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Untitled101One of the things our youth have conveyed to our new youth director is their desire for catechesis before college. Training before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

Here are questions 18-21

I. The Father:

18. Is God Indifferent Towards Us?

Of course not.

A person’s act of being as well as every action done by a person is an act of God. So, if the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its center holding it in being always.

So God literally cares more for us than we can conceive. Our compassion is a feeble attempt to be what God is all the time.

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” – Psalm 139

19. What Do We Mean that God is Love?

If everything is contingent such that its existence is not necessary but relies, at every moment, relies upon God for its existence, then everything in your life, at every second of your life, is a something that could be nothing. Without God.

So everything, everything in your life, every moment of your life- existence itself- is completely gratuitous.

It’s a gift. Grace.

“I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” – John 10.10

20. How Can God Possibly Love Us Creatures?

The gulf between Creator and creature is so great it would seem that God cannot love us in any meaningful way.

Yet Jesus affirms repeatedly that God loves him and through the Holy Spirit we are incorporated into the Father’s loving relationship with the Son.

So God can’t love us. God can only love us in the Son through the Spirit.

“Anyone who loves me my Father will love him…” – John 14.23

21. How has God Shown Love for Us?

Creation itself is a revelation of God’s love for it’s completely gratuitous. God reveals God’s love by giving us life, by responding to the crosses we build with resurrection and by taking us up into God’s own life through the Holy Spirit.

And if everything in existence is grace, then God, in his nature, is Love. Not: God is loving. God is Love.

And if God is Love, then the universe’s blueprint, its grain, its logic is Love.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…” -John 1.1

 

 

Untitled101One of the things our youth have conveyed to our new youth director is their desire for catechesis before college. Training tobefore we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

Here are questions 15-17

I. The Father:

15. Does God Change?

No.

God is immutable, immune to change, for change implies that where was an absence or deficiency prior to the change. For something to change, in other words, there must be some potential in it which is not yet realized.

 

But in God there is no absence, for God is Being itself. God does not change (to be more loving, for example) because already in God is the perfection of Love itself.

 

Perfect Love is already eternally actual in God; therefore, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and- good news- there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.

 

“I the Lord your God I do not change.” – Malachi 3.6

 

16. Why Does Scripture So Often Speak of God Changing God’s Disposition?

Scripture speaks of God changing because scripture narrates not God’s essence but Israel’s experience of God in the world.

 

Scripture speaks of God with such human language because we have no way of comprehending or conveying God by any means but our words.

 

Likewise, since humans are ‘talking animals’ the infinite has no other means to reveal himself to us but finite words.

 

“Who is this that questions my work with such ignorant words?”

- Job 38.2

17. Does God Suffer?

No, the idea that God suffers (patripassianism) is an ancient heresy.

The Father does not suffer. For 3 reasons:

 

As Being itself in whom there is no potentiality but only actuality, the perfection of all emotions (Love) is already present eternally in God.

 

To suffer is to be affected by another outside you. To be changed.

But God does not change because there is no potentiality in God only actuality.

 

God subsists in all things that exist and holds all things in existence. God cannot be affected by anything outside God because there is nothing that is outside God.

 

“He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” – Colossians 1.17 

 

Tikkun Olam is a Jewish theological concept that refers to God’s commitment to repair the world.

On Friday morning our team of about 30 returned from Chuicutama, Guatemala, an indigenous village about 11K feet up in the Highlands. Over the past few years my church has been committed to providing a complete sanitation system for the 400+ residents of Chuicutama.

In addition, we’ve constructed a community center in the village where volunteer teams like ours can stay to service the neighboring communities and where medical volunteers from North American can come to train indigenous women to provide themselves healthcare.

Ministry has few tangible results to which you can point. I’m grateful that due to the generosity and hard work of many of you we’ve made an impactful differences in the lives of the people in Chuicutama.

This work I believe is one way important way we’ve embodied tikkun olam as a community.

In December/January when the dry season has come the final sewage lines will be added to the system bringing the multiyear project to a close. It should be a cool celebration to experience. If you’re interested in joining our winter team to share in that moment just let me know. 

For my sermon on Sunday I walked people through images from the week’s work. If you’d like to listen to it, you can below. Or you can download the free mobile app.

If you’d like to read my introductory and concluding comments, you can here: Tikkun Olam Romans 4 Sermon

Here’s the slideshow that went with the sermon: Toilet Project Slideshow

Here are some images from the week:

James Matthews, Ron Good and I digging the ditch for the main sewer line.

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Our ladies sorting rocks and sifting sand for the septic tank’s filtration system. IMG_3891

First Manhole (10 ft down)IMG_3897

First Community Street’s Sewer Line
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Jimmy Owsley digging and digging and digging…IMG_3916

200 lb sewer pipesIMG_3904

Mainline about 1/5 of the way dug :(

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The hard work leads to high jinks:

This picture, I think, captures just how invested every member of the community is in this project. It’s something we’re doing with them not for them. IMG_5519

Lorenzo, a member of the community, received a needful wage from our fundraising for the Toilet Project.

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Carrying the sewage pipes a 4-man affair

IMG_5110My brother-in-law, who quit his job and sold his stuff about 16 months to volunteer full-time in Guatemala, overseeing the Toilet Project.

IMG_5107Community Septic System. The Community Center was the first building in the village tied into the system.

