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Archive for May, 2012

There in Spirit

“Then [Jesus] breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'”  John 20:22

     Many times I have told people that I would be with them in spirit.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that I become an apparition or suddenly have an out of body experience in order to be with them.  As we approach the holy day of Pentecost, I thought about the writer of the gospel of John and how he approached the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in a very quiet way.

     The disciples were hiding from the Jewish authorities out of fear of being arrested, and suddenly Jesus is there – poof!  He shows them his hands and side and teaches them about the fulfillment of the scriptures.  Finally, he breathes on them and imparts the Holy Spirit.  There isn’t any fanfare, rushing sounds of “violent” winds, tongues of flame landing on their heads, or speaking in other languages, and all this in a very public way.

     No, this was in a quiet room among friends and in a small but powerful sharing of Jesus’ Spirit.  I’m sure that he was anxious to be on his way, but he was aware that he needed to commission this small band of disciples, to empower them so they could carry on his work.  It was his way of telling them that they had trained, passed the course, and he would be there in spirit (or in Spirit) with them to help them along.

     Maybe being with someone in spirit is a way of encouraging them and helping them to know how much you care and really wish you COULD be with them.  Maybe imparting the Spirit on the disciples was Jesus reminder that he would really and truly always be with him even though in spirit.  They would never be alone.  Nor are we.

     Being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy.  Not having Jesus here in person is hard because we have to rely on the scriptures, the tradition of the church, our own understanding and experience of Jesus in order to fumble along.  It might be helpful to think of an analogy.  I have had many teachers and professors in my life between public school, my undergraduate degree and three post-graduate degrees.  Some of them had only a small impact on my life, but those whom I remember the best were the ones who really taught me through example and feedback.  I may not always have liked some of the comments on my papers, but I learned from them.  In addition, the affirmations I received made me try harder to do even better.  I carry the lessons learned from them in my life, and I probably will never see any of them again.  Yet, they are certainly with me in spirit.

     Jesus teaches us all the time.  All we have to do is listen and be open to learning.  We learn from reading the Bible, through prayer, in discussions, at worship, and by observing people and the world around us.  Jesus is with us in spirit, just as our other teachers have been.  I find it reassuring that Jesus is with us in Spirit.  We are not alone.  Thanks be to God!

Following Directions

“. . . repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.”  Luke 24:48

I have always taken the story of the ascension of Jesus rather casually.  It seemed way too much like a fantasy with him being lifted up into the sky and disappearing from the disciples’ sight.  Yet, as I read this passage again for this coming Sunday, I took notice of what is probably more important than how Jesus went to heaven:  his instructions to those who would carry on his ministry.

So often we hear popular Christian culture saying that “being saved” is the most important thing that counts, and truly that is important.  We believe we are saved by faith alone, so often the actions that develop and are grounded in our faith do not receive as much focus.  Yet, when I read the words above from the Luke 24 passage, I was struck by the emphasis on repentance and forgiveness of sins as what was to be preached.

In Matthew 28 we read the great commission:  “Go make disciples of all nations” which is the theme of United Methodism, but Luke has a different emphasis:  repentance and forgiveness of sins.  I suspect that is the key to opening doors for making disciples because faith often begins with repenting of our sins and receiving forgiveness, so it follows that even as we have received forgiveness, we are to offer it to others and encourage them to forgive and know God’s forgiveness as well.

I had an experience of forgiveness this week that was rather an unusual way of receiving it.  When I was growing up, I had a good friend named Susie (not her real name).  Her father owned the local pool hall, and the family lived over it.  My mom didn’t particularly approved of our friendship, although, if I remember correctly, the family was a decent type and raised their children well, even though they didn’t attend church much.  Susie attended Sunday school and was confirmed with me.

As a rather naive child, I made a stupid decision to try to end the relationship one day, so I passed her a note saying that we had been friends long enough and should stop.  Where did I ever get that?  Who knows!  It hurt her, and she cried which made me feel badly, so I made up with her after class.  Our relationship was mended, but never quite the same.

