sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

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Sin, Humility, & Mercy: GC 2016

I am a sinner. I do things that I should not do and leave things undone that I should do. Often I only consider myself when making decisions, when engaging others, and when speaking about God. The fruit looks inticing, God might not be trustworthy, my selfish desires often convince me that there is nothing wrong with me following my every whim. I look around and again I am shocked at my capacity to be an agent of brokenness, hurt, and division.

The more stories I hear, the more I pay attention around me, the more I recognize that I am not alone in my brokenness, that all creation seems to be groaning for wholeness. All of creation bound, in need of freedom, in need to be redeemed.

I am thankful that God chose to provide a path to our redemption. It was an risky path, one that required taking on our human form. Choosing a messy holiness (a messy set apartness) instead of choosing perfection, cleanness, neatness, and power. As Paul tells us:

Though He was in the form of God,

He chose not to cling to equality with God;

But He poured Himself out to fill a vessel brand new;

    a servant in form

    and a man indeed.

The very likeness of humanity,

He humbled Himself,

    obedient to death—

    a merciless death on the cross!

So God raised Him up to the highest place

    and gave Him the name above all.

So when His name is called,

    every knee will bow,[a]

    in heaven, on earth, and below.

And every tongue will confess

    “Jesus, the Anointed One, is Lord,”

    to the glory of God our Father! 

Philippians 2:6-11 (The Voice Bible)

Our conviction about our “bent to sinning” and the recognition of our brokenness, should be the catalyst for our growing in humility. Our inability to make our selves whole, our inability to manufacture transformation, our inability to end the enmity that plagues our world, should convict us again and again of our dependence on God and our commonality with one another. It should push us to a willingness to come alongside the other, listen to their story, and begin to build community,  a beloved community, a community of saints and sinners. A community willing to do what God has done again and again, giving power away, being poured out, dying again and again to self while being born again and again to new life, whole life, abundant life.

This morning Bishop Sally Dick (you can read her sermon here) called us to “Go, learn mercy.” Mercy coming from our encounter with it, from our humble recognition of our need for grace. She stirred us up, made us uncomfortable, and challenged us to stop obsessing about the other’s sin and to begin to pay attention to ours. She called us to a willingness to enter a messy holiness so that we as a body could experience salvation.

As we continue in conversation as a church I recognize that this time together can be sanctifying. Us learning to hear each other, us making space for one another in the midst of disagreement, us learning to enter the messiness of our lives (in the messiness of our sin) and humbling ourselves, offering ourselves mercy, and learning to grow in God’s love in spite of disagreement.

The practice for this kind of sanctifying life begins in our local congregations. Can we make spaces where our brokenness is acknowledge, where humility is modeled, and where mercy is practiced? Can we learn to listen and learn to talk to one another in ways that respects the other’s dignity? Can we practice disagreeing with one another in ways that do not question the other’s motives? In ways that does not seek to convince, persuade, or prove wrong?

Broken people, humbly learning mercy and practicing God’s messy holiness . . .

Discernment: GC 2016

One of the continued conversations here is around how a body discerns. How do we hear each other? What does it mean to listen to each other? What happens when we disagree? What does it mean to discern across the many cultures found here in this body? How has the Christian tradition practiced discernment?

I could spend the rest of the day asking more questions. Many of these do not have simple answers. Being in this space is a humble reminder that often my perspectives, values, and worldview are so limited by my own story. It is also a reminder that we must have these conversations as we continue to find ways to live life together.

I believe that the best place to reclaim the practice of listening, conversation, and discernment is the local congregation. Let us make spaces beyond our echo chambers, spaces where we acknowledge our common humanity, spaces where we can share life together.

Discernment is a key practice of our life of faith as we tune our souls to the voice of the Holy Spirit for us individually and for our communities of faith. It seeks to shape our souls to God’s desires, wants, and will. It means that we are able to put aside our personal preferences, our opinions, and prejudices. It means that we learn to listening to God’s voice in one another as we share stories of life and faith, especially as we read scripture together. It means that we take a breath and take an opportunity to look our lives and life together from the balcony, where the weeds no longer distract our view.

I believe that the more that we practice discernment in our local communities, the more that we practice communal discernment, the better we’ll be able to handle legislative matters in our life together. Let’s practice hearing one another as we gather around table for dinner with our families, let us practice hearing another over a cup of coffee with a friend, neighbor, or co-worker, and let us practice hearing one another as we share testimony of God’s work in our lives.

As the pastor of Grace Community UMC in Shreveport, LA I am committed to creating an atmosphere — a culture — of discernment, conversations, listening, and respectful dialogue among our congregation and from that congregation to our families, neighborhoods, and beyond!

