Monday, May 31, 2010

The Trinity Makes My Head Hurt

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday, the day that the church celebrates the doctrine of the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However explaining the Trinity is very difficult to do. One-in-three and three-in-one. Below is my sermon from yesterday. It is very heady so I apologize for that right now. Hopefully it makes sense but really the point is that we don't have to be able to explain the Trinity, it is the experience that matters.

The texts for the day were Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday. It is the one day in the entire church year that we focus not on a teaching of Jesus but on a teaching of the church. Jesus never actually talks about the trinity, at least not by using the word “trinity.” In fact the word “trinity” is not in the bible. The closest Jesus gets to the word trinity is Matthew 28:19 during the great commission when he tells the disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Which, by the way, is part of the gospel reading for Holy Trinity Sunday some years.

Also at various times, Jesus discusses the idea of the trinity in discourses on him and the Father being one and the Holy Spirit is being sent by the Father and him. Our gospel today is such an example. So then what is the Trinity?

Most basically defined, the Trinity is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But to ask the Lutheran question: What does that mean? How is God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Is God all three at the same time? Is it just three aspects of God? Are they three separate gods?

We are constricted by our words in describing the Trinity. Throughout history there have been debates, heated debates about what the Trinity is and what the Trinity is not. People have been excommunicated because of disagreements and people have been killed over these disagreements and wars have been fought.

People have used symbols and analogies to helps us understand the Trinity.
Three interlocking rings, a triangle, three strands that make a rope, a tree leaf clover, or an egg (shell, white, yolk) but when you dissect those analogies, symbols down, they really are three distinct things, sides, stands, leafs, parts of the egg etc that do work together. So non-Christians have used those ideas to support the claim that Christians are not monotheist, people who worship one god, by polytheist, people who worship multiple gods, or more accurately tritheist, that we worship three gods. That God that Father is one God, Jesus Christ, God the Son, is a second God, and the Holy Spirit is a third God.

But those aren’t the only symbols and analogies for the Trinity. There is the idea that the Trinity is like water which exist in three forms, ice, liquid and vapor. But the problem with this example is that only one of those forms exists at a time. When there is ice there is not liquid or vapor, when there is liquid there is not ice or vapor and when there is vapor there is not ice or liquid. So if God is the Father, God cannot at the same time be the Son or the Holy Spirit, etc. But yet in Genesis when God created the heavens and the earth, the spirit of God moved over the waters, and in the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And for the last five weeks or so we have heard portions of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples when he talks about the Father being in Jesus as we followers are with Jesus, and Jesus prays to the Father and promises the Holy Spirit.

Does your head hurt yet? No matter how hard we try we cannot describe the Trinity accurately. We will always fall short. The analogy will always fall apart, the images will always come up short. We cannot by our own knowledge or strength understand the Trinity. We cannot yet bear them.

However theology is giving words to our experiences of God. So we try, we use these examples, these symbols, these analogies, knowing that they fall short. We see God in our lives as the creator, Jesus Christ who saved us from our sins and the Holy Spirit who lives in us. And we try to give words to these experiences, to understand how God can be all three at once and yet at the same time one. And we fall short. Our words, our examples, our symbols, our analogies are not enough, they do not adequately describe our faith.

But yet we must rely on our faith that our words will be enough. We must rely on our faith that our words will help us and others understand and that God will work in us to help where our words fall short.

And fortunately, as it says in our reading from Romans today “we are justified by our faith.” There is not a test to accurately describe the trinity in artwork or words in order to be justified, to be saved. No, we are saved by grace through our faith not our works or our words.

It doesn’t matter if we can describe the Trinity, this teaching of the church. No one is testing you on it, making sure that you can accurately describe theological words. That stuff doesn’t matter. Instead what matters is that you experience the Trinity. That you see God the Father, the creator of heaven and earth in the world around you. That you see Jesus Christ’s grace, love and teachings in your life and follow them. That you feel the Holy Spirit in you, leading your life, moving your heart, opening your mind. That is the Trinity, the different ways we experience God through our faith.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Holy Spirit in Many Languages

This was written a few weeks ago after Pentecost (May 23) but didn't post, so here it is now:

This last Sunday I preached mainly on the passage from Acts 2:1-21.  In fact I switched up the order of the readings and read this reading last.  The gospel lesson was John 14:8-17 ,25-27 in which Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, and the Act reading is the the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples so we just read the readings in chronological order.

One of the highlights of Pentecost is using many different languages to celebrate how the Spirit gave the disciples to speak in other languages.  I have seen this done in many different ways at different congregations but I LOVE how we did it at Bethlehem this year.  During the Acts reading, after the list of cities/countries, I added additional countries and languages.  People in the congregation, who speak languages other than English, volunteered to read John 3:16 in those languages, so during the reading of Acts we had French, Russian, Spanish, German, Akkadian, Polish, Swedish, Sumerian, Ukrainian, and Japanese.  Some of these were spoken fluently, some more broken but they were done beautifully.  After each person had read John 3:16 individually, I then read Acts 2:11b "in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power" and all 10 languages, plus English were spoken together.    It was wonderful!

