Thursday, May 24, 2012

Power Without and Within

What does it mean to be a "Spirit-filled church?"  What does a church that "has the Spirit" look like?

There are lots of churches that boast of being Spirit-filled; for us, that usually conjures up images of a certain boisterousness, a particular kind of exuberance, hand-waving and amen-ing and jumping around and all the rest of it.  There are churches in certain corners of the Christian world where the Spirit is expected to be plainly evidenced.  You may have been to a church like this; perhaps you may have also felt a little out of place, like someone who enjoys genteel ballroom dancing who winds up on the dance-floor of a hip, 20-something nightclub. Culture shock extreme!

But the Spirit is something more than that which animates worship.  Looking back to the story of Pentecost, in the 2nd chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit's arrival does indeed create a visible stir among the disciples who were waiting for its promise.  But the real key to Pentecost is not so much its visible signs, as powerful as they may be; the real key is the power of God, within and without, precisely for the mission of God in the world.  Power to witness to Jesus, to be agents of God's love.

The corner of Christendom that we inhabit is a little uncomfortable with outward displays.  (Only occasionally will a good tune elicit hand-clapping.)  But that does not mean we are not "Spirit-filled."  The Holy Spirit is promised to us, indeed, given to us in our baptism.  We cannot even think about claiming Jesus as Lord without it.  Even beneath our typically restrained demeanor, the Spirit is at work upon us, subduing (or rather killing) the sinner in us, allowing the Resurrection power of Jesus to make something new out of us.  The Spirit's work is not for show; it is for life change, for transformation.  It is for us, and also through us, for others, for the world.

Without the Holy Spirit, this whole thing would have fallen apart long ago.  And so we not only acknowledge the Holy Spirit's existence, but claim the Spirit's power, and welcome him.  We also ready ourselves for the surprises that will come our way, because with great power comes great turbulence!

As the program year winds down, we give pause for gratitude for the Holy Spirit's work among us this past year: for musicians and singers and ringers, for Sunday School leaders and Confirmation guides, for ministry leaders and staff, and for all the many people who do Spirit-led work.  To you, a Spirit-filled thank you!

tjk

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thoughts on the Recent ELCA Assembly

Here's my most recent article for the Redeemer Tidings:

It is a challenging time to be the church, indeed. Please note the following news release, from the ELCA New Service, August 21, 2009:

The 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted today to open the ministry of the church to gay and lesbian pastors and other professional workers living in committed relationships.

The action came by a vote of 559-451 at the highest legislative body of the 4.6 million member denomination. Earlier the assembly also approved a resolution committing the church to find ways for congregations that choose to do so to "recognize, support and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same gender relationships," though the resolution did not use the word "marriage."

The actions here change the church's policy, which previously allowed people who are gay and lesbian into the ordained ministry only if they remained celibate.

Throughout the assembly, which opened Aug. 17, the more than 1,000 voting members have debated issues of human sexuality. On Wednesday they adopted a social statement on the subject as a teaching tool and policy guide for the denomination.


Some within our midst have been tracking these proposals very closely and will be troubledby these decisions. "How can this church act contrary to what is clear in the Bible?" they will say. (A challenging argument since we routinely contextualize and ignore many of scripture's ancient injunctions!) Some, on the other hand, will welcome this decision, seeing this as a victory for justice, seeing here signs of a more inclusive, welcoming church. Others still may remain conflicted and confused on the issue, desiring to respect Scripture and the tradition of the church but who are nevertheless personally affected, for whom homosexuality is not an evil "out there" but a reality in their families, communities, and perhaps within themselves.

The ELCA has been trying hard throughout this process to respect both sides of the debate, and, in its own words, to find ways to live together faithfully despite our differences. But still, there will be many whose conscience is greatly troubled, who will wonder how they can, in good conscience, remain within the ranks of the ELCA.

