Sermon: Caution – Spirit at Work

spirit at work

Saturday, December 9, 2017
Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey, El Paso, TX
First Sunday after Christmas / Primer Domingo después de la Navidad

Nuestra lectura del evangelio para hoy está llena del movimiento del Espíritu Santo. Se ve como el Espíritu ha movido a cuatro personas a venir al templo para tener un encuentro divino con Dios encarnado. Hoy, quiero ofrecer una pequeña reflexión sobre cada uno de estas personas. Y también quiero ofrecerles unas preguntas meditativas para ayudarnos a buscar el movimiento del Espíritu Santo en nuestras propias vidas.

Our gospel lesson for today is full of the movement of the Holy Spirit. We can see how the Spirit has moved these four people to come to the temple for a divine experience of the incarnate God. Today, I want to offer a brief reflection about each of these people. And I also want to offer a few questions for meditation to help us look for how the Holy Spirit might be moving in each of our own lives. Continue reading “Sermon: Caution – Spirit at Work”

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Wells in the Wilderness

For about the last year, I have been worshiping with the community of St. Luke’s Lutheran of Logan Square — on the Sundays I haven’t been preaching elsewhere, of course.  I chose St. Luke’s because they are a vibrant and visionary community that had the courage to sell their building and open up shop in a storefront, and because of their deep commitment to social justice — and also, largely, to “low-key stalk” my dear friend Erin while she completed her internship year there.

hagar-ishmael-augo4Anyhoo, one of the neat things St. Luke’s does is to engage the congregation in a regular practice of testimony, often inviting laypeople to prepare testimonies from their own lives around a certain theme to read in worship.  This past Sunday was my last Sunday at St. Luke’s before I move to New Mexico for internship (by the way, I’m moving to New Mexico for internship — forgot to make that announcement!).  It seemed incredibly fitting that I should answer a question about experiencing God in the desert before embarking on a literal journey to a literal desert.

My testimony was related to the Hebrew Testament reading — Genesis 21:8-21 — in which Hagar and her son Ishmael are kicked out into the desert by Abraham’s wife Sarah.  I was asked to respond to the question, “When was a time when you experienced God/good news in a place of isolation, abandonment, death?”  This is what I wrote:

Continue reading “Wells in the Wilderness”

Recovering Ancient Understandings of Gluttony

Book Review/Reflection for Class:
The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Weighty Matters by Mary Louise Bringle

Mary Louise Bringle lays out her book, The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Weighty Matters, after the fashion of a meal, titling her chapters “Apértif,” “First Course,” “Second Course,” and so on. I found it fitting, because this book was, indeed, a rich feast of reflection on the issue of gluttony and its relationship to the culture surrounding weight, food, and dieting in our society. I also appreciated that this book was suffused with Bringle’s own struggles with disordered eating and self-image; she conveys a gravity and emotional complexity around this issue which I also deeply feel. Bringle opens up the riches of Christian tradition, history, and theology to respond to this still current question of gluttony. She explores patristic and monastic writings for wisdom on how gluttony is rightly to be understood; I particularly found her discussion of Gregory the Great’s five kinds of gluttony to be clarifying and helpful. And she ultimately shows that gluttony is a matter of disordered priorities that idolize the goodness of creation above its Creator, resulting in damaged relationship to God, to neighbor, and to self. This book was published 25 years ago, but it continues to be extremely relevant.

Evagrius P Continue reading “Recovering Ancient Understandings of Gluttony”

Making Space for Mystics and Madness

Here’s another bit of writing from one of my classes this semester, this one from the Pastoral Care and Mental Illness course I’ve been taking.  This particular course has had some interesting overlap with another of my classes: Desert Discipleship, which explores the legacy of the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries of Christianity.  In this assignment, which I conceived as an article for a church newsletter, I propose a connection between schizophrenia and the legacy of St. Anthony.  Enjoy!

st-anthony-the-great-3St. Antony, also known as Anthony the Great, was a Christian monk who lived in Egypt in the third and fourth centuries. He renounced the wealth left to him by his parents and chose to live an ascetic life in the desert, fasting and meditating on Christ. Antony became a wise and famous figure of Egyptian monasticism, but more than anything, he was known for his battles with demons.

