SpiritStirrer

sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

Category: theology (Page 2 of 8)

We Are A Thought in God: A Christmas Eve Reflection

This is the Christian’s joy:
I know that I am a thought in God,
no matter how insignificant I may be –
the most abandoned of beings,
one no one thinks of.

Today, when we think of Christmas gifts,
how many outcasts no one thinks of!
Think to yourselves, you that are outcasts,
you that feel you are nothing in history:

“I know that I am a thought in God.”
Would that my voice might reach the imprisoned

like a ray of light, of Christmas hope –
might say also to you, the sick,
the elderly in the home for the aged,
the hospital patients,
you that live in shacks and shantytowns,
you coffee harvesters trying to garner your only wage
for the whole year,
you that are tortured:

God’s eternal purpose has thought of all of you.
He loves you, and, like Mary,
incarnates that thought in his womb.

Archbishop Oscar Romero from The Violence of Love

Nativity with Mary, Joseph and the New-Born Christ by J. Le Breton 1933

As a pastor I have the honor and privilege to walk alongside people at different times of their life. There are times of celebration – baby’s being born, the news of a promotion, graduations, and weddings. Then there are the difficult times, when life seems to be going downhill, when it turns on us and our hearts are broken, when illness takes over, despair comes near, sin and death knock at the door . . .

It is at those times that the good news is most needed.

Christmas in the Christian tradition is the answer to the good news needed in our broken world. It reminds us year after year that sin and death is no longer our inevitable path, the child born in Bethlehem becoming the sign and symbol of God’s purposes for the created order.

Gift giving becomes the reminder of God’s gift of his Son. At its best it should become a catalyst for our difference making in the world. Like God gave us his Son, we then give of one another to the work of salvation, to the world of justice, peace, and hope.

Christmas is most understood by those who long, hunger, and desire for a better day. What a gift it will be to them if something changed, if there was hope after all, if justice would come; as Romero reminds us “God’s eternal purpose” thinking of them.

As we gather in our churches tonight, as we gather with family, around trees and gifts, may we not forget the message of salvation to us and to the world. And may that message become incarnate in us; incarnate – an essential aspect of our identity – so that we can become difference makers in our world.

We are a thought in God so the savior we have been expecting is here!

Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11 (CEB)

Advent: No End to His Kingdom

"Annunciation" by Lawrence OP

We have been waiting, we’ve been preparing, and we’ve been counting the days. Now we are drawing near, salvation around the corner, I wonder if we are ready.

I don’t mean to be a cynic but I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas. I guess to be more specific I struggle with our cultural celebration of Christmas and how, in the lives and practices of Christian people, it has taken over our religious commemoration. I know I am not alone in all of this, and I don’t want to be another religious leader complaining about our cultural Christmas celebration. But I do struggle and I approach these Sundays of Advent with much reverence and care, hoping to hold the space for preparation, reflection, and realization.

Now we enter a final week. After hearing about an end that becomes a beginning, about one who prepares the way, about us not being the light, now we hear how salvation will be made possible:

‘Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.’ Luke 1:31-33 (CEB)

Salvation made possible by one like us and unlike us. By one holy, promised, and whose kingdom will have not end. I needed to hear that this season. God’s kingdom still unfolding, Christ still making all things new, the Spirit . . .

. . . who made Christ’s body in Mary’s womb and keeps re-making the church…is a Spirit that is hovering – in the words of Genesis – over a new creation. –Archbishop Romero

A new creation is dawning: justice, peace, reconciliation, and love still unfolding, still available in the world, no matter how difficult, how distant it seems. Year after year, season after season, celebration after celebration, it keeps on dawning.

And it just so happens that this new creation is birthed through each of us. Each of us transformed by the Spirit, each of us ready to become agents of Christ’s in-braking in the world as we become the incarnation of Christ to our struggling world.

As I prepare for this last week of Advent I recognize more than ever our need for a savior. I am more thankful than ever for Jesus Christ and for Christ’s body the church. I am also deeply aware that there is little that I can do with the cultural celebration, but that I can continue to hold the space in my congregation, in my family, and in my own heart, for the return of the one who will make all things right.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Till then I’ll continue to proclaim God’s kingdom, to call God’s people to the way of Jesus, and will remind myself of the words of Archbishop Romero,  that God’s Spirit is still “re-making the Church . . . hovering over a new creation.”

