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Falling in Love with Church Again

Bishop Elizabeth A Eaton Select 05We can get so cranky about the institutional church today as loyalty to such organizational structures continues to diminish. But this past weekend, as I attended our Synod Assembly (like a District, Diocese or Presbytery in other denominations), I fell in love with Jesus and my church more deeply. It’s not that I was out of love with either, but our human tendency is to look at and even seek out the mistakes, the failings, and the sins of our institutions. Of course, it’s true that brokenness exists in the church as in everything that human beings do alone and together. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, we also bring remarkable gifts of grace, healing, and empowerment to people in need of all the gifts of God we are blessed to share.

That was the message of our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, our special guest speaker at this gathering of pastors and lay leaders from Missouri and Kansas, as we observed the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Bishop Eaton is such a gift! So genuine, so humble, so real, and so passionate about the message that through the gift and grace of Jesus Christ, God sets us free—free to serve our neighbor generously, free to love God passionately, and free to live whole-heartedly.

I came away thinking that helping people fall in love with Jesus and with their church is the most powerful goal for every church-related gathering, be it our local council and committees, regional coalitions, or national gatherings. This is the effect Presiding Bishop Eaton has wherever she goes! Fall in love with how your church is sharing Jesus’ grace in the world! What we can do together as church is so remarkable, and so much greater than anything we accomplish alone.

God is working through us, even as sinful people; God is blessing the world through our churches, even as broken institutions. Hold fast to the big picture! We are reducing hunger in 63 countries through ELCA World Hunger! Lutheran Social Services is the largest social service agency in this country! We have over 240 missionaries in over 40 countries! We sent 79 women from 38 countries to the International Women’s Leader seminar in Germany! Lutheran Disaster Response is the last to leave communities affected by natural disaster whether it is an earthquake in Haiti or flooding in the Midwest; we accompany people until the job is done! The ministries go on and on!

At this assembly, we were reminded that the church does not have a mission in the world, but rather, God’s mission has a church in the world. Jesus sets us free and blesses us with all we need to accept this mission, and to carry it out with wholehearted generosity, faith, and love.

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The Uncontrollable, Uncontainable Holy Spirit

blogpic.pentecostA sermon preached on Acts 2:1-21 at Lutheran Churh of the Atonement in Florissant, MO for The Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Have you noticed that we don’t spend much time on the Holy Spirit in the historical creeds of the church? The Holy Spirit gets one line in the Apostle’s Creed – “I believe in the Holy Spirit” and it doesn’t even make the Holy Spirit the subject who creates the communion of saints or the forgiveness of sins, and so on. The Nicene Creed gives us a little more, but it also does not detail the work of the Spirit, except to say that the Spirit spoke through the prophets.

What about the Holy Spirit of Pentecost? What about this Spirit that comes in wind and fire, a Spirit that gives the disciples extraordinary and inhuman abilities to spread the good news of God’s love to a culturally and linguistically diverse community and world?

Truth be told, the Holy Spirit makes us uncomfortable—the Spirit is a bit of a loose cannon. The Holy Spirit is not a part of God we can control or understand, or put in box and summarize in a creed. God the Father is the creator of heaven and earth. We can handle that. Jesus was God in human form. We’ve got Christmas and Easter and John 3:16, so we’ve got that figured out. But the Holy Spirit? The Spirit doesn’t lend itself to definitions; there’s no holiday we can create to put a structure around it. We never know when the Spirit is going to act or what it’s going to do.

This is uncomfortable because we like structure and form, constitutions and institutions, mission statements and 5-year ministry plans, liturgies and hymn books, traditions and expectations, Bishops and synods, and well, the Spirit of Pentecost is just too wild and unpredictable! Who can control wind and fire? How do we put that in a creed and a constitution?

At one of the congregations I formerly served, the Worship Team and I were trying some new things in worship—nothing too radical. The organist's husband brought in a drum set and played along on a few of the hymns. On Bread of Life Sunday, we started a bread machine in the sanctuary so we could smell the bread of Holy Communion as well as taste it. We put up a PowerPoint screen and showed images and pictures for the youth service. We tried to make worship more experiential rather than just cognitive, and wanted to give the Holy Spirit a few more openings to touch someone in a new way.

One woman, I’ll call her Fran, came up to me after we started trying a few different things, and she said, “the minute you install screens up there, I’m outa here.” Well, we weren’t even close to doing that, but Fran was voicing an anxiety about whether she mattered. She was locked into thinking that there was only one way to worship that would feed her and that was it. Fran couldn’t imagine that the Holy Spirit could speak to her, or touch her or communicate good news to her in any way that was different from what she was used to. Well, you don’t need the Holy Spirit if you just do it the way we’ve always done it.

Fran was right about one thing – things are bound to change when we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. And in that sense, the Holy Spirit is dangerous and uncomfortable. When we look closely at our Acts passage, we see why.