I can’t wait to return to Shreveport and live into this way, another 8 days to go. There’s no telling what the Holy Spirit might tell me next!

The Bishops Speak: GC2016 Episcopal Address

One of the highlights of every Annual Conference is the Episcopal Address. The time when our chief shepherd, teacher, and overseer inspires us, convicts us, and reminds us of our identity as God’s people. As we gathered this morning in Portland as a General Church, it was not any different.

Bishop Gregory Palmer from the West Ohio Area delivered a stirring call for unity. Unity through humility, confession, and common mission. Unity through repentance, care for the other, and a common humanity. Unity through re-membering our baptism, our shared worship, and our encounter with Jesus Christ at table.

For me the key moment came when he reminded us that:

“Our credibility and integrity are suspect if we get all the words right but our behavior has little resemblance to our words.”

In his book Integrity, Dr. Henry Cloud reminds us that integrity is not just about being honest but about being a person “with integrated character.” A person whose words, actions, and intentions match one another, a person that “possesses the awareness that it is not all about him or her and the ability and willingness to make the necessary adjustments to the things that transcend him or her at any given juncture.”

As I heard Bishop Palmer speak I was convicted. I realize how often in my desire to follow my call I easily dismiss the other and how often I am unwilling to do the hard work that listening to each other and life together requires. I was convicted of how difficult it is to live a life of integrity, being aware enough to recognize that is not all about me, my personal opinions, or my personal belief system.

As we continue in conversation across our global church the call to humility and unity is a call to integrity. This call is difficult but we serve the God who calls us to be a new creation, whose Spirit lives within us, giving us what we need to live life together in ways that lead to life. A God who continually calls us to conversion.

I pray that we are open, that our body has been convicted, that we not only heard Bishop Palmer speak to those that we disagree with, that we let his words about our witness inspire us to pay attention to the ways that we live life together in these days.

The Church Gathers: GC2016

Each Lord’s Day the body of Christ gathers. We sing songs of praise, hear a word proclaimed, and gather around table. Each week we remember our identity, our call, and our mission. Each time we gather we are gathering with the people of God in all times and places. But often it is easy to think that our gathering is only about those that are present in our particular community at a particular time.

Gathering at General Conference 2016 is a needed reminder of the scope and gift of a global church.

Being such a diverse community is beautiful but it comes with many challenges. Different cultures, customs, languages and different ways of telling and living the story of Jesus. This requires a deeper and more patient listening, a purposeful and intentional decision to make room for conversation, silence, and clarification.

It also requires our willingness to listen to the Holy Spirit in this place. The Holy Spirit invoked by our praise, thanksgiving, and table sharing. The Holy Spirit that makes us one people through our baptism. A people united by our call to be agents of God’s reign of peace, justice, and love.

As we begin my prayer is that we live into our prayer that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done. Here in Portland, in Louisiana, around the world, as it is in heaven.

Stay tuned . . .

On the Preaching Life

This week I was blessed to be part of the North Carolina Preaching Festival in Raleigh, NC. I was honored to be part of the preachers for this amazing and life giving preaching event. The beautiful and intimate sanctuary at St. Mark’s UMC provided the perfect backdrop for three days of hearing, talking, and connecting around the preaching life. My schedule was interesting because I had my workshop on Monday and my preaching on Wednesday. This allowed me the opportunity to take it all in and be a participant as well as one of the speakers.

I love preaching! I love the process, the study, and the delivery. Every time I’m about to step into the pulpit, my knees weaken, my heart races, and my stomach turns — I feel the burden of bringing a word of the Lord to the people gathered. The creator of heaven and earth still speaking, still calling, still creating, and I am humbled to listen and to speak. Honestly, one of the reasons why I have not left pastoral ministry is that the call to preach is persistent, insistent, and consistent.

As I listened in on the amazing preachers heard (Tom Berlin, Nadia Boltz-Weber, Tiffany Knowlin, Brian Combs, & Audrey Warren) my soul was made good. With each turn at the Word hope was found again and again. With each cadence, voice, and turn of phrase, a crumb of the gospel made its way to my heart and life. When each sermon was over I marveled at the amazing preaching that is found in the community of faith, marveled that the promise of Jesus was coming true before me: the gates of hades cannot stand against this!!

I was also reminded of the importance of preaching in the life of the church. I became increasingly thankful for Grace Community and their commitment to make the word heard in incarnate ways. I was humbled again and again by the magnitude and finitude of the task. I was called again to proclaim boldly, humbly, confidently, and passionately for the good news of Jesus Christ requires nothing less.

During the difficult moments of pastoral life I wonder, is this was I’m called to do? Then the word of the Lord begins messing with me, prodding, convicting, calling, and compelling me to tell it!

