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A Day Away . . .

Advent is a time of reflection and preparation for the coming Christ in us and in the world. I know about preparation for a child well. For each of my three children the preparation has been different but important. In fact just 13 weeks ago we welcomed Lucas to the world. In the midst of much activity, he came and all of a sudden nothing else mattered but him.

Shortly after Lucas’ birth I received a call from a friend congratulating me on Lucas’ arrival and reminding me that when I was ready she had a place for me to “get away” and have a “day apart.”

That was over two months now. But this past Monday I got in the car and drove a few hours to have this time with God. I did not realized it when I set up this time but by the time it came it was desperately needed.

A colleague joined me in this time as a fellow companion and seeker. We sat, prayed, practiced much silence, and journaled along the way. Little by little that stuff that hides deep in our souls began to come to the surface.

I was tired, exhausted, and wondering about what was next. I needed a savior too!

By the time the afternoon came there was much clarity and a deep sense of calm. I’ve been with God. We had an opportunity to be together and chat about some very important things. Now I felt ready for what was unfolding in my life. Now I was ready to go back to life, to the everyday, knowing that God is there along the way, walking with me, even when I don’t realize it. I knew this already, but the truth is that all of us need this reminder in our lives.

All of us need “a day away” every now and then so that we can be reminded, as W Paul Jones tells us in A Season in the Desert, that in our living and practicing, the Christian life “emerges as pilgrimage, as we seek meaning through the sacralizing of time and space, with their intersection understood as revelation.”  p. 48

In this renewal we are once again face to face with a God for whom real life matters and who takes that life and makes it holy.

As we continue waiting we long for the coming Christ who makes this renewal of time and space possible. May we take this time to reflect upon this promise and make this season a “season away” as we wait.

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Advent Space in a Christmas World

This past Friday my sister in law woke up early to be at a local department store at 2:45 in the morning. She wanted to be part of so called “black Friday,” the day after thanksgiving shopping extravaganza that supposedly kicks off the holiday shopping season. She was there with hundreds of others who were hoping to find “great deals” on gifts out of their holiday list.

I personally do not understand it. Why would you get up so early to shop? What kind of deal is worth showing up at a department store at 2:45 in the morning? What does it say about us that this is the way that we kick off the holiday season?

This past Sunday many of my parishioners showed up to church still “high” from a few days of shopping. They spent all weekend listening to Christmas songs, seeing Christmas decorations, and buying Christmas gifts. Many woke up before dawn on Friday to get a great deal and will probably have trouble staying awake for the worship service (if they show up at all).

Instead of the loud crowds, bright decorations, and cheery music they will encounter a quiet atmosphere, purple paraments, and reflective music. They came from a Christmas world into an Advent space. There could not be a bigger contrast and for some a more difficult culture shock!

A sense of culture shock continues with the readings. The gospel has Jesus warning his disciples about the end of things. Creation, nations, and people are all a part of this in-braking, of this transformation, of this end. Jesus tells his disciples to recognize the “signs” and to be “alert.” Although all of this sounds scary, disciples of Jesus should not be afraid, instead we should “stand up and raise [our] heads, because [our] redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)

All of this comes together to give us a different view of what is really needed in the world and in each of us. Gifts, spending, and long lines are not needed according to the Advent message. What is needed most is a savior.

In line there are people who are looking for something. Many look forward to this time of the year to get a reprieve from their life. Others are hoping that the gift giving, the music, and the excitement of others will rub off so that they can find the peace that they are looking for. And there are still others on the margins who observe all of this happening wondering if this year will be any different.

In the everyday of life, in the mess of things, in the brokenness of things a savior comes. God knows that in the midst of the celebration there is sadness, pain, and strife. We as people of faith are called to pay attention, and to be alert so that we can be the bearers of the good news.

Are we paying attention to the signs around us that tell us what people are searching for? Are we as people of faith too busy ourselves to recognize our own need for salvation? Are we too caught up in religious things, not noticing the groaning of creation and the silent cries of humanity?

