Let it Flow

DadMy dad turned 86 yesterday. He woke up for this birthday in the hospital after a successful fourth stent was placed in the main artery of his heart the day before. He could feel the difference while he was still lying in bed right after the procedure. Prior to this, he had to sit down in a chair in the hallway while walking from his bedroom to the kitchen because he was so out of breath. It is amazing what happens when your heart does not get the blood and oxygen it needs to pump properly--you cannot walk, you cannot breathe, you cannot do anything, really. But one little wire stent that pushed all the blockage out of the way, and shazam! The blood flowed, the muscle received oxygen, the heart stopped racing, the breathing eased.

What a great metaphor for those moments when we try to live life on our own--without prayer, without God, without the Spirit who nourishes us with soul-oxygen. What is it that keeps you connected to the Spirit, your heart open, and love flowing to and through your whole body, mind and soul? What are the prayer stents that open you up and recharge you when you are clogged up and gasping for help? Today, I give thanks to God for my dad's renewed life (he's home now!), and this powerful reminder to let God's love and life flow freely into mine.

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Pruned for Growth

Pruned HackburyOur son, Daniel, is a certified arborist and loves all things trees. This series of pictures is from a Hackberry in the front yard of our new house in Richardson. It was pretty mangy looking when we moved in, with a lot of dead branches, a terrible shape, and not much health. Last winter, Daniel gave it a severe pruning. I was not at all sure it would come back to life this spring--sometimes pruning looks and feels like too much loss. But, it turns out it was just what this tree needed to surge forth with new life. Where in your life are you being pruned? Where are you experiencing a surge of new life that has come from releasing what is no longer needed or healthy? Where is God in the process?  In John, Jesus says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…Abide in me as I abide in you." No matter where we are in the pruning and new growth process, we can trust that Christ is always with us, urging us toward growth and new life.

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Binding Sin for God's Kingdom to Flourish

anna earl XBDHmIXvsvM unsplashMessage for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 3:20-35 for June 6, 2021 given at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

For the next two weeks I am going to share my vision for the future of St. Luke’s. Here is a part of what I envision as a growing community where spirits come alive in Christ:

• When I call the children forward for the Children’s Message, a whole rainbow of kids of all ages, from more backgrounds and family types and cultures than we can count, run forward---each of them excited to learn about Jesus, coming from families so relieved to find a church that welcomes everyone
• It’s Saturday morning--our Free Community Breakfast has become weekly and it’s the happening community exchange event of the weekend. Children giggle, Moms receive bags of groceries, Dad’s serve breakfast, the prayer station blesses all who come, Santa Claus brings gifts at Christmas, and family events happen throughout the year.
• When you walk past Sanctuary on Sundays at noon, you hear a sermon in Spanish preached by our bi-lingual outreach minister. You can smell tortillas and rice and beans cooking in the kitchen for lunch, and you cannot wait to eat with new friends and share in bi-lingual bible class.
• Our next new member reception includes the Baptisms of two youth from our support community for LGBTQ youth at risk of homelessness—at last, a place where they are loved and can figure out who they are with God’s grace. This banner over the baptismal font reminds them they are God’s child, and as they bend over the water to receive Jesus’ claim on their lives, they see that even here, the colors of the rainbow in the baptismal bowl includes them.
• You have joined the fifth global mission team trip to El Paso for immersion education and mission work across the border, connecting the work there with our ministry here. Our advocacy ministry has taken off, with advection on national and local policies that affect immigration, global health, women and children, climate change, ending the war in Ethiopia, and anti-racism efforts, especially in northern Texas.
• And not only have we added these ministries, but those things that we already do well continue to flourish, invigorating adult bible study, quilts and kits for Lutheran World Relief, worship & music that makes our hearts soar, community that helps everyone know we are loved and prayed up.

Take a pencil from the pew and write down one thing I said on the back of your attendance slip that excites you—and if I did not mention what excites you, then write down your own idea. And that the end of the service, share that with me. Visions are built over time and through conversation, each of us bringing our own wisdom to what God is doing in our midst.

