sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

Category: Vision

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.

Passion & Possibility: Exploration 2011

How did you decide to become a pastor? I often hear this question as I meet people for the first time, especially young people. For me it was this inner voice that has been part of my life for a long time. So many times I tried to ignore it and walk in different directions. Now as I continue my pastoral work I am more aware than ever about the importance of the practice of discernment.

Discernment takes time, it needs a community, and should help us connect with our inner longings to live out our God given passions.

I am thankful for the community that Exploration builds. It provides the space to struggle with and discern what God might be up to in our lives. We gather from different places, we come with our dreams, visions, and hopes for the future. We come wondering what God could do through us. So many possibilities . . .

Much prayer went into my journey. Now I join many others to pray for you and for all of those who will gather to hear God’s voice at Exploration 2011 in St. Louis, MO, Nov. 11-13, 2011. I pray that God will speak, clarify, and direct. I pray for all the small group leaders, plenary speakers, and the staff. I pray for resources to travel and attend. I pray for leaders willing to make this possible. I pray for the many churches that have young people waiting to be told of their gifts for leadership and for those who have already called their own and are sending them out. I pray for the Holy Spirit to go ahead of us and sanctify our efforts to provide a place where God can be heard, seen, and experienced.

God is calling . . . come and see!



A Butterfly in the Heat: A Lesson on Reverence

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

©2011 Todd Rossnagel

It was a hot and beautiful afternoon and as we walked,  Katie (friend and colleague Katie McKay Simpson) noticed the most beautiful butterfly! It took her attention and as she pointed, it took mine. There it was, in some ways so out of place in the middle of an urban jungle.

Since then I’ve been thinking about being present. I’m sure that often in my struggle to get things done and be “successful” I miss beauty and the opportunity for awe and wonder. Duty calls and it grabs us so strongly, it demands our attention, and requires our devotion. In the meantime the butterfly goes by . . .

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor, calls us to “reverence” as the “practice of paying attention.” She says:

“From [my father] I learned that reverence was the proper attitude of a small and curious human being in a vast and fascinating world of experience.” (19)

Small and curious we can be, if only we took the time. Unfortunately we spend so much time trying to be big and well informed, leaving little room for the possibility of the unknown, mysterious, and surprising to come and visit us.

No wonder so many of us struggle to pray, to listen, and to live in community. It all takes attention, intention; it takes the practice of being present, the practice of reverence.

Until I read Taylor, I would not have called it “reverence.” Then I thought about the title we give pastors, “the Reverend.” I have often struggled with it for I don’t consider myself worthy of reverence. Then I realized that we are to be agents of reverence. We are called to facilitate the ministry of paying attention.

In one of my favorite bible stories a blind man “hears” that Jesus is passing by. In the midst of the loud crowd Jesus “stands still,” hears him cry out and calls on him. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks, “. . . let me see again,” says Bartimaeus. The bible tells us in the Gospel according to Mark that “[i]mmediately he regained his sight and followed [Jesus] on the way.” (Mark 10:52b)

So let us stop and pay attention, pay reverence. Let us be surprised by butterflies on a hot and humid afternoon in the middle of the city. Let us be agents of this reverence so that many can find healing of body, mind, and spirit.

“Glory be to God for dappled things . . .”

Leadership as “Vision Casting”

"Whitby" by James Whitesmith

I’ve been wearing glasses since the 8th grade. I can still remember attending chapel with my parents during my 8th grade year and having my dad ask me if the preacher always wore the same suit and tie to chapel to which I responded that he was too far away for me to see him, he looked blurry. The next day I went to the eye doctor for the first time. A week later my first pair of glasses arrived and when I put them on it was like a miracle! I could see far away, I could see the leaves on the trees, and the birds flying in the sky. I also could see that the preacher did wear the same suit and tie to chapel every week.

To cast something is to make a copy of it, a representation in three dimensional form, from a mold. The mold is not the actual item, the final product is, but the mold itself has to be made, has to be formed by an original of something.

Another definition of casting is throwing a fishing line. Here the fisherman chooses the bait that will be attached to the line and casts that line with the bait in the appropriate place for a successful catch.