Below is my final written version of my sermon.  I did make a few additions that I thought brought the sermon together much better and members of the congregation added their own experiences of the Holy Spirit which I think made the sermon even better, but I have not added those, sorry sometime you just have to be there.  Enjoy!  (oh and pictures of the church will be up tomorrow, I still have to take a few)

We don’t talk about the Spirit a whole lot. The Spirit is kind of an add-on in some ways. In the church year we really only talk about the Holy Spirit on two days, today on Pentecost and next week on Holy Trinity, and even then the Spirit has to share the spotlight with God the Father and God the Son.

In the Apostle’s Creed we say a full sentence about believing in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. Then we have a long statement about Jesus Christ, God’s only son our Lord, which goes on to tell about his conception, birth, his death, his resurrection and his ascension. And then we get one brief statement five words: I believe in the Holy Spirit. No explanation about what or who the spirit is, no description about what the Spirit does. Yes the creed continues, but not about the Spirit. We continue with the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. But those things really aren’t about the Spirit, yes they only exist because of the Spirit, there would be the church if it wasn’t for the Holy Spirit, but the creed doesn’t really explain the Spirit for those who do not know what it is.

So what is the Holy Spirit?

Well I don’t think we can explain the Holy Spirit to anyone instead it is something that must be experienced. So if the Holy Spirit must be experienced, then how do we know when we have experienced the Spirit? Well even that is difficult.

Often people will immediately credit the Holy Spirit acting when things happened the why they wanted it to happen. Last August at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, representatives of pastors and lay leaders from across the nation gathered for the biannual meeting of the greater church. But it was a contentious meeting, voting occurred on whether to allow people who are openly gay and in committed relationships to be pastors. Before each discussion, before each vote, those gathered prayed, they prayed that the Holy Spirit would be there, leading them, guiding them in their decision.

Well the vote was taken and the people who agreed with the decision immediately credited the Holy Spirit, often with tears in their eyes and signs of joy on their faces. And those who did not agree with the vote? Well since then they have fought it, many have left the church, many have complained, many have felt abandoned by the church that they love. And very few of them have credit the Holy Spirit or admitted that the Holy Spirit was there, in that conference center as people gathered, prayed, discerned and voted

And this happens all the time. We pray for the Spirit to guide us. When we are guided where we want to go, to great heights in our lives, we honor and celebrate the Holy Spirit, but when we are guided the way we do not want to go we fight, we rebel, we turn and go our own way. We don’t always see the Holy Spirit for what it is. We feel like we are being punished when we don’t get the job we interviewed for, or our relationship ends, or our health prognosis is not what we hoped for. We don’t see that the Spirit is moving, that the job was actually a dead end, and something that would make us unhappy, or the relationship was abusive or that another relationship is coming that will be even better than the one that ended, or through our health concerns we are able to open up to loved ones in a way that never would have happened in good health. But the Holy Spirit is not a timeline. It is not a plan for how things should happen. Having the Holy Spirit in us, experiencing the Holy Spirit, being guided by the Spirit, does not mean that we will not experience hardships and things will always go our way. Instead being led by the Holy Spirit means that we are able to grow through those hardships and realize that things will always go God’s way.

And the Holy Spirit is with us whether we realize it or not. The Holy Spirit is with us if we deny its existence or embrace it openly. And by embracing the Spirit, by praying for the Spirit to guide us, by praying that the Holy Spirit, in the words of the prayer of the day, kindle in us the fire of God’s love, empowering our lives for service and our tongues of praise, we become children of God. It is by allowing the Holy Spirit to work through us that we are able to bear witness to God and Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

So what is the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit is God. God that has been promised to us, God that is living in us, God that is a gift from God to us, a gift that has been promised and already received.

What does experiencing the Holy Spirit feel like?

Experiencing the Holy Spirit can be mundane, just a part of everyday life. Experiencing the Holy Spirit can be frustrating when the Holy Spirit comes in ways that we do not want. And experiencing the Holy Spirit can be overwhelming. Overwhelming with joy, overwhelming with happiness, overwhelming with love, and even overwhelming with fear. Experiencing the Holy Spirit can make us seem drunk at only 9 o’clock in the morning such as it was for the disciples. Experiencing the Holy Spirit can make us do impossible things. Experiencing the Holy Spirit can make the impossible become possible. Experiencing the Holy Spirit can bring tears to our eyes.

So maybe this is why the Holy Spirit only gets a brief statement in the Apostle’s Creed, it is so difficult to explain, but easy to experience as long as you acknowledge that it is the Spirit that you are experiencing. All we really need to know is that we are children of God who are led by the Holy Spirit. And for that we need to say is “I believe in the Holy Spirit” and allow the Spirit to lead us.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

He's got the diploma in his hands!

It has been one busy week here, full of adventures.  Bob graduated on Monday! In-laws and parents came in Saturday, Sunday was convocation, Monday was commencement and the diploma ceremony, Tuesday was touring some parts of greater CT and Wednesday everyone went home yesterday.  I'm just now starting to get my mind wrapped around what I need to get done for this coming Sunday (no rest for the weary). 

