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Written by Pastor Meg

Advent in Narnia

Advent in Narnia Wreath

In C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children — Lucy, Edmond, Susan, and Peter — slip through a wardrobe into the magical world of Narnia.  The animals there speak in hushed excitement about a Lion named Aslan who will rescue Narnia from the curse of the White Witch.  The curse, as it is stated several times, is that, in Narnia “it is always winter and never Christmas.”

This is, perhaps, the best summation one could imagine (and C.S. Lewis did) of the Advent season.  In the 4 weeks before Christmas we name those griefs that stand between us and God’s promises of Kingdom, of peace, righteousness, justice, and rest — “always winter.”  In the 4 weeks before Christmas we learn to hope again for love and joy and peace — “never not yet Christmas.”  We learn to hope that the Christ-child who came to a stable long ago in Bethlehem will be the Christ-King who will come again to set all things right.

In the dedication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to his goddaughter, Lucy, C.S. Lewis writes: I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairytales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.

May wonder and imagination be God’s good and abundant gifts to us as we wait!

 

Fall Worship Series: The True Story of God

The Bible tells one story. Over the millennia. Set in the Middle East, Western Asia, North Africa, the Mediterranean Coast of Europe. Written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and passed along orally before it was written at all. Reformed Biblical commentators Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen refer to it as: The True Story of the Whole World.

The True Story of the one God, who is Creator, Covenant-Keeper, Provider, Protector. The True Story of the one God, who became Incarnate — lived, loved, taught, upturned expectations, and no way more than when he died on the Cross, condemned by the state, shunned by the religious, and all of it so that we might be forgiven our sin and born to new life. The True Story of the one God, who comes by wind and fire to fill God’s people with hope, with capacity to listen to God and obey God’s commands, Spirit, Comforter, Power-source. The True Story of the one God who will come again and set everything right, Redeemer, Restorer, Reconciler, King Jesus.

The True Story of the one God who created people, filled them with purpose, stood by them when they tried to wriggle away, when they outright rejected Him. The True Story of God who makes and keeps covenants, who graciously gives laws, priests, worship, kings, prophets, and, finally, gave Himself to make us, keep us, love us.

This fall, we are going to hear and tell this story. On September 10 we start at the beginning, in a garden filled with trees and with human flourishing, and continue until, on November 26, we’ll celebrate in city center of New Jerusalem under the canopy of a great Tree described in Revelation 22, which has leaves, we are told, for the healing of the nations. And we’ll, you know, branch out in between. To find Moses before a burning bush and Deborah giving judgments in the shade of the palms.  We’ll hear prophecy and parables. Along the way, of course we’ll make a needful stop at the Tree of Calvary.

We invite you to listen and ponder the True Story with us!

Put Out to Pasture: Finding Our Work in God’s World

Maybe you’ve had this experience — a group of friends with young children vacation together or, maybe, an extended family with multiple generations is together in one house for the holidays. The kids are asleep in various pack and plays, sleeping bags, etc. upstairs and the adult are enjoying time together. All of a sudden, a child’s cry pierces the merriment and everyone goes quiet for 5 seconds, listening. Usually it doesn’t even take that long for one parent to jump up, saying, “That’s mine.” Usually it doesn’t even take that long for the rest of the parents to relax back into the evening because they know their child’s cry and that wasn’t it. To the untrained ear, it just sounds like a baby crying. But to a parent who has become habituated to respond, it is a particular cry, a unique sound.

John’s retelling of Jesus’ teaching about the sheep and their shepherd assume a similar dynamic. The shepherd of the sheep “calls his own sheep by name…but they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

In some shepherding cultures, various flocks of sheep all sleep in the same pen at night. When morning comes and it’s time to graze, shepherds stand in a large circle outside the pen, each one calling or singing or playing their particular tune. And all the sheep who are corralled together exit the pen and go straight to the voice of their shepherd, organizing themselves into their own flocks.

The first promise of John 10 is safety — from thieves and robbers, from wolves and from careless hired hands. “I am the gate, whoever comes through me will be saved.”  He brings them into the fold and he keeps them safe within the fold. Later we are told that his commitment to the sheep’s safety goes so far that he would lay down his life to keep them safe, to make sure they always know that they belong to him.