IMG_4567IMG_4553The completed Community Center where our team this week lived and ate.

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Miguel, the leader of Chuicutama, thanks Aldersgate for all their work and partnership (the power went out our last night so it’s dark):

Consider It Pure Joy

Jason Micheli —  July 19, 2014 — 4 Comments

This is from my friend Martha Carucci.

I encourage you to check out here blog, Sobrietease,

I had never even opened a bible.  Perhaps I looked at one or two sitting in nightstand drawers at  hotel rooms.  That’s about it.   I participated in my first bible study at the same time I started my battle against alcoholism, a little over two years ago.   A friend asked me to join her, thinking it would be a good idea to get me to turn my attention to activities that didn’t involve drinking.  While I didn’t know too much about bible studies, I was pretty sure they didn’t involve sitting around doing tequila shots every time someone said the word “Jesus”.   It was amazing how much the two things were compatible and reinforced each other.   In my twelve-step program I was learning about the need to turn to faith in order to achieve and maintain sobriety.  The bible study taught me the need to turn to faith in order to achieve and maintain sanity and grace.  

The study focused on the book of James, which has been described by Bible Hub as “a book about practical Christian living that reflects a genuine faith that transforms lives”.  A good place for a bible newbie to start, and an excellent place for someone seeking transformative faith to start.  I’ll never forget one of the first lines of the book of James:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance”.  My personal translation was this:  “Be glad that you are going through living hell because it will make you stronger.”   In other words, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and there is a reason for it.  Whatever your struggle, there is a reason behind it and somehow, someway, even though we may have a hard time seeing it or understanding it, God has a plan and will produce some good from it. 

With the bible study homework, I did a fair amount of soul-searching.  This is going to be great, I thought.  I can’t wait to figure out just how the hell my decades of alcoholic drinking, blackouts, falling down stairs, etc., would bring about something good.  So far, all I could figure out was that it got me to open a bible and to meet some very interesting women.  Not to mention the fact that I went to an activity from which I emerged as sober as I was when I arrived.  

But I noticed that while I started to read “the word”, worked on turning my will and my life over to God (Step Three), and simply became more present in my life by being sober, I began seeing “God-winks” all around me.  Squire Rushnell has an excellent book called “When God Winks at You”, all about certain “chance” circumstances that can only be explained by divine intervention (God-winks).   I started writing a blog about my journey through recovery.  The more I wrote, the more cathartic it was, and the more it helped in my soul-searching and self-awareness.   People started to comment about my blog, pull me aside and tell me that they shared it with their friend/mother/father/cousin/uncle/aunt/brother/sister/butcher….anyone they knew struggling with addiction.   The more I heard, the more I realized how much addiction touches almost everyone in some form or shape, and the more I wanted to help.   

There were several other God-winks, but one of the biggest came on a Sunday morning when I grabbed my coffee and turned on the television.   I flipped it to the well-known evangelist, Joel Osteen, at the exact time he was saying these words:  “God can take your mess and turn it into your message.  God knows how to use what you’ve been through.  He doesn’t waste any experiences.  He can use what you’ve been through to help others in that situation.  Nothing is wasted—the good, the bad, the painful.”  It was as though he was speaking directly to me.   It strongly reaffirmed my feeling that I am supposed to take my mess, my bad, my pain and not waste it, but rather use it to help others in a similar situation.  That situation doesn’t have to be alcoholism.  It can be whatever trial or tribulation you suffer in your life.  It reinforced the fact that it’s never too late to change something bad into something good.   To consider it pure joy. 

Another major God-wink came in the form of an opportunity a few weeks ago to speak to women in a local jail.  It was a small group of women in what they called the “Sober Living Unit”, who had committed to try to live a clean and sober life when they left their incarceration.  I had no idea what to expect, and even less of an idea what I was going to say.  But somehow, the words just came.  God gave me the guidance and the words I needed.  

I began by telling my story, and then went on to share two pieces from my blog, which were very well-received.  At the end, there was no awkward silence as I feared, but rather an extensive, interactive discussion.  Each woman shared some of her story, but not all explained what they had done to land themselves in this dreadful place.  Several were there for selling drugs.  One woman drank so much that she passed out with her small child next to her, only to be awakened by a police officer and arrested for child abandonment/neglect.  That prompted me to share the story of a friend of mine who had relapsed twice after brief periods of sobriety, each time with major repercussions.  The first time, she picked up a drink simply because it was a nice, sunny, spring day.   She finished a bottle of vodka and decided to drive to the ABC store to get more.  She realized she was in no shape to be driving, pulled over and passed out in her car.  She, too, was awakened by police officers, and lost her license for a year for driving under the influence.  The second time, she drank so much after being upset by an argument that she again passed out. This time she woke up to find police and Child Protective Services at her door because someone had called saying that the children were alone with an incapacitated mother.  Two relapses.  Two major screw-ups.  But her mess turned into my message.  God didn’t waste it.  Does she consider it pure joy?  I doubt it.  But perhaps just one of those women will remember   it when they return to their normal lives and think twice about picking up a drink or selling drugs.

