A “new commandment,” the phrase perks my ears. Though I am not great at keeping commandments, I want to. I like to know what is expected of me, I want to make those around me happy, I want to be known as someone who does what is expected, what is right. So if there is a new commandment, I want to know what it is.
I, ready with pen and paper, or my iPhone to take a picture of it written on a whiteboard.
The disciples knew commandments well. They were deeply familiar with the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law. These commandments provided a guideline for what made them distinctive from the other nations around them, these included prescriptions about what to eat, who to socialize with, how to socialize with others, relationships, and how to worship.
So you can imagine how attentive they must have been to hear this new commandment.
Or maybe they were not so attentive . . . when you have so many of them, would you want to add another one?
If they had been paying attention this whole situation could have been avoided. The entire evening would have probably gone differently. They would have known that his time was ending, they would have remembered that Jesus is the bread of life and would continue to be past his death, they would have known this “new commandment” because Jesus had already explained it to a teacher of the law as they walked towards Jerusalem.
Today though, Jesus went beyond talking and into clear, crisp, non-arguable action. He gathers with those he loves–even one who would betray him–and breaks bread.
This most intimate act of calloused hands, passing around the fruit of the earth, conversation that rehearsed the day, laughter from the joy of celebrating, a holiday that reminds that they are a free people, because of God’s bountiful grace.
Soon the dry, cracked, lips share one cup; the beloved and the betrayer, the zealot and the sell-out, the doubter and the determined, Sipping, Passing, Broken and poured out, Remembering. Made one, not because of who they were but because of who Jesus is.
This gathering and its call to continue it would have been enough. The reminder that we too must be a people being broken and poured out. Constantly gathering with others who’s commonality is simply being human.
Gathering to satisfy the human need for nutrition and connection.
Gathering to remember that it is in dying that new life emerges, in brokenness and suffering that transformation is found.
That should have been enough . . .
But as if we needed a more difficult task than eating across the boundaries that we have set for ourselves Jesus models even more.
Imagine with me this teacher, master, and friend. This miracle worker, wonder maker, and wandering master now removing his outer garments and kneeling before them: the master before the students, the lord before the servants, the creator before the creature.
No wonder Peter refused at first . . . this breaks the “natural order of things!”
As if that was not enough now a pronouncement: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” and “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” and “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this EVERYONE will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
That’s it! That’s the new way, the new commandment, the new guiding principle, the new clarifying statement . . . and yet . . .
Maundy Thursday is an annual reminder that our way is not God’s way. Though difficult to acknowledge the reality is that humans tend to behave like life is about power, when Jesus demonstrates that is about servanthood. We think is about control, and Jesus shows us that it is about letting go (about surrender), we think it is about living comfortably and Jesus shows us is about death.
We like Peter might want to stop Jesus from washing us . . . maybe that baby should bemoan their baptism, should do all in its power to avoid the waters.
Maybe pastors should put a warning sign in the baptismal font, a surgeon’s general warning on the baptismal certificate:
Warning: Baptism causes death of false self and brings about Christlikeness, Compassion, Love, Mercy, and a supernatural ability to forgive. May complicate living life as you are used to.
Tonight we renew our commitment to the way of Jesus. To the mystery of Grace at work in our lives, we chose to walk the way, the uncertain pathway to the cross, we choosing to enter into the mystery of our faith, we being washed, broken, and poured out, we remembering that we have been initiated into the way of Jesus, a life of servanthood and humility, These virtues being the fruit of God’s love that continues to transform our lives.
Tonight it does seem impossible, unlikely, scary, uncertain, and dramatic. It is dangerous, it will require sacrifice, It will also call us to take off our outer garments, the masks that we wear, the fears that we hold, the prejudices that bind us, and the uncertainties that make us anxious. It will also call us to pay attention, to go on the slow journey, the pilgrimage to a new way of being.
Tonight I invite us to stay the course for death though near, will not have the last say!
I can’t remember the first time that I realized it. All I can remember is that tears came to my eyes and I was filled with awe. Maybe like those shepherds long ago, tired, wondering, unsure, and ready. I too ready for a new day, ready for a deeper life God. There it was! God, creator of the universe, almighty, eternal one, becoming one of us, human, enfleshed, being born of a woman, like I was and you were. It is difficult to express how life changing this was for me.
God becoming us, God living our lives, God being born and growing up, God hanging out with friends, eating, drinking, and asking lots of questions, God loving so much that he ended up assassinated by the powerful, religious, and opportunist. All of this made sense, it clicked, it made me meet, as Marcus Borg said “Jesus again for the first time.” This kid that had grown up in the church was converted again when faced with the mystery of the incarnation.
The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men. For one who wanted to make a display the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for Him Who came to heal and to teach the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it, not vitiating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it.
St. Athanasius in On the Incarnation.
Since then I’ve continued to delight in this mystery. I’ve realized God’s presence in unexpected places, creation groaning, and the ways that Jesus is found in the least of these. I’ve also become much more aware of how important the body of Christ, the church, is to the continual work of Jesus in the world. We the continued incarnation of God, we healing, restoring, forgiving, and proclaiming good news. We loving like Jesus loved in the midst of the broken and messy world. We not afraid to get our hands dirty in our world but instead sanctifying it by our very present, making it more kind, loving, and compassionate from our encounter with divine life.
This delight comes from an awareness of my own messiness, sin, death, and corruption. From a growing awareness that as Athanasius told us long ago “[y]ou cannot put straight in others what is warped in yourself.” So if God the creator, sustainer, and redeemer chose to put on my own messiness, sin, death, and corruption so that I could find order, abundance, life, and wholeness then I too can choose to live in the messiness, in the unexplained, in the mystery. I too can extend the grace and forgiveness given to me, I too can live into Athanasius recognition that “Christ was made man that we might be made God.”