I'll post my sermon from this last Sunday, as well as some updates on how Pentecost went with all the doves and ribbons and streamers later but first I have to play proud spouse! Bob graduated with his Master of Arts degree from Yale's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization Department in the field of Assyeriology.  And if that isn't a mouthful enough to make someone impressed, he also graduated with a 4.0!

We were blessed with a beautiful weekend/week to celebrate other than a few sprinkles Monday morning it was a gorgous on Yale's campus.  And we had a beautiful time under the trees of old campus for commencement. 
 Two hard years of work and now diploma in hand (written in Latin)

Graduation was wonderful, but you can tell Yale has done this a time or 308 times before.  Everything was very organized and actually went quite quickly for the amount of students who were graduating. 

On Sunday, we attended the Graduate School convocation.  The speaker was one of the first females to graduated with a PhD in the sciences from Harvard.  Her speech was about having a love for learning, being accepting of all people to learn and that some of the greatest discoveries in scholarship happen by chance.  And being aware of the number of people and time, award winners were announced at commencement, but only those present were actually announced and just their names were said, not their thesis/dissertation titles.

On Monday, at commencement, they had students stand by school and the dean of that school ask the provost to confer their degrees.   I really think it took longer to announce the 8 honorary doctorates than it did to award the few thousand bachelors, masters, MD and PhD degrees.  After the large commencement, we then broke up by school to receive diplomas, and at the Graduated School's diploma ceremony they announce the degree, and the names of those present who walked across the stage to receive their diploma. I'm glad they did things so quickly since we were in a large un-air conditioned building whose windows did not open.  Afterward, the grad school hosted a lunch of sandwiches, chips, veggies, fruit, etc.  It was a good thing too, since everyone was starving and the New Haven restaurants would have been overrun with people otherwise. 

For our greater CT adventures on Tuesday we took our parents on a winery tour.  The first winery, Haight-Brown, was closed :-( but it did have an interesting sculpture - Bob thought it looked like sperm.

At the second vineyard, Hopkins Vineyard, we ate lunch overlooking this beautiful view: 

And at the third, DiGrazia Vineyard, I fell in love with this porch:
I'm so proud of Bob and we've had a wonderful week with family but I'm also so glad to be able to sit and not worry about where to take family or when we have to be somewhere.  I'm also glad that Bob achieved such a great accomplishment. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Church-y Craftiness

This coming Sunday is Pentecost, when the church celebrates the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples.  It is also the birthday of the church universal as it is often seen as the day the followers of Jesus moved from being a small group to a movement. 

Pentecost is celebrated in many ways, the most basic way is with people wearing red, the color of the day and having bright red paraments (the cloth covering the altar and the pulpit and the stole (aka scarf) the pastor wears).  Often the readings or a portion of them are read in a variety of languages since the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak in other languages. 

Bethlehem will do these things but also the church will be DECORATED!  A bunch of geraniums are ordered to go behind the altar, around the pulpit and in the window sills.  Balloons will float at the end of the pews and outside the doors.  And two new things are happening, hence my church-y craftiness. 

The first is ribbon poles.  During the procession of the cross, two of our youth will follow the cross, waving poles of red ribbons.  A member of the congregation and myself saw this at another church when we went to the Book of Faith Festival the other week.  My internship congregation discussed making these while I was there (though I cannot remember them being used).  So here is what I did.  I got to 1/2 inch pvc pipe, some white spray paint for plastic, some binder clips (can be found at any office supply store) and a bunch of red ribbons (satin mainly since it flows well) of varying widths and shades.

I went with 7 foot pipes since Bethlehem's ceiling is sort of low and chandeliers hang in the aisle (both the processional cross and the cross that we used on Good Friday have been hit on a chandelier before).  My first step was to drill a small hole about a 1/2 inch down from the top of the pipe.  I then went to town spray painting the pipes. 

Next I used my sewing machine and just a needle and thread to sew the top 1/4 to 1/2 inch of fabric over to make little loops in the ribbons.  The ribbons were between 4 and 6 feet in length.  And then I threaded the loops through the binder clip. And then attached the binder clip to the pole through the hole that I drilled in it. 

The finished product:  

They don't look like much now, but waving in the sanctuary they will look beautiful! 

The other project I enlisted the help of the Sunday School kids.  This last Sunday I taught a brief lesson on the Holy Spirit and we made origami doves made from dollies.  (Click here to find out how to make them)   The dove is one of the symbols of the Holy Spirit.  At Jesus' baptism the Holy Spirit came in the form of a dove.  All total they kids made 60 of them.  So yesterday I spent a good portion of the day putting thread through them so we can hang them from the chandeliers or other parts of the ceiling.  Right now I have a flock of origami doves in my dining room. 

I'm decorating the sanctuary on Saturday morning with some parishioners.  I'm excited to see how great the place will look on Sunday with flowers, balloons, doves, and streamers.  But I'm more excited for Sunday worship when people will read John 3:16 in Swedish, Russian, Spanish, French, German, Akkadian, Sumerian, Ukrainian, Japanese, and Polish.