But notice that safety is not the end-goal in John 10. The shepherd may bring the sheep into the fold and it is, perhaps, in this close proximity over time that the sheep grow to know the shepherd’s voice. But the goal is not to spend a life-time cooped up in a sheep pen or in a church or a Christian bubble. The goal is to know the Shepherd’s voice so well that there is no place in the world, within ear-shot of the Shepherd’s call, that it would be unsafe for us to go. This is Jesus’ promise, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”

In common usage the phrase, “put out to pasture” holds negative connotations. When a work horse is done their usefulness, they are put out to pasture to live out their days lazily and with not a lot of purpose. We say it about people too, unfortunately. As folks get older they wonder, “have I been put out to pasture?”

Jesus’ use of the phrase, though, is the exact opposite. When Jesus is the Shepherd and we are the sheep, the goal is to be put out to pasture. Verses 3 and 4 state, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Notice that they don’t need a sheep dog nipping at their heels. The shepherd doesn’t even need to walk behind them corralling them in with his staff. Instead, he can walk ahead and the sheep will follow his voice.

Even though Jesus is the gate, one commentator says, “The courtyard is neither a prison nor a fortress for the sheep, Jesus promises, ‘will go in and out and find pasture’, another way of saying, ‘If the Son sets you free, you will really be free.”

Though Jesus’ work of life and death and resurrection are surely, to some degree, a promise of our safety, it is also a promise of liberation, of meaningful work in the world within earshot of the Shepherd. This is what it means for Jesus to say, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”

Again, as one commentator put it, “The doctrine of vocation stressed that the Christian ethic is largely a matter of doing one’s work — one’s vocation — faithfully. Hearing the voice of Christ on Sundays is for the sake of vocational attendance on the needs of the world at work and in the family on the weekdays.” Jesus desires all his sheep be put out to pasture, to be put to good work and good purpose in God’s world, always safe within earshot of the good Shepherd.

In church on Sundays, perhaps, we hear the Shepherd’s voice. We make space together to hear what is true so that when we are out in the world where there are a multitude of voices after us, some coming to “steal, kill and destroy”, it will be the Shepherd’s voice that rings out above the others, that compels us to follow.

Dear Church: A Love Letter

Note: This blog post is based on a sermon of the same name first preached at Washington, DC CRC on August 7, 2016. An mp3 is available here.

You may not know this, but churches have DNA.

And the funny thing about churches is that, even if you are a new, new member and you never met any of the founding members of this congregation, there are still ways that genetic patterns repeat from generation to generation.

In the case of this congregation, that includes patterns of people — CRC born and raised — who show up here and find “a home away from home.” Without knowing it, you reiterate one of the founding purposes of the church. But also patterns of people having never heard of our mainly Midwestern denomination who show up here and are attracted to a place where people think deeply together about theology, culture, and politics. Without knowing it, a pattern of denominational DNA repeats itself. The pattern of people looking to widen our collective embrace who, in the 1960s and 1970s, wrestled with what it meant to not just invite African American neighbors to participate in our church’s cultural heritage but to ask, “how is it that we need to change?” In the 1980s and 1990s, people who weren’t content with the denomination’s status quo of restricting leadership to men. And now, church members and leaders are still active, alert, and curious to issues of inclusion, hospitality, and welcome in our congregation.  We ought not be surprised by this. It’s in our DNA to value belonging, to engage debate around hard questions, and to be always looking to the margins.

One of the first things I did upon my arrival at this church four years ago is to pour over the reports prepared by Jim Van Zetten, the interim minister who served you so well. I met so many of you and tried to learn from you the perceptions, patterns, pitfalls, and prevailing narratives of the church. To use Nehemiah’s imagery, you might say I was “examining the walls.”

For example, when Jim Van Zetten was here, he interviewed every member and attender of this congregation and asked for their dreams, which he carefully recorded. His summation of this data — not the data itself but its summary!! — includes 42 different dreams! A list of 42 different dreams can be a bit difficult to wrangle.

One commenter on the wall rebuilding project in Nehemiah chapter 3 summarized it like this:

“The work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem was divided among 41 groups and individuals in unequal proportions…Nehemiah organized the work so that representatives of all classes of people and of some surrounding towns participated in the project.”