As we prepare to celebrate the indwelling of the transcendent into the world may we be willing to allow that transcendent life, divine life, fountain of life, to come into our beings and restore us, transform us, convert us, re-create us into what love looks like in the world. The biggest gift of God for the world being claimed and lived out in the everyday of life. In today’s mangers, forgotten places, lost people, tense borders, human misunderstanding, power hungers, desperations, and hopeless situations.
I wonder what might emerge if those of us who claimed Jesus as Savior begin to live as ones who claim him as God with us, Emmanuel, the almighty living among us, humbling God-self, so that the whole world might witness the salvation of our God?
So I’m still in awe! At times my passion for this way of being Christian might seem idealistic, unbelievable, and impossible. I can only imagine what the shepherd’s thought about as the host of heaven brought news that night!
As the year begins to wind down I’m thinking about the experiences that have marked me this year. There has been many encounters, moments, and conversations that will stay with me into the future. It is my practice to reflect on the moments that have given life, the moments that have broken my heart, and the moments that have taught me something about myself, others, and the world. Being marked is more about lessons learned than harm done. It is about memory and how that memory will shape my future.
It is not unusual that I am doing this assessment (examen) during Advent. I really believe that this season of hope-filled waiting is the perfect time to ask about how Christ is being born in me, how I am preparing the way to that birth, and how am I fooling myself into the same old ways. It turns out that human beings are really good at telling ourselves that we are good. The hopeful expectation of Advent moves me to look around, pay attention, and become more aware of the stuff that the Holy Spirit is up to in me.
In a recent note to my leaders I talked about the importance of confession. About the difficult yet freeing admonition from John the Baptizer to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Confession tills the soil and fertilizes it so that it can become fruitful. I know for me it means being open to sharing with trusted spiritual companions the ways that I have missed the mark in living the way of Jesus, the tendencies of my soul to idolatry, and the number of other ways that I am still bound to sin and death. Not so that I feel sorry for myself, but so that I hear again the words of forgiveness and reconciliation in an accountable way. So that I can allow the Spirit of God to heal my sin sick soul as I—by God’s grace—walk each day more closely to Jesus than I did the day before.
The water that nourishes the soil in repentance is penance. Not penance as obligatory busy work to earn our forgiveness instead penance as the practice that re-orders our soul into a more faithful and full Christlikeness and reminds us of the breath of God’s grace for us. These practices—prayer, fasting/abstinence, seeking forgiveness, serving the poor, almsgiving— are the same means of Grace that sustain our life in Christ, in penance we commit to these in community as a way to accountably and intentionally restore the joy of our salvation.
On Advent we go from darkness to light. For me this means from hiddenness to revelation, from obscure to evident, and from vague to clear. Love becoming more visible, its transforming fruit, more powerful. It begins deep in our souls but as it comes it begins to take over our entire lives and soon the lives of those around us, then the life of the world. This is not idealism or some romanticized notion of holidays. It is the promise of a God with Us!
I am committed to continuing working out my salvation with fear and trembling. I am committed to practicing the means of Grace as pathways to live in God. I am committed to constant conversion which means, constant repentance, a constant awareness of my need for grace. I am also committed to life together with the people of God for as John Wesley reminded us:
Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy Solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.(fn)
I am also committed to a more disciplined life. This includes a more engaged connection with my covenant partners, the people who tell me the truth who remind me that I am forgiven and help me stay in love with God. It also means to be more attentive to my rhythms in the every day of life. To the presence of God in the everyday and in structuring my day in ways that I can be more present and more productive.
In the end as I make my own journey from darkness to light I am filled with gratitude. I live a blessed life, a life filled with love, joy, and abundance, a life where I get to live into my calling as a follower of Jesus who happens to pastor. It is also a life filled with possibility, good news, and opportunities to make a difference. My prayer now is that I remember all of this when the difficult seasons come in 2019.
Yes, this is how I did it! Reading the assigned chapters as I walked, ate, insomniad, and drove (by using the Dwell App). But it is done! I was behind more times than any other time that I have done this and yet I kept at it. It was wonderful to have my Facebook Bible in 90 group to be accountable to it. We were all from different places, and represented different seasons in my pastoral life. Even as this post goes live many are still at it, because from the very beginning we said that what mattered was that we engaged with the text, that we ask God to speak to us through the text, and that the goal of finishing in 90 days was only the hook to get us to the text. Some will finish in a week or two, others will finish in 180, and yet others in 360 days in the end they would have read through the entire Bible and maybe for the first time get a sense of the narrative arc of the story of our faith.
This is my 5th time reading the bible in 90 days. I have attempted it a total of 10 times but have only been successful 50% of the time. Every successful attempt had one thing in common: community. We should read the bible in community more often, if we did I truly believe we would read it more often and more deeply. A few of those times I became so discouraged that I stopped reading all together. Yet every time that I do this and do so in 90 days I am thankful that I did. It speaks deeply to me about why I follow Jesus, why I love scripture, and why I believe scripture shapes my heart and life.
Reading it in 90 days helps me remember how difficult, complex, intriguing, diverse, scary, and beautiful the text is. Though we so often speak about the bible, refer to the bible, and even study the bible it is not often that we read it and ask God to speak through it. Reading it and doing so in 90 days is one of the best ways to get a sense of the narrative arch of the story of our faith. We begin with creation and end with recreation, we begin with chaos, and end in chaos that births a new heaven and a new earth, we begin with a chosen people and end with people of every culture, language, and nation. In between we find inspiring stories and scary stories, poetry and prose, historical narratives and mythical narratives, letters and biographies. All together we have a library that reminds us of our identity as God’s people and as people called to follow the Word named Jesus.
Before I read I ask God to show me something, to reveal something, to allow for a word or phrase to jump out at me as I read. Each time I’ve read in 90 Days I have found a different set of themes that seem to jump out at me as I read through the Bible. This year was no different so there were two themes that kept emerging, in the Old Testament – Idolatry, in the New Testament – No Judgement. I am amazed at how different things get your attention every time you read with an open heart. This time these two themes kept on coming to the surface and so my question became: How am I idolatrous? How am I judgemental? Since I am a pastor a similar yet distinct set of questions came to the surface: How are we as a people idolatrous? How are we as a people judgemental?