This is what our conversation is about right now—In the end, it is not about a building or repairs or even finances. It is about the vision and mission to which God calls us and what about that vision excites you, engages you, and helps your spirit come alive to serve and to give. When we are clear about our vision, then decisions about tools and resources, about the building or the location that help us fulfill our vision and mission, become so much easier.

This week and next week’s Gospel readings supply us with the two seemingly contradictory movements that will be necessary if we are to achieve this, or any future vision for ministry. One of the actions we must take is binding, as when Jesus tells us that in order to plunder a house, we will first need to bind the strong man who oversees it. Next week, we will be led in the opposite direction, in the direction of sowing or scattering when we read parables about sowers and seeds.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus talks of binding the strong man—that is, of binding up all that is contrary to God’s purposes. Once the contrary power or the strong man is bound, then the house can be cleared for the reign of God to flourish. It is strong, almost violent language—binding a strong man, plundering a house—because of the power of the evil that has to be overcome for God’s reign to be made complete. To Jesus’ first hearers suffering under Roman oppression, the power of Jesus coming to plunder Rome came as good news. Such a strong image does remind us that binding all that is against God’s purposes is a perilous and often painful process; but it all must be bound and removed in order to make room for the kingdom of love and justice.

Let’s think about our own mission. What had to be bound in order to become a Reconciling in Christ congregation and welcome the whole LGBTQ rainbow of God’s people?

• The fear that doing the right thing would split the congregation had to be bound
• The notion we are the arbiters of who God loves, had to be bound
• The idea that our discomfort was more important than someone receiving Jesus’ love had to be bound

Thank God the Holy Spirit helped us bind all that so we could create space and community for something new! And thus, the congregation grew in members, love, outreach and mission! What about the Free Community Breakfast? What had to be bound in order to start a new outreach ministry during a global pandemic?

• The idea that we did not have enough people had to be bound
• The belief that we did not have enough money had to be bound
• The notion that we could not do anything new during an emergency, like the pandemic had to be bound

Thank God the Holy Spirit helped us bind all that so we could create space and ministry to touch the lives of people in our community. Yesterday a new customer saw our signs for a free breakfast, and she stopped by for a burrito. She told me her daughter was very ill, and we had a chance to pray together. Then, we had some leftover burritos which became a wonderful way to welcome the families coming to the new basketball program renting the gym from us—they were so surprised by coffee and free burritos! The owner of the sports club was so excited to be at a church reaching out to his community.

So, what has to be bound in us now in order to embrace God’s vision for our future? Our fear needs to be bound.

• Fear that our identity is so tightly tied to history or location and we are not sure who we might be if those change.
• Fear of grief and sadness –we have had a year of loss and no matter which future God leads us to, we do not want to lose anything more—members, money, identity, or touchstones of who we are.
• Fear of disagreement with those we have come to love. We are dear to each other, and the thought that a decision might bring anguish to another is painful.
• Fear of the unknown—God promises to be with us, yet, we move forward without any lifetime guarantees in any direction.

Although binding is not an easy promise, it is a freeing one. Binding what holds us back from manifesting God’s mission of justice and love makes room for God’s vision to flourish! We already know this to be true—for binding what limits us, has made our congregation grow in members, outreach and mission already, and allowed grace and hope and burritos to flourish.

And Jesus does not stop there. We do not do this work alone. And, we do not do this work with mere friends or acquaintances--with people with whom we shake hands but do not really know or care about. Our mission and love in Jesus gives us a family—much bigger than we ever knew or thought we had! Our family is not just those in our household, but everyone around us who joins us in doing God’s will! Everyone beside you in the mission of God is your mother and father, your sister and brother. Look around you! We move into the future as the family of Christ together.

Jesus binds that which hold us back from mission, freeing us for service and justice in the world, all the while binding us anew to each other. Jesus binds us with love as a family--connected to him and to each other for the future he has in store for us. Hold onto the vision of our future, and to each other for that is how Christ leads us.

Photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

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Listening to the Spirit

20210105 165122Message for Holy Trinity Sunday on Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17 given May 30, 2021 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. I regret that due to technical difficulties, there is no video recording of this sermon or worship service.

When I served my first church in Detroit, MI, I met a woman in the neighborhood named, Regina, who had been ordained by her congregation—not because she went to seminary like in our tradition, but because she had the gifts of the Holy Spirit for ministry. She became one of my mentors. When we would discuss issues, she would say, “well the Spirit said, to me…” and she would go on to tell what the Holy Spirit said directly to her.

I had spiritual experiences, but I did not have the sense that the Holy Spirit was speaking to me, like Regina did when she was referring to an internal conversation with the Spirit. I would say to myself, “I just do not have that gift.” But after a while I thought—“maybe I am just not quiet enough to listen!”

All 3 of our Scripture passages today talk about listening to and being in the Holy Spirit:

• Isaiah is in the Spirit when he is given the vision of the Lord sitting on the throne, his sins are forgiven with a burning coal and he hears the Lord call him into ministry.
• Paul calls the believers in Rome to live in the fullness of their identity in Christ which is to be led by the Spirit of God as children of God.
• Jesus calls the Pharisee Nicodemus into full relationship with him by being born of water and the Spirit.

But listening to the Holy Spirit does not come naturally to us as Lutherans. We are more comfortable with the Creator—the Father/Mother of God—with the mind, with knowledge, with study, with linear thinking and argumentation, and logic. When I was in seminary, the first classes we took were Greek and Hebrew, biblical interpretation, theology and history—and these are all important and valuable disciplines for understanding our texts and I love and value them.

Such emphasis on the Bible makes us amazingly comfortable with Jesus—with his life and mission, with love of neighbor, and social justice where live out our faith in Incarnational and sacramental ways. We are terrific at disaster relief, feeding the hungry, doing global mission, building water wells, hospitals, and living out our faith in a way that embodies a God who came to us—in a body—and who continues to come to us in through bread and wine—earthly elements. We love the story of salvation where Jesus’ humanity bridges the divide and heals the brokenness between us and God, redeeming our suffering, forgiving our sin, and bringing us into a wholeness and union with God that lasts forever.

But this Holy Spirit stuff makes us a little nervous. We do not want to become too emotional or out of control. We are not going to speak in tongues or talk about being born again. We are not going to have some wild vision that we cannot distinguish from a chemical imbalance in the brain. We will not whoop and holler or dance and sing (no matter how much Pr. Linda tries to get us to move!) Many of us come from ancestors who have been ignoring their feelings for generations, and we are not about to let all out, Holy Spirit or not.

But then I met Regina, who was the most loving person I had ever met, who answers the phone with the words, “peace and love,” speaking as if she was having conversation with Holy Spirit. She was so peaceful—and if talking with the Holy Spirit led to that kind of peace, then I wanted some of that, too.

So, I started to practice listening. I did all kinds of prayer practices and met with my spiritual director, and I quieted my mind and heart and body and listened (and if you think I have energy now, you should have seen me 30 years ago—it wasn’t easy!). And then, slowly, I started to hear. Over time I realized, I could hear, feel, know, understand the Holy Spirit’s guidance in much deeper ways than I had been taught. And it was not about emotion. In fact, it was quite the opposite. If an emotion or trigger does come up, it means we have something to work through or breathe through, often fear or anxiety. We may need to attend to those strong emotions with counseling, conversation, journaling, or calling your pastor! But the Spirit’s guidance is most often

• Neutral- no emotional charge
• Compassionate-Loving
• Truth (freeing or hard)
• Impersonal- you are a witness, watching something unfold*

Sometimes we can have an emotional response to the message—relief, or overwhelming love can cause tears, or we may be afraid to do what God asks us to do, but the Spirit does not give us fear.

