SpiritStirrer

sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

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Christianity, Politics, & #givegrace

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Politics & Religion

I am sure that you have heard the old adage to never speak about politics and religion. Often political seasons come and go and the church remains silent. When issues come up that hit the nerve of congregants the pastor is asked to address them, when addressed there are always those that do not want the church to become political or be political.

In some ways, it would be easier to follow the adage. Not talking about so-called political things stops the pastor from getting into trouble, from upsetting people, and might provide a political free oasis in the midst of all the chatter.

This week we begin a series of sermons that will hopefully provide some helpful context for how Christian people can and should discuss politics. Its purpose is dialogue, the learning of some shared language that will hopefully shape our community towards a different way to speak about difficult subjects.

What is the relationship between politics and God’s kingdom? What does it look like for us to engage one another and our neighbors and friends in political discussions based upon our faith in Jesus Christ? How can we model civil discourse in such a polarized political landscape? What are some key values that should drive our political decisions?

I invite you to become part of this important conversation in the next three weeks!

#givegrace

This coming Sunday we will gather for a preview of our #givegrace campaign. We will celebrate the many that have become members of our body in the last year and the many ways that we have made an impact in the lives of the people around us. I ask you to begin praying for the way that God is inviting you to invest in our congregation so that others can experience Grace in 2017.

We have a generous congregation and I know that each of you will response in gratitude to grace received through your financial investment in God’s kingdom through our congregation. All of us together making sure that others are welcomed, loved, and sent to serve!

Can’t wait for the weekend!

Very Married: A Review

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The problem with marriage is that it ends every night after making love, and it must be rebuilt every morning before breakfast.

Gabriel García-Márquez

The music begins and the couple walks proudly and anxiously towards the future, a future together. Decisions have been made, preparations completed, and now it’s time for covenant making, vow taking, or maybe just contract signing. No matter what, life together begins.

As one who gets the joy of witnessing and officiating at these public/private, sacred/secular, end/beginning type of events I’ve often wondered if there is something that can prepare the couple for this momentous event. Would this couple take vows if their future life together was revealed to them? Would that vision help them discern or prepare them?

Maybe it’s best that Hallmark cards, romantic comedies, Instagram pictures, and the wedding industry monopolize the marriage press! Or maybe we were just waiting for Katherine Willis Pershey to provide us with the revelation that all engaged and married couples needed, a revelation of the beauty and trials of married life.

Very Married: Fieldnotes on Love and Fidelity is not for the faint of heart. Pershey’s poetic prose leads us openly yet carefully through the landscape of married life. As she aptly tells us the “agony, ecstasy, and tedium of wedlock.” (18) This is not the stuff that we are used to hearing about nor the kind of journey that we expect from one who is both married and who officiates at marriages. Yet Very Married is the book needed to awaken all of us to the beauty, reality, and poetry that is life together.

Very Married sets itself apart in how humbly it speaks to those of us who have ears to hear. Pershey’s tone is rooted in the Christian practice of testimony, the humble recognition of God’s presence in the midst of life. This testimony is not just an individual encounter with God but the result of living life in covenant with another. Her vulnerability and honesty are palpable as she guides us through the inner life of one who desires to live life together with another yet found herself ill-prepared for the reality of what that meant.

As she tells her story we quickly realize that all of us come to life together unprepared and yet it is there, in our willingness to recognize the mystery, that grace comes visiting, that blessing becomes activated.

My favorite part of the wedding ceremony is the blessing of the marriage. As I wrap my stole around the hands of the couple I invoke the Spirit. I ask for the Spirit to make them fruitful, to make them one, to help them recognize, like Pershey, that “I know now, and I am known now, in marriage.”

This knowing comes with joys and sorrows. It tests our capacity to be faithful, to stay attentive to our chosen over the long term. It tests our capacity to forgive, to reconcile, and to begin again. It also tests our capacity to love another as we live life with them.

There is yet more for us to know of each other, physically, spiritually, emotionally. And as husband and wife we have the incredible freedom to explore each other without hesitation or shame.

