Thursday, August 29, 2013

Formed by a dream

Just as surely as we can be formed in our relationship with God through scripture, we can be formed and in-formed through relationships with others.  And not just those relationships where we are in regular conversation with someone.  Sometimes our formation can happen through the gift of literature or other forms of media.

Over this past week and particularly past 24 hours, many have reflected on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King jr.'s historical "I Have a Dream" speech.  This speech helped to re-shape us as a nation and continues to hold up that dream as we see the ways in which this vision of equality and justice still needs to find its form among us.

For my generation and those that follow, this speech is just a part of our history and not a part of our own experience in quite the same way.  Its interesting, but what role might it have in our own formation?

I remember distinctly the time when the reality of racism was vividly displayed to me.  I remember how it began that awareness and different perspective on what many endure as their reality.  It was 1974 and as a nine year old, I was allowed to watch a miniseries called "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman" starring Cicely Tyson and based on the book by Ernest Gaines (it was released a full 3 years before Roots).  The story follows Jane from the days as a slave on a plantation in the rural south through the Civil Rights movement.

It was seeing the brutality of slavery that not only gave me bad dreams but awakened this suburban white girl to the reality of prejudice and injustice.   While the number of African Americans in my community was very low,  it opened my eyes beyond myself and this community to the wider world.  The harsh and unjust treatment of others was a wake up call to what some are capable of and that we can not just watch in horror, but are called to speak out in compassion and justice.

I can't say that I went out to change the world after watching this miniseries, but I can say that I was changed and formed by it.  I know that just watching a television series is nothing like living amidst the still present reality of racism.  I hold no illusions that this moment can give me any more than a glimpse of what many continue to deal with day in and day out.  I just know that a nine year old girl began to see things differently and that it continues to haunt me.

Dr. King's speech in its power and eloquence is more than a historical event.  His words hold up the reality of our world over against the vision of what this world could be.   These dreams are more than fleeting thoughts, but rather ones that need to be continually held up as our goals and purpose as a people.

As people of God, we are given the vision of Christ.  Through the Creator, we see the world as God has made it, as we have taken advantage of it and taken it for granted.  Through the Savior, the dream of resurrection, of new life out of death and sin, is lifted up.  In Christ, we see how the hope of change can become reality.  And through the Holy Spirit, we are equipped to bring that dream to bear upon reality.

Dreams can form us if we let them.  Dreams can direct us if we are open to them.  Dreams can challenge, poke and prod if we feel them.  Dreams can offer hope over and against the harshness of life.  

What dream(s) have formed you?  What gives shape and meaning to your life?  What has or continues to direct you towards that dream?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Evolving relationships

How is your relationship going?
    What is the first relationship that came to mind for you when you read that question?
        What is it about that relationship right now that brings it to the forefront of your thoughts?

We have all kinds of relationships that we participate in on a daily basis.  Some of them are very superficial and fleeting like the cashier at the store or the bank teller at the window; some of these we may never encounter again.  Other relationships are formed around particular events, groups or situations like co-workers, classmates or sports programs.  These are the ones in which you share a common purpose, goal or experience.

Then there are those that are closest to us.  These are the ones that have been with us through a variety of times and experiences.  These are the ones in which they know you at your worst and at your best.  These are the ones in which we are most vulnerable and yet at the same time are the most vital to our lives. 

Last week, I reflected on forming our faith relationship with God through scripture.  A few days later, I was reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor (The Preaching Life) that reflected on just this relationship (as an aside - its not just about preaching nor only for preachers).  She writes in a chapter on the Bible:
   My relationship with the Bible is not a romance but a marriage, and one I am willing to work on in all the usual ways: by living with the text day in and day out, by listening to it and talking back to it, by making sure I know what is behind the words it speaks to me and being certain I have heard I properly, by refusing to distance myself from the parts of it I do not like or understand, by letting my love for it show up in the in the everyday acts of my life.  The Bible is not an object for me; it is a partner, whose presence blesses me, challenges me, and affects everything that I do.

Take this paragraph and replace it with the person who first came to mind for you at the beginning of this blog.   How is that relationship reflected here?
Again, replace the Bible with your favorite name for God.  What of your relationship with God finds its meaning or substance here?

All relationships take work and intentionality.  The "happily ever after's" are only found in children's storybooks.  Relationships of substance are gritty and down to earth.  They have good days and bad days.  There are times when you feel as if you know each other deeply and other days when you feel disconnected.  Relationships evolve and change with each new day, experience and situation.  They are not static.

The same is true for our relationship with God.  Scripture itself exhibits this as a particular passage will reveal new insights about ourselves and this relationship as we grow and change.  Take for instance the passage from Joshua 24:15 (As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord).  This takes on a different flavor as you move from your parents' home into your own or even as you find that you need to then move into a place like assisted living.  The sense of home changes as well as the ways in which you are being called to serve the Lord.