In small ways we are being called to actively rehearse the coming of God in the world. People are obviously hungry for good news, they might not even know of their deep hunger, they might not realize that what they need is not another gift, they might not know the real reason for this time of the year. I commit to look around, to see the signs everywhere, to pay attention, to tell the world that our redemption is drawing near!

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On Gratitude

In my native Puerto Rico Thanksgiving Day is an important holiday. We wear our Sunday’s best and wake up early in the morning to gather for worship. It is fitting that we begin this holy-day gathered as a community of faith to praise God and to give thanks.

Many had woken up earlier. They had gathered at the church and gone door to door serenading members and friends, marking the holiday and in its own way inviting all to gather to give thanks.

It was only after the gathering, after the time of praise and thanksgiving, that we joined family for the feast. I would argue that this was the only way that we could truly understand the feasting.

I miss those days in my native land! Now it seems that most of the time what takes precedence is not the giving of thanks but the eating of food (and lots of it!). In fact I will agree with Elyssa East who on “A Movable Feast,” an op-ed in the New York Times, writes:

“In the nearly 400 years since the first thanksgiving, the holiday has come to mirror our transformation into a nation of gross overconsumption.”

The holiday of giving thanks has become a holiday to food, possession, and overconsumption. We gather not to give thanks but to eat, not to praise God but to watch football, not to remember all that God has done but to “pat ourselves on the back” for all that we have accomplished. In other words no holy-day at all!

I wonder what it will take to turn the tide, to bring us to an attitude of true gratitude?

Gratitude is not just giving thanks. One can easily say “thank-you” and not be grateful. We do it everyday, someone gives us something or does something for us and we say “thank-you.” Quickly returning to something else, quickly forgetting.

Gratitude is a way of seeing. In its practice we acknowledge that all that we have, all that we enjoy, all that we are, everything around us, is a gift from God. We have not earned it or deserve it but have received it and for that we have no other response but gratitude. This way of seeing begins to transform us and align us more and more with God’s purposes for humanity and all of creation.

A true thanksgiving begins with the acknowledgement of God as creator and giver of all. From there it moves us to gathering. Friend and stranger alike enjoying true blessings: peace, healing, love! Enjoying a God whose table is open, who constantly gives of self for the life of the world.

Maybe if we live this way of life we would be surprised. We would find ourselves being “captured by gratitude” as Wendell Berry so aptly put it in his novel Jayber Crow. Once “captured” we would have no choice but to get up early, sing songs of praise and gather around table with love ones and strangers, friends and enemies, with all of God’s children.

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The Rhythms of Pastoral Life

In a previous post I spoke about those early months in ministry. Those months seemed like years! So much took place and much learning happened and little by little I settled in as pastor. It was almost as if one day I woke up and my normal movements, thinking, and inclination was that of a pastor.

I was blessed that my first pastoral experience was as an associate pastor of a mid-size congregation. They were vibrant, always on the go, and hungry for God’s movement in them. Their Sr. Pastor was wise mentor and knew me well. This mixture of dynamic congregation and Sr. Pastor as willing partner was pivotal in establishing in me good rhythms of pastoral life.

The other day one of the ladies of our church stopped by the office with her three daughters. We checked in on a few things about the church and soon her daughters had made themselves comfortable in the space. They were climbing on chairs, playing with the toys (I always have toys on the bottom shelf of one of my bookcases), and looking at all the “things” that brother Juan (that’s what they call me here) has all around his office. The conversation was coming to a close, the mother tells her daughters “let’s get out of here, brother Juan is busy!,” immediately one of the girls looks at me and asks “What is it that you do?”

How do I explain my vocation and work to an eight year old? I turned my chair around and began to tell her about preaching, teaching, about checking in on people (especially if they were sick), and about study. So far nothing seem to impress her . . . it seemed boring! Then I said that my favorite part of my job was talking to people like her who just dropped by! With a big smile on her face she went on and soon came back with a drawing of Jesus for my office.