St. Athanasius, the fourth century bishop of Alexandria, described these battles in The Life of Antony, which quickly became one of the most popular books in Christian history. Many modern readers will find these accounts more than a little odd, but there was something about Antony’s life and his battles with the demons that earlier generations undeniably found compelling. Athanasius describes how Antony withdraws further and further into the desert, at one point enclosing himself in a deserted barracks and receiving stores of food only twice a year. Athanasius writes:

Those friends who came to see him, since he would not allow them to come inside, often remained outside day and night. They heard what sounded like mobs of people creating a ruckus and crashing around inside, letting loose their pitiful voices and crying out, “Get away from what belongs to us! What are you doing in the desert? You will not be able to endure our connivings!” Those outside at first thought some people… had gotten inside by means of ladders… but when they knelt down to look through a hole in the wall, they did not see anyone. (Athanasius, 2003, p. 89)

1an33__24635_1405404609_900_900Antony instructs his followers to be wary of these demonic voices, telling them that they fill one’s head with “filthy thoughts” and cause “apparitions,” that “they pretend to frighten us by changing their shapes and taking on the appearance of women, wild beasts, reptiles…” (Athanasius, 2003, p. 113)

Hundreds of people flocked to the desert to be taught by Antony, to the point that Athanasius writes that they “forcibly tore down his door and forced him to come out.” (Athanasius, 2003, p. 91) Reading this in the 21st century, I have a hard time imagining this happening in our day. Even though the Christian church has centuries of history and tradition of mysticism and mystery, I can’t imagine people rushing out to sit at the feet of anyone who heard voices and saw apparitions and warned others about demons putting thoughts into their heads today. Can you? If St. Antony lived today, many folks would probably be pretty quick to label him a schizophrenic. They would probably say that he was crazy. Continue reading “Making Space for Mystics and Madness”

Cancer, Evolution, and a Creation Stumbling Forward

I have been taking a particularly fascinating (and challenging!) course this semester called “The Epic of Creation: Scientific, Biblical, and Theological Perspectives on Our Origins.”  While many of our class sessions have been (to my mind) thickly scientific and technical and rather over my head, last Monday, we had a deeply engaging conversation about theological and pastoral perspectives on cancer as an evolutionary phenomenon.  Given my family history of cancer — most notably, my mother’s death from breast cancer in 1994 — this is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart.  I rushed home after class to write my reflections about all that we had discussed, and after re-reading what I wrote, I decided to share some of it here.  I hope it’s meaningful for others as it is for me. Continue reading “Cancer, Evolution, and a Creation Stumbling Forward”

My Own Independence Day

CW: diet talk, weight loss, profanity, disordered eating

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Me rocking a new winter coat that actually fits well and looks nice

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I quietly celebrated an important anniversary yesterday.  It’s been exactly one year since I gave up dieting and stopped trying to lose weight.  I had been resistant and afraid to do it, terrified that I would lose all control over my eating and constantly gorge myself on all the fatty, fried, and sweet foods I so desperately craved.  I felt like a crazy person around food and even thought that perhaps I was a food addict.  I used to hide my eating from those closest to me who I knew would disapprove: hiding candy in unlikely places (like my closet or behind books on a shelf), hiding myself in the bathroom to sneak my little treats.  I felt guilty and hungry and ashamed all. the. time.

A year ago, I was lying face down on my bed, sobbing uncontrollably, feeling like the most miserable life form in the universe.  I don’t even remember what set me off, if indeed, there even was anything.  I was so sick of dieting, so sick of constantly denying myself the pleasure of eating.  And most of all, I was just unbearably sad.  The ideal of the thin (or even the thinner) me seemed impossibly far out of reach, and getting further by the minute.  I had legitimately given it my best.  I have lost as much as 70lbs in a single go in my life, but without fail, it always comes back, and when it does, it brings along reinforcements. Continue reading “My Own Independence Day”

On the Plus Side

Some of my writing was featured recently on LSTC’s diversity blog: We Talk. We Listen.  I was honored by the invitation to write about fatphobia and body positivity and my experience of the world as a “woman of size.”

On the slim chance that you are visiting my blog without having linked here from said post, I encourage you to read my article, and then like, share, and liberate!

drop-the-towel

Folks and Yokes

Today was the last day for my friend Erin and me at our Ministry in Context — “MIC” — site.  We bid a fond farewell to the bilingual congregation we’ve been serving part-time in the western suburbs of Chicago for most of the last nine months.  Even though we only got to spend seven or eight hours a week in the church, we really started getting to know people and building relationships with members of the congregation.  It was bittersweet to leave when it feels like we’ve barely begun.

Probably my favorite moment of the day was a part of the special sending they did for us at each of the three services.  The pastor had congregants come forward and lay hands on us, while he prayed, blessed us, and anointed us with oil.  It never ceases to amaze me just how powerful the ministry of touch is.  Just as much as the very kind words of affection and affirmation that we heard from parishioners, the warm, loving touch of their hands on our backs and shoulders was a palpable sign of their care and blessing.

At one of the services, as I stood there before the altar, feeling the light pressure of their hands on my shoulders, I was suddenly reminded of Jesus’ words at the end of Matthew 11: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  This is the vocation to which I have been called: to be “yoked” to the church, “burdened” with love for this community and for its Lord.  And I am so grateful for it.