I’ve heard many congregational leaders refer to vision casting as the second definition. Here the leaders chooses the bait and throws out the vision in hopes that the congregation will “bite.” More often than not, like fishermen, the leader finds him/herself bringing the line back and throwing it out there over and over again. Frustration sets in, the bait is changed, but little else does. Is the congregational leader really a “vision caster?”


I’ve been thinking that the casting that we do is not of the fishing type but of the mold type. The mold is the shape of God’s kingdom and we as pastors come with the symbols, images, stories, and gestures (thanks Gordon Lathrop) of the Christian faith and begin to give shape to God’s kingdom in a particular place at a particular time. The vision is cast and if observed carefully and interpreted, the vision will begin to bear fruit in its particular place and time.

The leader is constantly pointing back at the vision of God’s kingdom. Constantly reminding the community of its shared story, of its identity, of its mission in the world. At each turning point there are decisions to be made about life together, about bills, buildings, resources, and relationships. The pastoral leader goes back in each case to the cast vision, to how these characters of life together can best be utilized/deployed for the vision that has been cast, for the re-presentation of God’s kingdom in this place.

Many times as pastoral leaders we find that the vision is fuzzy, blurry, in need of adjustment. Our temptation is to cast it again as in fishing, changing the bait, or maybe changing the location. I am reminding myself that no such movement is needed. Instead I’ll immerse myself in the narrative of faith, in the symbols and gestures of the assembly, and in the life and work of the people of the community around me. Each of these will allow me to help the congregation “see” their way forward, see God’s kingdom made flesh by their life and work.

May God give me the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the hands to cast a vision of God’s Kingdom through the people of St. John’s UMC, knowing that

“. . . no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.”

Wendell Berry (Sabbath Poem X 1979 in A Timbered Choir)

Leadership as “Space Making”

I join the many others in church circles who are reflecting, talking, and gathering about leadership. It seems that the more that we recognize congregational reality the more that we talk about “leadership” as the key factor in helping congregations become fruitful again. Strategies are many, actual evidence of those strategies working, few. It seems that what works is an intentionality and an ability to interpret, read, exegete the congregational and communal culture of a place and begin to ask questions about what God might be up to in that place.

So as I begin again, we are always beginning in some ways. I am recognizing that a key aspect of my leadership is to “make space” for discernment, story telling, and conversations around what God might be doing in our midst. What is God calling us to? What are the gifts we bring, the passions that fuel us? Why are we here? Why do we worship like we do? Go to Sunday School? Attend the administrative meetings? Who is our neighbor? Why does it matter? What are we working towards? What does it mean to be the church in this place at this time?

These are only some of the questions being asked. I rather not get quick answers, instead I want all of us to think about it, to reflect on it, and to begin to “make space” for the answers to emerge among us. As we look around and recognize our “place” many other questions arise, we begin to see our corner of the world in a new way.

There is also much hesitation. Space making makes many of us uncomfortable. How “large” is this space going to be? Who will it include? What about us, are we going to be cared for, nurtured, be primary to the emerging vision? What about our history, our traditions, our ways of living life together, will those have to change? If they change is it still us?

Making space allows for the question of identity to surface and I think in the end this might be the most important to the life of the church. Who are we as a gathered body? Why do we exist? What does it mean to be present in this place?

Leading into discernment takes time, presence, and as Edwin Friedman puts it, it takes nerve (I’ve been reading his book A Failure of Nerve). There is no “quick fix” that can turn our mourning into dancing. Pastoral leadership relies on relationships that need the strengthening of time, shared stories, and of “walking with.” Shining a light and “seeing” what others might not see demands action that at times might be unpopular but in the end necessary to our life together.

It is easy to discern what is comfortable and familiar. It is extremely difficult to be open to adventure, dream, visions, risk, and the possibility that we as a community of faith need to be converted to our baptismal call. That somehow we must be re-shaped and born again into a new vision of life together.

Making space for this way of life together takes leadership that is willing to de-clutter, to re-arrange, and to prioritize. When leadership moves in these ways it can be unpopular. Most of us are happy in our clutter, used to our arrangements, and comfortable with our priorities. Yet the Christian narrative calls us time and time again to examine our lives, to let go of the old self, and to be open to the Spirit that makes all things new.

I pray for wisdom as I continue the work of leadership in a Christian community. I pray for clarity that I may shed a light on what God is doing around us, that I may have the “nerve” to call the church to its mission time and time again. I pray that I can be a faithful interpreter, reader, and exegete of the gathered baptized community called the church. I pray that through my leadership space is made for God’s work in creation to be made present through our ministry together.