These are the rhythms I learned from a congregation that cared enough to teach me and a mentor who loved enough to model. Some years ago Bishop Will Willimon was quoted in an article on the Christian Century by Jason Byassee called What do associate pastors want? Team Players, Willimon says “ministry is mostly learned through apprenticing.” After these important early years of ministry I could not agree more!

After three years as an associate I was appointed as pastor in charge of a small rural congregation in my home conference. The transition was enormous, going from a dynamic, fast moving, growing congregation to a small, dying one is not easy. I no longer have partners all around me to help dream dreams and see visions. There is no longer the hustle and bustle of the small city that I could hear from my office. But every morning I wake up and remember that I am a pastor and the rhythms of pastoral life that I learned help me walk into the empty church building and lead this congregation into the fullness that God is calling it to live.

The rhythms of pastoral life become the incarnation of God’s call to this life!

Peace, Juan+

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My Pastoral Beginning

In the latest Christian Century magazine (November 3) David J. Wood, senior pastor of Glencoe Union Church in Glencoe Ill., reviews a book called From Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Pastoral Beginnings, ed. Allan Hugh Cole Jr. His review of this book solidified my own need to reflect more deeply on my own beginning and on what has transpired since.

I don’t yet have the privilege of decades in ministry. I am one of those young pastors who only has years behind him, and few at that! I’m now on my fifth year being called pastor . . . five years of attempting to lead a faith community, five years of joys, disappointments, and continued discernment.

Maybe the fact that it’s so fresh allows me to remember more vividly the transition. Those painful mornings when I would arrive in my office wondering what I was supposed to do. Or those “firsts:” funeral, visit, someone makes an appointment to “see” you, ICU visit, sermon, broken pipe, leaky roof, “personnel” problems . . . the list could go on!

I also remember the pain of letting go of my life as a student. It could be described as a grieving process. No longer part of a community of learning. No longer part of this important rhythm of learning, prayer, service. In some ways it was a deeply formative rhythm in my life.

Getting up early to lead morning prayers in the chapel. Going to class and soon finding myself back in the chapel, this time for word and table. Then after more classes and one more chapel service I would find myself in chapel again to close my week. This time the rhythm slowed as we gathered, heard, reflected, and broke bread! Now empowered I was ready for whatever came my way.

I found it jarring not to have this communal rhythm of learning, prayer, and service in the local church. It was almost like I could not find my way without it . . . I was not sure I even knew who I was without it.

It was replaced by a more mundane one. Phone calls, e-mail messages, paperwork, and people “stopping by.” And then there were the meetings, deadlines (another newsletter had to go out) and a run to the hospital. No morning prayer, no lecture or exciting theological conversation, no word and table . . .

Then Katrina came! We had no floods of water where I lived, we had floods of people. Anxious people, tired people, scared people, people hungry for good news! Collared I went . . . to where people were, oil stock in hand, ready to listen. The stories came, the tears, the sadness, the fear and little by little their stories and the stories of the many others since, became my rhythm.

I’ve tried to leave many times . . . to run away to a better, more fulfilling vocation. I have tried to convince myself that I’ve been called to other things, to less mundane things, to more heavenly things! But then a knock on the door of my office, a ringing phone, an invitation to come by is all it takes; someone wants to talk, someone wants to share their story. The words of morning prayer ring in my ears “O Lord Open My lips, that my mouth shall proclaim your praise!”

I’ve been called to this and God is still calling me to it. It is the mundane that God has called me to, it is the ministry of healing, forgiving, and reconciling. The ministry of blessing, breaking, sharing; the ministry of being present in the name of the anointed and poured out One, Jesus the Christ.

Now if I could just remember that each day is a pastoral beginning!

Peace, Juan+

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A Matter of Life & Death

As a pastor I am blessed to be there during important times in people’s life. Among my favorite times

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Calling & Discernment

It had been there a while. I could not remember at what point it emerged. In some ways I think it had always been there, I had always known.