Oh and did I mention yet that both my parents and in-laws will be there?  Bob is graduating this weekend, convocation on Sunday and commencement and degree ceremony on Monday.  He has translated John 3:16 into both Akkadian and Sumerian and I think it is appropriate and exciting that he gets to use both on his graduation day in front of his parents.  More about graduation weekend coming soon.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Weekend review

Friday Bob and I set out to explore some of the small towns that are near us that we haven't really been to yet.  We went to New Canaan and Old Greenwich, both of which have wonderful little shopping districts.  Bob and I almost have a requirement that if there is a toy store or candy shop we have to go in and explore.  New Canaan was great, lots of little cutesy shops, a wonderful lunch outside at a Thai restaurant, and the weather was gorgeous.  The only snag was Bob's lunch of a salmon salad came covered in walnuts which he is allergic to so he had to send it back and have it remade without nuts - why that is not listed on the menu I don't know. 

Probably our favorite store was Design Solutions which had fun and different home stuff like a surprisingly comfortable office chair made of bungee cords. There were also a few different toy stores and yummy looking restaurants.  We'll probably go back every once in awhile just to explore more and eat good food.

Old Greenwich I think we could have lived without.  Granted we did go to Almy, a church supply store, and bought part of a baptismal present for our godson, Owen, who will be baptized in July.  There is also a cute needlework shop there, The Village Ewe, but nothing popped out at me.  I think our biggest concern was that we got there about the time that the elementary school down the road let out so the shops were overrun with young children, stay at home moms and nannies.  And this is really bad of me, but many of the moms reminded me of Stepford Wives, dressed too perfectly for a day of running errands and taking care of kids, and I don't understand the appeal of that lifestyle. 

That evening we just hung out and watched TV, but on a plus side I did finish another page of my chaos cross. 

Saturday was confirmation, bread baking (oatmeal no-knead and pretzel bread), a leisurely walk with the dogs and just hanging out with Bob.  For confirmation we played stumped the pastor.  The kids were allowed to ask any question they had about the church, theology, the bible, Lutheranism, etc and get my honest answer.  I was impressed with some of the questions including "Can the devil hear our thoughts?," how to explain Jesus' resurrection to a non-believer, and justifying the bible with science (especially in regard to the creation of the world). 

Sunday was absolutely gorgeous so after worship (see previous post), Bob and I hit the garden.  Many of the seeds that we started a few months ago didn't survive, basically because we were bad waterers, but a few did so we put those in along with the plants we bought from a nursery last week.  We now have tomato, pepper, brussels sprouts, broccoli, oregano, parsley, cilantro, strawberry, and mint in the ground along with our previously planted potatoes, onions, carrots and spinach.  We also made cages for our tomato and pepper plants out of stakes and chicken wire. 

Here are our two raised beds and the additional perennial herb garden that we decided to put in.

Our potato plants are huge, here is Daisy modeling how tall they have gotten (Koko couldn't sit still long enough).

I also attacked the large overgrown shrub next to the house.  You can see some of my damage to the part below the water spigot (hence the need to chop some of it down).  Hopefully this fall we will take this one and a few other shrubs out and replace them next spring with azaleas and lilacs.  

I have also been amazed at what flowers have been growing.  Here are some beautiful yellow irises, we also have some yellow tiger lilies coming in and probably a few other varieties of flowers too. 

Prayers of the People

So I did a little better this week with the gospel, though I know I said the right thing in the wrong spot a few times.  The gospel was John 17:20-26 but the NRSV translation is a little REALLY confusing by using a lot of pronouns, so I memorized the Message version of the gospel which still has a lot of pronouns so I still edited it so people would know who the "them" are (the disciples).  Oh only one more week of heady John and then I get an entire summer plus of parables and healings in Luke. 

For the sermon, I didn't focus too much on the content of Jesus' prayer, which is what we hear in the gospel lesson, but instead I focused on that fact that Jesus is praying for us.  Having someone else pray for us is a very humbling act, especially when we are there to hear it.  At the end of the sermon I did ask if there were any additional prayer request and there were quiet a few, mainly of concern but there was also some of celebration.  Hopefully next week those prayer request are given at the beginning of worship and not after I've lectured preached for 10 minutes about the importance of people praying for us. 

Enjoy the sermon:

Each week we begin worship by asking for prayers of concern and celebration and I have noticed something: people hardly ever ask for prayers for themselves, except for wedding anniversaries. Birthdays are almost always announced by another family member or friend. And often the person whose birthday it is will look embarrassed or at least humbled by the announcement. We will list people who are ill or going to have surgery soon but never for ourselves. Quite a few people have told me after worship that they are having surgery, though often minor, later in the week and to keep them in my prayers. Yet there is this need, this desire to keep our needs private.  And it is not just health concerns, I, and pastors in general, find out all the time, privately after worship about people being laid off, difficult job searches or even new jobs, financial issues both good and bad including homes being foreclosed or promotion, marriage and other relationship issues, and many many more things.

Oh people have it worse off than me, they don’t need to waste their prayers on making sure my surgery goes well, granted I’m pretty worried about it.  Oh its no big deal, I don’t need prayers to make sure that I don’t kill my teenager who I’m having a very difficult time with right now.  I know that everyone can be a big support but I don’t want everyone else finding out that we’re having financial struggles and might not be able to eat more than ramen noodles this week.  Oh if I ask for prayers of celebration over the big job promotion people might think that I’m bragging.