These are not easy questions . . .
Over and over again, day to day as I read the Old Testament I was faced with the question: What gods am I worshipping? What captivates my imagination? Where’s my treasure? A few things quickly came to mind: success, money, stuff (especially books and religious trinkets), popularity, and pride. There were others that took a bit but were as powerful: resentment, anger, pity party, legacy building, and works righteousness. Shiny, controllable, and culturally accepted making them the perfect idols for a pastor.
As shame continued to deepen I entered into the New Testament. The good news, no judgement, for yourself nor for others for judgement never redeems. Instead judgement keeps us captive, it forces us to focus on the sins of others, and on ways that we can save ourselves. We are a sinful people, a people who often miss the mark from God’s intention towards peace, completeness, and healing. In the end only God can judge us and we know that grace is available. This does not mean that we cannot watch over one another in love. It means that true growth in the way of Jesus requires us to live life together with others and to companion one another through our sin and death.
In the end it was a beautiful 90 Days of reconnecting with the story of our faith. I will do it again but not any time soon. In the next 30 Days I’ll be digging into the Gospel according to Matthew, and starting January 1 I will be doing a Gospel in 90 read. So I invite you to find a reading plan that works for you so that you can reflect on the story of our faith every day. It will transform you, it will challenge you, and it will help you see God in the everyday of your life.
It is so good to unveil the new website! It has been a busy time at Grace Community but as we get ready for this new season in the Church I decided to begin again here. Though I will soon post about my new Lenten Devotional coming out soon, I encourage you to check it out on the home page. Sanctuary for Lent 2019 is a journey through discipleship in the day to day of Lent.
I am especially grateful for the folks at 3ReasonsDesign for their website creation and management. Without them I would not be able to start again, to focus on writing, and to make sure that content and look are also pleasing to readers. The focus of their work is congregations and congregational leaders, especially mid-size churches who might struggle to be able to afford a web presence. They can also do consultations about the church’s social media presence. You really need to check them out!
In the weeks ahead I will be posting on Advent, The United Methodist Church, Pastoral Ministry from the Margins, Why I Reclaimed My Middle Name, and Discipleship. Let others know that SpiritStirrer is beginning again, take a look around the website, and I look forward to our shared journey!
Like the believers in Ephesus we have a challenge: How do we remain a body, how do we remain one, in light of our many disagreements?
Wesley knew that the only way that we could live into the way of Jesus was together. Just like Jesus told his disciples and prayed that his disciples would be one. One people who under the Lordship of Jesus become bearers of the kingdom of God in the world. One people from different places, languages and cultures as the vision of Revelation tells us, coming alongside one another, praising God and witnessing to the world.
Oneness is difficult work!
On seasons like these I am even more thankful for the witness of scripture. For it reminds us over and over again that we are not alone, that the tensions that we feel so strongly today are not isolated, that the struggle of living life together has been the same since the beginning of time (remember the blame game in Genesis 3?).
You know well the tensions that we face today in our country, in our state, cities, and in our local churches. Even among people that look alike, even among families, workplaces and neighborhoods.
Now imagine the tensions that Paul was addressing in today’s scripture. Two very distinct communities, at least two different ethnic groups (Jewish and Gentile), two different religious traditions that seem to be incompatible with one another, two cultures, and ways of looking at the world.
They were coming together because of their shared experience with the resurrected Jesus. A Jewish community with its commitments to be a set apart people and a gentile community called the Ephesians who were themselves a cosmopolitan diverse group of people. In fact in Jewish culture at the time gentiles were not to be trusted, as a early Jewish writing commented:
“we may not keep an animal in the inns of Gentiles, for they are suspected of bestiality, and a woman should not be alone with them, for they are suspected of adultery, and a Jewish man should be alone with them for they are suspected of murder.”
You can imagine the tension that is created when the early Christian leaders decided that these gentile believers did not have to follow the law as prescribed to the Jewish people.
When many of the converts were coming from the temple down the street they were coming from a different set of religious traditions, it was an obvious contrast, between them and the Jewish believers. Now they come together.
You can imagine the the church’s patriarch’s and matriarchs wondering: If we don’t have these requirements, these laws in place how will we be able to be “set apart? What do we have left?
I am thankful that the story of our faith, our sacred text, tells us what we have left is our encounter with Holy Spirit!
As Paul testified in Acts:
“God who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us.” (15:8, CEB)
This encounter changes absolutely everything, including our perspective in the world. This is an encounter of connection, an encounter of reconciliation, an encounter of new creation, an encounter that grafted them to one another. This new way provided is rooted in their continued encounter with the risen Lord and their shared witness to others of that encounter.
Now I acknowledge that this sounds wonderful and beautiful as we speak. It has a poetic tone, it rolls off the tongue easily, WE Jewish and gentile alike, our only common denominator being the claim that we have seen the LORD!
You can imagine those potlucks, those gatherings for worship, you can imagine those Sunday School classes, the tensions are real!! Here comes Paul to remind them, to help them re-member (to bring back into being), that they are One people.
They are One people because of their encounter with Jesus, their re-creation, and their reconciliation. They are one people because the wall that had separated them from the beginning of time has been broken, the curtain has been torn, and now by the power of the Holy Spirit, they are one people in their practice of becoming like Jesus, with love of God, self, and neighbor as their primary characteristic.
They needed each other in their difference to grow in that love, to practice that love, they needed each other to see that love incarnate. They needed that love to get beyond their natural tendencies to live their life in an “us vs. them posture,” in a posture that required them to be identical in their way of life and in their religious observance, they needed that love to be free so they could grow in it!
Therefore – because you are a people who have encountered Jesus.
Therefore – because you are a new creation.