It is then that I am reminded of whose I am, of who has called me, and who I belong to. It is then that I am reminded once again that the world needs the Good News of Jesus Christ and that I am blessed to be a story-teller of Jesus!

Saints Go Marching In!

Times Picayune Super Bowl HeadlineThis has been an exciting week for the people of Louisiana. The state gathered in front of our televisions Sunday night to watch one of the most exciting things that has happened in the state in a long time. There was a “buzz” all day as commentators spoke time and time again of this unlikely team that had never won much who now found itself  in such a large stage.

Images of four years ago lit the screen. Water everywhere, people on rooftops, the Superdome in shambles. All seemed hopeless . . .

Little by little a team, a city, and a whole state began to rebuild. Now the team had the opportunity to prove how far from the wreckage it had come.

And they won!!!!

Even casual fans, such as myself, could not help but be proud for what this team had accomplished. The last four years have been years of rebuilding not just a team, but a city and a state. The site of people on rooftops fleeing the rising waters now became the site of celebration and joy.

Newspapers all around the state carried headlines of “answered prayers,” “hallelujah,” and “believe dat.” All carried stories of the way that this team provided hope, healing, and inspiration. The headlines spoke in Christian terms and the stories described Christian action. The team had provided much needed good news to the people that they served! They had invested in the city: lived there, set up foundations, helped schools, and became ambassadors for the rebuilding effort. Their “faith” in what their team could do and what each of them could do was put into action.

In the midst of all the celebration and the pride I wondered about the church, had we failed to provide what the city needed most? What the state needed most?

This is not a tirade against a football team. As an adopted son of this state I am proud of this important accomplishment. I was there with all other Louisianians cheering for our team, wearing black and gold, wanting them to win. I believe that sports are important ways of entertainment and competition. They also provide much needed economic impact in the communities they serve.

I guess my real tirade is against the church. We have failed time and time again to inspire, to capture the imagination, to lift up a city and a state from the rubble of destruction and chaos. We have not taken chances: on leadership with passion, on communities of service, on important adjustments at “half time.” In other words we continue to play it safe!

In the meantime people continue to gather. They gather to celebrate a victory, their victory. They also gather to feast and as they feast the hope for the future continues to build, the possibilities seem endless, the embarrassments of the past are put aside. Many were saying that they “believed again.”

I also believe again . . . I believe that the church can live again, serve again, be present again! I believe that we can come out of our apathy, self-centeredness, and lukewarmness to become the people who provide hope, healing, and inspiration to the communities that we serve. People want to believe, they want to be inspired, they want to be part of something that makes a difference. Maybe if we live in such passionate ways, the good news of Jesus that we proclaim will move people who hear it, to “believe again!”

Belief and action opens up the floodgates of renewal, rebuilding, and hope. This is what the church came to proclaim to a broken world. Let the feasting begin!

On Epiphany

Tonight countless children in Latin American countries will eagerly await the arrival of “los Reyes,” the wise men. They will go outside and collect grass for the camels, place it next to their bed and will wake up to presents left by these mysterious visitors from long ago. I am reminded of my own childhood: the anticipation, the preparation, the excitement of gifts laying next to my bed. This is an exciting time!

While in most American homes the “holiday” has come and gone we have continued counting the days, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the wise men. The story of Jesus’ birth has been told time and time again. We have read Matthew, Luke, and even the Gospel of John. The children have reminded us each day what day of Christmas it is, Epiphany is coming!

I look forward to Epiphany every year. It has become a way to continue telling the story of Jesus’ birth as others have moved on. It has also become a way to pass on my cultural heritage to our children. There is something about marking our time in this way that helps me stay grounded as a follower of Jesus. In a real incarnate way the celebration is the continual manifestation of God’s work in us and in the world.

As I ponder this Epiphany there is also something else. These strangers were out there looking at the sky and recognized a star that promised a savior. Creation itself letting the world know that God had heard its plea. The ones that were not chosen were now part of God’s vision of salvation for the world. They came with gifts for royalty, came bowing down paying homage, and “were overwhelmed with joy.” This is a perfect story for the many who are looking for a sign – that things will get better, that someone cares, that they are not alone.

We need Epiphany, a story that reminds us of God’s universal plan of salvation, redemption, and renewal. Strangers looking at the stars who go on a journey to welcome a savior in the world. Foreigners who recognize what the powerful and the learned do not. They bring the best that they have and leave it at the feet of Jesus. Sensitive to God’s voice, they go another way so that the child and his family have time to flee.