The entire time, I was well aware of how incredibly blessed, and lucky, I am.  But for the grace of God, I could be in there with them myself.  Have I driven when I shouldn’t have?  Yes.  Have I been incapacitated around my children?  I’m so incredibly ashamed to admit yes.  All the more reason why I feel strongly about my need to make what they call living amends.  I have been given the chance to live my life in a much better and healthier way, so why wouldn’t I take that and use it in the best ways I can? I’m in no position to preach or give advice, but I told the women as I was leaving that it was not too late for them to change and turn their lives around.  They have to start in there as we do out here, one day at a time. 

 The book of James also includes what I like to call the “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” message.   “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”  Sometimes it’s really hard to look in the mirror.  Often we don’t like what we see.   Look.  Really look.  Listen and act.  Read and do.  James also says “faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead….Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”  I have faith that I can stay sober.  But if that faith is not accompanied by action—by hard work, rewiring and praying—it is dead.  

For a relatively short bible book, James contains so many other powerful messages.  “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”  Quick to listen and slow to speak.  Advice everyone could benefit from.   And “the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark”.   There is so much good stuff in here.   Why didn’t I pick up this book in the hotel rooms? 

Finally, the last chapter of James leaves us with this:  “….if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this:  Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins”.  I’m not sure I have the power to bring someone back from sin or wandering in the wrong direction.  I have to start with myself.  However, I have a friend, an older woman, who is a very nervous driver and gets completely frazzled when people behind her are driving too close.  She called me over to her car in the parking lot one day after a meeting and said she wanted to show me something.  There, taped on her steering wheel, was a piece of paper with a simple message and reminder to herself:  “Consider it pure joy.” 

Martha Carucci:

-grew up in Western Massachusetts
-studied at Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown
-worked for over fifteen years as a lobbyist in the telecommunications industry
-currently working my ass off as a stay-at home, suburban mom :-)
-avid tennis player, golfer and soccer player
Hobbies include rambling to unsuspecting pastors on school buses, being suckered in to any and all volunteer positions, and trying to maintain my sanity and sobriety.

 

Sodomites

Jason Micheli —  July 18, 2014 — 5 Comments

MURIETTAX400This post is written by my former youth director and now good friend Andrew DiAntonio, who just graduated from Yale last month.

The inspiration for this blog is ELIEL CRUZ’s similarly themed op-ed on the queer website Advocate.com.

America has too many Sodomites and their antics reveal the staggering godlessness of this nation. These Sodomites are amassing and they have the audacity to commit their sins in public – in front of children in fact.

They wave flags and hold up signs, they block streets and shout slogans.

These Sodomites are, of course, nativist anti-immigrant protesters who have swarmed the US boarder with Mexico to harass and terrify children seeking new lives.

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Waving the ubiquitous Tea Party “Don’t Tread on Me” Flag and screaming “not our kids, not our problem” these patriots are literally attempting to turn the poor and vulnerable away from the gate.

In Scripture the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were code for unforgivable sin, populations so depraved that God destroyed them in righteous anger.

They were a parable to warn God’s people about their own wicked ways. 

And throughout Scripture the sin of the Sodomites was callousness to the poor and violence to the stranger.

Get it.

The Sin of Sodom was turning away those most in need.

It was seeing the foreigner as a threat and trying to hurt them.

Throughout the Bible, God’s number 1 concern is how a nation treats the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. God blesses nations that have compassion, and curses those that turn the weak and helpless away. The Prophet Ezekiel describes the people of Sodom as fat and prosperous, but unwilling to share their good fortune with those in need. Isaiah pretty much says the same thing, but goes on to warn Israel that it doesn’t matter how much they pray, or how often they go to church – Isaiah tells us that all God really cares about is

“seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

So many American Christians LOVE to talk about how godless the country has become. They relish the opportunity to decry the ‘other’ as sinners – they refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding, or refuse to provide medically viable birth control to their employees. They make proclamations that if two men are in love that our nation will crumble.

But here’s a wake up call. A nation that turns away orphaned children, a nation that bars the gate to the most vulnerable people has already crumbled.

A nation that can’t show compassion for “the least of these” is doomed.

Jesus, in one of his final apocalyptic sermons, declares that he will judge the nations based on how they treat the poor, the hungry, sick people, those in prison and xenos – foreigners. Jesus promises that those who do not welcome the foreigner will face the same fate as Sodom. (as an aside, Jesus says nothing about Gays or birth control)

So to all those Sodomites out there who think the refugee children from Central America “aren’t our problem,” or should just be shipped back, y’all better watch your ass, because God’s gonna smote you.

Now that’s some ole’ time religion

rp_rainbow-cross_april-1024x640.jpgWhile I’ve got plenty of rebuttals to the assertions below, I’m a believer that the internet/social media is open-sourced and shouldn’t be censored.

I’m also a believer in the Church as a space where divergent views can meet in peace.

To that end, this post is from Rev. Brent White, a fellow pastor in the UMC. Our similarities probably begin and end there. All the same, I encourage you to check out his blog here.

In the email in which Jason asked me to write a guest post for him while he’s in Guatemala, he began by saying, “Long time no disagree!” To which I wanted to say, “You know me better than that, Jason! If you’re blogging, I’m disagreeing.”

I have long and loudly disagreed with Jason over the past couple of years. It’s a credit to his skill as a writer and thinker that he gets under my skin. What Jason has written about the LGBT issue currently dividing our United Methodist Church doesn’t even represent my most profound disagreement with him: I was most bothered by his Advent series last year, “Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross,” followed closely by his bizarre (in my opinion) interpretation of God’s impassibility.