Therefore – because you have been reconciled.
Therefore – because the Holy Spirit lives in you.
Therefore – live a life worthy of your calling.
A life together! Yes, it will get difficult, we will have disagreement, we are going to wonder if we are meant to live life together, if the gap in our understanding of God and how God works in the world can be bridged. We are going to argue, we are going to forget, and we are going to clash. But remember that we are One people!
One body, One faith, One Baptism, and One Lord. We are incomplete without one another for it is in the patient living alongside one another that we will become more and more like Jesus.
The temptations will be great, the tensions will be high, and there will be seasons when we will not get along. But let us not forget to live a life worthy of the calling, because as we live this life together by the power of the Spirit we will become more loving, joy-filled, peaceful, forbearing, kind, we will be able to practice goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Sisters and brothers we are not alone. Today two of us stand before you who have very different ways of looking at scripture, theology, and the future of the United Methodist Church, we stand together from two sides of the same road, you can take a Shreveport map and draw a straight line from 1st Church to Grace Community.
We come together with different stories, backgrounds, and life experiences. But though it might surprise you I believe that I am a more faithful follower of Jesus because the Rev. Dr. Pat Day and I are in covenant with one another. I believe Grace Community is a better body of believers because 1st United Methodist in Shreveport is up the street. I believe that the Spirit of God lives in him and I have witnessed that Spirit. I believe that we are better able to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ together than apart.
This is not wishful thinking, instead is a deep conviction that the power of the Holy Spirit called upon us at our Baptism and Ordination is more important than the differences we hold. A conviction that our shared identity and witness as followers of Jesus in the Wesleyan movement is more important than the differences that we hold and will continue to hold. A conviction that our shared call to be bearers of the Good News of Jesus, the “inheritance of the saints” (Colossians 1:12b, NRSV), is more important than the differences that threaten to tear us apart.
Today we have a call! In the messiness of our disagreements, struggles, trials, tribulations, arguments, judicial council decisions, legislative petitions, and misunderstandings. The call of unity from long ago is not just a call for the Ephesian believers, it is a call for the Shreveport District believers, and the Louisiana believers, the South Central Jurisdictional believers, the Global United Methodist believers, it is a call for ALL of God’s people!
We don’t have to like each other, agree with each other, or be like each other, but we do have to model the unity that we have in Christ Jesus, model what it means to love like God loves (even the perceived enemy within) so that through our witness, the world learns that they too can be reconciled, that they too can be renewed, that they too can be born again, that they too can experience the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!
This Sermon was preached on October 28 at the 2018 Shreveport District Charge Conference, First United Methodist Church, Bossier City, LA.
 “Ephesians.” The Jewish Annotated New Testament, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 391–391
Ash Wednesday forces us to face our mortality. It reminds us that there is only one God and we are not! It invites us into self-reflection about how we miss the mark as individuals and as a community of faith. The purpose is not to shame us or to make us feel guilty, instead, it is to awaken us, to shake us from our apathy, and to invite us into a deeper relationship with God, self, and neighbor.
Today we witnessed the fruit of our bent to sinning. Another act of senseless violence has visited a school. A place that we think of as safe, life-giving, and alive became a place of violence, life-taking, and death. It is healthy to ask: How long O Lord?! It is healthy to pray, to seek for direction, to ask the difficult questions. It is healthy to recognize that we feel powerless in the face of such tragedy.
It is not healthy to ignore it, to not speak about all the implications, and it is not healthy to wash our hands of it. We must do the difficult work, for me, it centers around one question: How am I complicit in these acts of violence?
Each morning I sit and pray:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer 1979
Today I am wondering: What have I done that continues to perpetuate gun violence in our country, state, and city? What have I failed to do? What have I left undone?
These questions force me to identify my attachments. These are the attitudes, worldviews, understandings, positions, ethics, and beliefs that might keep me from living into God’s call to be a peace-maker in the world. God’s call to the recognition that violence is never the answer for all it does is breed more violence. What is holding me back from speaking, having conversations, and demand action? What do I fear?
I recognize that these are difficult issues. But with Oscár Romero I also recognize that:
I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.
As people of faith, we must begin to live into our discipleship more faithfully. We cannot continue to only pray but must act. We must have conversations together, we must stop our obsession with our own personal security and begin to ask how we can be agents for the common good. We must stop scapegoating the mentally ill and allowing our individualist culture to convince us that now is not the time.
What structures in our society make gun violence possible? What is the difference between assault weapons and other types of firearms? Why is talking about guns such an emotionally charged conversation? Are we as followers of Jesus called to support “gun culture? Why? How do we sustain better systems of mutual care in a pluralistic society? What conversations do we need to have in our churches, neighborhoods, and cities?
I have so many questions. I refrain from speaking at times like this because I am afraid, afraid of how many will get upset at me, afraid at any congregant leaving the church, afraid to be labeled anything but one who is attempting to follow Jesus, afraid to add fuel to the snarky fire in social media and in conversations.
On this Ash Wednesday though I realized that my biggest sin as it relates to the violence we experienced today was my silence. I realize that we must speak out, with tenderness, compassion, and listening ears, but also with courage and strength. I must be a pastor/prophet shining a light to our cultural structures that open the door to these heinous acts and to the violent structures around me, including in the church.
Today, I reflect, discern, and act. May God forgive me for empty prayers and for what I purposely leave “undone.”
I’ve been thinking about 40. What it means to be forty. About the memories, the early memories of my life, the early moments of remembering.
Memories are interesting things, we tend to think that we have clear understandings of them and tend to think that those understandings, the moments that we are recalling, are perfect recollections of the past. Truth be told, all of us make sense of those memories and shape them, shape them to make sense of our lives, to make a narrative of our lives. I am sure that I too, like other human beings look back and provide a revised version a “revisionist version” of my story.
