Welcomed

So, I was welcomed into the presbytery.

Anywho. Everyone who passes examination comes back to the room or hall – this time a sanctuary – to applause. It’s a nice gesture, a welcoming act by those who hold gate-keeping power and have just heard you share your heart, and a wonderful way to enter the next phase of ministry.

I was actually thrown a little off guard at the beginning of the examination. I knew I would be asked to share a favorite scripture from the Bible and it’s importance to me. As the first of 4 people to be examined however, I assumed this meant the question would be offered to me after I read my Statement of Faith, which typically is the norm (you can find my SoF on  yesterday’s blogpost). No, answering the scripture question was the starting point of the examination, not just a kick off to the formal opportunity for Q&A. Three folks asked me questions, based on their reading prior my Statement, and although that time is now a blur to me, they were really softball questions. Like tell us about how your prior church relationships have influenced you as an Evangelist (that one I remember. See: slow pitch, down the plate). As I told someone afterwards, I hardly hit them out of the infield.

Still, however, kind of a big deal.

Kind of a Big Deal

No, not me. Well at least not anymore than anyone else.

This evening one section of my spiritual and vocational journey meets a signpost. After several years preparing for ministry in my chosen (or has it chosen me?) church – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) – and after many meetings, conversations, tests, classes, internships, and an unexpected end around with missional community and The WordHouse instead of a traditional pastor job, I am being called to be an Evangelist for the Sacramento Presbytery. And tonight I read my Statement of Faith and enter one last “examination” to be welcomed into the local governing body as a member, and subsequently, be free and clear – and so ordered – to be ordained.

I will be sharing an important scripture verse and its importance to me (Phil 2:5 – one of the most challenging and comforting passages) after I read my current faith statement:

I believe God is three-in-one: a community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is unified; God is one. God has specifically and sufficiently revealed God’s self in the Old and New Testaments. These Scriptures bear witness to God’s truth in the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ, the self-revealing Word of God, is still breaking into our world through the Holy Spirit and therefore his Church, inviting people to find themselves in God’s story, as witnessed by the Reformed Confessions and Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
I believe in God the Father. God is creator, ruler, and sustainer of all, even me. God’s love is all around; I am created, as well as all of humanity, in God’s image. In God there is wholeness, completeness. All of creation is good. The earth and everything in it bears witness to God. However, there is still a deep fissure inside of all humanity. This crack is often described as sin. Sin does not rightly acknowledge God’s sovereignty, warping and misconstruing God’s good and wonderful creation. Yet, like the woman who searches after lost treasure and finds it, God seeks, finds, and proclaims we have value. God is the heavenly parent who providentially leads us beside still waters, who renews and guides us in righteousness for God’s namesake. God is greater than everything in and beyond the earth; God is too great for words. And yet, God can be known.
I believe in God the Son, Jesus the Christ. Jesus was sent by God and as the Son of Man is one of us, and yet as the Son of God is not like us. Through God’s gracious initiative, baptism, in Christ we have new life. His life becomes ours. The waters at baptism represent Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan in which God said, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” We hear the same voice proclaim over us that we are God’s child, that God is also well pleased with us. Through the Lord’s Supper, God’s covenantal meal, we are reminded of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us all. When we eat the bread and drink the cup we can experience his forgiveness and the grace displayed on the cross. Through Jesus’ death we die; and through his resurrection we are raised to new life. Jesus saves us from harm and saves us to the good work of God’s kingdom. Through his love – through Jesus himself – we are reconciled to God and have a way to be reconciled with one another. At the table of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, we are nourished and have a foretaste of what is to come – life everlasting. We pray for his return to finally bring everything to complete fruition through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I believe in God the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is in all and through all. The Spirit is everywhere and meets us in the darkest places. The Spirit prays for us. In prayer the Spirit enables us to know God’s word and move our hearts and renew our minds. The Spirit empowers us to live the way Jesus did, to be Christ-like. We are enabled then to honor God, to do what is required: to be just, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God—to follow the law of Christ. This law reveals our shortcomings and shows us how to live, even gratefully, as a community. The Spirit gives God’s gifts to God’s people, the Church, to further God’s reign in this needy world. Jesus is the head of the Church, the body of Christ, and the Holy Spirit leads the Church in its mission: to do the will of God. The Spirit desires for all to enter into God’s abundant life and freedom, now and forever and ever. Amen.

With a nudge to Adam Walker Cleaveland, I end with this: #welcomejeff

So… What’s This Churchy Thing You’re Doing?