Here is the fruit of my latest songwriting efforts:  “Daughter.”  It was inspired by a verse that I recently rediscovered, one that both haunted me and gave me hope during my transition from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to what ended up being a couple of mostly secular years:

“How long will you waver, O faithless daughter?  For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth…”  Jeremiah 31:22

It’s a verse that seems to fit all my wanderings in and out of organized religion, but it also seems timely given the conversations happening across the modern day church about the challenges it faces.  The verse preceding it even makes plain that the question is directed not at a single person, but to God’s people on earth:  “Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities.”

These are tough times for a model of organized religion that was built around a set of social assumptions that are no longer remotely accurate.  For those that cling to the outdated loveliness of this sinking ship, the future seems full of fear — emptying pews, mounting bills, and the looming end of church as we know it.  But we must learn to see through the fog of all these worries, and to see the church as God sees it — as the body of Christ, constantly being made new.  We are passing from one season to another and being renewed together — change is coming, whether we want it or not, but we have the choice to either shrink from it with fear and trepidation, or to seize it eagerly as a light of hope and a bright new chance to dive deep into God’s restorative work in the world.

Lyrics are below:

Continue reading “Daughter”

Wit and witness

I’ve been reading the book “Christianity After Religion” by Diana Butler-Bass — a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in religion or religious trends — and among the many things that have struck me so far is the following quote: “…some Christians are very comfortable defining themselves as adherents to a way of life modeled by Jesus rather than adherents to a particular doctrine or creed.”

It brings to my mind something I’ve alluded to previously but never really written about: my time with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I think it’s something I’m finally ready to start writing about. Despite the many, many issues I take with their theology, I think that there are many things about their religious community — and, more to the point, their way of life — really worth contemplating.

To give a brief bit of background, I encountered a group of JW missionaries during my years in the Dominican Republic. The small pueblo where I spent the first two years of my time there was home to a fledgling JW congregation being developed by a number of missionaries, mainly from the US and Canada, also England, Denmark, and perhaps another European country or two I’m forgetting now. Right off the bat, we found lots of common ground in our respective experience and worldviews and quickly became friends. I was already immersed in a personal study of the Bible and grew particularly close to two young women — one from Canada and another from England — who graciously offered to open their studies to me.

I was fascinated by the things they had to say and by the new perspectives they brought to the study of scripture. They encouraged me to consider scriptural passages and many of the basic ideas of faith I’d absorbed over the years in a very different light. The result was enlightening, unsettling, and even disturbing, and the questions the experience raised have taken me a long while to digest, but ultimately, I think that this sort of uprooting of my faith was beneficial to me, as it freed me to re-pot myself in much more fertile soil.

What most drew me to their community is something for which I still hold them in deep respect; namely, that they embodied precisely what Butler-Bass describes in the quote above: adherence to a way of life modeled by Jesus. (They are, of course, also adherents of a very strict set of doctrines and creeds, to a degree that becomes un-Jesus-like in its implementation. I wish to make clear that I am decidedly not a proponent of becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.) What I mean by this is that they take the Gospel very seriously. The message it contains of a new kingdom of love and salvation is one that — if allowed — must necessarily change the way we live and the way we see our place in the world. Continue reading “Wit and witness”

To be kind

three things

Inspired by Evi’s blog to do some images with quotes.

In the English conversation groups I facilitate throughout the week, I often have students draw questions out of a bowl in order to spark conversation and just have fun.  Everyone in the circle — including me — goes around and takes a turn to answer each question, which may be about their pets or their hobbies or about fun trips they took, and so on.  During one class, someone drew the question, “What is your philosophy of life?”  It certainly sparked a lively discussion, and while there were many interesting answers (some more profound than others), this was mine:  to always be kind.

History of the harvest

This past weekend was full of history — personal history — for me.  I went up and spent a few days in my hometown, Coleridge, in northeast Nebraska.  Saturday night was the all-class reunion they have periodically, and also my ten year high school reunion — it’s amazing to see how people change and where they end up.  It’s a blessing to me to look back and see the path my own life has taken since then.  How much has changed.

The other big reason I went home was actually to preach in my home church.  It was a little disconcerting at first to be standing on the other side of the pulpit I’ve been staring at for nearly three decades, addressing a congregation that’s known me since I was in diapers.  But it was thrilling, too, to be preaching in the very same church where my great-great-grandfather was pastor, and where generation after generation of my family has belonged since then.  Every time I set foot in that sanctuary, I feel the depth and richness of my own family history; and through it, I sense our connectedness to an even larger, older family — our Christian family through blood and faith.  Going home to Immanuel Lutheran always seems to ground me and helps me orient myself and find my place in the larger Christian story.