What does this mean for us? Alongside these decisions on ministry policy, the Churchwide Assembly also passed a resolution which would respect the "bound conscience" of those who disagree with these changes. Bound conscience was something to which Martin Luther appealed during the Reformation, and it has to do with the premise that, where there are differing interpretations of scripture regarding a moral issue, one cannot force one's conclusion upon another whose conscience is bound by an alternate view. Dr. Timothy Wengert, of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, provided some helpful remarks on this point:

Respect for the bound conscience does not mean that one can simply declare one’s conscience to be bound to a particular interpretation of Scripture, and then make everybody else deal with it. Respecting bound conscience is not a form of selfishness or an excuse to sin. Instead, it means that the very people who hold different, opposing viewpoints on a particular moral issue based upon their understanding of Scripture, tradition and reason must recognize the bound conscience of the other, of their neighbor who disagrees with them, and then work in such ways as not to cause that other person to reject the faith and fellowship in Word and Sacrament. (from "Remarks Concerning Bound Conscience" by Dr. Timothy Wengert, 2009)

The assembly's acted under the banner of respect for bound conscience. In this case this means that synods and congregations who disagree with the change in policy, who are bound by their conscience, will not be forced to act contrary to their conscience (i.e. to accept gay and lesbian persons living in committed relationships as pastors.) But, of course, this begs the question: how are these decisions made within synods and within congregations where there is a considerable diversity of opinion and belief?

Much conversation and dialogue is needed in the coming weeks and months around this issue; to that end we will be holding an initial dialogue session on Wednesday, September 9th (with two sessions, 12 Noon and 7:30 PM.) I envision this as an opportunity for mutual understanding, under that same banner of respect for bound conscience. I have also requested the Church Council to begin to consider how we will address this issue in the coming months.

Those who desire to understand more about the Assembly's actions will do well to check out the resources on the ELCA's web site, www.elca.org/assembly.

In conclusion, some thoughts from the ELCA's presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, in his concluding remarks to the Assembly:

...we need one another. We need time. We need the voices of those who lament and those who rejoice over these actions, for together we have been called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and engage in God’s mission for the life of the world...

I invite you into important, thoughtful, prayerful conversation about what all of this means for our life in mission together. What is absolutely important for me is that we have this conversation together.

We meet one another finally -- not in our agreements or our disagreements -- but at the foot of the cross, where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ.


Amen.

Grace to you, and peace!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Contemplating New Life

As part of our community's celebration of Resurrection, some of us have been exploring the theme more deeply through N.T. Wright's book, Surprised By Hope. We probably shouldn't be amazed that the more we go at it, the more it seems the Resurrection (that of Jesus as well as that for all creation) brings with it new energy, new possibilities. Pity that the Church is usually too tired or busy to think much about it.

For those who are curious to know more and aren't likely to go out and actually buy the book (it can be a little dense for the uninitiated!) I offer some online links for N.T. Wright resources. Most of this stuff can be had (for free!)on his web site, www.ntwrightpage.com. In addition, here's a few things for your iPod. (It can help make fruitful your morning commute!)

Two lectures on Resurrection: "Resurrection and the Future World," and "Resurrection and the Task of the Church." Given at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Roanoke, VA.

The Future of the People of God. A series of 4 terrific, sprawling lectures given to a gathering of "emerging church" leaders in 2005. (4 MP3s.)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What an Idea!

Several years ago I was working on the staff of a week-long summer camp. One night, while the children were settling in under the watchful eyes of their counselors, the program staff—a mix of clergy and lay folks—were kibitzing in the staff cabin. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but it most likely had to do with the various and ever-present frustrations inherent in working with kids and faith.

It was late and the evening was coming to a close. Anxieties and frustrations were not going to be solved that night. Just then—out of the blue—one of the staff suggested something that sounded (quite frankly) weird: “Does anyone want to pray?”

Pray? The whole week-long program for the kids consisted of regular intervals for prayer (even a noble effort to instill in them an appreciation for the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), but that was on the level of camp program. But prayer for us? Unplanned? Spontaneous? What an idea!