We often don’t ask for prayers because we don’t want to feel needy, or greedy.  Sometimes it is too humbling to ask for prayers from a group.  Or it makes us too vulnerable to tell people that we are in need of something, that we aren’t able to provide for ourselves and sometimes asking another person for a prayer can come across as a request for something that we cannot provide for ourselves either personally or physically.

But what does it feel like when someone prays for you, especially if you are there and you hear it?  When your name is listed on your birthday?  Or how about a more elaborate prayer when you are truly struggling and need support?

Comforted, vulnerable, grateful, honored, humbled, awkward, appreciative, like someone really cares.

Those are words that are both positive and negative, but even the negative ones are emotions that we have to feel at times – vulnerable, humbled, awkward.  Those are emotions that help us grow.  Do you ever feel angry that someone is praying for you?  Upset?  Distressed?  Annoyed?  Irritated?

Hopefully not, because prayer, especially when you pray for someone or they are praying for you, is an act of giving.  Prayer is a gift.  Those same emotions that you feel when you ask for someone to pray for you are probably the same emotions you have when someone asks what you want for your birthday, or tells you they are going to buy you something special and wants to know what they can give you.  Those same emotions that you feel when someone prays for you are the same emotions that you feel when you receive a gift.  Comforted, vulnerable, grateful, honored, humbled, awkward, appreciative, like someone really cares.  Who has not received a gift, especially an unexpected gift and not felt those emotions or something similar?

But it is awkward to be the object of a prayer because it means we are not in control.  We are not the ones praying, asking God for something, nor are we the ones who are able to answer that prayer.  We are just people who have been given the privilege to overhear this conversation with God.  We are humbled that people would take time to be concerned about us.  We are vulnerable, because what if they ask God for something that we do not want?  We are honored because God is taking the time to be concerned about us even if we do not feel worthy of God’s time.  But we are worthy!  Because not only does God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit listens to our personal prayers and prayers about us, but also because they are praying for us.

Jesus is praying for us in today’s gospel.  He is praying not only for the disciples but for all who will believe in him because of the disciples and their witness about Jesus.  That includes us!

Jesus, the person who many of our prayers are addressed to, is praying for us.  He is asking that we can all be of one heart and mind together with each other but also with him and God.  He is praying that our actions might cause others to believe in him.  He is praying that we might have the same glory that he himself have received.  He is praying that we might see Jesus’ glory and splendor, and know that we are loved children of God.

What an awesome prayer!  What humbling prayer!  And yet while this prayer comforts it also makes us vulnerable, while it makes us feel grateful and honored, isn’t it also a little awkward that Jesus is praying for us?  Can you believe that God the Father and God the Son take the time discuss us?

But we are discussed, we are prayed for!  Yes once a year on your birthday we, as a congregation, pray for you by name and probably others pray for you then as well.  But each week there is at least one prayer petition for the church, the people of God, and that includes us!  Look at the prayer of the day for today:  O God, form the minds of your faithful people (that’s us!) into your one will.  Make us (ohh there is a word in first person plural) love what you command and desire what you promise, that amid all the changes of this world (don’t we all have changes going on in our lives right now that we could use a prayer about) our (there is another key word) hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, your Son, Jesus Christ our (there is word again) Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

And then in the first petition during the prayers of intercession – tear down the walls that divide your church and make us one – we are praying for ourselves and others, which means that other people are praying for us!

The second petition – bring peace where there is war.  Okay so Fairfield county is not a war zone, but our country is at war, so this includes us.  And if you are fighting with your neighbor, or your child, parent, spouse or friend, it means we are praying for you.

The third petition – all those who have been attacked, beaten or imprisoned.  Yes that mean those who have been physically attacked but also those attacked mentally and verbally.  And there are very few of us who do not fall in that category, so again people are praying for you!

Do you get it?  Whether you ask for it our not, whether you realize it our not people are constantly praying for you!  And I haven’t even gotten to the petition about renewing the downtrodden, energize the old, and instruct the young.

Whether you realize it or not, people are supporting you in prayer, in conversations with God.  We are being embraced in kind words, wrapped in love, uplifted as those need.

We are comforted by prayer because the Holy Spirit is living in us, working in us when we hear those words about us.  We are grateful when we are prayed for because we know there are so many other people who need prayers but yet we too are in need.  We are appreciative of prayers because sometimes we just don’t have the right words.  And we are worthy to be the subject of prayers for even Christ prayed for us.

We are children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, we are the church, a community of fellow believers and sometimes we need to realize that we can rely on those around us.  When we ask for prayers we are not needy or vulnerable because Christ already became needy and vulnerable for us when he died on the cross.  Christ already acted in the most humble way possible, by taking on our sins.  So when we ask for prayers, and when we pray for others, we are become Christ in this world.

So now I ask, are there any additional prayer request?  Both those of concern and celebration. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Re-entering the Bible

So I'm a bad pastor!  Okay not really, it is just that I know that I could do better in some areas.  

One such area that I have been struggling with recently is personal reading of scripture.  I LOVE group bible study, being able to gather with people and hear different perspectives on a certain text and how people relate scripture to their personal lives.  And quiet honestly I enjoy bible study with non-pastors more than with pastors and other church leaders. 

