SpiritStirrer

sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

Category: umc

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.

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 . . .

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)

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: We Are Not the Light

A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light.  He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light. John 1:6-8 (CEB)

As a pastor I often remind myself that I have been sent. Although in our tradition we are indeed sent to places of service by the bishop, I like to remind myself that in the end I have been sent to serve and lead by God.

It started long ago when my parents brought me forth and made the claim that I belonged to God. The prayers of a community of faith, the waters of baptism, and the many voices that helped me clarify my vocation. Each of these moments were “sent” centered as these varieties of people helped form me as a fellow “sent” one.

To believe in being sent is easy, what is difficult is to recognize why we are sent. I’ll have to admit that at times I have forgotten. My passion, my dedication, and my ego have gotten in the way. It is almost as if my mantra needs to constantly be “I am not the light, I am not the light, I am not the light.”

We are called, empowered, sent . . . to “testify to the light.”

It is easy to believe that we are indeed the light. How many times have I spoken of My church, My ministry, My calling? It has taken many wise sages in my life to remind me that is God’s church, God’s ministry; God’s calling in my life. These fellow sojourners have called me back to our shared vocation, to our baptismal call, to the light.

Here comes Advent again, getting us down from our high horses, pushing us to recognize our desperate need for God, getting us ready for God’s in-braking in Jesus Christ. Here comes Advent with its call to reality and new life. Here comes Advent with its proclamation of promises to be fulfilled.

This Advent I am keenly aware of our search for answers as a church. We hear the reports, the statistics, and calls to action. Many of our congregations are trying to survive, in the midst of economic uncertainty and a shrinking pool of resources.

I struggle with many of these conversations because at times they seem to be self-serving.  I hear a fear of our “demise” as a denomination, a fear of closing churches, a fear of losing “market share.” Could we say that we are living in the darkness, in the shadow? Could we say that we are groping for our way forward? Maybe a mantra is needed, “We are not the light, we are not the light, we are not the light!”

I pray that John’s proclamation helps us focus our attention to our light proclamation, to reminding God’s people of their God given mission, to tell the world that

“the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light.” Matthew 4:16a (CEB)

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