It was a valuable lesson for us all, especially for us adults who sometimes expect more from our children than we expect from ourselves. So pray we did (the night prayer called compline) and the evening ended with great peace, having given all our anxieties and frustrations into God’s care.

Does it ever occur to us to pray? I don’t mean at typical times, such as before meals or perhaps as part of a discipline of personal devotion, but right there in the middle of life with its joys and frustrations? In the life of the Church, prayer outside of worship is a matter of common practice, usually at the beginning and the end of a meeting or a bible study. But only once in my time here have I ever had someone suggest—in the heat of disagreement or conflict—“why don’t we pray?” Talk about radical!

Prayers rise up from our hearts quite spontaneously when we face grave danger or crisis, but perhaps less so when faced with the ordinary (and sometimes significant) confusion of life. In the course of our daily life we are bombarded with choices. What would happen if we took the time to sincerely ask, “Which way, Lord?” What would happen if we took the time to listen (in the quiet of our hearts) for the response?

Scripture encourages us over and over again to “pray without ceasing,” to “call upon God in every need,” to “cast all our anxiety on Him.” Notice the sense of the absolute in these verses: all the time; every need; all our anxiety. We, in our shortsightedness, can be pretty picky about what we bother to pray about.

What we need most is to let go of our fear and follow Jesus in the way of prayer. We need it in our homes and also in our church community. At Redeemer, the re:Imagine planning process has led us to a certain point, with a myriad of options and choices; now is the time of discernment. Which way, Lord? Have we taken upon ourselves an attitude and practice of prayer? Do we ask for direction, do we expect a response, and do we listen to hear it?

I am excited about all the possibilities that lie ahead for this congregation, but I am ever more in awe of our reliance on God’s grace to make possibilities realities. I am learning that there is a time for rolling up our sleeves, but not without significant time on our knees.

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. –Philippians 4:6

+ tjk

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A People on a Journey


"My feet hurt!" "We're hungry!" "Are we there yet?" Voices on a hiking trip with young children? Maybe. Or maybe voices of people on a journey through a wild place.

It is our story, after all. Consider the people of Israel back in the Old Testament. It's hard to believe that not long after being rescued miraculously through the parted Red Sea they were soon enough grumbling and murmuring and generally just misbehaving. "We had it better back there in Egypt," they said. "At least we knew where our food was coming from!"

When God leads a people into something new, it's not always an easy journey. Feet get tired. People get irritable. Some wrong turns are taken. Faith is tested. Lessons are learned.

Another image comes to mind. Fast forward a couple thousand years later. John the Baptizer, something of a new Moses, telling people to go ahead and get wet and go through the waters of the Jordan into something new. The kingdom of God is near! Prepare the way of the Lord! You would think the religious folk would be leading the way on that trip. Hardly so. The "religious" folk weren't sure what to make of that. It's a dangerous trip. The road appears uncertain. Everything familiar and safe is left behind.

Again, when God lead a people into something new, it's a strange, new journey.

The biblical stories of journeying people are powerful to me, because they speak the truth of our situation. Yes, right here in New Jersey 2008. Because we are God's people, saints all the way, called by name to embody God's life in the world. And (paradoxically) we're sinners all the way, too; stiff-necked and stubborn people who don't necessarily want to go where God might happen to lead. When God leads a people into something new...

Unfortunately, the Church (or at least the institution called the Church) is not always best set up to be led into something new. But newness is a dynamic that is woven throughout the scriptures. It's all about transformation, being led into something new: slavery into freedom; fishermen into apostles; brokenness into wholeness; death into life.

And us? Pity that we in the church often domesticate the Christian message into something merely about my spirituality, or my personal salvation, or my morality. The wild, untamed message of the scriptures is a message of radical transformation. Think of all the images. New life. Resurrection. A new heavens and a new earth. Freedom for the captive. Good news to the poor. Healing for the wounded.

Can we recapture that? Can we allow ourselves to be changed, to go through the water of repentance again, and open ourselves to be led into something new? Something new for our hearts? Something new for our families and our relationships? Something new for our community? Something new for our church? When God leads a people into something new...