After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples along with the women and many others who followed Jesus—about 120 people in all—were gathered in one place. They devoted themselves to prayer, and they picked Matthias to take Judas’ place among the 12 disciples. Jesus told them that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they will be witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” They had been waiting about 9 days.

They didn’t know when this power would come, they didn’t know how this power would come, and they didn’t know in what form this power would come. Would it come in a cloud, like in the book of Numbers? In a dove like at Jesus’ baptism? No one knew. Talk about feeling out of control! Jesus wasn’t even with them and there was no constitution, liturgy, plan, Roberts Rules, order of worship, or anything else they could look to in order to know what was coming next. All they had was each other, prayer, and Jesus’ promise that a power was coming.

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” You would think the Holy Spirit would land just on the disciples—they were the special ones, weren't they? They were the ones who spent the most time with Jesus—but no, the Holy Spirit is egalitarian—and lands on all 120 of them! “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

The Holy Spirit is an equal opportunity employer! The first radical act of the uncontainable, uncontrollable, uncomfortable Holy Spirit was to erase all divisions among those whom God calls to serve. It’s men and women, young and old, disciples and non-disciples, educated and uneducated, wealthy and poor, pastors and laypeople. Religious professionals like me, most definitely have not cornered the market on the Holy Spirit, and those who think the Holy Spirit would never work through you, think again!

No wonder the Holy Spirit makes us uncomfortable—everybody gets the Holy Spirit—even people I don’t like, or who I think are undeserving. Perhaps even more startling is the fact that if the Holy Spirit works through anyone and everyone—and that also means you.

The second radical act of the uncontainable, uncontrollable, uncomfortable Holy Spirit was to speak the language of every single ethnicity present. “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia…” and all those other names you hope you don’t have to pronounce as the Reader on Sunday morning! The Holy Spirit makes the good news of God’s love culturally relevant—people hear the good news of God’s love in their own native language.

We may not have Parthians and Medes in Florissant, but do have Millennials—those born between 1983-2003; we do have the largest population of Bosnians in St. Louis outside of Bosnia; we do have the “spiritual but not religious;” we do have young people who wonder if their lives matter—so, Atonement, what does it mean for us to share God’s mighty deeds of power in their native language? How might the Holy Spirit be working through you to communicate God’s love to those who are outside the church? The Apostle Paul struggled with this very question as he preached the Gospel across the Mediterranean world, which is why in 1 Corinthians 9:22 he says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” He worked to share God's love in culturally relevent ways to reach everyone he possibly could.

That’s what I like to say to the Fran’s of the church who are afraid of too much change and who fear that they don’t matter. You matter more than you can ever realize! The Holy Spirit can speak to you in such a rich variety of ways, and more importantly, the Spirit is using you in this congregation and in the community to touch and help someone else. The Spirit’s wind and fire is on you and working through you, and that’s much bigger than whether I got exactly what I wanted out of one worship service or church event. In fact, many church gurus believe that the 21st century is more like the 1st century than any other time in our history. The 21st century is a Pentecostal century where we have to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to reach people with God's love. 

Does waiting for and watching for and working with this uncontrollable, uncontainable, uncomfortable Holy Spirit mean that our church structures and institutions, traditions and practices don’t matter or are unnecessary? Of course not. There is so much mission we can do as the church including feeding the hungry, preventing malaria, digging wells, disaster relief, educating children, taking care of seniors, and on and on because we are an institution and work together as the body of Christ.

But today the Holy Spirit rushes in with a mighty wind and tongues of fire to invite us into the discomfort of opening ourselves up to the mission of Holy Spirit who works through every single one of us, opening up a new future that not only comes through our structures, but also beyond them. Luther Seminary professor Dr. Pat Kiefert says it this way:

The Holy Spirit loves structure and form but cannot be contained by any particular structure and form. So the Holy Spirit dwells in and creates many structures and forms but also breaks them open to the release of God’s preferred and promised future. (We Are Here Now, p. 63)

The uncontrollable, uncontainable power of the Holy Spirit is breaking open God’s future here at Atonement and the Spirit is using you to do it! We have each other, we have prayer, and we have the power of the Spirit who comes in breath, in wind and in fire, and that’s all we need to fulfill God’s future in this place and to the ends of the earth.

Image: Art by Veronica Dimae, Australia, "Pentecost," 2010. Media acrylic on stretched canvas, 130 x 100 cm. Found via http://www.iccrs.org/en/pentecost-in-art/.

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Spiritual Sobriety

blogpic.wheelofemotionsLast Sunday I was getting ready for the high school graduation party for our youngest child. Everyone else was either at church or asleep. As I rushed around the house, I began to feel nauseous. I knew I wasn’t physically ill; my body was bearing the symptoms of emotions I was ignoring. I wanted to do anything but feel my feelings—could I busy myself and ignore them? Could I eat something sweet and shove those uncomfortable feelings back down?