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.

Thoughts on The Episcopal Address 2011

Bishop William W. Hutchinson, Louisiana Area

Each year we wait eagerly for words of wisdom, support and challenge from our Episcopal leader. From the beginning of the church people have been set aside for the work of oversight of God’s people, the church. The nature of this office is apostolic, which means that it has its roots in the sending out of people into the work of proclamation.

The address is one that seeks to highlight our past year and give us words for the year ahead. This “proclamation” seeks to make “apostles” of all us who are hearers in this place.

Katrina and Rita, the two hurricanes of 2005, forced the Louisiana Conference to begin to look at ministry in new ways. Change is always difficult but in times of crisis change is forced upon us and we are able to look at things in different ways. As people were displaced and new communities began to return we realized that a new way of being the church was needed. This new way was not just needed in the New Orleans area and in southwest Louisiana, but in our whole state.

Six years later we have begun to live into this new day. As Bishop Hutchinson told us we must innovate, we must take risks, we must move in decisive ways. This is not easy to do, our tendency is to want everything to remain the same, but we must do so if as the Bishop said, “our goal is to be a more effective movement for the cause of Christ!”

This kind of movement is a movement of all the people of God. The bishop reminded us that God’s people, the laity, are not being asked to “be followers of clergy,” but “to be complete partners in a new direction.” All of us together, all of us as disciples of Jesus, living into our baptismal calling to be about the transformation of the world.

The more I hear about a new day, I keep on thinking that transformation of the world takes a commitment to our own transformation into the way of Jesus. It requires not a new initiative or new call. Instead it requires a re-commitment to our baptismal calling, a recovery of the Wesleyan of discipleship with its bands, classes and societies, and a renewal of our commitment to to works of justice.

We hear much talk today about death, decline, and survival. The United Methodist Church has to face some important realities. We cannot do things as we have done them before, we cannot fund things in the ways we have funded them before, we cannot continue to do things because we have always done them that way. These issues are important realities that we must face and we must speak about.

Yet, as I contemplate the future of the church I do so with hope!

God is doing some amazing things in communities all around us. Everyday we encounter people in need of good news, with people hungry to hear about God. Are we ready to dig deeply into our discipleship? Are we ready to commit ourselves to the way of Jesus not just in the four walls of the church but as the sent out, baptized, sealed by the Spirit, people of God?

Let us raise our heads, lean on God’s Spirit, trust our baptism, and know that we are people of Resurrection, that we are a people that have found life out of death, that we are a people who have been called to leave our places of worship to let all people know of God’s love!

Bible in 90 – Day 11: Points of View

Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.”

Numbers 13:30-31

My wife Shannon and I had been in Atlanta for a few days when we stopped at a local church. I had made contact with a few pastors through e-mail and the pastor of this church had been the only one that answered my e-mail inquiry. She was alone in the office that day when we stopped by and after introductions she took us on a “tour” of the church.

At every point of interest she would ask us, what do you see?

We saw a lot of things, the building was dingy and dark, the entrances were solid, and there were no signs pointing the way. Outside it was the same, no clear signs, the building needed painting, and there was overgrown landscaping (mostly weeds though). It was obvious to us that much work needed to be done to the building, why was she asking?

A few days later we quickly found out when we showed up at worship why the pastor was asking what we “saw.”

As we arrived we knew where to go only because she had told us when we visited a few days before. When we entered the room everyone just looked at us and responded to us only when the pastor enthusiastically greeted us and introduced us to those who were gathered. Those there did not see what we saw, they did not see what their leader saw.

Is good to know that this is nothing new. God’s people have a way of quickly forgetting how they have come from by faith. Our changing world makes many resistant to see the need for a new approach, and the hope of new possibilities. Soon a “scouting mission” turns into a showdown between differing points of view, should we trust God’s call or is it too dangerous?

Our fears cause us to exaggerate the difficulty of the path:

The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size, we saw the Nephilim there — the Anakites are part of the Nephilim — and we look like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.

Numbers 13:32-33

The years that followed were a constant struggle between competing visions about the promise of God for that congregation. I wonder what giants & monsters we are seeing in the future of our life together? Are they real or the products of fear?

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