Good heavens, if I never see a quotation from Herbert McCabe again it will be too soon!

Be that as it may, I believe Jason is wrong on homosexuality for the same reason he’s wrong on atonement and impassibility: he fails to seriously engage scripture on the topic. He buys into a highly rationalistic theology that rarely makes contact with God’s Word.

There… I gave myself away: I called the Bible Gods Word. Even capitalized the “W.” I am an ordained United Methodist elder-in-full-connection who is also an evangelical—and I guess a rather conservative one. (After all, if Rachel Held Evans is somehow still evangelical, I’m not that.) 

If it helps, I wasn’t always this way. I graduated from Emory’s Candler School of Theology, alongside most of my classmates, happily liberal on human sexuality. I used to make many of the arguments that I’ve read some of Jason’s commenters make. I share this autobiographical detail in part because it gives the lie to the liberal Christian narrative that there is some ineluctable march toward acceptance of homosexual practice. To the dismay of many of my clergy colleagues, I for one moved to the right. And I have other friends who did too!

Before my evangelical re-conversion, however, I bought into the liberationist view of scripture that was part of the air we breathed at Emory: that our task is to find the “canon within the canon”—that kernel of gospel amidst the culturally relativistic chaff—and once we find it, we’re free to disregard the rest. Doesn’t Adam Hamilton do something like this with his “three buckets” approach to interpreting scripture?

Jason may disagree that this is what he does, but even in yesterday’s post he writes stuff like this: “One of the most prominent parts of this debate has nothing to do with those icky stone folks for who-lies-with-who passages in Leviticus. ¶ No, the grown-up part of this debate has to do with scripture’s positing the male-female complement as the created norm.”

Can we “grown-ups” not be bothered with all that “icky” stuff in Leviticus? Does Leviticus, even when properly exegeted, interpreted, and applied, have nothing whatsoever to say to us today about homosexual practice? (Never mind in the same context it also condemns incest and bestiality. How are we to interpret Jesus’ “silence” on those behaviors?)

Of course, on the very day I accuse Jason of failing to engage scripture, I concede that he did engage scripture in yesterday’s post—one verse at least—saying that Galatians 3:28 implies that Paul believes that the complementarity of the sexes is no longer relevant: “No ‘male and female,’” after all.

Therefore the seemingly powerful complementarity argument of traditionalists like myself—that our being male and female with complementary sex organs isnt incidental to God’s intentions for human sexuality—goes out the window.

I suppose in the absence of all other information, including the rest of Paul’s writing and the immediate context in which v. 28 appears, one might reach that conclusion. But Jason’s interpretation (by way of Eugene Rogers) isn’t shared by every other smart commentator I’ve read on this verse. They say (and I with them) that Paul is speaking only about one’s standing before God as God’s beloved child, fully equal in every respect.

 

Distinctions still exist and are relevant, of course. Paul himself considered his Jewish-ness one important part of his own identity. Nevertheless, Paul isn’t more approved or accepted by God on that basis.

Therefore, while there’s no difference between men and women in their covenant status before God, that hardly relates to how men and women behave sexually!

Imagine what Paul would say if we could ask him if this is what he intended by Galatians 3:28!

Jason even enlists Paul’s (and Jesus’) singleness and celibacy as evidence for their alleged indifference to gender distinctions. “If the male-female union, if being fruitful and multiplying is God’s ironclad intent for human creatures both he and Jesus were in clear violation.”

No, Jason, “being fruitful and multiplying” isn’t God’s “ironclad intent for human creatures,” only for those human creatures who are married. Paul himself makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 7—and Jesus in Matthew 19:12.

If Jason is going to argue scripture, he needs to argue it all the way.

Truthfully, I question how committed he is to the task. I pegged him as someone like Luke Timothy Johnson—the nearest thing my alma mater has to a rock star—who knows that both Old and New Testaments unambiguously condemn homosexual practice per se, but who believes that the Spirit is now revealing something new to us (something that, inconveniently, the Spirit kept to himself until around 1971).

To quote Dr. Johnson:

“The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.”

But now, contrary to Dr. Johnson, Jason is arguing that scripture says something “other than what it says”: “Not only does Paul list homosexuality as a vice worthy of God’s wrath (it’s supposed), same-sex unions violate the clear (it’s supposed) creative intent of God (it’s supposed).”

(As always, Jason conflates “homosexuality,” about which the Bible says nothing, with homosexual practice, which is condemned in the strongest terms possible in both Old and New Testaments.)

Be that as it may, I look forward to Jason’s explaining those parenthetical asides. Why, for nearly two millennia, has the Church supposed that this is what scripture says, and why do we now know that the Church got it wrong?

If Jason is arguing scripture, he knows that there are plenty of really smart people who can argue back. Could they change his mind? Could scripture, properly exegeted, interpreted, and applied, convince him he’s wrong?

Or would he say, “Nevertheless, regardless what scripture says, the Spirit is showing us something new when it comes to gays and lesbians”?

If so, why bother with scripture?

This is from Josh Luton of the Apprentice Institute. I encourage you to check out their work and subscribe to their blog, here.

Do. It.

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I walked in and the receptionist greeted me. I didn’t catch her name, one of many sisters who call the convent home.

After a brief wait, another nun came to get me. This spiritual director came highly recommended.