Talk about difficult to wrangle! First, you have the diversity of 41 different groups or individuals doing the work. Each is working along a part of the wall that matters to them. The merchants build up the wall near the market; home owners build up the wall nearest their homes. Each is commissioned according to their existing loyalties. Some people who aren’t even Israelites show up and are handed a trowel. People of varying levels of influence, distinct classes, are shoulder to shoulder along the wall.

Not only are the people distinct from one another but also there is a diversity of work. The assignments doled out are not measured and allotted in equal measure. Some groups get large sections of wall; other individuals get smaller sections. Some people are asked to strengthen existing walls. Others are asked to rebuild from various gradations of rubble. And do you think the walls ended up uniform? Do you think each builder uses the same technique? Or is the beauty of the final product the uniqueness of each section?

160807 LEGO response time buildings

There are different people and different tasks. That sounds like the work of the church, doesn’t it? The Apostle Paul says as much in I Corinthians 12:

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”

As I reflect over the past four years, the times I’ve transgressed the DNA of our congregation are the times when I’ve thought it necessary for all of us to care with the same level of passion or effort about the same piece of the wall. When I’ve wanted — for my own neat-and-tidy purposes — to get us all to go about things the same way. When I’ve thought of uniformity or organization rather than diversity as our strength.

And as I reflect over the past four years, the places where I have been delighted or surprised are in the places where I have relaxed my grip, made room for God’s people to be God’s people, allowed for the messiness of people working according to their gifts, not my agendas.

Paul couldn’t have meant this any more from his vantage point of leadership in Corinth than I mean it from my vantage point in this congregation:

“Now you are the Body of Christ, and each one of you is part of it.”

The Old Testament is littered with lists of names — warriors in battle, faithful generations, priestly successions. Nehemiah chapter three participates in this custom. As one commentator said, “To be brave in Israel is now to rebuild; the list that Nehemiah provides recalls earlier lists of Israel’s ‘mighty men’ with their deeds of valor against Israel’s enemies.” Each household that took up their responsibility, each individual who built according to their ability, each congregation that enacts its God-given dreams, is being who and what God created them to be and to do.

One article I read summed up Nehemiah as focusing on “the issue of the hidden activity of God on earth.” The thing about Nehemiah chapter three is that the activity of God on earth isn’t quite so hidden when God’s people pitch in and build and shape and work together. A diversity of gifts and dreams, a unity of purpose — a dwelling place for God’s name.

 

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Living as Resurrection People: Our Eastertide Worship Series

On April 19 we start an 8 week worship series on “Living as Resurrection People” using the Belhar Confession as a guide.

The Belhar Confession was written and adopted by Reformed churches in South Africa under apartheid. This is a document that meets both definitions of the word “confession.” First, it confesses the sin of the church. The Belhar Confession recognizes that, doctrinally, the church has always been led by the right beliefs written down on paper. Nonetheless, the church has failed to live out the implications of their right belief. The result of this has been inequality and division within the church, a failure of justice and of reconciliation. Second, the Belhar Confession shares again what we believe. It confesses those points of doctrine that necessarily lead us to lives and acts of justice, reconciliation, and unity.

In 2012 our denomination, the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA), adopted the Belhar Confession in a newly minted category: “Ecumenical Faith Declaration.” As the only document of its kind, the CRCNA isn’t entirely sure what to do with this confessional document. This past winter, our high school catechism class investigated further. This Eastertide, as a congregation, we will do the same. And, perhaps as a result of our engagement, we may have an insight to share regarding the ongoing role of this confession in the life of our congregation and our denomination.

In addition to our weekly worship, there are additional study options available for personal/family devotions (here and here) or small groups.