Katherine Willis Pershey in Very Married: Field Notes on Love & Fidelity, 94

The struggles of life together challenge our self-centeredness, immaturity, and desire for control. God uses this way of life to transform us, or as my United Methodist tradition calls it, to “sanctify” us. Pershey’s willingness to share with us her journey in grace allows all of us to identify the God moments in our own relationships and to recognize that “even a family’s sorrows give way to gratitude, eventually.”(164) Pershey’s candor reminds us that perseverance, tenacity, and humility are key components to becoming very married.

Katherine Willis Pershey does not shy away from the difficult topics connected to married life. From pre-marital sexuality, infidelity, and submission to same-sex marriage, divorce, and death, Pershey guides us with humor, humility, and understanding. Like a faithful pastor, she shines a light behind the closed doors of covenant life. Along the way she gives us hope that in the midst of the many challenges that marriage faces today “[t]here’s no shame in needing covenant to live.”(210)

So take up and read! In Very Married we are gifted with an invitation to a new-old way of living life together. Pershey gifts us with a faithful blueprint to the daily rebuilding of this thing we call marriage. Now is up to us, letting our very married life end daily by making love and following the blueprint to rebuild it, again and again, before breakfast!

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Thankful to Herald Press for providing me an advanced copy of the book for this review.

On Thirty-Eight

©Amber Dent – AMD Photography & Design

©Amber Dent – AMD Photography & Design

A year goes by so fast! As I scroll through my Facebook feed I am amazed. Scrolling through my birthday messages is like taking a stroll through memory lane. People from all seasons of my life, all coming together.

I especially enjoy the many greetings from parishioners past and present. It reminds me of how real the body of Christ is, and how important it has been in my life. Being pastor is an honor and a privilege and I have been blessed by all the communities of faith that have called me pastor. I sometimes wish that they could meet each other!

My heart is filled with gratitude for my life with Shannon and the kids. The kids are growing so quickly, the fruits of our formation becoming evident. In the last year, we have laughed much, cried, explored, and rooted.

The friends have sustained us like they always have. They have provided spaces for rooting, conversation, and growth. They have also helped us discover new things and connected us with others. I am blessed!

My prayer for this next year is for a more balanced life. For better rhythms of work, play, and rest. For more time with those that I love. For more time for prayer, silence, writing, and play.  For rooting more deeply in the Shreveport community.

I also pray for continued growth in our life as Grace Community. For continued engagement in the community, to welcome others as Christ welcomes, to grow in our love of God, neighbor, and self, and to serve in the places that each of us live, work, and play.

So . . . bring it on 39th year!

Blessings & Warnings: Matthew 19

Then the little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray.

Matthew 19:13

One of the joys of ministry is the honor to bless. Over the years I’ve blessed couples, jewelry, backpacks, keys, cars, cattle, fields, homes, bread, wine, and oil. But nothing compares to the joy of blessing children!

I love when parents bring their children to me so that I can bless them. Making the sign of the cross on their forehead as I ask for God’s Spirit to come down. I want the parents to know that God loves their child. I want the child to know, over time, that I am their pastor, that we are their church, and that God cares.

In itinerant ministry, we often do not see these children grow up. But these days with social media it is wonderful to see the growing faces of the many children that I have pastored during the years. The many foreheads that I’ve outlined with the sign of Christ, the many prayers said at table with them, and the waters of baptism that had been poured out.

One of my prayers as I continue my work among you is that I get the opportunity to see our children grow up. Experiencing the first blessing soon after birth, the blessing at baptism, the weekly blessing when the parents bring them to me at the door of the church or at the communion station. The blessing of little hands holding bread for the first time, new bibles given and faith confirmed. The blessing of entrance into High School and driving for the first time. The blessing of graduation and leaving home.

Blessing as the continuation and incarnation of the ministry of Jesus!

After speaking to us about being like children, Jesus encounters one like many of us. We know from scripture that he was a young man and that he “had many possessions.” He wants to be “good,” he wants to make sure that Jesus is pleased with him. Jesus turns the question upside down: Does he want to be good (only God is truly good)? or does he want to “enter into life?”