We are called into this ever evolving relationship with God.  Our faith may seem as if it wavers, but it is going through growing pains and growth spurts.  We are invited to this marriage with God through scripture that we may know God  more deeply as well as ourselves.  This relationship then offers us guidance, strength and insight into the other relationships with which we are entrusted.

Look again at the questions at the beginning of this blog.  How would you answer then according to your relationship with God?  How has this relationship evolved or changed?   How is it like a marriage? 

We remember the power of this relationship in the word of the Lord that the prophet Isaiah shares (43:4) You are precious in my sight and honored and I love you.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Faith in-forming

Earlier this week, I talked about changing some of our language as regards Christian education.  We are beginning to use the phrase "Faith Formation" rather than the school and education focus that have been used for years.

In this respect, the forming of our faith is not limited to our time  as children.  It is about more than just learning about the Bible, but entering into conversation with the Bible. 

The study of scripture does help to give us insight that we might not otherwise have.  It is important to know the context in which something is written - for instance, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech or Lincoln's Gettysburg address hold more power and significance when they are read in the historical context of their day.  The same is true for scripture.  Such as, it is helpful to know that many of Paul's letters were written to particular communities of faith where he was addressing particular concerns. 

Other important things to learn about the Bible are the relationships between  various people and groups.  Our high school English classes come in handy as we look at the variety of ways in which God's message is conveyed through metaphor, poetry and hymns, parables and the  like.  We look at passages in the ways in which they relate to other parts of scripture - for instance, Jesus often quotes from Isaiah and much of  Peter's sermon on Pentecost consists of prophecies from Joel and Isaiah.

In the forming of our faith, we cannot stop our relationship with scripture in just studying about it.  Information is one thing, but formation goes farther.  A question that I will often ask of a biblical text - whether in sermon or bible study preparation or in my own devotions - is So What?   In this simple question, I am seeking both the central message or purpose of the passage, often looking at what was the writer's intention in the reading.  And then, So, what does this then say to my own life, the lives of others or the world.  What word is God speaking to me, to us?

I mentioned previously that Psalm 46:10 "Be still and know that I am God" is a passage that I have returned to again and again.  The earlier verses of this psalm reflect a time of great upheaval with shaking mountains, foaming seas and nations in an uproar.  There have been times when my life did feel as if it was being thrown upside down to which verse 1 reminded me that "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.".  Other times, I have been overwhelmed with just a full schedule, too much to do and too little time to do it.  These times I needed the reminder of stillness and more importantly that I am not God, but God is God.   This is the So and the What that I needed to hear in those times.

It is in this kind of way that we enter into a relationship with scripture and more importantly with God.  We might know the Bible, but how are we known by it.  What Word does God have to offer us?  In this, we go from information to formation.

What scripture passages have informed and formed your life? 

Monday, August 19, 2013

What's forming your faith?

Sunday school is an institution within the institution of the Church.  Born within the US during the 19th century, it was an effort to provide basic education to the working class of the day.  Many children were working and had little to no access to any kind of education.  Sunday school provided that outlet that enabled literacy to grow.  As education moved to the prevue of the state, Sunday school focused its efforts solely on Christian education.

Sunday school holds many good memories for me.  From the wonderful teachers that blessed me with their knowledge and faith, like Mr. Macris to the stories I learned through songs, flannel boards and film strips, it provided me with the foundation of my faith.  This education is an important part of faith, but not its sole purpose.

Education does provide us knowledge about God, the scriptures, the history of the church and more.  Yet, our faith needs much more than just information.  Memory verses can provide a tool to help us when we need a word to hold onto ("be still and I know that I am God", Psalm 46:10 has been an important one for me).  Faith is more than just memory work though.

Conversations have been happening among the leadership of Trinity.  We are acutely aware of several realities that have joined together that make our "job" as a church more difficult.  Sunday school and worship are often viewed as an "extra", if we have time kind of event.  We face "competition" from a variety of other activities that are no longer  "banned" from Sunday mornings.  Attending and participating in church is no longer a "given" in people's lives for a variety of reasons (which we can explore in another blog entry).

With more "none's" in todays' culture (meaning someone who has no specific religious affiliation), we can no longer assume  biblical literacy and faith formation being a part of people's everyday lives.  Faith, if a part of people's lives, is often regulated to worship and Sunday school, a couple hours a week.

While it would be much easier to just bemoan these realities and to try to restore the former ways and relationships of people to the Church, this is a reality that is not going back in time.  And while, it can be decidedly frustrating for myself as a pastor to try to deal with - it can also be very exciting!  Rather than settling into the comfortable ways of ministry when everyone came to worship and faith was assumed - now is a time for renewal; now faith can no longer be taken for granted!

