SpiritStirrer

sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

Category: United Methodist (Page 1 of 4)

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!

Becoming A Feeding People

“In short, the presider is a guardian to all those who are in need.”
(from Justin’s 1 Apology 67 in Gordon Lathrop’s The Pastor: A Spirituality)

It has been an exciting day! Tears came to my eyes as I observed all those who gathered this morning around food. Some gathered to serve, others gathered to receive. All shared stories, smiles, and difficulty. A vision, a vision from God, was becoming a reality in our midst.

I am amazed that we are here. It all started with conversation about God and about what God was doing in someone’s life. It all started with the realization that although a ministry had been ended, another one was emerging. It turns out that God was speaking, clearly, about our life together. Little by little opportunities came our way, partners appeared, others called came forth, and preparations got on their way.

A decision was made to become a community that fed people . . .

So I became the spokesperson for this call of God in our midst. Little did folks know at first how close this calling is to those of us who are set apart to be “gatherers of people.” It turns out that this incarnate call to “feed” is truly at the center of our identity as God’s own people. After all aren’t we at our core a people of table?

Time and time again I reminded the assembly that we were becoming a “feeding people.” And so as I headed to the pantry this morning, right before opening time, there were people gathered, waiting. Hungry people, people in need, people wandering what this “place” could provide.

So we said words of greeting, cut a huge yellow ribbon, and then invoked the holy into our space. It was amazing to hear those gathered praying along, giving thanks to God, praising the one that gathered us there. For a moment it was as if we were gathering around the great table, in that moment we knew that the presence of Christ self was there among us.

As I put my “apron” on for a few pictures and some greetings I was told that I was needed to help with the intake. So as I helped to  fill paperwork, ask questions, and help pave the way for food, I was encountered by stories. I was encountered with real life parables, struggles, blessings, and thanks. So my apron was an extension of the stole that I wear around my neck week after week as I lead the assembly into its sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

I am sure that there will be many stories to share in the years ahead. We are becoming a “feeding people,” I am becoming a more faithful “presider,” all of us growing together in our discipleship as we allow the Spirit to shape us in the way of Jesus.

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 . . .

Making Home Again . . .

The house embodied for him the general blessedness of his life, which was manifest, really indisputable. And which he never failed to acknowledge, especially when it stood over against particular sorrow.

Marilynne Robinson in Home

It is truly amazing how quickly time goes, and how different life can be in the blink of an eye. We hear this often in times of tragedy, when those affected can’t believe that life has taken a turn. We also hear it in times of struggle when we are trying to make sense of all that is going on around us.

In our life this kind of reflection comes as part of our vocation. Time flies indeed, an in a moment everything can be totally different. Adjusting to the new normal, and settling into it is an important challenge in our lives.

A year ago we were sitting comfortably in our home in Ragley, LA. We had “settled in” living into the patterns of life there and in some important ways becoming a part of the people there, we chose to let life unfold in those ways. Then we came here to Baton Rouge and once again made a decision to “make home again,” to settle in, and become part of the people here, choosing to let life unfold in whatever way it would.

At times it seemed life settling in would never happen, like life as we knew it would conspire against us and not let us change. But we kept at it, we kept living as though this was home and little by little it has truly become that, and quicker than at any other time before.

This year there has been much learning about our life together. Our family has navigated through this transition and we’ve had to learn new ways of living our life. Surprises have come, unexpected realities have surfaced, disappointments have visited us, but we have carried on making home. At each turn we have grown as people and as a family.

This past week we headed on a vacation to Shannon’s grandparents in Kentucky. It was an important journey as Shannon’s mom and dad, brother, and niece, and nephews, traveled up to gather and spend time with “Papa Gene” and “OtherGrandmommy.”

One morning as we were getting ready to head back to the home-place I looked up and saw the sign that said “Home is Where Your Story Begins.” It grabbed my attention as many of those things do and I have spent the last few days thinking about that . . . home, stories, and beginning.

I can venture to say that for us “home” is where we are, together, no matter the geography. Each time our story begins again, a new chapter of the anthology of our life, a continuation, and a new beginning all at once.

It strikes me that this is the way that our spiritual life works also. We must “make a home” again and again in the way of Jesus. At times our own way, our own propensity to sin and death seems to conspire against us, growing in love is difficult work. But we must keep at it, rehearsing our new life, desiring to make life with God our new home, making home in God again. Our story finding a new beginning point, a new narrative, a different center.

As this year of “making home again” comes to a close we look forward to God’s unfolding for us in this new year. We are thankful for what God has done, for the blessings of this year, for the growth in our life together, and for the new home, new friends, and new community of faith that has received us, allowing us to be part of  their unfolding story. There are some things we hope to accomplish in this new year, these are not really “resolutions” as much as they are goal and dreams. We look forward to my sister’s wedding in a few weeks, to Shannon’s return to grad school in the fall, we look forward to celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary in May, and to our continued ministry at St. John’s UMC.

We know that surprises will come, that unexpected realities will surface, and disappointments will visit us. We’ll just keep on “making home,” letting our story unfold, trusting God’s presence and power along the way. I’m thankful that we serve a God who allows us to “make home again.”

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To know more about our journey read my “Reflections on Leaving” series here & my “Pastoring Squyres UMC” series here.

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?

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