The Word House

Over the course of this year I’ll write a few articles for The WordHouse’s main partner congregation, Faith Church. In Faith’s newsletter I’ll generally discuss my thoughts on missional community. Why, How, What, etc, etc. Here’s the first one:

The main goal of The WordHouse is to form Jesus‐inspired community. We provide place and space for people to share their hearts. We are part worship service, part fellowship hour and small group, and part outreach/service activities and events. Our Community builds relationships with people to know Christ’s love, experience forgiveness and reconciliation, and participate more fully in God’s kingdom here on earth (and so we might learn and grow from them, too). We host worship gatherings in the familiarity of a living room. We sponsor a Theology Pub, a diverse religious conversation over a drink, once a month at a pub or coffeehouse. We serve the poor and oppressed in our own communities. We are forming new communities within The WordHouse so people can be in intimate, neighborhood groups for worship, discipleship and fellowship, and share in the gifts God has given us. We encourage one another to be honest to God and others, allow questions and doubt, and offer respect as well as accountability. We break bread, meet Jesus in Scripture, share our joys and concerns, pray, play and worship together.

Although many churches are closing, declining in membership and participation, and connecting less and less with younger adults, the mission of Christ’s church does not need to change. A recent Pew Research poll found that an increasing number of young adults (currently 1/3 of adults under 30) are “religiously unaffiliated today”. Only a few short years ago, 4 out of 5 worshipers in PC(USA) churches were over 45 years old, and the number of children has steadily decreased. But how we do Christ’s mission does need change, at least for some of us. The WordHouse church/ministry is a response to Christ’s call on our lives to be a ministry of community and a means to address some of the reasons many people might not have a church community.

God’s Intervention and Our Response: Should I Stay or Should I Go Now

Two Sundays ago I began a two-week stint of pulpit supply – guest preaching and leading worship – at Bethany Presbyterian Church, in Sacramento. As someone who has embraced a more conversational as opposed to speech-like form of preaching, I adjusted my style to better fit how this church typically worships. To allow more participation in worship, although the few times I have visited the congregation is quite engaged, I asked them a few questions to discuss among themselves in the pews as a lead in to the scripture reading. I gave them a few minutes and after it seemed most everyone had shared, I began reading Acts 9:1-31. Here are the questions I asked and my sermon text (and thanks to one of them for editing and posting it to their website). The sermon came after an instrumental anthem. If I get my hands on the audio I’ll post it here as well.

 

Questions for discussion:

  • Have you ever had a knocked-down-to-the-ground moment with God or Jesus? Where you felt like God stopped you in your tracks?
  • What were you doing when that happened?
  • What did you realize?

 

At The WordHouse, our sermons are conversations over scripture, so doing this sermon monologue will be a little different for me. It’s been a nice challenge to put it together without working it through on the spot with others. I hope what I say will spur you to wrestle with the text and with God, to continue the conversation about what God is saying and desiring you, and all of us, to do.

This passage begins a shift in Acts to focus on Saul (or Paul as he will soon be named) and God’s good news in Jesus Christ made known to the Gentiles –those who aren’t Jewish religiously — and Peter, who is ministering to Jews in Jesus’ name. Next week we’ll see Peter at miraculous work and focus on a woman named Dorcas in the following verses after today’s scripture reading, which will then lead to a big moment for Peter (and followers of the Way) with his further conversion to grace and trusting in God and Jesus as Lord of all. You’ll have to read ahead or come back in two weeks for Peter’s wildly important dream. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves; there is much to be gained as we read the account of what happened to this religious zealot named Saul, God’s intervention in his life and the response from scared Christians because of his inclusion in their community.

And what absolutely crazy happenings, to be sure, in this part of the extended Gospel story of Acts:

Saul (who, as I just mentioned–his name will be changed later on–would also become pastor of many of the first Christians and write several of the letters we have in the New Testament) was trying to physically take hostage, and even kill, Christians. Let me say that again: he was trying to physically take hostage, and even kill, Christians. Earlier in Acts he was said to be at the killing of Stephen, one of the first deacons, and helped stone him to death; to bludgeon this fellow Christian man and essentially execute him. On Saul’s way to capture Christians and continue to bring these heretics to what he thought was justice, God, however, intervenes and Saul hits the floor.

What happened to Saul–what Saul was doing–is obviously extremely horrendous. But, to be completely honest, I think even I’ve been there myself. Not in killing someone per se, but I’ve basically been a part of death. I’ve fallen to the ground and been stopped cold in my tracks more times than I care to count. I’ve been at the place where I realized my desperate, desperate need for a savior. In a moment I’ve known how my anger and sexual lust are equivalent to speaking murder and creating a living hell for others, let alone myself. This realization is excruciating, and yet it’s the truth. I think if we’re honest, we’ve all been there; we’ve all heard these words spoken directly to us, “What are you doing? Do you realize what you’ve done?” And even “Why do you persecute me?”