How the Spirit speaks to me and to you may be different: Today we affirm a Trinitarian God—we are made in this image—Creator, Jesus, Spirit, so God can speak to us in a variety ways--through our Mind, Body or the Spirit/Intuition. We may have one dominate way or maybe we have all channels open. Spirits messages can come in the

• Mind – new thoughts, a flash of insight, an idea, a problem solved—that came from outside yourself, a voice that rose up, rather than one you generated
• Body – experiencing a gut feeling, a heaviness or warmth in chest, a sense of energy moving in the body, a feeling of peace, goose bumps, some other physical sensation
• Spirit/Intuition – A sense of knowing without words, feeling of love or compassion, seeing a picture or image, seeing color, or a vision, or even a dream at night (start writing them down as soon as you wake in the morning).

Sometimes Nothing happens. You may have nothing noticeable happen and simply relax in the presence and peace of God. That’s ok! I prayed for 52 days once and nothing happened. WAIT is legitimate answer from the Spirit! 

So today, we are going to practice listening, which I know is unusual for sermon. It will just be brief, and we’re just scratching the surface, but I want to give you a way to practice listening, which you can then try on your own. I want you to think of one simple question where you would like guidance, help or an answer. Just one. It could be about your health, what to do about a relationship, if you should sell your house, a question at work, the future mission of the congregation. We all need to practice, because in order to recover from the pandemic and be healthy people, in order to discern our future as a congregation, in order to follow Jesus in all areas of our lives, we want and need to be led by the Holy Spirit. Get as comfortable as you can in your pew:

• Close eyes—and begin to breathe deeply. Let us pray- “we ask for your presence Holy Spirit, for your fire to rest upon each one of us, and dwell with in us, as we listen for your loving presence and guidance in our lives. Amen.
• Continue to breathe deeply in and out
• Focus on your breath—the rise and fall of your belly
• If thoughts come, let them float by like clouds without thinking about them, and come back to your breath
• Breathe in the Spirit, blow out fear
• Breathe in Christ, blow out worry
• Breathe in God, blow out anxiety
• Breathe in peace, blow out stress
• Breathe in gratitude, breath in love, breath in Spirit (blow out anything negative)
• Now ask the question you had in mind and see what comes up in your body, mind or intuition
• Pause and pay attention for several minutes
• It’s okay not to notice anything –sometimes faith and Spirit are about relaxing in the peace and presence of God together.
• Acknowledge what you have received.
• Internally, say thank you and express gratitude for this sacred time and whatever you experienced.
• Take another big deep breath, wiggle your fingers and toes
• Open your eyes and return to the present space

Jot down anything that came to you or any experience you had that you want to pray about, return to, or reflect on later. This is just one of many ways to listen to the Holy Spirit when we need guidance, help, encouragement, wisdom, and that sense of the companionship of God coming alongside us in our life. I did this exercise yesterday as I prepared for today. I asked the question of whether St. Luke’s should sell the building or stay. And guess what answer I got? It’s not your decision. Your job is to be a non-anxious leader who helps the process.
Let’s test this against what I said earlier about the Holy Spirit:

• Neutral- no emotional charge—this is a neutral message without emotional charge of anger, fear, pain
• Compassionate-Loving –it is compassionate toward the congregation where the decision lies and loving toward all of us—putting us in our right place/roles
• Truth (freeing or hard)—it tells me the truth. It frees me from trying to work/manipulate a preferred outcome; it’s also hard for my ego in that I have no special or secret knowledge as a pastor or in this conversation with the Spirit
• Impersonal- you are a witness, watching something unfold—this message reminds me that the Spirit’s larger work is not about me—I am a witness to what God is doing in the church as a whole, I am a participant and leader in helping something unfold—nothing more, nothing less. My role is not more or less than anyone else’s

Now Isaiah’s vision of the throne of God, Paul’s encouragement to be led by the Spirit, and Jesus’ words that we are reborn through water and the Spirit may not seem so unnatural or strange! As we engage in this practice together and on our own, we are truly becoming Lutherans where “spirits come alive!” (St. Luke's tag line!)

*I am grateful to Dr. Judith Orloff who uses these to describe insights from our intuition, which I also understand to be part of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Image: I took this picture of a mosaic by Sonia King which is part of her VisionShift project, a mosaic installation for HALL Arts in the Dallas Arts District.

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