Remembering As Identity Seeking
I think what strikes me as I look back, is that as a child my parents would call me a “peacemaker.” I think what has happened throughout the years is that I’ve been living into that label, that identity. The work of peace making in this world is difficult and it takes different forms for different people. For me it meant always connecting and thinking about new ways to connect, thinking about all sorts of things, and finding ways to bridge.
I think at my core, as I learn a year or so ago, I am a person that is taken by and who lives—in some ways permanently—in border places and spaces. So I’ve been thinking about it because living in these spaces is messy work. At times it can be very traumatic, but I think about the ways that my story has been shaped over time and maybe I’ve been made for this, I’ve been gifted for living in the border.
I think my relationship to Jesus Christ, my encounter with Jesus–at times very alive, real, and concrete, at times very far away, at times magical, at times scary and mysterious–has shaped my imagination and continues to do so. I remember early on being so fascinated by the stories of scripture and by the Church with its gathering of God’s people to sing songs, pray prayers, to greet each other with love and joy, to hear a word for us (an ancient word, a new word), and gathering around simple things like crumbs of bread and sips of wine. So it has been the shaping and reshaping of memory.
I see deeply in my own story how long I’ve been in this work. But I do recognize that this world that I have created for myself, this world that I have imagined, this reality, this idea of myself, who I am, took a huge shift, turned (or re-calibrated maybe) when we decided to leave Puerto Rico and come to the United States.
I remember feeling lost in the new language and culture and struggled with my new reality. In some ways a part of me died then and little did I know that it would be reborn much later in my heart. This reclaiming would compel me to live differently. It turns out that the event, the movement, the diaspora, has changed me and shaped me, in ways unimaginable at the time, and not just because because there is no way to really know but because when you are a few months shy of 14 years of age, there is much that you do not understand, nor know about life, yourself, and the future.
The Bible as Battle Ground
Early on I fell in love with the text of scripture. I had all these questions about life, God, and meaning. I began to dig deeply into it and I loved it, loved the stories, loved the encounters I had in that text, and it has been part of my life since I began to read. Since then I have read it on my own so many times. Each time new discoveries have been made, new questions have emerged, and the Holy Spirit has come nearer.
The Bible has shaped me deeply over the years. It continues to amaze me, and surprise me. It continues to give me life, and I am more convinced today than I was then that it contains “all things necessary for salvation.” That it shapes me, changes me, and convicts me.
My love for the text, for the way that it tells me about Jesus as God’s revelation, for the way that it shapes me by the power of the Holy Spirit is the reason that I struggle with what is happening around me today. The many arguments about the nature of the body called the church and the ways we continue to argue with one another about how we interpret the text and what the text might mean for us is an example of the current struggle. Another example is the continued ways in which we have these discussion with one another as people of God, ways that do not demonstrate the love of God towards our brothers and sisters, with whom we have disagreements.
I recognize that the conversation is not easy, that some of these conversations are deeply emotional conversations that come out of a love for God and for what we believe to be true. But I still struggle with how often we dehumanize, question if those we disagree with are believers or not and we do not witness to the love of God in the ways we disagree with one another.
I recognize that I too have my way of thinking about the text, out of love of that text, our of my encounter with Jesus, and out of the shared reading, reflecting, and hearing among and with the community of believers. But I am surprised at how narrow we read the biblical text.
As a native Spanish speaker who learned English and continues to do work of translation, I can say that translation is always, always interpretive. The fact that we have a sacred text that is to be translated into the languages of the people, that in and of itself says that this is the kind of text that begs for interpretation through the continued movement of the Spirit, in and through the Church. The same movement that inspired the body of believers to recognize the story of their encounter with God among the writings that we now call the bible, is the Spirit that has guided and will continue to guide the body of Christ in the continual interpretation of the text for us today.
I struggle while recognizing the difficulties. Through the years as a pastor I have attempted to bring the body of God’s people, the body of Christ, to learn and to engage in the interpretive work. This way we can have these conversations together, conversations that ask the questions: What is God up to in my life? What is a way of living that witnesses to the way of Jesus? What does love of God and neighbor look like in light of my current circumstance?
We ask these questions while recognizing that it is not about me, myself, and I. On the contrary it is about the body. Seeing our relationship to God as a communal relationship is the reason why the body needs to learn about the work of the Spirit, about discernment, and about how to allow the Spirit to inspire us as we engage the text, so that it goes beyond us. Engaging the text together opens our eyes to our connection to the body, and to all of creation. Being inspired as we read the text helps us recognize the ways that we are allowing our own brokenness, our own sin, to get in the way of what God is communicating to us through the text.
The Bible and LGBTQ+ Persons
In this particular season of the church’s life and in our cultural life we are focusing our energies discussing the place, role, identity, and place of a particular group of people, made in God’s image and likeness, in this case who are LGBTQ+. We go to the text and we see there that their identity goes against what the text says is God’s will, against what some might call God’s natural design for the created order, then making a claim to this being a settled matter.
I find it fascinating that we are still arguing (and in the case of United Methodism close to dividing) about these persons. I struggle because many believers have dug deeply, have prayed, read, studied, encountered, discerned, gathered, and thought about all of this, in doing so we have come to the conclusion that the text does indeed speak about these issues in about five places, that the text in those places does not really tell us about God’s response to people who want to have healthy, whole, intimate relationships with persons of the same gender. These relationships are rooted in God’s love, in the desire to “not be alone,” a desire to live life in community, to make families, and to do so for the glory of God. People who want to live lives of holiness of heart of life, who demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, who want to live life within, among, and belonging to the community of believers, a life that honors God and neighbor, in and through who they have been created to be, LGBTQ+. The reality of their identity, including the natural and God given human desire for companionship, intimacy, and life together, does not make them unable to be full members of the body of Christ.
It is fascinating to me because we have been down this road before. I grew up in a Christian religious tradition that did not ordain women to pastoral ministry. This tradition believed that divorced people could not be pastors because Jesus says that to be divorced and remarried was committing adultery, believe that women should not wear pants because this meant that they were wearing “male clothing.” A tradition that believed that Christian people should not eat blood sausage because the bible says that we should not eat blood.