“No end to his kingdom” indeed!

Advent: Salvation’s Way Prepared

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.

He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”

John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8 (CEB)

Last week I struggled with endings that become beginnings. It struck me that this season of Advent, if taken seriously, could truly prepare us for God’s repeated in-braking in Jesus Christ. Each Advent reminds me of my own need for salvation and the need of the world, of all of creation. The reality of an end, of all that is not right in the world, causes me to pay attention to the ways that God’s kingdom is birthing forth a new beginning; just like God promised.

Soon it becomes evident of how difficult it is to take that step. The narrative of faith reminds us time and time again that human nature prefers the familiarity of slavery and exile to the uncertainty of freedom and home. Those that came to John came to the wilderness, obviously they wanted something, needed something, so they came. “Change your hearts and lives,” he proclaimed. But as this passage nears a close we hear more uncertainty, “One stronger than I am is coming after me.”It is good to know that the way of salvation has been prepared; God’s own initiative at work long before we become aware. The prophetic words from Isaiah were a call to return home from exile. God was indeed making a way, preparing the path, no stumbling blocks would be left, and no excuses could be found. God making it possible, the people of Israel just needed to follow the path.

On Sundays I stand before my congregation with the goal of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Like the writer of the gospel according to Mark, I too recognize that what I am to proclaim has been at work from long ago. The words that I say are a repetition of the great narrative of our faith. Yet each Sunday I am amazed at how difficult it is to recognize our need to walk away from our “slavery to sin and death” into the freedom of God’s grace.

The way has been prepared. Advent guarantees that we know that year after year. The way has been prepared because a way was needed, because we are not to stay in the comforts of exile and slavery, because God wants us to be freed to enter into the work of God’s kingdom.

May this season be a one where we “change our hearts and lives,” a season where we recognize our slavery to sin and death and accept the freedom that God offers to us. May we in recognizing that freedom work diligently by the power of the Spirit to be preparers of the way so that all of creation can experience the final consummation of God’s kingdom as revealed by Jesus Christ; Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Advent: End Becoming Beginning

Who will put a prophet’s eloquence into my words
to shake from their inertia
all those who kneel before the riches of the earth –
who would like gold, money, lands, power, political life
to be their everlasting gods?
All that is going to end.
There will remain only the satisfaction of having been,
in regard to money or political life,
a person faithful to God’s will.
One must learn to manage the relative and transitory
things of earth according to his will,
not make them absolutes.
There is only one absolute: he who awaits us
in the heaven that will not pass away.

(Archbishop Oscar Romero)

On the eve of what is normally dubbed the “biggest shopping day of the year,” a day we reflect on the many blessings given to us, the economy continues to struggle. We are not alone; our struggles, it seems, are common with other nations in the world. Fear, uncertainty, and suspicion abounds. Many corners of our world are in the midst of war and strife, injustice abounding, power struggles widespread. From whom shall our help come?

The least everywhere find themselves living their everyday. While many others who could make ends meet just a year ago are finding themselves with less and less, with little hope ahead. Some of our citizens out of frustration and anger have taken to the streets to “occupy” places of power. Can we stand aside while the rich become richer and the poor poorer?

Our politicians are in a gridlock. Extremes abound and I can’t see any sign of helpful conversation and a way forward. I wonder if the “common good” will ever dominate our decision making.

This Sunday we’ll gather in the midst of uncertainty only days after many will spend beyond their means hoping to make this season meaningful. They have struggled through early mornings, long days, and crowds of people, all for the chance at the “great deal.”

For so many this is no season to be merry. So many have lost jobs, others have lost loved ones, still others have lost hope. It might be better to skip this all together.

In the church we might be tempted to get on the celebration bandwagon, while ignoring the plight, the hurts, and the reality of so many. We might ignore our own uncertainties, the ways that our ecclesial world is also changing. We could act like no end is needed and jump to the celebration of new beginning but the reality of life speaks to the great narrative of our faith in the promise that only in an end can a beginning be found.

There is no better time for Advent!