Even the text I preached on this weekend was a great reminder that the story is far from over.  We are still writing it, word by word, act by act.  In this weekend’s gospel reading, Jesus sent out the 70, commanding them to preach the good news of God’s kingdom come near, to pass along his peace and to heal the sick.  Jesus’s command doesn’t end with the 70 — he tells them, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  We are the laborers.  When we go out in love, sharing the good things God has promised to us, we become part of this mission, this story, this history, too.

ILC pics

Why should I go to church?

I was sitting in the park knitting yesterday evening and having an imaginary conversation with a friend of mine.  I do this a lot, actually.  I’m not crazy or anything, but the conversations help me to sort of process my thoughts, and this conversation in particular is one I’ve more or less had — in reality — with a number of different people.

Anyhoo, this conversation was with a certain friend of mine — let’s call her… Cordelia?  Cordelia.  Like many of my friends and acquaintances, Cordelia isn’t a very religious person.  She may believe in something beyond the tangible world, but doesn’t necessarily buy into the organized religious aspect of spirituality.  In our conversation, she was a little uncomfortable and even semi-apologetic to me for this, knowing that I am very religious and somehow expecting that I would judge her or think less of her for not being “churched.”  I assured her that nothing could be further from the truth, and went on to observe that, in his letters, Paul lists faith among the different gifts of the Spirit, leaving open the suggestion that some (or many) people won’t have faith.  But we all have gifts and we are all moved by the same Spirit and I told Cordelia that I knew she had wonderful gifts, gifts I have personally seen her share with others to teach and nurture them and help them grow.  I told her that I believed that God created all of us and loves all of us no matter what we believe, and that nothing could be more pleasing to God than that God’s gifts be used for the good of others.  Then she asked me a question I didn’t know how to answer.  “Why should I go to church, then?”  Well… why should she go to church? Continue reading “Why should I go to church?”

If Captain Planet wrote praise songs…

They might sound kind of like the one I just wrote.  Haha.  All through the Easter season, there’s been one piece of the communion liturgy at church that really stirs me up whenever I hear it:

“O God, you are Breath: send your Spirit on this meal. O God, you are Bread: feed us with yourself. O God, you are Wine: warm our hearts and make us one. O God, you are Fire: transform us with hope. O God most majestic, O God most motherly, O God our strength and our song, you show us a vision of a tree of life with fruits for all and leaves that heal the nations. Grant us such life, the life of the Father to the Son, the life of the Spirit of our risen Savior, life in you, now and forever. Amen.”

I think it’s such beautiful and moving imagery.  It’s a great reminder to always be on the lookout for God in all things, to catch glimpses of God’s spirit as it moves through the world with an infectious and mischievous delight, stirring our hearts up to love.  Anyhoo, once again, I found myself on a test day in class with a pen and a scrap of paper and words that began to flow through my brain.  This is what came out.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a great songwriter, but hope you enjoy it anyway.  The lyrics are also posted below.


Continue reading “If Captain Planet wrote praise songs…”

Prayer 101

This is one of a couple of forthcoming posts inspired by the conversations at the candidacy retreat last weekend — it’s been a good week of rumination and contemplation.  One comment that particularly sparked my interest was about prayer — the speaker (I think it was Bishop Maas) said that he’d never really been taught how to pray.  It made me pause and consider my own prayer life, how I learned to pray.  I remember reading prayers in the bulletin growing up and memorizing table and bedtime prayers and the Lord’s Prayer, and struggling to master the Apostle’s Creed.  But I don’t remember anyone sitting down with me and saying, “Okay, this is how you pray.”  It was just words.

It’s a question my confirmation students have been raising a lot in the past few weeks as we’ve been exploring the Lord’s Prayer: “How do you pray?”  It’s a good question to ask.  We always end our confirmation lessons with a prayer; however, aside from one very vocal student who, sadly, no longer attends confirmation, none of the students has ever voluntarily (and barely involuntarily) prayed at the end of class.  I asked them one day how they could be so outspoken with questions and discussion during class, but then instantly clam up when it came time to pray.  They replied honestly, “we don’t know how to pray.”

Well, how do you pray?  Continue reading “Prayer 101”

God, by any other name

How well do you know the Lord’s Prayer?  If you’ve found your way here, I’d be willing to bet you’ve at least heard it, if you don’t know it by heart:

Our Father in Heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come;
Your will be done
On earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us today our daily bread
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
And deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours,
Now and forever.
Amen.

In the last few weeks, my confirmands and I have been exploring this prayer, taking it slowly, line by line, to see what Jesus was getting at when he told us to pray this way (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).  This morning, we discussed the second line: “Hallowed be your name.”  Think about it for a minute.  What do we really mean when we say this?  Continue reading “God, by any other name”

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