Currently I'm involved in three weekly scripture studies, yeah I know that sounds like a lot, but I'm a pastor.  On Sunday mornings, during the education hour at church, a very small group, often just Bob and I, have been reading through Genesis, re-learning some of the stories you first hear in Sunday School.  It has been a little disheartening to have only Bob and I, but I hope eventually that number will grow.  And I'm willing to do Bible study with just Bob and I instead of waiting for a larger group to form. 

On Tuesdays I met with the other Lutheran pastors in the county to discuss the coming week's lessons.  While I love it when we really dive into the meat of the scripture, we hardly get there.  Some times we spend a lot of time discussing what is going at other churches in the area or at the national church or people bring issues that have arisen in their congregation to get support on how to handle the issue.  When we do discuss the scripture, sometimes it seems that some of the pastors are burned out with the text because they have been preaching on it every 3 years for the last 50 years.   But often I do get insights on how to approach the text for my sermon, in fact that is where I got the idea last week to talk about vision. 

And on Wednesday evenings, a few members of Bethlehem, normally 4 or 5 of us, meet at the parsonage and discuss the upcoming text for Sunday.  Sometimes we talk only about the gospel, other times we talk about all 3 lessons.  This group I love!  Sometimes I go into Wednesday evening with a good idea of what to write for my sermon and after bible study I have an entire new outlook on the scripture.  I know I have "stolen" some of the others ideas about the text for the sermon. 

So I read scripture a lot in a group, but hardly by myself.  And I have tried.  And have failed.  Like many things that I do, I'm really good and keep up with my attempts for multiple weeks or months and eventually stop for some reason and then it takes me months to get back to it.  I have tried daily devotional readings like "Word in Season" or "Upper Room."  But when I miss a day I feel like I have to go back and read the day that I missed and when I miss multiple days that is a lot of extra reading and I soon get frustrated and give up.  Knowing that I like getting more indepth to the text, I tried reading smaller sections of text and then a corresponding commentary.  I tried this starting with Matthew last June and was very good reading this a few days a week until we moved then started again in the fall after we had settled in.  But even after several months, I still had not finished reading Matthew and gave up.

So after a conversation with a parishioner the other week, I've gone back to what I used to do in high school and college, when my bible was so marked up and used that it broke in two - just reading a few chapters each night before I go to bed.  If I'm super tired I'll only read a chapter or none at all.  But even if I'm really into reading the scripture I'm stopping at 5 chapters a night.  There is not an end date, a goal to have the bible read by, but just some time each evening for me to read scripture.

I have also started reading the Message, which is a more modern paraphrase of the bible.  It is not an accurate translation but it is not meant to be one either.  Instead it is meant to read more like a novel, chapters are marked, but verses are not.  This has allowed me to read scripture that I have read so many times in a new light.  And within the last week and a half, I have finished Genesis and just read up to the 10th chapter of Exodus last night.  Hopefully this will stick, and I'll be able to continue through all the laws of Deuteronomy.  

Monday, May 10, 2010

Having Vision

Well it was bound to happen:  I screwed up while telling the gospel.  The gospel for Sunday was John 14: 23-29 which is a very disjointed text.  Basically the gospel is 7 verses that have very little in common (other than the first two).  I had each section memorized individually but had a hard time remembering the order of the verses.  But I thought I was good (though I had a cheat sheet in my alb pocket) and I got through verse 26 and then my mind went blank.  And while I got out the cheat sheet I as then bad for the rest of the gospel.  Oh well, we laughed and moved on.

This sermon looks at that gospel reading but it also looks at the first reading for the day Acts 16:9-15, Paul having a vision and going to Philipi where he meet Lydia.  I did have a map during the sermon so the congregation could see where all the cities are mentioned, you can find a similar one here.  Macedonia is in the upper left hand corner of the map.

What is your vision? What is your vision for your future? For Bethlehem?

What I have gathered from conversations with many of you over the last year is this congregation’s vision for the future: that Bethlehem will be a small strong congregation focused on being a true Christian community (worshiping the Triune God, loving and serving others) which is not focused on the things of this world (material goods, wealth, power) that is active in supporting the needs of this community and the world through giving and our time, talents, goods and other resources.

One definition of depression is not having positive future vision of yourself.And I think this vision is a positive one. I think that is an excellent vision. It is an excellent hope for our future and good start for discerning what God is calling us to do. And I say start because even though this congregation is over 100 years old and this vision is one that we are on our way of achieving, it is just a start because a like all good visions, it is one that will never be fully realized for there will always be new ways of being a Christian community, and new needs of the greater community and as we continue striving for this vision we will have new visions.

But just because we have a vision doesn’t mean that we know exactly how we are going to make that vision a reality or what each of the steps along the way are. A vision is not a plan, a vision is a hope for the future and idea about where, who and what God is calling you to be. And sometimes our visions, our hopes, especially collective ones, take years to fully grasp though sometimes they come to us in an instant, in a moment of clarity or in a dream. And sometimes they can be shocks to the system, an instant when you realize you are headed in a different direction than where God is calling you.