Advent comes to remind us that God’s story unfolds towards a renewed creation. The brokenness in our world will not prevail, God’s kingdom of justice and peace will have its last say. In the meantime we wait; we continue experiencing loss, despair, and pain. We continue experiencing ends and wonder if that is all there is?

During these special times of the year, seasons of so called “celebration,” we are more aware of ends experienced. Yet in surprising ways these “ends” can become agents of new life, of renewed relationship, of a transformed world. The story of faith seems to know these rhythms of life: Fruitfulness after a fall, an olive branch after a flood, a journey home after settling as strangers, a child in old age, empowerment after captivity, freedom after slavery, a word of the Lord in a strange land. . .

Here are the words of Jesus from the Gospel for this Sunday:

In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.

Mark 13:24-27 (CEB)

So today I pray for the in-braking of God in our world:

Come once more gracious God, shower us with your grace, and empower us by your Spirit so that we can become agents of your kingdom. Heal our brokenness; bring justice to our world; make love our way of life. Come, Lord Jesus, come make our endings into beginnings, come bring us your salvation!

______________________________

I’m excited to be part of the Common English Bible Blog Tour 2011. To find out more please LIKE the Facebook page http://facebook.com/LiveTheBible. You can also follow on Twitter @CommonEngBible #CEBtour

Leadership as “Story Telling”

In his book One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells us the story of humanity, the humanity of his experience, the primal story of his people. The story is haunting, at times confusing, but it seems so real, the human condition lined out in each sentence, the possibility of grace always around the corner. It’s first lines sets us up for an adventure into our own story:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude

Each time I encounter writings like this I am reminded of the primal stories of the Christian faith. These stories are about re-membering, about home, about promises made and promises broken. At the beginning, like at the beginning of Garcia Marquez epic, the world is recent and we find ourselves having to point, in order to be made aware of the story that is being told.

I say all this to say that at the core of congregational leadership is story. More specifically story-telling and story listening. We are constantly re-calling, and recasting the great story and it’s pointing towards our world today. We too have a rootedness in this epic, our “Macondo” is the land of promise, our “Colonels” are the story tellers that narrate the story of faith.

We must take this story telling seriously. In conversations, in decision making, in sermon, and in teaching we are to constantly frame and re-frame in light of the great narrative of faith. Constantly pointing towards realities not yet named and asking the community of faith to take ownership and claim the unfolding future, the unexpected turn, and the surprise ending as part of God’s continued story in us and through us.

Leading as a story teller and story hearer can be difficult work. It takes patience, time, and a rootedness in the narrative. It also requires our constant immersion in other stories and those who tell them. From novels, to short stories, from songs to poems, from essays to blogs, the leader as story teller immerses him/herself in the narrative of everyday life. At each turn we as congregational leaders ask the God questions, the questions of the human condition, and begin to exegete these as part of our dealings with the sacred story.

Little by little, each story heard, read, and seen becomes part of who we are as congregational leaders. The stories become the narrative extension of the great story of faith: spoken, sung, & prayed. It is our task to connect the dots and call the community to see their own stories, their own narrative, to be a narrative of redemption, a narrative of grace, to be part of God’s activity in their life, even when God might seem absent, when God’s presence is not “felt,” when life seems to be out of control.

I am thankful for the stories that live in me, for those that I am honored to hold, and for the many that I am yet to hear. I am also thankful for the story I get to share each and everyday, a story that I am constantly pointing towards, a story that reminds the community of its name!

Embodying the Practices

It seems like talk of “practices” is popular again. People and groups both inside and outside the church are re-discovering that our faith is not just about beliefs or intellectual affirmation but about a way of life, a way of living, that connects us to one another and to God. These are not in and of themselves “salvific.” In other words, practices for practices sake, for getting our own spiritual fix, are not transformative, are not converting. But if we engage them with the purpose of connecting with and being transformed by God, then we are living their purpose in our lives.

We have been blessed in our time here to have an opportunity to be grounded, rooted, and founded in the practices of life together. We have committed to creating spaces to explore vocation as a community, to ask self-awakening questions, to reflect theologically on ourselves and our community, and to envisioning and enacting the next faithful steps. These are deep and important commitments that we have made, commitments that if kept can change the face of the communities of faith that we are leading and will lead.