And then there was that moment when I was 12. It was the practice of our congregation to allow children at age 12 to read scripture during worship. I remember anticipating that 12 birthday and how excited I was when soon thereafter I received my first reading assignment. I do not remember the passage, I do remember standing before my congregation barely seen behind that pulpit and reading God’s word to them. I believe this was the moment when I knew! God was calling me to be a proclaimer of this word!

Life happens though. Like many other pastor’s kids I let my own experience (painful at times) of my father’s pastoral work to make me forget that moment. By the time high school came I was sure that the last thing I wanted to be was a pastor.

The church remained faithful to their calling. They supported me in immeasurable ways, gave me opportunities for leadership and saw gifts in me that I could not see in myself at the time. Discernment was a communal experience.

I could write pages on the next few years as I went into college, majored in religion, left the church (in spirit although not in body) and then found my calling again at a different congregation, this time in The United Methodist Church. At each of these turning points the community of faith continued to call, continued to be God’s voice, continued to give me opportunities to experience leadership in a christian community.

It has been a little over four years since I finished seminary. It seems like just the other day that I walked on the campus of Candler School of Theology, it seems like an eternity! Since then I have pastored, first as an associate and in the last year as a solo pastor of a rural congregation. It has not all been easy but there is not a day that I am not reminded that this is what God has called me to do!

The process took time. There were many forms to fill out, many interviews, many assignments, many conversations. At each step there were opportunities for continual discernment and exploration. Opportunities to hear God’s voice calling again.

God calls all of us. Us with different gifts, abilities, and life stories. God calls us to faithful proclamation and active engagement for the life of the world. Some are called to leadership in christian communities, around table & bath, around towel and basin. These are the cornerstones of ordained ministry.

Sometimes I still feel like that twelve year old. Am I tall enough for the pulpit, for the table, for moments of holy conversation? At these times I remember the church gathered on that day long ago, their smiles, their attention, their knowledge that God was calling.

That same God still calls each day! Discernment never ends!

Peace, Juan+

P.S. If you are exploring a call to ordained ministry please consider attending Exploration 2009!

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In Memoriam II

“Later of course we realized that such a day-brightener as Alex wouldn’t want to be held close by grief. Now I see him best when I grieve him least.”

William Sloane Coffin in Letters to a Young Doubter

My dear Garrett,

I can’t believe it has been two years. In some ways the memories of that day are still so raw, maybe even permanently chiseled in my soul. Yet in other ways much has happened in the last two years. We have celebrated the arrival of your brother Nate, baptized him, and are now amazed to see how much he has grown. Avery has become a great baseball player and we celebrate that legacy, your legacy in his life.

And then there was my move to a new church. Although excited there was some sadness that we would not be close to your parents and to our circle of friends. In the last year since the move we have realized time and time again that the bond we share is one that is stronger than miles in between and paralleled lives. Your leaving in some ways cemented what we knew was there long before.

I am not where Coffin is . . . I am trying to grieve you less. I am trying to honor you in my work each day. Then Sunday after Sunday I get on my knees and see little hands outstretched, little hands begging for a little bread. Little hands eager, open, ready, to hear the words “every time you eat this bread remember you are a beloved child of God.” And there you are, part of the great communion of saints that interceded for us and who gathers with us in the braking of the bread. So I am trying to let go and to celebrate your “day-brightedness” by grieving you less.

And then there are those that you have given life! Those understand Coffin well. Thanks to your gift of self others have found life when death was so near. So on this 2nd anniversary of your leaving us I celebrate life! I invite all those who want to make a difference to consider the giving of themselves in organ donation. I invite them to read your story and talk to their loved ones about this important issue.

Your mother sent us a text recently reminding us that in some ways we were all your godparents. What an awesome and honored place in your life! So I am thankful that I had the opportunity to remind you of the love of God for you, in a small way I did my duty as a godparent without even knowing it.