Paul had one of those moments of vision. During the night, probably through a dream, Paul sees a Macedonian (someone from modern day northern Greece) standing in front of him and immediately Paul knew that he was not to head east to Turkey but west to Macedonia.

And Paul traveled west.

But he didn’t know exactly where he was going. And he didn’t know exactly what he was supposed to do there. He went to Troas then Samothrace then Neapolis and then finally Philippi. And even in Philippi he wasn’t sure what exactly he was suppose to be doing. On the Sabbath he went outside the gate by the river where he supposed there was a place a prayer – Paul didn’t know for sure, he didn’t know what he was going to do there, who he was going to meet. He probably didn’t know when he set out for Macedonia that he would be thrown in jail, which we will hear about next week. He didn’t have a plan; he just knew what God was calling him to do.

But along the way, through his journey to Macedonia he preaches about Jesus, he heals people, he befriends them and he baptizes them. And one of the first people he meets in Philippi is Lydia, who soon is baptized along with her entire household. And Paul’s vision to come to Macedonia and help them starts to become a reality.

So what are our first steps to make this vision, this vision for Bethlehem, become a reality? What do we need to do now to have us be a small strong congregation focused on being a true Christian community which is not focused on the things of this world that is active in supporting the needs of this community and the world? What are things that we can do now to make this possible in the future? What are our first steps, our pits stops in Troas, Samothrace, and Neapolis so that we can go to our Philippi and beyond?

Now from here we can do two things… One, we can do what is very popular in modern culture and create a plan, figuring out each step in order to reach our vision and a timeline for when each step should be accomplished by. And while that is a wonderful option and many people, companies and churches use that option in order to make their visions a reality, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the Holy Spirit to guide us to new visions along the way and it leaves a lot of room for failure which creates fear. What if we aren’t worshiping such a number by next fall? What if our giving doesn’t increase? What if a new ministry become evident and necessary but in order to attend to that ministry it will take us away from this plan?

So the other option is to just do. Start on the journey. Make those first few steps and see where God takes us. Churches with vision do ministry even if they do not have the finances and people to make it happen on paper. Churches and people with vision are not afraid because they make those first steps.

It means you individually making worship a priority in your life and encouraging others both members of this congregations and people in the greater community to make it a priority in their life to.

Having this vision for this congregation means being a good steward of your finances and times by giving generously to this congregation, the larger church and other ministries and encouraging others to do so.

Having this vision for Bethlehem means reading scripture personally and corporately in bible study and worship so that you can continue to received new vision for yourself and the congregation.

And having this vision for Bethlehem means being open to prayer, finding times and ways to pray that work for you. Moments when you can converse with God and continue to be open to the Spirit so that you know the next step on the journey, the next vision, and so you can give up to God any fears that you may have along the way.

We can start achieving this vision, we have started achieving this vision, with just a few steps because we are lead by the Spirit. Jesus has given us the Spirit, the Advocate, who as the gospel tells us, will teach us everything and remind us of what Jesus has said to us. And when we are lead by the Spirit, and when we are on the journey towards our vision we have nothing to fear. A vision is not a goal, a thing that we must achieve by a certain deadline, but a way of living in the idea of who, what and where God is calling us to be and there is no need to fear that, no need to fear that we will miss the mark. Because as long as we living out part of that vision, striving for that ideal, we have no quota to meet, no deadlines. >And sometime we might stray from this vision because a new vision has been given to us, but that is not something to fear. Instead we have the hope and joy of knowing that God loves us, Jesus died for us and the Holy Spirit lives in us. And through God we will be able to journey towards this vision and the many other visions that we will receive along the way.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Book of Faith

On Saturday I and another member of Bethlehem went to the New England Synod Book of Faith Festival.  The Book of Faith is an initiative in the ELCA in order to get people to become more familiar with the bible.  As the Book of Faith website says: The purpose of the Book of Faith Initiative is to increase biblical literacy and fluency for the sake of the world.

The brief history of the Book of Faith initiative is that in 2005 a church in North Carolina brought a resolution to their synod assembly that the ELCA encourage more bible study.  This then came to the national assembly in 2007 where the resolution overwhelmingly passed.  Since then the ELCA and its publishing house Augsburg Fortress has produced a new study bible (the Lutheran Study Bible), a new Sunday School curriculum and children's bible (Spark materials) and multiple Book of Faith bible study materials that look at themes in the bible, books of the bible and people in the bible. 

The festival on Saturday was a way for people in New England to come together in celebration of the Bible and the Book of Faith Initiative and learn how to better do bible study.  We did this through worship, keynote addresses and workshops.

The day began with morning worship and a keynote address by Dr. Diane Jacobson, the director of the Book of Faith Initiative.  Dr.  Jacobson discussed some of the things that keep people from bible study - time commitments, the idea that you need to be an expert, it can be confusing, we are a instant gratification culture and bible study takes time.  She also discussed what the Book of Faith Initiative is and what it is not - it is way of encouraging people to read scripture in ways that are engaging to them, it is for all people not just adults, it is conversation, it is not a specific curriculum. 