When Jesus mentions that keeping the commandments enter us into life, the young man says, “I’ve kept all of these, what do I still lack?”

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Matthew 19:21-22

So often we have so much available to us that we lean on our possessions, our financial resources, our security, and our position in society as the measure of the good life. As the measure of our standing before God, as the measure of how blessed we are.

Today Jesus reminds us that if we are to be like children, to be truly blessed, we must submit ourselves, recognize our inability to keep the commandments (especially the one about loving our neighbor), and our desperate need for divine Grace.

This submission might push us to ask questions of what real life is like. What is true flourishing? What really matters? What grounds us? Where does our help come from? Have we gone away?

These are scary questions, questions that make us uncomfortable, and questions that might send us away grieving since they require us to let go of everything that gets in the way of following Jesus. Everything that gets in the way of our being like children, wholly dependent on God.

This passage is one of the most difficult in the gospels, especially for citizens of the most prosperous nation in the world. So being “good” is actually impossible, and it truly does not save us. Thinking that because we have not killed anyone, cheated on our spouse, or robbed a bank we are somehow ok, is not enough either.

We find ourselves like the disciples, wondering who can be saved then? It is good to know that “[f]or mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26

We can turn back and join the community of disciples. The community of those who help one another remember to be like like children. The community of those struggling to follow Jesus. The community that knows and proclaim that all things are possible for God!

Mountain Sermon: Matthew 5

Matthew 5 is the beginning of what we have traditionally called the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, Jesus gives us a picture of what it means to be a follower of God’s kingdom, a follower of his teaching, a disciple.

It begins with the beatitudes, a series of statements that should turn our understanding of the kingdom upside down.

Blessed are the spiritually poor—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who mourn—they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek and gentle—they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful—they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those who are pure in heart—they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

And blessed are you, blessed are all of you, when people persecute you or denigrate you or despise you or tell lies about you on My account. 12 But when this happens, rejoice. Be glad. Remember that God’s prophets have been persecuted in the past. And know that in heaven, you have a great reward. (VOICE)

Jesus continues to push us, prod us, and challenge us. He reminds us to be salt and light in the world. To make a difference, to live out our love for God and neighbor in obvious ways. In ways, that might seem foolish to those that observe us.

Let your light shine everywhere you go, that you may illumine creation, so men and women everywhere may see your good actions, may see creation at its fullest, may see your devotion to Me, and may turn and praise your Father in heaven because of it. (VOICE)

These are the chapters in the story of Jesus that forced me to do a self-examination. These are also the chapters that challenge me as pastor and preacher for they are hard to read, hard to preach, and even harder to live. It would be so much easier to ignore, to speak of the gospel in a different way, in a more palatable way.

I often wonder if we take these admonitions seriously? Do we believe that God has called us to live this way, that the Holy Spirit does indeed help us to be disciples, love bearers, space-makers in the world?

I look forward to hearing from all of you that are taking this journey. What do you think? What does following Jesus mean to you? How does the story of Jesus so far help challenge and inspire you?

What has been surprising so far?

I’m thankful for the church. It is that body that I am grafted to and it is that body that helps me live into the demands of discipleship.

Keep on reading . . . it gets better!!

In Memoriam IX

Dear Garrett,

Our youngest, Lucas, is the same age that you were when you took your leaving. It’s hard to believe that time has gone so fast. Hard to believe that life has moved on, things have changed, and yet some things, like your absence, remain the same. You never had the opportunity to meet Lucas, but I suspect that if you all would have been 6 together you all would have had much in common. Especially the trouble making part!

In the last few years, I’ve thought much about my calling. You know how much I’ve struggled with that over the years. Yet each time I think about it, each time I doubt it, I remember that faithful day when your leaving made me a pastor. As a trusted mentor told me recently, in your leaving I experienced the worst day of my pastoral life. In other words, no matter what happens in pastoral life, the worst has already come. If that day did not end my pastoral life, then nothing can . . .

I can still remember that faithful day. Your whininess, your refusal to do what we asked, your hard-headedness, and your assurance that something was wrong. I often think if it would have made a difference if you would have agreed to open your mouth.