She walked me to the end of a very long hallway and invited me to a seat by the window. She even gave me the chair with a view of the pond and fountain. Generous of her, she is a nun after all.

“I’ll light a candle to remind us of the presence of the Spirit.” Great, I like candles.

Then she read a passage of Scripture. Truth be told, I don’t remember which passage.

My mind was racing. What would she ask? How would she relate? Could she solve my spiritual problem in one session?

After the reading and a brief prayer, she looked up and smiled, “So, tell me about yourself.”

Uh, ok, sure. Fit my whole life (more pressing, my call story) into a 45 minute session and then you tell me something about it?

She waited patiently as I gathered my thoughts.

I tried to give her the high points: background, college, married, divinity school, ordination track in the United Methodist Church, work for a spiritual formation institute.

And then we got into the question that had brought me here in the first place. When we prayed at the beginning she had asked for a word to pray for.

One word.

“Clarity” was the best I could come up with.

Clarity about my call. The ordination process has been anything but beautiful, sure there have been glimpses of beauty, but it’s been a slog for the most part.

After some recent developments, I’ve been wondering what this call on my life is all about.

Does it have to be lived out as an elder in the UMC? What about Christian unity and all that? Why not just become Catholic?

Those are the high points, I won’t bore you with the details.

As I laid out the situation and my desire for clarity to this sweet old sister, I was more than half-hoping she’d reply, “Come home, son, to the true church. Leave behind your failing Protestant trappings. All will be well.”

She didn’t. “How much time do you spend in silent/listening prayer?”

“Not much.”

And we sat in silence and she appeared to be listening intently. Not to me. I was scared speechless by the fact that I work in spiritual formation and I had just confessed to a nun that I didn’t spend much time in silent/listening prayer.

For those new to spiritual formation, a rough definition: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of self and others (Not satisfied? Click through and explore).

Silence should be old hat. It’s a cornerstone discipline.

She asked me to describe God. I choked. I’m a “master of divinity” according to the diploma in my office, and I didn’t know what to tell her.

“Ok, describe your wife.”

“Vivacious, funny, loving, beautiful…” I rattled off in an instant.

More silence.

“I hear God saying ‘Listen to me, Josh.’ Your ministry is an overflow of your relationship. Your relationship with your wife overflows who you are and so will your relationship with God.”

“Just spend time in the presence of God, no agenda. Set a timer and just be.”

Shot to the gut.

And from a nun no less. She was extremely gentle in delivering words that were hard to hear.

The hardest part: I know her words are true.

I’ve got a little altar set up at home. There’s an icon of Christ the Pantocrator and a Bible and a little rug. It’s been set up for a few months and I haven’t been down there more than a handful of times.

Christ the Pantocrator

Don’t get me wrong, I get down with liturgical prayer (Book of Common Prayer, Common Prayer), but sitting in front of that altar and listening just seems like a waste of time.

 

So much so, that you know how many times I’d done it a week after she instructed me to practice silence,

Do you know how much effort it would take to do that one thing? Not much, just sit on my butt for 10 minutes or so. We Americans are pretty good at that, I should be a natural.

 

Why do I avoid it? I don’t know.

Maybe I’m scared God will speak a word that keeps me on this painful path of ordination. Maybe God will speak a word that spurs me to leave the only denomination I’ve ever known. Maybe I won’t hear anything.

Sometimes this whole Christianity thing can get too “do” oriented. Pastors, authors, bloggers, all encouraging you to do more. They’re often good things to do.

 

In the twitter/blog-o-sphere there’s a daily inundation of words. Words, words, everywhere. There’s so much crap out there, so much to take in. So much to be bombarded by.

 

Sometimes you just need silence.

 

In the words of famed Catholic priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen:

 

“What needs to be guarded is the life of the Spirit within us. Especially we who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world need to tend the fire within with utmost care. It is not so strange that many ministers have become burnt-out cases, people who say many words and share many experiences, but in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died and from whom not much more comes forth than their own boring, petty ideas and feelings. Sometimes it seems that our many words are more an expression of our doubt than our faith. It is as if we are not sure that God’s Spirit can touch the hearts of people: we have to help him out and, with many words, convince others of his power. But it is precisely this wordy unbelief that quenches the fire” (The Way of the Heart, 54).

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Another shot to the gut. The Catholics really have me on the ropes this month.

 

Joking aside, he’s right, too.

 

Even if you’re not a professional Christian, you may fall into the trap of speaking many words. To the burnout that comes when we talk about God, without spending time listening.

 

The problem? “Silence teaches us to speak” (56).

 

Don’t believe him? (I didn’t at first).

 

Think about a recent event in your life or the life of your community: a lost job, a dramatic life change, a death. How did you or people around you respond?

 

With quick and canned cliches? “You’ll find another job.” “Everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.” “The hurt will heal with time.”

 

Or with slower, measured responses. Maybe with no words at all, just presence?

 

Silence teaches us to speak because it allows us space to be comfortable with silence.

 

Silence helps us tend to the inner fire of the Spirit. My fire has been closer to almost burnt out coals, not even warm enough to toast a marshmallow.

 

Probably not worth speaking words out of. They wouldn’t be words that could warm your fire.

 

But silence also teaches us to speak because it trains us to listen. Regular silence opens our ears to the voice of God (these words are written more out of hope than recent experience).

 

Silence creates space. Space where I learn to strain to hear the prodding and calling of God. And when I open myself up intentionally, I’m more likely to hear that call, even in the bustle and noise of daily life.