Regardless of how we think we’ve sinned or royally screwed up, could there be anything more harmful or sinful that what Saul was doing? Perhaps we know we’re like him, caught in the depth of our unknown atrocities, but no one has done worse.

So we can imagine why Annais is so concerned about welcoming this awful man into his midst, let alone to help heal him and make him better — he’s afraid for his life and perhaps the other fellow Christians he would bring in harm’s way if he took a chance on welcoming Saul. He takes his protest to God in his vision, explaining:

“Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your people in Jerusalem (where Stephen was killed). And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

What is God’s response? Does God say, you’re right; you should hold him in contempt, treat him as if he is a traitor and don’t have anything to do with him? Get away from him, now! No, quite the opposite. Hear these words again from our scripture:

“Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Instead of telling this disciple of Christ to abandon the persecutor of Christians who has been praying and heard that Annais would come to him … Instead of leaving him alone and not risking getting harmed … God tells Annais to go to Saul. It makes sense that Annais would not only be hesitant, but scared and confused. But perhaps his response to question meeting with Saul reveals a deeper issue — that Annais, in this moment, is not trusting God; that God is in control, that God cares for someone even like Saul. While perhaps Annais is more concerned for being safe than risking his life for another of God’s people — while his life would be in danger — could it also be that Annais is not seeing the bigger picture of God wanting to use all people for his glory — even those who have harmed others and who are not a part of the Jesus community yet? That God wants to use Saul for the furthering of his kingdom? Yes, even that Saul is one of God’s people.

God does seem to reassure Annais that Saul will certainly not have it easy, but God’s point is that this person is chosen by God, not by man or because he has proven he knows the gospel and all the right precepts and orthodox views on God and people … or has fulfilled the 10 commandments and not harmed anyone. No, it is because God says Saul is God’s instrument, and that he will proclaim God’s name. That’s it.

Of course what one does matters, even after conversion; it doesn’t mean one can do whatever you want to people. Even Saul would argue against that thought in one of his letters later on. And I need to be clear here: abuse and the continuing of physical violence is another issue altogether. It would one thing if Saul tricked Annais and captured him and brought him back to Jerusalem to be punished or even killed. But that’s not what Saul does. He begins to build some trust. It’s pretty basic, even with the heat he gets for betraying his former religious friends and leaders, but he does make a change: He spends time with other disciples and proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. Those are the only two things — besides discontinuing to breath threats against them — that he does to prove he is one of them.

The question for us here is this: How much do we trust God to intervene? Do we trust Jesus to really be Lord of all, to be able to intervene when God sees fit? If we’re concerned about engaging with people we think are unsafe to our theology or have a worldly view on things or otherwise unworthy of our fellowship, particularly those who claim to be a follower of Jesus, how often do we then fearfully hesitate to trust Jesus is Lord of our lives, let alone theirs, and fail to extend hospitality? Do we actually show that we aren’t trusting God? It’s really cheesy, but it reminds me of the saying, “When you point a finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at you.”

It may be obvious to you, but I think we need to talk about it openly: In many of us there is a huge distrust among those who claim to be followers of Jesus or in the way of Jesus, but have different thoughts and beliefs about God and humankind. We think it’s preposterous. Maybe it even scares us. Whether we’re afraid of conservative or evangelical folks and the views we associate with them. Or our liberal or progressive brothers and sisters and their beliefs. Even moderates or centrists are in the same boat when they vehemently can’t understand why those on either “side” hold to their positions so fundamentally. Churches are leaving the Presbyterian Church USA because they feel like they cannot serve God with others who do not believe the same as they do. And while it’s less of the case, there are churches that also think we’re too narrow and are actually harming others by allowing folks to maintain more traditional views on scripture. To believe such is fine, but to withhold and abstain from continuing our relationships, to cut ties and not offer to bring one another into the fold or embrace them may actually be a lack of faith and trust in God on our part. Based on our scripture today, that we all draw from, God calls us to Go! To reach out and heal others, maybe even those who threaten how we worship God. God calls us to the bond of fellowship because we are all God’s instruments, because if we are proclaiming Jesus is the Son of God and spending time being accountable within the Christian community, that is enough. Will we look at the work people are doing, the fellowship they have, the way that Jesus is Lord of their lives? Will we trust them? Will we trust God?

Do we forget what God had done for us? If we believe that we all have fallen short of the glory of God, that we ourselves are in desperate need of God, why do we not extend that same grace God has shown us to others? God has been more than kind to us — God has forgiven us. We are not our own, we are God’s.