I can still remember that faithful day. Reality settling in, you were not coming back. We were going to get used to life without you. You were leaving.

I can still remember that faithful day. Eucharist shared, tears shed, life scattered.  The reality of your leaving becoming permanent. New life arising from our pain.

I can still remember that faithful day. Questions emerging, faith questioned, reality interrogated, and truth heartbreaking.

Although I constantly question, I am committed to this pastoral life. You have called me to it. You have shaped me into it and you have visited me in it. It does not matter where I am, Alexandria, Ragley, Baton Rouge, or Shreveport. You continue to push me into this life, proclaiming, reflecting, hearing, and serving. At each step of the way I can hear your voice calling, your eyes sharing, your presence comforting. At each moment gratitude emerging for this call, for the ways that God shows up even when God seems absent. At each moment making a decision to keep at this calling, even when it seems unbearable.

I could not imagine losing our Lucas. I could not have imagined losing you. Yet nightmare became reality and grace became our salvation. At each step of the way your leaving becoming sealed into our life together, your presence sealed in our communal memory, your story reminding us of our identity.

I’m thankful that you continue to companion and bring clarity. I am thankful that the scars of loss have become signposts to a resurrecting future. I am thankful that your visitations and your story continue to bring life and stir our spiritual imaginations.

You are still missed, still remembered, still present . . . see you at the great feast.

Peace & Love, Juan+

____________________

Be a hero, Donate Life! If you want to know G’s story click here.

Here are the previous yearly notes: In Memoriam, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII

Appropriate Attire: GC 2016


This morning Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of the Louisiana Area preached on Matthew 22:1-14. She called us to put on the garment of grace that’s available to all. She called us to stop drawing a line in the midst of the conference floor and instead to join together to be agents of God’s transformation in the world. She called us to be open to reversal, to be willing to join the feast!

Those late-comers – the fit and misfit, the ones from the edge of town, the ones from the other side of the tracks, from el barrio, the ones who spoke a different language, the poor, the prostitutes – yea those – were provided appropriate attire when they arrived. 

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, Louisiana Area

So the God that we serve is the God who provides us for the way that leads to life. No trickery, smoke and mirrors, or special knowledge. The challenge is our willingness to take on Christ, our willingness to put on a common identity in the midst of our differences. Our willingness to join the party!

I’m wondering how we do this?

At this General Conference we tried to live into a model of conferencing that was centered on conversations (Rule #44). This model was rejected by this General Conference after much debate about how we guide our legislative life. Yet I believe that if we are to put on the garment of grace that we must begin by gathering together, sharing our stories, our hopes, our fears and our brokenness, our need for forgiveness, and our hunger for new life. The local church, our districts, and our Annual Conferences might be the best equipped communities to practice this way of living life together, this way of trying on Christ, again and again.

I also wonder if a second key aspect is the going out, as Matthew 12:4 (The Voice Bible) reminds us:


I wonder how often we let others know about the banquet? Do we see our life together as a feast worthy of inviting others to? What does this feast look like, how are we celebrating together? How are we flourishing?

This could just turn the world upside down. This is what it means to be people of the cross, people of the resurrection, Easter people! 

People who are ready for a reversal- a world that is turned upside down. A world that is transformed. A world where all God’s people experience an abundant life in Christ.  
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, Louisiana Area

I am thankful for the Bishop’s challenge this morning. I think her challenge is not only for General Conferece but a challenge to all of us as members of the community of disciples. We taking seriously our calling to be agents of God’s love in the world. We agents of the reversal, the healing of the communities we live in, we agents of our shared growth in love, we agents of the grace given to us.

I am ready to go to the party, ready to put on the robe of righteousness, would you join me? Let’s go!

A Sound Roars: GC 2016


Yesterday the church celebrated Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. They were afraid, their savior was not gone, now they were left to live into their call as followers of Jesus. Gathered to pray and to wait as Jesus had told them you can imagine the conversations, the insight, and the struggle. Could they truly fulfill the mission given to them by Jesus?

Jesus knew that they could not! So Jesus sends them an empowerer from on high!

A sound roars! Takes over, overwhelms, oxygenates, lifts up, and takes center stage. The Spirit has come!!

