need to be freed. I am thankful that a way forward was provided for, that the way of redemption has been provided. It is amazing to hear, read, and experience how God provided for this way.

I know that this story will be transformational, it always is! Let the journey begin . . .

On the Fourth Day of Christmas

20111228-142159.jpgThis season I’ve been doing some serious reflection on what it might look like to recover the season of Christmas in my life and in the life of my family. What if Christmas Day was truly the beginning? What if our feasting and merry making built up to Epiphany?

As a family we are actually seriously considering this. As a Puerto Rican with a rich tradition of Epiphany we have been gift giving at this time since our first child was born. But we are now thinking about a serious realignment of our practice to match our theological and liturgical understanding.

Christmas Day would be our first day of feasting, gathering, service, and celebration with prayers, songs, and a daily lectionary helping us mark the days. On Epiphany we would exchange simple gifts to remind us of the gifts that the wise men shared that manifested who Jesus was, that would remind us of who Jesus is for us today.

I wonder how all of this would connect to a community of faith? Daily prayer at the church? Twelve days of service in the community? Twelve days of making the kingdom physically evident in our local communities? I am still thinking how this would look like in the congregation I pastor and if it is even possible to change our long North American practices.

I know that Shannon and I want something different for ourselves and our family. We want our children to be filled with mystery and awe but not from a folk hero but from the Word made flesh (and yes, no matter what anyone says I do believe and have observed our over emphasis of Santa Claus in the church). We want our children to receive the gift of Jesus but not from a saturated tree bottom. We want to remember the story not for nostalgia but for it’s power to still change the world.

I know that we are not alone so we hope to find conversation partners to join us in our desire to make Christmas an important part of our formation in the way of the kingdom.

I wonder if any of you would want to join us in this journey?

The Incarnation: God’s Work of Interpretation – A Christmas Day Homily

"Nativity" mid 12th century mosaic in the Cappella Palatina de Palermo

In an interview on National Public Radio a few years ago Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, director of the movie Babel, spoke of the difficulty with language. He said: “the points of view of life, what means something for you; there is no translation for that.”

Language is complex. We speak every day, sending all sorts of signals to those around us. We take language for granted, not giving it much thought or attention. The words we use and how we use them carry with them not just the information we are trying to convey but also our feelings, attitudes and stories. All of these come through in our everyday, even if we do not realize it.

Because language is complex translation is difficult. Many times I find myself trying to find the appropriate word when translating. In the end translation is always interpretation – the choice of words and phrases have as much to do with the feelings and attitudes, as they have to do with the actual word or phrase themselves. Many times there is no translation/interpretation that can communicate what the other person is trying to say.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us:

In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. In these final days, though, he spoke to us through a Son. God made his Son the heir of everything and created the world through him.  The Son is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being. He maintains everything with his powerful message.

Hebrews 1:1-3a (CEB)

It turns out that the incarnation was God’s solution to the problem of communication. God sent the word, the logos, the active, creative, aspect of God-self, in human form. God did this so that we could finally understand the magnitude of his love. This was the only way that humanity could know that we mean something to God. That at the core of God’s identity is creation, so as a creator, God wanted to initiate a renewed relationship with us.

The story of divine-human relationship found in the scriptures is a story of misunderstanding. Humanity being constantly fooled into thinking that God did not care, that God did not know. In the incarnation God showed the extremes that God was willing to go in order to reach each one of us; God taking on our language, our point of view, and our identity.

St. Athanasius in his On the Incarnation, tells us that “it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us.” (29) Our sorry case, our constant miscommunication, our refusal to understand the language of love!

The Christmas season is the celebration of God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ. We celebrate that God broke the barriers of communication and became one of us in order to redeem us. We are made new because God made God-self new. We are able to understand because God went beyond translation and instead transformed God-self into human form – God speaking the language of the created order. In this gracious act God made clear God’s “points of view” and “what meant something” to God.

It turns out that the world still needs to hear about this divine activity. Many in our world still cannot imagine a God who speaks their language. Many faithful followers of Jesus still struggle to recognize their need to become incarnate too, to learn the language of those in need, to practice meaning-making in our world, to become themselves the bearers of God’s being in the world.

Incarnation means that the world is God’s language also, it makes sense that it is for it is God’s own creation. Sometimes in an effort to be set apart the Christian church proclaims a gospel that does not celebrate the beauty of what it means to be human and the gift of the created order. We then settle for a disembodied word, a “spiritual” world, and intangible grace.

The incarnation reminds us that the language of God is embodied, earthy, tangible, accessible and at the same time, Spiritual, mysterious, wonder-full, and awesome!

During this season of Christmas may we become bearers of God’s grace-full language, bearers of the holy, faithful interpreters of the Good News of Jesus, not just what it says but its point of view, what it means for each of us, for

 The Word became flesh
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth. John 1:14 (CEB)

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