We then broke out into workshops.  I attended two, one on small church Sunday School and another on hospitality.  I highly enjoyed the Sunday School one and got some specific ideas on how to support our Sunday school teachers and make the program better for next year.  The hospitality workshop was good but more of a general conversation about hospitality in churches.  I think most attendees wanted to hear about being hospitable to visitors and welcoming the community and the leader was more focused on how to extend hospitality to refugees and homeless people in our midst. So while the conversation was good, I didn't get as many specific ideas to bring back to the congregation. 

The Dr. Jacobson's afternoon address lead us through the four ways of reading scripture for study.  Here is part of a hand out which sums up the address:

Devotional Reading (no experts...thank you very much)
  • What scares, confuses or challenges you in this text?
  • What delight you in the text?
  • What stories or memories does this text stir in you?
  • What is God up to in the text?
Historical Reading (Who, when, where, why, what?)
  • What insights from history would be helpful to know in order to hear, read, study or understand this passage?
  • Do we know anything about who wrote the passage?
  • Why was the text written?
  • Where was the text written and what do we know about that part of the world?
  • When was the text written, and what was going on in the world at that time?
  • A great way to do this is to mark the text with asterisk were you want a study note then researching the internet, study bibles and other resources for answers.
Literary Reading (How do we find meaning in the details of this text?)
  • What type of literature is that passage? (letter, poem, history, etc)
  • What is the plot?
  • Who are the characters?
  • What is the theme of the passage?
  • What is the setting of the passage?
Lutheran Theological Reading 
  • In what ways is the text leading us to Christ?
  • In what ways do we hear law?  
  • In what ways do we hear gospel?

Overall  it was a great experience.  I enjoyed my day at the festival and hope that I'll be able to continue to help grow bible study at Bethlehem. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

Love! Love! Love!

It has been a busy couple of days here. Saturday I went to a Book of Faith Festival which I'll post about in a few days. Sunday morning was worship followed by a baby shower for two members of Bethlehem who are expecting a son at the end of the month. And yesterday afternoon I provided dinner at Luther House at Yale, which I'll probably also write about in a few days. But as I post most Sunday afternoons or Mondays I wanted to talk about worship.

Yesterday I just had fun in worship and I think the majority of the congregation did too. The opening hymn is one of my newer favorites (then again I have about 300 favorite hymns) We're Marching to Zion. It has a wonderful rhythm with a double clap beat and while a new hymn for Bethlehem I think others enjoyed the hymn and I even got a few people clapping. (Which if you aren't familiar with Lutheran churches, is VERY difficult to do.) 

I didn't have a manuscript for my sermon because I decided to do more of a bible study format sermon.  The gospel text is John 13:31-35.  At first glance text seems to have three unrelated segments: a very confusing section about God, the Son of Man, glorification and lots of "him"s. A middle section when Jesus tells his disciples that he is only with them a little longer and a final section when Jesus gives the new commandment to love one another just as he has love them. 

On Mondays, I send out an email to the congregation with links to the lessons for the coming Sunday along with some questions to chew on.  This last Monday I joked that John 13:31-32 needs a flow chart so you can follow it.  But instead of a flow chart I started with a Mad Libs.  On a sheet of paper I wrote:

Now the Son of Man has been glorified and God has been glorified in _______.  If God has been glorified in ______, God will glorify _______ in ______self and will glorify ______ at once. 

We then filled in the "he"s and "him"s with who they are which we decided were:

Now the Son of Man has been glorified and God has been glorified in the Son of Man (aka Jesus).  If God has been glorified in Jesus, God will glorify Jesus in Godself and will glorify God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit/All at once. 

We then talked about glorify means.  Some responses were: respect, honor, praise, worship, dignify. 

So the second Mad-Lib looked like this:

Now the Son of Man has been ______ and God has been ______ in _______.  If God has been ______ in ______, God will ______ _______ in ______self and will ______ ______ at once.  

We then filled it in to read like this:

Now the Son of Man has been praised and God has been honored in the Son of Man (aka Jesus).  If God has been respected in Jesus, God will worship Jesus in Godself and will dignify God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit/All at once. 

We then discussed how we can glorify God, by asking the Lutheran Question: What does this mean to us? And of course one of the answers was to love others. 

Which lead to the questions: what does it mean to love others? and how can we love others?  At this point we sang a very jazzy version of Jesus Loves Me and one of the congregation members played the spoons while Lyudmila rocked out on the piano. 

I then finished by talking about how sometimes it is hard to love others, it is hard to share with a stranger, it is hard to always listen to and not take advantage of the people we know best and it is hard to engage in conversation with the person who is an acquaintance.  But we are able to share with, listen to, engage with, touch, respect, take delight in, and care for others because Jesus shares with, listens to, engages with, touches, respects, takes delight in and cares for us.  And we are only able to love others because Jesus first loves us. 

Overall it was just a fun service. 

And the day was made even more delightful because after worship we had a baby shower.  The amount of love that is shown to one another in this tiny church is amazing.  Last week myself and one of the other planners of the shower were worried that no one would show up because no one had signed up, but we had over 20 people stay after worship for lunch and presents and I don't think the new parents will have to buy clothes for the baby any time soon. 

I think it really says something when people have fun at church!