On a recent exchange on Facebook a person took issue with the continuation of Christmas beyond December 25, “the Holidays are over, move on” this person said. It reminded me that by the time that the wise men came, the manger, the shepherds, the angels, were distant memories. The “everyday” had set in and the reality of this child could have been forgotten. Then come these exotic visitors who followed a star. They come and their visit brings about a scary and dangerous period in the story of Jesus. The powers of the day would not accept another way. In similar ways our celebration should remind us that the proclaiming and living of this gospel is truly dangerous, it changes things, it pushes the boundaries, its universality is a threat to those in power and control.

Tonight I’ll gather our children, tell the story, and continue the tradition. We will go outside, gather some grass, and look at the sky knowing that we are now the star that guides people to the savior. The gift giving is secondary to the story of a God that calls us to such universal, life giving work in the world. We too are called to become the signs of God’s presence in the world. We too bring the best we have and offer it at the feet of Jesus. The promise is to us also, the promise is to the whole world!

Feliz Dia de los Reyes!

The Yearly Examen

During a recent stop at a coffee shop I decided to reflect on the passing year and the year to come. There were some important milestones this year, our oldest entering kindergarten, our third child being born, surviving the first year in a solo pastorate. There were also some difficult times, our oldest entering kindergarten, our third child being born, entering the second year in a solo pastorate . . . I’m sure by now you get my drift, many of the things we could celebrate can also be looked at as difficult and challenging circumstances.

This is the time of the year when many people make new year “resolutions.” These are ways in which one is determined to change something, do something, or take on something that was neglected in the previous year. Getting out of debt, loosing weight, & spending more time with family are some of the most common resolutions for the new year.

The problem with resolutions is that they are easily forgotten. Most people could probably not name what their “resolutions” where by the end of January. Others try really hard but quickly get discouraged when the debt does not go down, the weight is not taken off, or the demands of work continually interfere with family.

I believe that the reason why most of us are not successful in keeping these “resolutions” is that we have not properly reflected on why we have not been successful at these important things in the past. In other words, we have not learned from past mistakes, we have not become good students of our own story.

In the Christian tradition we have a name for this process of reflection that leads to real change, it’s called repentance. In repentance we acknowledge our own wrong doing, the ways that we have ignored the way, while promising to turn around and begin to walk towards God once more. This new beginning is essential to our Christian faith and is one that we return to time and time again. The catalyst of repentance is the awareness of God’s presence in our lives, this awareness needs to be fostered by practices that open our souls to God’s gracious action.

There is a practice in Ignatian spirituality called the daily examen. The examen is a tool for self reflection at the end of the day. This practice forces us to pay attention to God’s presence in our day and awakens our spirit to our actions throughout the day. The examen helps us to let go, find forgiveness, and look towards a new day, and a new way.

I’ve decided that this year, before making any “resolutions,” I would make a yearly examen. I’ll take inventory of God’s presence in me throughout the year and the ways in which I lived out of that presence. I will also take note of the times when I did not live out of God’s presence, choosing instead my own way.

As I began writing in my journal about these things I realized how many times I called out for God in this closing year. I could name them, one by one, I could go back in my journal and see the prayers and sense my own need once again. I could also remember the many times that I did not even think about, worry about, or call on God.

In the end, the practice of a yearly examen opened the door to God’s invitation in my life for the new year. The invitation, become a more faithful disciple, was simple – the living it out extremely difficult! This is not just another resolution but a commitment to more faithfully align all of my life to God’s vision of justice, peace, & love for all of creation.

Have a Blessed New Year!

Merry Christmas!

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:2-7

Alleluia, Alleluia,  Alleluia!

Today salvation has come to the world!

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Christmas Christians

Soon many of our churches will be filled. People will gather from different places and find time to sing Silent Night and light candles. Some there are family members that are visiting for the holiday, but most are “members” of your congregation that you only see at Christmas and Easter.

Last night in a conversation with a colleague this topic came up. We were discussing the difficulties of preaching on a night like Christmas Eve. Both of us felt committed to the important theological message of the incarnation, yet were aware that most who gather on that day have no compass point that helps them understand this message and many do not even care. Should the preacher take this into consideration?

I am aware that during this time of the year the people that gather are in different places. Some come rejoicing, others grieving; some come willingly, others unwillingly; some come to hear the great story, others to sing the traditional songs; some come with high expectations others with no expectations.

So in the end my task is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ! Trusting the Spirit’s work in the community of faith, trusting that those who are willing will experience Christ’s birth in their lives once more.

This year I’ll be thankful that these Christmas Christians have gathered. God has called them once more and they have responded (even if they do not know it; prevenient grace) Maybe this will be the year, maybe this will be the new beginning they need. I’ll resist the urge to make a point, to take a count, to try to convince. Instead I will provide hospitality, tell the great story of salvation, and gather the community around table.

They might come just to accompany grandma, appease the spouse, to do their Christian duty, or just to hear the songs. We know that God has called us to gather and as we do this will be our prayer:

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

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