 

I’ve voiced the complaint, “I never hear God speak.” When I think about it, how could I?

 

I pray every day, but those words (well-intentioned though they are) are all motivated by me. Even the people and situations I pray for are my desires. How transformative might it be to listen for a word from God, instead of just catapulting more words at God?

 

I took the plunge this morning. It was probably more motivated by the fact I had to confess in the first draft (written yesterday) that I hadn’t heeded the nun’s counsel.

 

I read a passage from the Gospel of Luke and set my timer for 10 minutes (big start, I know).

 

And then I spoke these words, “Here I am, Lord.” And I waited. And stared at the icon. And waited some more.

 

And you know what I heard? Nothing.

 

But it was only day one, and I’m hopeful for the rest of today. For the listening that may come from that time. For the days ahead.

 

I tended the fire, here’s hoping it erupts to a blaze.

 

How much time do you spend in silent/listening prayer? Could it transform your speaking? I’d especially love to hear from He Who Must Not Be Named. I’m sure the dark lord has some keen insights on silent prayer.

 

995687_4988940372277_749089862_nThis is from friend, former youth and now colleague, Taylor Mertins.

You should definitely check out his blog and subscribe to it here. He even gave me a shout-out in his most sermon, albeit anonymously :)

1. Every Church Is Different

I was blessed to grow up (theologically) under the tutelage of great mentors in Dennis Perry and the Tamed Cynic himself, Jason Micheli. Until I left for college I worshipped at Aldersgate UMC for the majority of my life and had very little experience outside of my home church. I learned very quickly throughout seminary, and particularly while serving at St. John’s, that all churches are different. What I preached at Aldersgate would never work at St. John’s and vice versa. Every church has its own context and collective narrative that must be learned before the rhythm of worship and preaching can begin to be fruitful for both the pastor and the congregation. It takes time, but it is time well spent to learn the story of the people.

2. Being New Can Go A Long Way

When I was commissioned last summer I became the youngest pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference and would become the youngest pastor to serve at St. John’s since 1955. The church had grown accustomed to their pastors retiring from this appointment and were excited to receive a new and fresh-from-seminary pastor. Being new has gone a long way. I have been given certain freedoms to explore different ways of worship, teaching, and discipleship purely because I am still new to this. The laity have been particularly forgiving of my preaching because, I hope, they recognize that I am continuing to learn our collective narrative every Sunday from the pulpit. The atmosphere in church has been exciting over the last year which has encouraged our members to invite others to worship, something that all churches need in order to share the Good News.

3. It Can Be Lonely

The Tamed Cynic himself has written before about the loneliness he experienced in his first church because there were very few people around his age. Lindsey, my wife, and I have had a difficult time in Staunton meet and making new friends outside of church. Part of this stems from the fact that there are simply not very many young people in Staunton. However it is challenging to make friends outside of the church when some people immediately put up a wall when they learn that I am a pastor. It is remarkably important to maintain friendships that began in, and before, seminary but it is challenging when the geographic divide makes it difficult to stay in touch. All pastors need community; their church and people outside of it.

4. Committee Meetings Are Hard

Seminary cannot prepare you for committee meetings. I was never asked to serve on a committee before I became a pastor so I had to quickly learn the functions of each and their patterns of serving the church without any prior experience. Though the Book of Discipline outlines the roles of the committees, every church lives out these responsibilities in different ways. There have been many nights where I come home thrilled about the direction of the church I serve, and other nights where I have felt defeated by what had taken place during a committee meeting. It is so important to remember that all of this, doing church and being the body of Christ for the world, it about God and not myself.

5. It’s Important To Be Involved In The Community

When I met with the SPRC for the first time I asked what they wanted most from their pastor. The collective response was that they wanted a pastor who would be known in the community. I made a concerted effort to make that come true during my first year. For example: I have been quick to introduce myself to people in town as the pastor of St. John’s, I joined the Stonewall Brigade Band (established in 1855!) and play drums with them every Monday night as we perform free concerts in Gypsy Hill Park, and I sent hand written letters to the immediate community surrounding the church introducing myself and asking if there was anything I could do for them. The church is not just the people who gather on Sunday mornings; we are intricately connected with the people in the community. It is therefore important to establish a presence within the community outside of the church.

6. My Vision Is Not The Same Thing As The Church’s Vision

I have come up with a lot of new ideas over the last year and a number of them have become very fruitful for our church. Recently however, I have begun to realize that my vision is not necessarily synonymous with the church’s vision. The people of St. John’s have been doing church a lot longer than I have; they have an established wisdom about what can and can’t work for our faith community. It has been good for me to lead with a passionate vision, but then at other times it has been even better for me to take a step back and let the lay leadership’s vision guide us.

7. Workaholism Is Just One Step Away

Every church has many needs from the pastor: visiting the shut-ins, preparing and leading worship on a weekly basis, ordering the church, etc. Though many might assume that being a pastor is a one-hour-a-week job, it is so much more than that. As someone who is regularly at the church facility there are a number of other jobs that I never imagined would be regular parts of my ministry. I have been a plumber, carpenter, Preschool teacher, preacher, mower, snow-shoveler, counselor, teacher, accountant, therapist, etc. For pastors there is a temptation to let the needs of the church dictate every aspect of your life. It is vitally important to maintain a regular sabbath and share the responsibilities of church with the body of Christ.