Initial changes are just a matter of semantics (but just as difficult as anything else).  In order to more adequately reflect our ministries of Christian education, we are changing some names.  No longer will we be calling it "Sunday school" but rather "Faith Formation" ministries.  For we are doing more than just educating children and adults, but inviting them to grow together in faith, exploring the ways in which our faith influences our daily lives.  We will move from ministry labels of "Confirmation" to "Affirmation of Faith" and Bible study to ...(well, I'm still figuring out the best way to reflect this change for adults; let me know if you have any ideas).

These name changes are quite difficult as we have been hard wired for terms like Sunday school and confirmation.  In fact, both terms will probably be listed for awhile as that transition is accomplished.  Hopefully, the name changes will stop us short and force us to ask "what does this mean?" and "how is my faith being formed?"  It forces me to look at all those things that I have taken for granted and assumed in my own faith life.

This is what I want us to explore in these blog entries for awhile.  As always, I long for your input and feedback.  What is forming your faith?  How has Sunday school, Bible study, etc. been important in this formation.  What have you taken for granted?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

We are the church together today (part 2)

As I mentioned in Monday's blog, this week is the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh.  While I am here at home in Brewster, it has felt very much like I have been there with the gathered assembly even when busy with our own ministry here.

Social media - for all its shortfalls (but that's for another time) - has linked us in new ways that we have never experienced before.  Through the Livestream of the assembly, watching the gathering in just about "real time" or when I have missed something and can go back to view different parts (and forward through others) - all of this has been a gift.  Through comments and updates on Facebook and Twitter, I have been able to join in conversations about all that has taken place. 

If you haven't had a chance to do so, please check it out.

Some brief highlights from the parts that I have watched:

1) Election of the new Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton
       In multiple ballots, she was elected yesterday.  Unlike secular world elections this was not about who won and who lost.  This was not a criticism of the current Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson (who has served 12 years); in fact, though he "lost", the outpouring of support and respect for him was great!  He has served faithfully and wonderfully as our leader for these past years.
      Bishop-elect Eaton is not someone I had heard about previously; she was just re-elected as the Bishop of the NE Ohio Synod where they are both celebrating and mourning her new call as Presiding Bishop.
       This was truly a CALL for this ministry position to work with all of us in the ELCA.

2) Immigration reform
       I have not yet watched the full debate and conversations about this very real world issue.  However, the introduction of such an issue reminds us that we are a Church that is not apart from the world, but one who lives in the world and seeks to find the ways in which God's grace can bring hope to all people.

3) Bishop Hanson's report
       Using a phrase from a colleague's sermon a day or two before, Bishop Hanson reflected with us on "What if the Holy Spirit is writing new chapters for the book of Acts among us now".  He shared the ways in which he has already experienced these new chapters and the ways in which each of us are called to participate in Holy Spirit's new chapters in our midst today.

       What might those new Acts chapters look like here for us at Trinity Lutheran in Brewster?
 Even as we reflect on our past 75 years, how are we experiencing the Holy Spirit at work among us today?  How are we fluent in the Gospel?

These are just a few reflections.  I invite you to watch some of the assembly as well - they do have links for the worship services as well as the plenary sessions at

Monday, August 12, 2013

We are the Church together

Yesterday during worship, I mentioned that the ELCA Churchwide Assembly would be meeting this week in Pittsburgh.  (This has been a bi-annual assembly, but will soon change to every 3 years).  I hate to admit it, but I received only polite stares and nods of heads.  Now, I don't know if it is because people had no idea what I was talking about and/or they didn't have any particular interest in it.

To talk about the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is it's own kind of anomaly.  The ELCA can be that place in Chicago where the churchwide offices are or just some sort of vague notion about Lutherans.  We might know that we are an ELCA congregation, but that might be as far as it goes.

In this day and age, as denominations (particularly mainstream churches such as the ELCA) are diminishing in size and centrality in people's lives, is becomes its own kind of adiaphorous (indifferent) of being.  For decades, people have "shopped" for churches, not based on its denomination but rather other criteria such as  hospitality and welcome, children's ministries, etc.  We are at the point now in our culture that even this kind of shopping has waned.

So, the questions remain - what is the purpose or the point of having denominations?  Do we even "need" them?

There are plenty of arguments on both sides of these questions.  And I, for one, get frustrated with the institutionalization of faith.  While there may be some value to the institution, it is when it becomes more important that discipleship that we have already lost something.

Yet, having attended a Churchwide assembly six years ago as well as numerous National Youth Gatherings, these kinds of events do remind us about what it means for us to be the Church.  In these events, we can see the Church sharing its faith through a wide variety of ministries - world hunger and justice ministries, mission outposts, colleges & seminaries, and so many different churches that make up the ELCA.  Attending these gatherings can open us to see beyond our own local congregations and our own ministries to what is happening in places like Denver (CO), Oaks (OK),  Athens (OH) and more.