Worship Series Schedule

Date Text Title Belhar Other
4.19 Ephesians 4:1-6 United Church 2 (3 bullet pt 3-4)
4.26 Ephesians 4:7-16 Diverse Church 2 (bullet pt 2-5)
5.3 Ephesians 2:1-10 Reconciled to Christ 3 (bullet pt. 1) Communion
5.10 Ephesians 2:11-22 Reconciled in Christ 3 (bullet pt. 2)
5.17 John 17:1-12 Glory of Christ Ascension
5.24 John 17:13-26 Glory in the Spirit Pentecost
5.31 Various* God of the Weak 4 (bullet pt. 1-2)
6.7 Matthew 25:31-46 Just Church 4 (bullet pt 3, 7-9) Communion

Exploring the Themes in I John

It’s time for a Bible study challenge! Attached you will find a “clean” copy of I John. As I explained on Sunday, I’m inviting you to attack this thing with colored markers (or the highlight feature in your word processing software) to see how John’s themes swirl and mix through the whole letter.  Assign a color for each:

FELLOWSHIP/PARTNERSHIP
BELIEF
OBEDIENCE
LOVE
TRUST/HOPE
(bonus: IDOLATRY)

Happy hunting!

Cribbing from the Ancients

This morning, I read about an ancient Epiphany practice, still enacted by our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters.  Epiphany is a multi-layered celebration commemorating: the light entering the darkness, the Magi celebrating the birth of the Christ-child and the turn, with the remembrance of Jesus’ baptism, from Christ as child to Christ as teacher, healer and Savior.

Reading from Bobby Gross’ Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, I learned about this tradition:

While the whole church settled on December 25 for the birth of Christ, the East and West varied as to when they celebrated subsequent events. Thus, today the East includes the visit of the Magi in the nativity celebration and emphasizes Christ’s baptism on January 6, while the West recognizes the Magi on January 6 and commemorates the baptism on the first Sunday afterward…

One Epiphany tradition, the blessing of the homes using holy water and incense, has been practiced since the end of the Middle ages.  The letters C, M, and B are usually traced on the doors…the initials stand for Christus mansionem benedicat, or “May Christ bless the dwelling.” Frederica Mathewes-Green describes the use of newly blessed water in her church on Epiphany: “The holy water represents baptism, and during th eperiod between Theophany (Epiphany) and Lent each year, every Orthodox home is to be visited by the priest and sprinkled with the water, carrying our baptism home.”

“Carrying our baptism home” struck me as a meaningful way to celebrate God’s presence in my every day life and to consecrate 2015 to God’s will and purposes.  Being short on incense and holy water, I took some creative liberties. Using ordinary water in an ordinary bowl and my ordinary self, I went from room to room asking God’s blessing on the people who will be guests here, that the place may be a haven for me and a gift to others in the year to come.  This seems a super simple practice, meaningful and easy to practice with children, if you have any scampering around.  I’m happy to help if you want a “priestly presence” but I suspect it will work as well without me.

I know we are already a week into the new year but it is never to late to ask God’s blessing on your home, your family and your adventures/rest/hospitality in 2015!

Reposted from Pastor Meg’s blog, DC Liturgy.

Denominational Membership Is Like Marriage

Last Sunday we kicked off our Lenten Study of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Amid robust conversation in our adult Sunday School class (join us 10am, every week) the little seed of an idea rooted itself in the soil of my wondering.  It started to grow during the sermon and every since it’s been rumbling around beneath the surface.  So I bring it here to let it sprout!

It seems to me that adherence to a confession or membership in a confessional denomination is a bit like marriage or, at least, like the decision to get married.  Great disappointment lies in wait for the bride or groom who thinks that he or she is getting married in order to avoid arguments and conflicts.  Who thinks they have thoroughly vetted their future spouse such that now they are thoroughly agreed on finances, sex, handling the in-laws, expectations of roles in parenting and no further discussion or renegotiation will ever be necessary.

It seems to me that the better part of dating is about vetting the arguments and disagreements that do exist and will persist on the other side of marriage vows.  In other words asking yourself, “Is THIS the argument I want to have over and over again until death do us part?  Can I live with this disagreement in all it’s multiple and creative manifestations over a lifetime?” And, perhaps most important, “Do I trust the character of this individual that we will be able to disagree respectfully, lovingly and well?”  

So then membership in a confessional denomination or adherence to something like The Heidelberg Catechism works the same way.  Great disappointment lies in wait for the individual who thinks that saying “I’m in” is the end of the conversation.  Who lays out all the options for a side-by-side comparison and concludes, “This one! Now I have absolutely picked the very best doctrine available.  No further discussion or renegotiation will ever be necessary.”