In American history we know that slave traders, government leaders, and slave owners would use scripture to sustain and support and justify the slave trade, we know that women have been subjugated and kept from being seen as fully human by the scriptures that speak about women’s lower status to men and in the Old Testament, property. We know that scripture tells us that there are many things that we should not eat because eating them would be an abomination to God. Early in European history when the church became a tool of the empire we conquered, destroyed, and pillaged in the name of Jesus. We broke the peace among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all in Christ’s name with the bible as the weapon of justification. During the colonial expansion of European powers we witnessed religious leaders using scripture to justify the genocide and/or indentured servitude of native peoples, the forced baptism of said people, and the continuation of systems that kept people of color in “their place,” the place that was “ordained by God.” In the America’s early settlers used scripture to justify the dehumanization of Native Americans, due to the ways that they thought of themselves, their land, and the world. White Christian settlers, identified the natives as “savages” so that they could take their land and conquer the new world.
Even after the Civil War white churches used their pulpits to fight against the reconstruction, to encourage the growth of Jim Crow legislation, to spread the myth of the pseudo-science called Eugenics (in many ways rooted and fueled by “biblical examples), and to sabotage the efforts of the Civil Rights movement. I could go on but I want you to keep reading.
The same Spirit that guided the early church to go against the Hebrew Scriptures and welcome gentiles into the way of Jesus, the same Spirit that guided the church in the 300’s to discern what writings should become our sacred text, the same Spirit that moved the Eastern Church to go their way, the same Spirit that moved John Wycliffe to translate the bible into English against the wishes of the Church and Martin Luther to recognize the Church’s abuses, the same Spirit that guided the founder of Methodism, John Wesley to preach outdoors, to set apart lay leaders, to allow women to lead, and to break the “scriptural understandings” of the church in his time in order to ordain leaders for America, the same Spirit that inspired African Americans to learn to read the bible and through that reading to recognize their identity as God’s own, the same Spirit that guided abolitionist, women fighting for suffrage, and black and white leaders to fight Jim Crow, the same Spirit that reminds us that all people are of sacred worth . . . is the same Spirit that continues to guide us as the body of Christ continues to discern the ways that the Word called Jesus Christ is at work in our lives and adjust, recalibrate, and change to be more like Jesus.
I am a United Methodist for a number of reasons but a primary one is that we have from the very beginning said that our encounter with Jesus Christ is one that moves us, propels us, into the world to be the life transforming and healing presence of Jesus in the world. We have from the very beginning been a Matthew 25 kind of movement. Even when it went against the scriptural understandings of the time. When factory owners used the new technology of distilled liquors to keep workers inebriated so that they could take advantage of them we initiated the temperance movement, when people of color were seen as property and as less than human we fought for the abolition of slavery, when women were seen as property, as extensions of their husbands, and/or as agents of procreation we fought for the rights of women, including the right to vote and their equality before God and the community of faith, including becoming Pastors and other leaders, when children were being used as labor we fought for laws against it, when Jim Crow continued slavery under another name, and when the Civil Rights movement began we stood alongside those fighting for justice, those wanting to come alongside the Spirit in making the world more like God wants it to be.
I am not claiming that I have it all together or that I am right. I do struggle as to why we continue to argue with one another as the body of Christ, continue to put each other down, and continue to question our faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a Gospel that tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor as we love ourselves, that Jesus is the “Lord of the sabbath” not scripture, that they would know that we follow Jesus when we love.
Our differences should not divide us! Those of us who have what some might call more progressive (I would maybe called them ‘non-traditional) positions love Jesus too and our impetus for our discernment and action is our encounter with the Risen Lord, scripture, the tradition of the Church, and our continued work at communal discernment.
Though I have these convictions I do not claim superiority over my brothers and sisters who disagree with me. And so I wish there was more room in the church and in the world. I grieve how in my own ministry over the last 13+ years this openness (or the lack thereof) has been a stumbling block for so many people. Yet God continues to call us and sending people our way who struggle with their identity, with their addictions, with their doubts, with feeling alienated from religious communities, who do not feel safe.
In my pastoral ministry I strive to help create spaces that are safe and open to be people who are at their most vulnerable. People who might feel lost so that they can find life again. I have this passion because in my encounters with the Risen Lord and through scripture I see and hear that this is our call as people who follow Jesus. That from the beginning of the story of our faith we have been called and set apart (made Holy) for the work of being a light to the world. A light of love, reconciliation, justice, forgiveness, new life, and transformation. Into God’s “shalom,” into God’s completion, peace, and wholeness. All of us, all people, together. All the created order.
I have this passion because the people of God set me apart over a decade ago for the work of leading them into ministry in the world. As the vows I took at my ordination say:
An elder is called to share in the ministry of Christ and of the whole church:
to preach and teach the Word of God
and faithfully administer the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion;
to lead the people of God in worship and prayer;
to lead persons to faith in Jesus Christ;
to exercise pastoral supervision,
to order the life of the congregation and the connection,
to counsel the troubled,
and declare the forgiveness of sin;
to lead the people of God
in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world;
to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people;
and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church
and in service in and to the community.
This is the rule of life and work of an elder.
From “Services for the Ordering of Ministry in The United Methodist Church, 2017-2020” as Revised by Action of the 2016 General Conference
The Next 40+ Years
At 40 I am doing a lot of thinking about what it means to live the next 40 years of my life. If the age expectancy of someone my age in this time is 80 (give or take a few years) then I am in mid-life. So what does it look life? How do I want to live? What adjustments do I want to make?