Yes, the business can get boring (especially those amendments to the amendments) as the assembly turns to the more institutional portion of being the Church.  However, worshipping, praying and deliberating in faith about who God is calling us to be as the Church in this ever-changing world can be inspiring and exciting.

While, we can't all be in Pittsburgh this week, we can participate virally.  Here is the link for the livestreaming of the Assembly

You can also visit or the Facebook page to get up to date information (the first  ballot for the election of the Presiding Bishop will begin this evening).

This gathering may be not all the Church is called to be, but it can be a glimpse.  Take a gander and see what God might be up to!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Used Bibles

From time to time, I have asked confirmation students (in particular) to make a note or to highlight something in their Bibles.  There seems to always be at least one of them that is "horrified" by this request.  "This is a sacred book; you're not supposed to write in them", they would cry.

We're taught from an early age to not write in our books and when we have done so, it  has elicited a scolding from our parents or teachers.  We are told to respect books and the authors who created them.  It is not until we go to college that that we find ourselves even highlighting our textbooks.

Yet, the Bible is the living Word.  We are called to engage in conversations with the writers, the early church communities and most certainly with God.  Through our notations, we interact with the Word.  We talk back to the word that has encouraged or challenged us.  We mark those words that speak to us in particular times in our lives.  Highlights are drawn for those words that we want to come back and remember.

In about a month, we will be giving our 3rd graders brand new Bibles.  They will crack the spines as they explore their pages, learning how to find particular verses.  This will mark their ongoing relationship with God as they engage with the Word.  They will be encouraged to create their own version of a "used Bible".

As they begin to make their own marks on these pages, what verses or stories would you want to share with them?  Do you have favorite passages that you turn to again and again?  What markings might you share from the use of your own Bibles?

We will be collecting these verses to make into bookmarks for our young people.  You are asked to submit them within the next few weeks so that they might be prepared for them.  You may either email them or share them in a comment here.  Or you can give them to me.  If you do not know the exact citation, write down what you remember and we will see about finding that for you.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Human Flourishing, part 2

Last week, I talked about human flourishing or rather, I posed a few questions related to this topic.  I was hoping to receive some feedback and responses, but I hope, at the very least, you have been thinking and praying about these questions.

What does it mean for you to flourish?
What are ways in which you do or you have flourished in your life?
What does flourishing look like for you?
From the dictionary definitions, flourishing sounds extravagant, a luxury.  Our questions in response to those posed might be more along the lines of who has time to flourish?.   Most of the time, it seems as if we are doing all we can to just make it through one more day, to accomplish all that needs to be done - and then, there is no energy to flourish.  Instead, its just time for bed before another round of our crazy lives.
Yet, what kind of life is that?  Just "surviving" to live another day?  Blurry lives?
As some of you may know, my first dad died when I was barely 4 years old.   While there is much that I don't remember about him and about that time after his death, there was a message that exuded from my mom over the years (more implicit than explicit) that each day is a gift and to live into that day in the fullest way possible.  Some days this was easier than others, but as the psalmist wrote, "this is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Psalm 118:24).
Flourishing has much to do with seeing each day as a gift and a blessing from God.
The other message I heard as I was growing  up was from my stepfather (also a pastor) whose main "mission statement" was to Celebrate Life.   It was lifted up in his sermons, a message board and signs and even buttons.   It made its way into his weekly benediction which I further adapted and use both in his honor and to lift up the message he taught me:  
May the good Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be good to you; May the Lord fill you with peace, love and much laughter; And may He set you free to celebrate the life that God has given you in all its fullness! In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
Living our lives to the fullest and celebrating the lives that we have been given are part of what human flourishing is about.
Think about all the good things that make up your life.  Name them.  Write them down.  How are they gifts from God to you?  What are you doing with the life that God has entrusted to you? 
As I mentioned, I found this this concept of human flourishing  on the website, Yale Center for Faith and Culture. They shared these thoughts about God and Human Flourishing:
For many today, God seems an enemy of human flourishing.  Yet in the Christian tradition, God is portrayed as a lover of creation - so much so that the early church father Iranaeus could say "the glory of God is a human being fully alive.".
Are you fully alive?  What might help you live into the fullness of this gift?  With these thoughts in mind, how might your perspective on the flourishing of your own life change?
Yesterday, I challenged the congregation to set their alarms for 3:16pm every day.  In that moment to give thanks to God for the gift of time and for that in which you are engaged in that moment.  May this simple practice help you to see your life as a gift that has been entrusted to you from God that you may flourish in it.