To embody these practices means to engage them to such an extent that they become part of who we are. They no longer serve as checklists in our life together, or requirements for faithful conversation, or program for a new way forward. Instead we become the space makers for faithful listening, intentional speaking, growing self-awareness, and passionate makers of the destiny that God is unfolding for ourselves, our congregations, and the community around us.

Embodying requires us to live actively. We can no longer make excuses, skirt responsibility, or blame other. We must become active participants of our own baptismal call to be about God’s kingdom in the world. To be “called” is to acknowledge that the divine is still creating, renewing, and transforming. To “practice” is to try again and again, no matter how many times we think we have failed.

As we have gathered in this city we have been forced to embody what we proclaim. We have entered with care into a space that groans with new life. We have been able to hear stories, to ask the questions, and to reflect on how our story, relates to the story of this city, and to God’s call for the renewal of all that is broken, all that misses the mark, all that necessitates renewal.

I pray that we carry this way of living and believing when we go from this place. Let’s embody, let us not fear, let us proceed boldly into the enacting of God’s kingdom through the people called the church.

_______________________________

Originally appeared in the Fund for Theological Education “Next Narrative” Blog.

Rapture Fail

It should not surprise us that another attempt at figuring out, reading the tea leaves, guessing, has failed. It seems that from the very beginning people connected to the Christian faith have been tempted to figure it out, to give a date, to make sure that people have an opportunity to prepare. We might begin our exploration of this phenomenon in the New Testament where in the book of Thessalonians where its author tells the church:

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.

(Thessalonians 2:1-2, NRSV)

©2010 Todd Rossnagel

From the very beginning, there has been a hope, a fear, a mystery around events leading to the end of time.

This latest “prediction” has brought about much press, mockery, and satire. It is embarassing that each time it is mentioned, the word “Christian” is connected to it, as if all Christians were somehow connected to this latest false prophet.

This morning my main concern is not about the Christian tradition getting a bad name (after all we have done that to ourselves many times). What is rolling through my mind is that we are people who believe that God will make all things right in the end through Jesus. The Christian hope includes an understanding that death does not win, evil is not victorious, nor illness, nor pain, nor poverty, nor injustice. Someday there will be an end to things as we know it and a new day will dawn, a renewed creation, a new heaven and a new earth.

My prayer is that in the midst of another crazy false prophet, we in the Christian faith don’t easily give into the desire to reject Christ’s final in-braking in the world. Maybe occassions like this one could become another reminder to take the words of our liturgy seriously when we pray, gathered around table,

By your Spirit makes us one with Christ, one with each other, in ministry to all the world. Until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

(The Great Thanksgiving, Word and Table I, The United Methodist Hymnal)

There will be no rapture . . . but Christ has promised to come again, to make all things new. May we as God’s people continue the work of God’s kingdom, deepening our discipleship, gathering to be empowered by the Spirit, being agents of God’s Spirit for the transformation of the world, Maranatha! (Our Lord, come!)

Reflections on Leaving – Part 2: Stuff

You would have thought that by now we would be deep in boxes. Packing takes time and time is running out. We have done some light packing but before we could really get going on it we had to purge the house of stuff.

We have moved many times. As Shannon and I approach our 9th wedding  anniversary (on the 25th of this month) I am reminded that this move will be the 6th move in our 9 years of marriage. Our first apartment (where we lived for 2 months) was around 700 sq ft, followed by our seminary digs where we lived in a 400 sq. ft. of space.

There was little room for non-essentials in our little apartment. We had a few chairs to sit on, a small dining room table, a small desk, and the chest of drawers also served as an entertainment center. In the bedroom all we could fit was our bed and two end tables. This small place became a home to us during these important days in our lives. All the furniture in that place had been given to us, or we had bought it at the church’s garage sale. We had what we needed in that small place.

Yet each time we moved we purged, we found ourselves with more stuff than we really needed. This time is no different and in fact I think we have collected more since this is the longest we have lived in one house.

It is embarrassing to acknowledge how much stuff we have accumulated. How did I end up with 5 winter coats? Where did all those TV’s come from? How come my kids have so many toys? Why did we keep x (kitchen appliance, old bag, electronic) if it did not work?