I want to live them in a way that most closely follows Jesus’s call for me to love, especially when it is difficult, for me to come alongside those who feel the most marginalized, forgotten, pushed away. For me to stand up to the powerful on behalf of those who feel powerless, for me to remind the community of believers of that call, that if we do this together, by the power of the Spirit, we would see the kingdom of God appear in our midst, we would see a glimpse of what God will do at the end of time. I believe this!
I know that this is difficult work and at times it is full of Joy. But as I lean into the second half of my life I do not want to waste my time in other things. I want the Spirit to give me the courage of people like Oscàr Romero, someone who is a saint for me, a model for what it looks like to follow Jesus, especially in difficult times. To have the courage to roll out of bed in the morning and speak on behalf of those who have no voice, and love the ones who are hard to love, to speak to power in ways that honor their own humanity at the same time reminding them of what it means to follow the way.
The transcendence that the church preaches is not alienation; it is not going to heaven to think about eternal life and forget about the problems on earth. It’s a transcendence from the human heart. It is entering into the reality of a child, of the poor, of those wearing rags, of the sick, of a hovel, of a shack. It is going to share with them. And from the very heart of misery, of this situation, to transcend it, to elevate it, to promote it, and to say to them, “You aren’t trash. You aren’t marginalized.” It is to say exactly the opposite, “You are valuable.”
So I am inviting those who read this, many of whom are people that God has called me to shepherd to come alongside me in this journey. Because God is calling the church into this way, into the continuation of the work begun long ago by apostles, God’s people, leaders, founders, and other servants.
What I have found by struggling with all of this is a deeper love and dedication to the bible as sacred text that guides the church’s life and my life. This journey pushes me to continue to study it, reflect on it, proclaim it, engage it, struggle with it, and allow it to convict me. I’ve also found that I am humbled time and time again by the stories of faith, by how little I know, and how beyond my comprehension God is.
So . . .
At 40 I reclaim my identity as a Puertorriqueño – a colonized person, a descendant of African Slaves, Indentured Taínos, and Spanish Colonizers. A part of a people, of el barrio, la gente, and los caminos.
At 40 I reclaim my identity as a follow of Jesucristo – a jewish folk rabbi who proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand, and that kingdom was kinship with the least, the poor, and the powerless.
At 40 I reclaim my identity as Husband – to a white anglo-saxon protestant southern woman who took my name and continues to take the prejudice against my people.
At 40 I reclaim my identity as father – to “mix children” who continue to ask questions of identity, who are proud that Puerto Rican blood runs through their veins, and whose future in a more just world is uncertain.
At 40 I reclaim my identity as a presbyter/elder in the Church – a church that has a sad history of encounter with people life me. A church that continues to struggle with where my people fit in, and who I really am. A church that needs to face the difficulty of its white supremacist identity.
At 40 I reclaim my identity as one in diaspora – one who is a stranger is a strange land, one who will never belong and yet will make home, grow roots, and work towards the betterment of my adoptive home.
At 40 I reclaim my identity as one who does not know – the mystery of life and faith will never be solved but through Jesus we are able to receive a glimpse of divine life. Not all is clear, sin and death are still at work in us and in the world, I only see through a glass darkly.
At 40 I reclaim my identity as kin – to all people, at all times, to my fellow people of color, and to those who live on the margin, to the forgotten, rejected, and deported, to trouble makers, resistors, and rebels, to the relentless, hard headed, and misunderstood.
At 40 I reclaim my identity as a human being whose image is the image of the creator, a child of God, committed to being the incarnate presence of the divine in all places. A human being who is a committed hearer, sojourner, and follower.
At 40 I continue, begin again, and do so with the many who come alongside me to dream dreams and see visions. I continue in the company of my ancestors, the community of saints, the blood relatives, and chosen family.
At 40 I recomitt to la lucha para mi, para mis hijos, mi gente, y para el pueblo the Dios!
Last Sunday, October 14, the Roman Catholic Church canonized Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador as a Saint of the Church Universal. He was martyred in 1980 while celebrating Mass in a small chapel of a parish run hospital where the Archbishop lived. Since an encounter with his people after becoming Archbishop and then the assassination of Fr. Rutilio Grande, Monseñor Romero, began to speak against the many injustices happening in El Salvador, and other parts of Central America in the late 70’s.
I encountered Monseñor Romero as an emerging teenager in Puerto Rico when the movie Romero came out featuring one of the great Puerto Rican actors, Raúl Juliá, as Monseñor. It was the late 1980’s and it was wonderful to see a Puerto Rican actor playing such a beloved Latin American figure in an English speaking film. But even though I was familiar I did not become deeply aquatinted with his writings, preaching, and his life until I was in seminary at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in the early 2000’s.
My encounter with his writings and life story in those days as a graduate student were key to my formation as a disciple of Jesus and as a pastor.
The Fuel for Our Mission: People, Facility, and Money Three years ago I shared with you that there are three resources that fuel our calling: People (staff and all of you), Facilities, and Money. How are we doing? How do our resources reflect our becoming a growing movement?
Our average worship attendance has dropped 30% since I arrived in the summer of 2014. This number is surprising since everywhere I go in this city I hear people longing for a congregation like ours. A congregation that is open to all people, that is willing to struggle with the difficult issues of life, that it’s guiding ethos is the love of God and neighbor, no judgment just grace.
So if we want this kind of congregation to be here for decades to come and to make the difference that we feel called to make in this community on behalf of Jesus, all of us must become loud evangelist, confident storytellers, and loving inviters to the thousands of people that need connection to a community like ours.
This year we MUST grow, not so that we can brag about it, but so that we can fully live into our unique call in this city and beyond. So that we can model that a community of faith rooted in love of ALL people, in the messiness of life in diversity, and in living the way of Jesus in everyday life (the places where we live, work, and play) can be fruitful, sustainable, and shining light in a city like ours.
Our video ministry continues to grow. In 2017 we average 385 people per week who viewed us on livestream and/or recorded services. With our series When Christians Get it Wrong as the most watched of all time and with the most favorable marks of any of our series with people online.