It seems to me that studying the catechism — both in advance of joining a church and as a member of the church — is about vetting the arguments and disagreements inherent to it.  Make no mistake, every denomination, church, catechism, etc. lends itself to inherent arguments/disagreements. (Perhaps a point in favor of an intentionally confessional church is that it is harder to experience a bait-and-switch once the vows have been made.)  Just as there’s no such thing as marrying the perfect person, there is no such thing as joining a perfect church.  But we can determine whether these conversations inherent tensions are the ones that capture our imagination, engage our intellect and resonate with the calling God has placed on our lives.  So, for example:
– I shouldn’t join a Mennonite Church if I am unwilling to engage conversation about pacifism and peace-making.
– I shouldn’t join an Episcopal Church and then complain about why the sermons are short and they celebrate the Eucharist every week.
– Participating in a historically Reformed congregation (Presbyterian, Reformed, etc.), I will want to be prepared for a little more intellectualism than emotionalism on tap in most worship experiences. And I won’t be caught off guard by the many conversations about the nature of God’s sovereignty, the importance of covenant (and it’s manifestation in infant baptism) and Kingdom
Are these the doctrines with which I am willing to grapple?  And most important, “Do I trust the character of this church and this tradition to discuss, and, at times, disagree, lovingly and well?”

Reposted from Pastor Meg’s blog, DC Liturgy.

Hold It Together

It’s a common enough accusation against people of faith, that we are “so heavenly minded, we are of no earthly good.”  Well, anyway, that’s one admonition. Christian folks make everything so spiritual that they don’t evidence a lick of common sense.

There’s another admonition, like it, only in reverse.  That Christians have emptied their faith of the mysterious and supernatural, opting instead for a religion of doing the best we can by one another, hoping it’s good enough and then trying again but harder next week.  So earthly minded, you might say, that these Christians are up to no heavenly good.

The Heidelberg Catechism is constructed such that the very first question might disabuse us of both false notions.


Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A: My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own but belong — body & soul, in life & in death — to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ …

In this way, we know from the start that we are a people called to hold it together.  This life and the next.  The physical and the spiritual.  Our Christian confession constrains us to life eternal AND life abundant, to souls attuned to God AND bodies committed to the outworking of faith.  Discipleship is not either/or.  Discipleship is both/and.  Just hold it together!!

Reposted from Pastor Meg’s blog, DC Liturgy.

Making No Promises

Today the season of Lent begins! 40 days of reflection, confession, preparation for the celebration of life and resurrection on Easter morning.  I find myself eager for Lent this year (perhaps because it is so late?) as a — quite literal — break in ordinary time.  An opportunity to re-calibrate through new disciplines. Speaking of which, I’m making no promises BUT I’d like to blog a bit more.

Thankfully, our Lenten series on The Heidelberg Catechism is plenty of fodder for reflection.  This Sunday is our introduction to the series and a reflection on the very first Q&A combo in our 450 year old commentary on doctrine, faith and grateful living.  In case you don’t yet know it, it goes like this:

OnlyComfortBuildingviaCityChurchSF

A: My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own but belong — body & soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sin with his precious blood and set me free from the tyranny of the devil.  He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.   

While I am unwilling to make promises, I am terribly grateful for the promises reflected even in this first Q&A.  Here’s one I’m thinking about especially today:

“In fact, all things must work together for my salvation.”  If that sounds familiar to you, it may be because you’ve read Romans 8:28 that says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

I appreciate the way the writers of the HC take the opportunity to provide clarity and comment on Paul’s words in Romans.  Because, take a roll call of my congregation (and we are no different from any other in this regard) I can tell you that the list of conflicts, difficulties, illnesses, sorrows we carry aren’t “good,” in any simple or obvious definition of the word.  In fact, it would be pastoral malpractice to call many of these things “good.”
BUT, say Zach and Casper (our intrepid catechism authors), all these things may yet be part of the salvation story written in us, around us and through us.  All these things must serve the purpose of my salvation. All these things may yet be redeemed.
When “all these things” aren’t good, we can still hold God accountable to this purpose — our salvation.
It doesn’t make difficult things disappear.
It doesn’t discount, diminish or deflect them.
But it might help us wonder how God might be in them, transforming them to the purpose of our salvation.
Perhaps transforming us in the process.

Reposted from Pastor Meg’s blog, DC Liturgy.