When I was in Junior High, I had a crush on a boy in our class, and he liked me.  During one sleep-over at Susie’s house, she goaded me into telling her who the boy was, and I did.  The next day on the bus as we road to school, she told everyone who I liked.  That hurt, and maybe it was her way of getting back at me for the stupid de-friending thing.  Of course, at thirteen years old, both the boy and I denied it, and that ended the crush.  However, Susie and I continued to be friends through our sophomore year of high school until I moved away to another town ninety miles down the road.

I lost track of her, but heard from a friend that she was dating the fellow I had the crush on – I thought it was rather ironic.  It turned out that we both attended the same college, and Susie was still dating this young man.  I found out later that she got pregnant, and they were married.  Well after I moved to the East coast, one of my high school buddies told me that Susie and her husband had divorced.

Okay, so fifty years has passed since I have had any contact with Susie except for those few bits of information from former classmates.  Last night I was friended on Facebook by Susie!  I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t even recognize her from her picture, but I saw the name of her son which would have been the same last name as her first husband, and she has remarried.  In fact, I believe she is living only thirty or forty minutes from where my parents live.

What felt like forgiveness was having her friend me – ME!  The one who had tried to de-friend her way before we even had internet technology in every home and way before Facebook was even possible.  Through the new social media, I had found my childhood friend again, and she “friended” me!  It felt like forgiveness, and I wrote on her wall telling her how excited I was to reconnect again after all these years.

God is good!  And we are to PROCLAIM REPENTANCE AND FORGIVENESS OF SINS in the name of Jesus Christ – what a great reminder to me of the love of God that can come from such unexpected and seemingly tiny places.  Thanks be to God!

Happy Mother’s Day

“Love one another as I have loved you.”  John 15:12

It’s interesting that the Bible, and especially the New Testament, is so full of the word “love.”  Of course, most of it concerns agape love which isn’t romantic love but the love of kindness, compassion, acceptance, and wishing for the other person’s well-being.  It is the love that friends have for friends, and there can be a tremendous bonding between friends that lasts a life-time.  Those of us who have experienced that kind of friendship are truly blessed, and often that blessing happens with only one or two people.

I’ve been fortunate to have more than two friends like that.  These are people whom I can trust to be there for me even when I’m at my worst.  They stand up for me, comfort me, listen when I don’t even make any sense, and help me come around to rational thinking or give me feedback that points me in a different direction (or at least gets me back on track).  Each one is someone I cherish and love.  Would I lay down my life for them?  I would like to think that the bond is that strong, but mostly we don’t know what would happen when push comes to shove.  I DO know that I consider Jesus to be that kind of friend to me, and I already believe that he HAS laid down his life for me.  That is the strength of his love.

It’s interesting that this particular passage from the scriptures in the lectionary happens to fall on Mother’s Day, and that it the type of love I would like to really concentrate on at this point.  There is no doubt in my mind that my mother would have laid down her life for me if it came to that.  Her sacrifices for our family were great, selfless, and putting herself aside nearly all the time.  Mom didn’t put herself aside grudgingly, but because she wanted what was best for us.  Her self-giving love what she offered because she thought that was what would help us to become fully who we were meant to be as God’s children.  I’m not sure Mom had a vision for each of us, and we heard time and time again that what she wanted for us was our happiness.

When we weren’t happy, she wasn’t happy, and she was there for us to listen, to sympathize, to empathize, and to advise to the best of her ability.  She gave up being a stay at home mom when my older brother started college, and when I entered college that meant two of us were there.  Working long hours and making a minimum wage helped both of us get through college with fewer student loans, and she did the same thing for my younger brother and sister when they went on to higher education.  Both Mom and Dad worked hard all their lives to make a good life for us and provide for us.