Again, we find ourselves on the threshold of another Lent, another springtime. Will we go through the motions? Will we play it safe, journeying only over familiar territory? Or will we listen to the voice of the one who calls us into something new?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Advent Reflections

No one can celebrate
a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud,
those who, because they have
everything, look down on others,
those who have no need
even of God—for them there
will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry,
those who need someone
to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.
That someone is God.
Emmanuel. God-with us.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.

- Oscar Romero


This week America begins its mad dash toward Christmas. Or, I should say, America accelerates its mad dash; the move toward the holiday season began some weeks ago. And no, this isn’t the usual anti-commercialism-of-Christmas rant. My dear newsletter reader, you have certainly read enough of those. This year I want to be decidedly pro-Advent.

Advent is a season often misunderstood, a prelude to Christmas festivities. When Advent comes across as merely a liturgical preparation for the celebration of Christmas, it is really nothing more than the Church’s version of the shopping season. Busy, busy, busy, with all the things that need to be done: Christmas pageants, decorating, and all the rest. Alas, another spiritual wasteland!

But Advent is much richer than that, and decidedly counter-cultural. As the Church, we can begin to reclaim a bit of the heart of Christmas by finding some rest and nourishment here in Advent. It’s not so much an anticipation of Christmas Day (Macy’s takes care of that just fine) but rather an anticipation of Christ’s future coming, his Second Advent. The scripture lessons for the season bear this out, speaking of that great and promised time when the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” (Isaiah 2) and when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11) “The day is near,” says St. Paul, and he’s not speaking of a magical Christmas morning, as lovely and wonderful as that is; he is speaking of the true day, the coming of the light that shines in the darkness. Advent returns us again to this hope, looking back at the coming of the Savior in Bethlehem, looking forward to his reappearing in glory. It is the hope of creation restored, evil vanquished, and death defeated. Even the most glorious Radio City Christmas show pales in comparison.

Be still, the scripture admonishes us. Tall order, this time of year! Without poverty of spirit, without coming to terms with our deep need and longing for the living God, here and now, it is not possible to celebrate Christmas. I pray that you find—in the midst of the bustle of the season—some inner space, a moment of quiet, perhaps a pang of spiritual hunger. May these short days be filled with great hope, and may that ancient Christian prayer be never far from our lips, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Seeds in the City


Sometimes I feel very, very small.

That feeling may just be another symptom of encroaching middle age. In youth, if the world doesn't revolve around you at least you feel like a pretty big player in it. Invincible. Eternal. The older you get (I've come to discover) the smaller you get. The world becomes impossibly large. You, a speck, a drop in the sea of time and space.

These are not, perhaps, the kinds of thoughts one is expected to have in the company of teenagers on a church trip. But this particular trip - service in New York City - kindled just those kinds of thoughts for me. On one hand, a city of amazing proportions, people everywhere, millions of intesecting intentions, motivations and beliefs, the inevitable glimpses of terrible human brokenness. On the other, tiny, seemingly insignificant acts of kindness.

And so who are we to imagine that picking up a paintbrush is going to make much a difference to anyone? And cleaning out some damp church basement? How does that reflect the kingdom? How does that impact the world?

In human terms probably not very much. But, as it is said, we are not called to greatness; we are called to faithfulness. The kingdom of God, in this regard, is rather a small thing.

Jesus understood smallness. After all, he spoke of the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. He spoke of a little yeast leavening the whole dough. He spoke of a little cup of water given to one who is thirsty, an act of heavenly proportions.

We're not called to greatness; we're called to faithfulness. In a sense you might say we are called to smallness. In our care of the small things we are trusting God in a big way.

It seems to me that many folks struggle to make sense of what it means to follow Jesus in our world. Perhaps the idea seems so impossibly huge, so beyond reach, best left to the experts. But we would do well to reflect on that little mustard seed. A tiny thing, like the thousands of moments each day, so ordinary and insignificant. Seeds of the kingdom.

Be small. Follow Jesus.

+ tjk