8. Less And Less People Know Their Bibles

I often take for granted how much scripture is known by the people of church. There are, of course, the prayer warriors and bible study leaders who know their bibles better than I do, but over the last year there have been a number of experiences that had demonstrated a staggering amount of biblical illiteracy. For example: One Sunday I casually mentioned Jacob wrestling with the angel on the banks of the Jabbok river with a bible study class when they all looked up at me and one of them said, “that’s definitely not in the bible.” Or after preaching about the last supper and then going through the entire communion liturgy a longtime church member said, “I never knew that what we do with communion comes from the Jesus’ last supper!” As the greater church looks to the future of the Christian faith we need to be particularly careful about how we return to a love of the bible and nurture scripturally shaped imaginations.

9. Reading Makes For Better Preaching

Soon after arriving in Staunton I had more free time on my hands than I had initially anticipated. I was able to make all my visits, have the sermon written by Wednesday and take care of my other responsibilities which freed me for having time to read from both the bible and theological works. By the time the fall rolled around I found myself incredibly busy and lost the time to read outside of what I needed on a weekly basis; my preaching suffered during this time. I relied too heavily on commentaries and personal anecdotes because my own faith walk was suffering under the weight of weekly ministry. Only when I had come to a realization of the way my work was affecting my faith was I able to re-focus and re-prioritize in such a way that I found time to feed my soul outside of my regular responsibilities. We become better writers and better preachers by actively reading and responding to God’s Word beyond the weekly sermon or lesson in our lives.

10. I Have The Best Job In The World

A professor of mine from seminary once said, “If you can do anything else outside of ministry then stop right now. Ministry can be one of the least rewarding vocations: spiritually, monetarily, and socially. But if you can’t do anything else, which is to say if you feel so called to ministry that you can’t do anything else, then it will be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.” For some this was a big wake up call and a few eventually dropped out of school, but for me it only refueled my fire. And he was right. Ministry is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend my time deep in God’s Word? What job would give me the ability to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or offering the gift of bread and wine to the weary travelers of faith? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s UMC and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

  • Rev. Taylor Mertins~I graduated from Duke Divinity School in the Spring of 2013 and recently celebrated my one year anniversary of serving as the pastor of St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Throughout my first year I experienced numerous mountaintop experiences as well as deep spiritual valleys. I baptized infants and adults into the body of Christ, I presided over the table and shared the bread and wine with the people of God, I brought couples into holy matrimony, and I gave witness to the life and death of faithful Christians. I have learned a lot and am continuing to grow. Below are 10 of the biggest lessons I learned from my first year in ministry. 

Untitled10I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

Here are questions 12-14

I. The Father:

12. How are we to picture God?

We should not think of God as a god, as a powerful being ‘up there’ in sky within the universe. God is the Creator of the entire universe and all that is in it.

Nor should we think of God as literally possessing the characteristics our language makes necessary. Thus, we may speak of God as Father or Mother, but God is not male or female.

13. How should we speak of God?

With deep humility, realizing that even our best speech is nonsense when applied to God and, as sinners, we’re prone to project our feelings and wills upon God.

We should speak of God always realizing our words fit God like a baby’s clothes fit on a grown-up. Our language for God is approximate without being at all adequate.

For this reason, the best way to speak of God is to begin by saying what God is not (an approach called the via negativa):

God is not hate, for example. Or, God is not a man with a beard.

When we arrive at a negative statement which we know is false (eg, ‘God is not Love’) then we know we’ve hit upon something true of God.

14. Can we find God in nature?

Yes.

And no.

Because God is the Cause of all existence and continually holds all things in their existence, every tiny mundane thing in creation is a sacrament of God’s love and grace- and should be celebrated joyfully as a sacrament.

However, the fullness of God is found in Jesus Christ and someone as counter-intuitive as Jesus can never be apprehended naturally.

Realization of God-in-Jesus requires revelation.

To Live Is To Know God

Jason Micheli —  July 12, 2014 — 1 Comment

This is from my friend, art historian, Janet Laisch:

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God instructed Moses to “make a sacred Tent for me, so that I may live among them, (Exodus 25.8) and thus God resides in the eleventh century Monastery of Dafni, located just outside Athens, Greece (image shown above). The building follows a traditional Byzantine church plan– a cross inscribed in a square. It is not just a quiet place for reflection but a means to follow Christ– a cruciform cocoon— that transforms those who worship, take communion, hear the word of God, and encounter Christ’s life and miracles in this very space.  
In accordance with Orthodox teaching about the Church, the interior of the church itself is understood as a three dimensional icon.  With adjustments, the model of the cosmos by Dionysius the Areopagite who converted to Christianity after hearing Paul speak and also became the Bishop of Athens is reflected in the program of Byzantine church decoration. The Byzantine cross cupola church as the name implies has a cross shaped plan where a dome arches over the crossing point. This cross in square plan symbolizes Christ’s cross as well as the four points of the compass.
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Byzantine church architecture focused almost exclusively on elaborate interior decorations. Jewel mosaic icons thought to create a holy space where the congregation would be confronted with the true nature of the cosmos without worldly distractions cover the walls and ceiling. From the domed cupola to the marble floor, the program had a significant purpose: to illuminate God’s love, to impart this to the worshipper, and to create an encounter with the Holy. From an early Christian perspective the church represented a mini cosmos or heaven on earth where the world was already redeemed.