Mom could make a casserole that would feed six of us from some pasta, a can of Cream of Mushroom soup, a can of tuna, and some spices.  It was delicious, inexpensive, and ingenious.  We had more casseroles than I could ever remember, and there were times when she went hungry so we could eat.  I never realized it until I was much older and not living at home any more.  In some ways, I wish she had told us that she wasn’t eating because of that because I think it would have made us more generous and giving toward her.  Regardless, Mom loved us enough to sacrifice for us.  She still does in her own way even though she doesn’t have to give up food (she doesn’t eat much now anyway at the age of almost eight-eight).

As Mom begins to deal with her aging issues, she has some diminished capacities.  But the one thing we all can count on is that her love for us continues to be strong, steady, and protective.  We may not be able to get the feedback from her that we used to, but we always know that she loves us.  To me, that is the kind of love God shows us.  That is the kind of love that God has for each one of us as the beloved children of God.  God loved the Son, and the Son loved us, and we are called to love in the same way.  A mother’s love is like no other.  My mother’s love is solid and forever.  I believe I have been given the gift of God’s love through the person that God sent to be my mother and who has lived her life faithfully fulfilling who she was meant to be as my mother.  I’m very grateful to have been blessed with a good mother whose love has brought me closer to God.

Thanks, Mom.  I love you.

Tangled Connections

I am the vine, and God is the vinegrower . . . Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can ou unless you abide in me.”  John 15:1, 4

This passage can be an interesting commentary on a lot of things:  faith, the Church, who is “in” and who isn’t, and a whole lot of other challenging conversations.  If we look strictly at the Church, it may also provide us with some ideas about why people reject the structure and institution of the church, especially if church folks take this literally.  In verse 6, we read “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”  Humpf!  Take that you non-abiders!  It sounds pretty exclusive to me!

Yet, Jesus did not live his life excluding others, so what can we learn from the word “abide” and how it may or may not keep people out?  Abide is a deep connection, almost a “living within” someone or something.  There is a comfort in it, and a bonding that has occurred, where connection could mean just hanging on and being rather casual with a relationship.  When we abide with each other, the best example we have is families living in the same household.  When a child moves out of the home, it feels as if part of the branch has been torn away, and the parents, siblings, and absent child will have to work to build a new way of relating to each other.

It’s the same in the church.  We can build each other up, nurture, water, have substantive relationships or we can be in competition for getting our own way, pushing our own ideas, and having control over things.  “Abide” seems to mean the former rather than the latter.  The Church tends to be tangled at times.  Most of the tangles happen when people stop praying for answers, stop listening to God and each other, and stop working for consensus.

But let’s face it:  the Church is made up of sinners, not saints.  Granted they are sinners who, for the most part, are striving toward perfection (wholeness in God’s love), so when the “abiding” happens, things stay pretty healthy.  When someone feels excluded, pushed aside, or is treated like an outcast, they are connected, but dangling from the vine with brokenness.  That is when so many leave the Church.  Denominations (made up of sinners!) aren’t perfect, and the leadership makes mistakes, especially when the majority rules rather than builds a cooperative effort for working together.

One of my pet peeves is to be ignored or cut off when I’m speaking.  Maybe it’s because at times I catch myself doing that without realizing it.  I try to focus on the people and hear what they are saying – they are important to me – they are my church family.  So that’s why I decided that to do what I’m called to do as a pastor, I have to work within the structure.  I may not always agree with what the “larger” denomination says or decides, but I know in my heart that God has called me to be part of the United Methodist Church, so this is where I am.

I become tired of the tangles.  I become frustrated with the lack of listening.  I am often overwhlemed with all that needs to be done.  Yet, I am connected.  I abide.  I love the folks I serve, and most of all, I love the God I serve with all of my being.  That’s the bottom line for me.  That’s where it all begins – my relationship with the Triune God.  As long as I stay connected to God, I have a strong vine to help me grow and become more fully who God intends for me to be, and that includes bearing fruit.

Untangling the connections takes hard work, persistence, a lot of prayer, a lot of love, and the trust that the True Vine is there giving us life and direction for growth.  Thanks be to God who gives us our home in Christ.  Amen.

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