Thank you again for your constant presence, for the constant reminder that I am doing God’s work, for me, each day. I’ll see you soon!

Peace & much Love, Juan+

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The Gospel of “We”

It happens everyday! I get this need to get out of the office and make my way to the corner grocery. (Here in our part of the world this small “convenience” store is about as close to a communal gathering place as we are going to get) I always get the same thing, a tall 32 oz. cup of Dr. Pepper. It has become part of my daily ritual in my small rural community. They know me by now and it never fails that when I come in conversations about God or the church begin, or continue depending on who you ask.

I make it a point to listen more than I talk. Sometimes there are times of confession other times joys are shared. There is always something though, a bad day, a long day, a struggle with the kids, a bad costumer. Then there is me, the local young pastor, who happens to drop in always at the right time.

Today it was no different. A conversation ensued about the use of the word “Jesus” as a substitute for other kinds of curse words. I as the resident “preacher” was soon in the middle of the conversation, having a wonderful time listening as the people coming in and out expressed their opinion on this important matter.

Soon they all seemed to turn towards me wondering what I thought, what was my take?

I proceeded to say: “We all use God/Jesus’ name in vain at times . . .”

One of the workers stopped me on my tracks and remarked “you too do that . . .” to which another one of the workers said “that’s one of the things I enjoy about Br. Juan is always “we” when he talks”

It’s always “we!” I have not been able to shake this up, I’ve been thinking about it all day. It is always we in my mind. I connect with the struggles that we all have in our attempt to live our lives. I too understand how difficult it is to live the way the way of Jesus in the world, especially in the everyday of life.

I think there is more here . . . it is only in the “we” that we can truly walk the way Jesus. We cannot do it alone, we cannot push everyone away and pretend that somehow it is better, holier. In fact the “we” is harder, more complicated, and messier. Yet Christ calls us to this “we,” “we are one body” Paul tells us, “We are to make disciples,” says Jesus.

We also fail,
mess it up,
make it impossible,
difficult,
full of trials.

In spite of its difficulties, I am thankful for the “we.” I am also thankful that I am part of a community that invites this young pastor into their lives and allows me to be part of the “we” in my community.

Peace, Juan+

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Pour Upon . . . the Holy Spirit

“Words, stories, sacraments, images, gestures: pastors have really nothing else.”

Gordon Lathrop in The Pastor A Spirituality

So it is my first year anniversary as an ordained elder in the church. It seems like a wonderful time to reflect on my last year of ministry and on my first year as an ordained person. Much conversation has been going on around me about the meaning, purpose, and need of/for the ordained life. I’ll have to admit that after four years of ministry and one year of ministry as an ordained person I am more convinced than ever of the importance of ordained ministry in the church.

It might surprise you that my conclusion has little to do with job security (guaranteed appointment), position (are pastors that highly regarded anymore?), or titles (what you call me means little to me). It does have something to do with baptism, for it binds us and makes us one people: people who need to remember their identity and that in the most difficult times of their life need one who reminds, calls, and invokes . . . one who can stand in those liminal places (threshold places, transition places, difficult places, changing places) and represent the body of Christ.

And so I’ve spent the last year playing with words, stories, sacraments, images, and gestures. After these early years of ministry I wholeheartedly agree that I have nothing else. This is humbling and scary at the same time. I do not have fame, fortune, position, power, control . . . all I have is these things that have been given to me and that have been activated in me by the laying on of hands. I can’t tell you how many times I have wanted to have more and then the Spirit has reminded me that I have what I need, that I have been given what I need.

So it seems like the Spirit that was invoked on me last year is still working at it, not yet finished, making sure that all of me is covered, all of me is saturated, all of me is drowning. Poured out, once more, poured out like at my baptism long ago, poured out so that I can let it drip from me, pour from me . . . for the life of the world.

Thanks be to God!

Peace, Juan+