What do you do to avoid feeling your feelings and to escape experiencing the height and depth of all your emotions? Some turn to alcohol or drugs to feel better; others shop, gamble or become control freaks; still others exercise, work or busy themselves compulsively. It’s no accident that the naturally occurring chemicals in chocolate make us feel better; it has phenylethylamine which is the “love drug,” serotonin which is a mood lifter, and it releases endorphins in the brain. Alcohol can relax and numb us while controlling others enables us to externalize our discomfort and blame someone else. This all seems far preferable to dealing with guilt, shame and fear, which, as I learned from 12-step programs, are the primary reasons people drink. We all do something to avoid uncomfortable feelings whether or not we’ve developed a full-blown addiction. The problem is that the relief is only temporary, and the cruddy feelings remain. Feelings unexpressed come out some other way--often in hurtful, destructive ways.

While I contemplated what to do with my nausea, it occurred to me that sobriety from any addictive substance or pattern of behavior means the willingness to feel my feelings, especially the uncomfortable ones. This is the only path for those who want to be spiritually healthy and whole. Plus, my body was not letting me off the hook.

I sat down to pray, journal and get in touch with what was really going on. I wrote out feelings of anger at the changes in my life, and was left with a deep feeling of sadness that an important stage of my life was ending. Once I acknowledged my emotions, felt them, and received the wisdom they were sharing, I felt so much better. I was still sad, but no longer nauseous. I was both grounded and freed, releasing new energy for the tasks at hand. I also became emotionally available to enjoy the party and everyone who came to celebrate our daughter’s success. It was better and longer-lasting than a chocolate high and it wasn’t followed by guilt and shame.

This experience made me wonder why it’s so hard for me to lean into my feelings and listen to them rather than indulge the compulsion to avoid and cover them up. Part of the reason is taking the time to listen to my inner self and believing I am worth this attention. Part of it is fear that my emotions will become all-consuming (and then overcoming my resistance to asking for help from a friend or therapist!). Part of it is letting go of the illusion that I’ll feel better if I just ignore uncomfortable emotions. Part of it is the irrational fear that I won’t be loved if I’m honest about what’s going on inside me. I’ve actually found that the opposite is true. We become much easier to love when we’re honest and engage in our own self-care.

Two days later, we came home from our last high school graduation ceremony. Again, everyone was either out or asleep, and there I was, in the house alone with these feelings of loss and sadness, plus I was overtired to boot. I didn’t handle it as well as I did before the party. I found the dark chocolate bunny my kids left untouched after Easter, and I ate the whole thing while watching Netflix. At least I got some extra antioxidants since it was dark chocolate!

A big part of spiritual sobriety is also forgiving myself when I don’t handle my feelings well.

Image: Roger Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions: By Machine Elf 1735 - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13285286

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When God Says, "No"

blogpic.NoHeartWhat do you do when God says, “no"?

I have been praying, hoping, wishing and asking God for our life to go in a specific direction—or more accurately—to remain the same. I don’t want to move, leave my house, lose the beautiful creek in our backyard, work in a different Synod, or say goodbye to the congregation I am currently serving. More importantly, I want to keep our home base secure for our son, who’s changing colleges and our daughter, who is starting college in August. My parents moved my freshman year of college, and while I survived and learned important life lessons, it was extremely difficult. Why would God ask me to do the same to my own kids?

I have been like the persistent widow in the parable Jesus tells in Luke 18, who, as Dan’s Dad once described her, “blackened God’s eye with her prayers” in order to receive her preferred outcome. Jesus doesn’t tell us who is her opponent, nor what justice she sought; perhaps my prayers don’t rise to the level of justice required for God to give me the satisfaction the widow receives.

Or maybe God wants me to let go of fear, resistance to change and trying to control my children’s experiences based on my past.

Shoot. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

A wise person once said that what we fear is not change, but loss. How true. I don’t want to lose all that we have built in our life in St. Louis over the last 18 ½ years. Yet, this seems to be what God calls us to do. Last Sunday, Dan was unanimously elected to be the Pastor of Legacy Presbyterian Church in Frisco, TX (about 30 miles north of Dallas). He will begin in mid-July, and I will stay in St. Louis until after our house sells and we move our daughter to college (perhaps early October). One silver lining to this move is that we will be close to my Dad, who lives near Ft. Worth, and to one of my sisters, who lives in Dallas.

Has God said, “no” to my prayers? Yes; God has said “no” to my preferred outcomes. But God also has said, “yes!” to me. More than graceful grieving, God wants me to be more than I am right now, to trust more deeply than I ever have, and to embody my faith with more courage than I can muster on my own.

God calls us to trust that what she has in store is much greater than what we can ever ask or imagine. In fact, I’m counting on it.

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