 

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Congregants traditionally enter through the west and proceed east to receive communion at the altar though they can also enter via the narthex. From the earliest ancient belief, like the rising sun, Christ is expected to come again in the east.  At the entrance, an icon (shown above) with a gold background depicts Mary and Joseph presenting Christ at the Temple (from Luke 2:22) and thus connects this monastery to Christ’s lifetime of ministry at the temple.

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 Also, at the west entrance are reminders that because of Christ we are all redeemed even if our faith is lacking.  The Resurrection icon is above. The Orthodox iconography for the resurrection is slightly different than in western art. Instead of Christ rising from a tomb, he is shown as a valiant soldier. Christ stabs Satan with his great cross and breaks open the gates and bars of hell to free the souls. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.…” (Romans 8) With one hand Christ pulls Adam out of a grave, while next to him Eve waits her turn.  Next to her are King David and King Solomon.  On the other side John the Baptist stands with one arm raised and holds his fingers to make a circle or sign of everlasting and holds three fingers indicating the triune nature of God. The church is freed of sin and becomes a model on earth of the redeemed cosmos having already reached salvation.
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 Modern viewers can identify with the Doubting Thomas icon (shown above) also at this entrance. Thomas reaches out to touch the wounds which Christ reveals to help his friend believe. Belief in God requires faith not proof but here God offers Thomas and us proof of his resurrection. From this we know that despite our doubt, God’s infinite power and love will make up for what we are lacking and that faith like any gift originates from God alone.  Much like Jesus proved to Mary sister of Lazarus and then said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life (John 11)”.

 

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 The largest and most important icon is found in the very center of the church and at the greatest height. Above the crossing square is a weathered but utterly beautiful domed cupola where Christ resides in gleaming gold watching over everyone at the center of this mimetic mini cosmos. This image is standard for Byzantine churches post iconoclastic controversy. Christ is portrayed frontally as a half figure and framed by a circular rainbow of gems and gold tesserae.  It is known as Christ Pantocrator or the all-knowing Christ who is enthroned as the ruler of the universe.  What happens in this church mirrors what happens in heaven though is not yet visible to the human eye. The cupola or dome symbolizes heaven—the invisible space where God resides.
To live is to know God which means realizing he exists at the center of life rather than the periphery. Christ’s power transforms everyone even in small ways when they come face to face with this image of God inside this church. Within the dome, just below Christ, are the images of the 16 prophets of the Old Testament who foresaw the coming of the Messiah.

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Below the dome, four pendentives support the dome and are decorated with icons. On each pendentive, there is an image of Christ’s life or the life of the Virgin to whom the church is dedicated. On the north pendentives looking toward the altar is the Annunciation (shown above) and looking toward the entrance is the Nativity (shown below) which remind us that God became incarnate to live among us.

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On the south pendentives looking toward the door is the Baptism (shown below) where the three natures of God are clearly visible. A hand representing God the father extends toward a dove representing the Holy Spirit and Christ is shown with a halo and cross receiving baptism from his cousin John the Baptist. In 325, the Council of Nicea set out to officially define the relationship of the Son to the Father, in response to the controversial teachings of Arius. Arius questioned the eternal existence of the Son prior to his appearance on earth. Led by Bishop Athanasius, the council affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy and condemned Arius’ teaching that Christ was the first creation of God.  The Council of Nicaea declared Christ– God—“God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.”
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 The last pendentive, looking toward the altar shows this Transfiguration icon. As told in the Gospel of Mark the four apostles closest to Jesus ascend Mt. Tabor and while up there recognize Christ’s divine nature as depicted through the mandorla or almond shape surrounding Christ colored in bands of blue and silver. This mandorla and rays of light emanating from Christ symbolize divine-uncreated light and emphasize that Christ is the creator rather than being created. Below these pendentives are additional scenes from Christ’s life including miracles such as the Raising of Lazarus.  At the east end, we find the altar.

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Above the altar are icons: the Entry into Jerusalem, Christ’s Crucifixion (shown below) and Descent from the Cross. The Crucifixion is shown above. The altar is reserved for clergy serving communion. According to Orthodox belief, the celebrating priest appears as an icon of the high priest, Christ himself. The visual reminders of the body and blood of Christ are the very icons just above the altar in the apse: a portrayal of Christ Crucifixion shows both his body and blood.  The altar itself is understood as an icon of Christ’s grave and an icon of his high throne in Heaven.
According to Orthodox religion, one of the most central actions of the Liturgy is the consecration and distribution of the bread and wine that constitute Christ’s body and blood. While congregants take communion inside this church, God resides over communion in heaven where the whole of the church mirrors this purpose.

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Below these icons is another level in the hierarchy which includes the saints. The lowest level of icons is at shoulder level and depicts angels. The figurative decoration stops at shoulder height so the congregation is the next level in the hierarchal arranged microcosm. At the very bottom, decorative marble plates are inset in the wall. In this way when we enter the church, we become integrated in the icons. Since we are made in the image of God, we become a part of the complete church decoration.  The act of going to church, worshipping and taking communion brings us closer to God and more reflective of his image. Believers and nonbelievers alike– will all one day encounter God for ourselves. For now the church offers us a role in the cosmos of the redeemed and to hear the word of God.

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