In order to balance the budget, the congregation’s Leadership Team called upon our Staff-Parish Relations Committee (Personnel Committee) to reduce staff costs by $90,000. To that end the committee recommended and the Leadership Team approved the following changes:
Eliminate the Director of Discipleship & Missional Life position upon Pete Bollinger’s retirement.
Eliminate one of the custodial positions.
Eliminate the Rehearsal Director position; George Hancock is shifting to a more affordable Musician-in-Residence position.
Continue a freeze in current salary levels.
End the executive level Director of Worship Arts search and hire two part-time positions: Our new Director of Worship is Amber Dent and our new Director of Music is Mollie Corbett.
Thanks to the generosity of our Youth Parents, we have added Chris Bolin as our Youth Intern.
Thanks to the generosity of our Youth Parents we have added Chris Bolin as our Youth Intern.
I am excited to announce our 2018 Lay Leadership. These are the people that guide our congregation alongside our staff into Mission and Ministry. You can see our 2018 Leadership here.
With our renovation, we will be more than ready to live into our call to welcome, love, and serve ALL people in our community. The new space will host us in this next season of our life together.
Due to the struggles in attendance, we saw a decrease of $20,000 in our revenue towards the operating budget. This includes the $15,000 a month that we have lost on average since the flood.
Though I am disappointed about decreasing revenues I am also encouraged.
I am encouraged because you gave over $200,000 to initiatives outside the budget including the #restoregrace campaign that will allow us to remodel the sanctuary without incurring additional debt. I am encouraged because we had 160 Pledges (20 pledges more than last year!) with over 40 Pledges made online as late at December 29, 2017. More of you giving, more of you carrying us into the future with hope.
I am encouraged because our Finance Committee proposed a budget for 2018 of $940,000. This budget is true to our expected revenue, it is very fiscally conservative, and it places us in a stronger financial trajectory in the years to come. The changes in staffing allowed us to bring the staffing percentage against the budget within the sustainable margins of 64%. It is our hope that we continue increasing revenue without increasing our staff budget so that our percentage of the budget for staffing is no more than 60% by 2020.
(you can check out the 2018 Budget here.)
Some of you have asked about the resurfacing of the parking lot following our sinkholes from last fall. We need to raise another $100,000 for the Restore Grace Fund in order to pave the north parking lot from the Fire Station to the Prayer Garden.
It is not too late to go online and get your pledge in for 2018. When you give, ministry happens!
Do This And Live: No Judgement — Just GRACE! In 2018 we are going to “Do This and Live!” We are going to reach the unchurched and de-churched, especially the ones who’s relationship with the church “is complicated,” we will reclaim our gift sets for narrative leadership, cutting-edge communication, and forming people in the way of Jesus. We will recall again our gifts for incarnational ministry — ministry in the mess, in the real, in the complexity of life, in the struggle, that pushes us to see neighbor where we are, as we continue in ministry to ALL people.
The question is can we reclaim our creativity, can we recall our ability to push the envelope, to be courageous, to take risks, to be mission minded and mission focus while continuing to be an exciting community!
This is us!! So this year we must live it fully, proudly, and engaged beyond us. We must become accountable to one another in our worship attendance, in our generosity towards our shared life, and in our engagement with the people that Jesus called us to be engaged in, with and for. The people next to us, our neighbors, our “kin” not because they live in our neighborhood but because they are fellow human, people in whom God’s image is seen.
Let’s do this and live!
Our place of worship filled with people as diverse as our city, no matter the color, creed, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity. Gathering because they want to worship God, to rehearse community, to be empowered to serve neighbor, to follow the way of Jesus.
Let’s do this and live!
We hosting conversations, inviting key thinkers, leaders, and partners to help us shape others in the ways of Jesus, in the ways of compassion, peace, and love in the midst of difference. To the ways, religion, faith, and community come together.
Let’s do this and live!
We helping our missional partners the Common Ground Community and University Elementary become places that sustainably enable their constituencies (our neighbors) to excellence, empowerment, and interdependence. Coming alongside these important institutions with curiosity about what God is doing in their neighborhoods, becoming participants in what God is already doing and what might emerge.
Let’s do this and live!
We becoming a greenhouse for Leaders in the way of Jesus. People who answer the call to lead congregations, who go into the international mission field, and who provide leadership to key institutions in our community (teachers, principals, healthcare, government, the list is endless). People loving God, self, and neighbor in their workplaces because we have modeled the way.
Let’s do this and live!
We being present in the many cultural and entertainment events in our city. We like Jesus attending the community celebrations, the places where the religious leaders would not enter. Zacchaeus’ house, wedding at Cana, Samaria, cemeteries, the wilderness, and the places where people of “ill repute” would hang out. We present in those places because that’s where Jesus would be found. We, there, with “no judgement, just Grace.” With water, listening ears, and purple t-shirts!
Let’s do this and live!
At each step of the way we finding life. Because when we do this we live!! Live more than ever before! Even in our failed attempts at it, we find new life, we are propelled into kinship.
The Spirit sailing like she did long ago at the beginning of time. The Spirit’s wings flashing like the sun, coming down, again and again, to remind us who we are, to empower us to be Christ in the world, the Spirit flying on through us, in us, around us, the Spirit calling, healing, and turning our mourning into dancing.
The Spirit healing our broken hearts, restoring our isolated souls, renewing our neighborliness (our relationships with fellow ones made in God’s image). The Spirit giving us a “fire under our bellies” for the Way of Jesus, no matter how difficult, for compassion in the midst of difference, and for the determination to be who we are with courage, boldness, and grit.
Come Holy Spirit! Come sailing, Come Holy Spirit! Come with you song, Come Holy Spirit! Come full of laughter, Come Holy Spirit! Come wings unfurled, Come Holy Spirit! Call us again, empowering us to be your people in the World! Come Holy Spirit! We are ready! Call us, empower us, Holy Spirit for we are ready to do this and live!