As we gather to begin our work on week 2 of General Conference I wonder if we will hear the roar? The promise of Jesus to be with us, to not leave us alone, to empower us to do Jesus’ work available, ready, present, do we hear the roar?

A sound roars and it wakes us up from our apathy and slumber.

A sound roars and our personal preferences are quieted.

A sound roars and our loud voices are deafened.

A sound roars and our lungs are filled with the breath of God once again.

A sound roars and we together can hear nothing else but the Spirit of God.

A sound roars and we are pushed, prodded, and propelled into God’s mission in the world.

The question is, do hear the sound roar? Have we become so self-centered and so sure of ourselves that we no longer hear the in braking of the Spirit among us?

As we begin this week of work here in Portland and in our congregations the Spirit that came down on disciples long ago is the same Spirit that promises to come down upon us today. This Spirit transforming, renewing, redeeming, reconciling, and sanctifying. The Spirit making us one people, under our one Lord Jesus Christ, and guiding us as we move into the world to be about the work of God’s kingdom. God’s people as the bearers and signs of the Spirit of God in the world, as the ambassadors of the ministry of Jesus.

It is my conviction that Grace Community UMC is ready to live into this roaring sound! We are ready to hear each other and make spaces of the hearing of others. We are ready to welcome people as God welcomes, to grow together in God’s love through conversation and loving accountability, and to serve our community by creating spaces where others can find healing, wholeness, and new life.

I am thankful to be here but cannot wait to go home and continue God’s call in our lives. I can hear the roar! I can hear the roar! I can hear the roar!!

Tone Matters: GC 2016

Be humble. Be gentle. Be patient. Tolerate one another in an atmosphere thick with love. 
Make every effort to preserve the unity the Spirit has already created, with peace binding you together.Ephesians 4:2-3 (The Voice Bible)

I often tell my children that what matters is not just what you say but how you say it. I remind them often that the way words are said, gestures, and posture communicate more than the words themselves. In other words that tone matters.


Tone reveals deeply what words alone could hide. Our true feelings come to the surface: our anxieties, fears, anger, and annoyance. Tone also tells us if we are being heard and if the other person is truly present to us. In our social media world tone is revealed by the type of font we use (ALL CAPS ANYONE), #snark, sarcasm, and passive aggressive posting. All sending a clear signal that we are not seeing the other as beloved, as one who is the image of God, as one like us.
Tone betraying our character and our harmony with the other or the lack thereof.

As people of faith we are called to holiness of heart and life. Through grace God’s love begins to fill the recesses of our souls. God’s grace allowing us to integrate who we say we are, what we say we believe in, with how we respond to ourselves and the other.

My latest sermon series, Life Between the Lines, has introduced the rules of the Methodist societies, to a new generation of people. Last week we discussed why we needed such guides and this weekend we will be talking about the first rule: Do No Harm.

Attending General Conference has opened my eyes at the ways that our tone towards one another, especially in disagreement, is betraying a deeper issue in our life together. Our tone on the plenary microphone, on legislative committees, and on social media speaks to a lack of charity, suspicion, arrogance, harshness, lies, and a host of other behaviors that are contrary to the faith we proclaim and the values we claim. 

Our tone mirroring the tone of today’s culture instead of modeling what an loving and respectful alternative looks like. An alternative where disagreement is welcomed, where mutual respect is practiced, and where the atmosphere is “thick with love.”

One of the things that the study of Latin American liberation theology has taught me is that we cannot use the tools of the oppressor to bring freedom. If we do then we become the oppressor in its next itineration without even recognizing it as such. True freedom, true liberation, comes only through the tools of the kingdom: charity, presence, humility, gentleness, and peace.

I am not sure what will happen next at this General Conference. What I do know is that I am committed more than ever to return to the congregation I love and shepherd and come alongside them as we practice and model what a Christlike conversations look like. What the harmony of disagreement in love looks like. What it means to be a people of integrity — a people who have integrated their thoughts, actions, and attitudes — in our conversations with one another and with the world. What it means to be a people who are being sanctified.

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 . . .

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