The Marin Foundation, based in Chicago, is one example of some people seeking to create better relationships and to build trust amongst differing people. This organization was founded by Andrew Marin, who after three friends all within a short amount of time “came out” to him, later moved into the Boystown district of Chicago, home to one of the largest LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) communities in the country, and found among them to be some of the most loving and gracious people he’s ever known, even though he was a Christian most of his life. He went on to create space and change the scorecard game between the LGBT community and the straight, particularly conservative Christians — to build bridges between the two. The Marin Foundation is attempting to help others live into the tension, whether they are in agreement or not on issues, to seek, as part of their overview states, “reconciliation based on a love of God giving us the strength to relentlessly pursue those that are thought to be most unlike ourselves (and) will ultimately connect humanity on new levels of faith, relationship, action and sustainable impact.” Like this organization is trying to do, there is a way we can and should be in relationship with one another, even though we disagree.

How beautiful would it be, how God-honoring and Spirit-drenched would we be, if we took this reconciling approach with those across the aisle, those in our denomination and others across denominations. How would God’s good news spread because we trusted God when God tells us to go — a “go” that does not tell us to leave, but to reach out to someone who threatens us because of some differing views? How might our church session meetings run? How about our Presbytery meetings? How might we begin to thrive? Even in our own lives? In our conversations with others with different views, would there be more light than heat? There would be less strife and more cooperation. More peace and strengthening of our churches and communities. How many more people would know and experience the love of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit because our church was a reconciling, trusting God’s word and obeying church? What goodness and graciousness we would find because we trusted God was with us and with the other person!

“Then the church throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” This is what happened to the church then, and it can happen to us now.

Let us live into the tension — it’s there, so let’s not run away from it — the same tension that in which God put Annais and Barnabas and Saul. May we repent from the ways we have withheld and caused others to walk in darkness instead of light. May we do the hard, unnatural work of choosing to follow God’s command to get up and care for the one on the other side. “You are my brother and sister in Christ. You are a part of us; I am a part of you.”

This risk that Annais and the rest of the community of the Way would take, despite their fear and anxiousness, is incredibly inspiring. It enabled God’s word to spread in ways it hadn’t done before. Their trust, humility and welcoming behavior changed the course of history and brought many to know the good news of Jesus Christ. May the same be said of us today, especially in turbulent times. Amen.

UNCO West #unco12

Design by Ryan Kemp-Pappan, @rk_p

Earlier this week I participated in UNCO or #unco12, if you follow along on Twitter, on the west coast at San Francisco Theological Seminary in Marin County. UNCO is short for unconference. So, instead of people attending a conference lead by experts, this organization facilitates participants to draw up from themselves and within the gathered body, in real life and on social media, what needs to be shared, taught, and taken away. This unconference relies heavily on the Holy Spirit to stir up among the people, drive what happens and then guide their steps. It’s as if the over-riding belief is that the two entities are so intertwined  – Holy Spirit and people – it is difficult to distinguish where one begins and the other ends.

As someone who is enraptured by God to help form, support and be a part God’s kingdom in and through community, I am bursting with joy over UNCO. This is a laboratory that takes seriously God’s desire to work among God’s people – which is all people, since all are created – to experience what God desires for those made in God’s image – namely grace, peace, and justice.

Over the first night people shared on a dry erase board what they wanted to discuss and explore. We worshiped and invited God’s presence to move among us. The next morning we distilled the ideas people wrote down into breakout sessions and scheduled them throughout the day. After spending several hours – if you chose to go to each slated time slot – sharing our hearts and listening intently to one another, we enjoyed one another’s company (again) over beer, wine, orange juice and Coke Zero. For many, this communal and relational bonding went well into the night and into the morning on both nights. Sleep, what sleep?

Our last day at #unco12 was spent distilling even further the discussions that gained the most traction, in which folks agreed there was some sort of action worth pursuing at the time. One group worked on fleshing out an ecumenical database of churches and individuals interested in or currently doing innovative ministry (read: whatever innovative ministry means to you) which could be searchable by location and key word entry. Another group set some groundwork setting up a peer-to-peer resource production house. This organization would offer a platform for resources online to be provided by fellow church workers, as well as produce materials for purchase which are currently scarce or hard to come by, in areas like bi-vocational ministry and other current church education and culture issues. And even another group spent time looking at current structures and what it would mean to inform and resource bi-vocational and alternative forms of ministry. As you can tell, there is a lot of overlap. But that is the beauty of coming together and seeing what God is doing in our midst, particularly amongst our individual struggles and difficulties.

What will become of these actionable ideas? Who knows really (Okay, yes, God does). The course of these “take-aways” may alter over time… and they might not even happen. But that’s alright, and in some ways it might not even be the point. For faith and the Kingdom of God is a sacred mystery, one in which we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, faithfully partner with Jesus Christ in his reconciliation of the world. We ended our time by worshiping together, reading and contemplating 2 Corinthians 5 as well as singing “Awake My Soul” by Mumford & Sons and going out into the mess that God blesses.