I am sure by now you get my drift, we all could live simpler than we live now. When the moving company came to give us an estimate they were surprised at how little we had, I told him about our purging and he told me stories of people who had not just their home belongings but storage unit after storage unit full of stuff. I can’t imagine!

My prayer is that we become more intentional about what we obtain. Do we really need it? I also pray that we are more willing to part with things that are no longer used, or worn, or needed. I am sure that there are people who would be blessed to get it.

I am one of those people who strives to live simply. I encountered this idea some years ago as I read Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. One of his quotes has stuck with me since then and it speaks perfectly to what we have felt as we have been facing our “stuff:”

We really must understand that the lust for affluence in contemporary society is psychotic. It is psychotic because it has completely lost touch with reality. We crave things we neither need nor enjoy. ‘We buy things we do not want to impress people we do not like’ . . . it is time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.

It turns out that leaving is an opportunity to grow in grace!

My Response to Bin Laden’s Death

I joined the many others who watched with surprise the news that Osama Bin Laden had been found and killed. It was almost unreal, the face of terror for almost a decade was now gone. What would our response be?

I can only speak about my response. I say this carefully and humbly knowing that we all respond to things very differently. My feeling last night (and as I continue to reflect on it today) has been sadness.

I am saddened that thousands have been the victims of the madness of one mastermind.

I am saddened that fear continues to influence so much in our world.

I am saddened that many lives have been lost in search of a madman.

I am saddened that in the end this inevitable act does not mean that justice has been done.

So I am struggling today, I cannot celebrate, although I can understand why some might feel jubilant. I am struggling today, I cannot celebrate, although I understand why some think justice has been done. I am struggling today, I cannot celebrate, but I can pray for the world, for the common good, for people of faith, for God’s kingdom to come.

May we respond to each other honestly, humbly, and lovingly. May God’s people, who continue to celebrate this season of Easter, may reflect on what our loving response should be, to each other, to the events happening around us, and to the way forward, as a people of resurrection!

Holy Saturday: Dressing the Church

A nod to my brother Josh Hale (expatminister) who has written a wonderful post about how pastors can observe Holy Saturday.

His post got me thinking about what I enjoy the most as a pastor on Holy Saturday. I especially enjoy sleeping late (by sleeping late we mean till around 7:30 am due to our living alarm clocks), spending time with the family listening to music, and taking extra time drinking my coffee with Shannon.

Yet, my favorite part of Holy Saturday is dressing the church for Easter. This started some 3 years ago when I was appointed here at Squyres UMC. In a small congregation we need all hands on deck and after a very busy Friday (which includes an amazing fish fry & Easter egg hunt) everyone in the church is exhausted. So my first Holy Week I volunteered to be the one to come in on Saturday evening and dress the church.

Maybe it reminds me of those wonderful days at Candler School of Theology where I served as the sacristan for the Office of Worship. There I prepared the space for worship every week. I would walk into that sacred space and take my time, almost as if each movement was a prayer, getting the space ready for the community to gather.

All these years later it is still a prayer. I walk into a bare space (it was “stripped” on Holy Thursday) and begin to bring back signs of celebration. Banners, paraments, fine linen, candles, the cross that will hold flowers, the book that holds the Great Thanksgiving.

Each detail reminds me of the events of the past season. I can remember my dirty hands on Ash Wednesday, what seemed like an endless set of Lenten Sundays, the Hosanna’s of Palm Sunday, our re-membrance of the Last Supper, and the blowing out of candles last night.

Now little by little it comes to life again.

I am thankful for this time in an empty sanctuary. A time to reflect and remember the great honor that it is to be a pastor. I am thankful that this time reminds me of these words from Gordon Lathrop:

The pastor lives among symbols. The pastor cares for symbols, sets out symbols for other people, hopes these symbols may hold people’s lives into meaning. Symbols are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins would say, the “gear and tackle and trim” of pastoral ministry. Or they ought to be. Words, stories, sacraments, images, gestures: pastors have really nothing else.

(from Pastor: A Spirituality, pg. 1)

As we continue on this journey to Easter, may we take the time to reflect, rest, and be thankful. And for those out there who will be walking into empty sanctuaries to prepare, may dressing the church become your prayer today!

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