Friday, May 28, 2010

Where is the cross?

On Pentecost Sunday in May, three Amazing Grace eighth graders affirmed their faith in the rite of Confirmation. The Saturday before, I attended breakfast with their families. It was a time of togetherness and conversation as we reflected on our time together. When my waffles, eggs, and bacon came, I looked at my meal, and apologized, saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t help myself. I need to take a picture of this!”

Yes, I took a picture of breakfast. I was struck by the shape my bacon made—a cross. Even something that the Old Testament describes as unclean can remind me of God. I was also reminded of the television advertisements that our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has produced. The ads show everyday objects, like pencils or breadsticks making a cross shape, using the tagline God’s Work. Our Hands. Some of these ads have recently aired locally on KSAT 12.

At Amazing Grace, we have made our own television ads that will piggyback off what the synod is doing. They will appear on KSAT some time in June. Several San Antonio area congregations have ads. In ours, I briefly talk about who Lutherans are. I say that we celebrate God’s presence with all our hurting world.

This is where I find the Lutheran emphasis on the cross helpful. Jesus meets us in our human suffering. As Lutheran Christians, we don’t have good answers about why bad stuff happens, but we affirm that God is right there suffering with us.

As Lutherans, we also believe that God is present with us. I was reminded of God’s presence when I saw bacon at a restaurant. How are you reminded of God in your everyday life? Maybe you see cross-shaped tiles on your bathroom floor. Maybe the spoons in your silverware drawer get in the shape of a cross.

But we don’t actually have to have cross-shaped things to remember the cross. Maybe we can be cross-shaped ourselves. That doesn’t mean we have to do strange contortionist gymnastics. It means we live as Jesus—loving people, welcoming people, giving of ourselves.

Look around you carefully. You might just see Jesus.

(Originally published in the June 2010 newsletter of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church).

Holy Trinity

This upcoming holiday weekend also includes Trinity Sunday. It is the only day in the church calendar dedicated to a doctrine. We have days in the church calendar for remembering people—All Saint’s Day, John the Baptist, St. Luke, even more modern people like Martin Luther King or Oscar Romero. We have days in the church calendar for events—Christmas, Easter, Pentecost (last Sunday), the Baptism of Our Lord, Reformation Day. But today is the only day that remembers a doctrine. The Trinity is a teaching of the church instead of a teaching of the Bible. Search as much as you want, and you will never find the word “trinity” in the Bible. Though not in the Bible, we see God functioning throughout the Bible as a parent/creator, as Jesus, and as a spirit.

Yet the doctrine of the Trinity has also been labeled too old-fashioned, too masculine, and too hard to understand. It is indeed a difficult concept to understand. Do we have one God or three? Is Jesus God or is God Jesus? What about the Holy Spirit? Is the Trinity just two men and a bird?

Over the years Christians have tried very hard to answer these questions by explaining this concept of the Trinity. In some ways, it could be like water—sometimes a liquid, sometimes a solid, and sometimes a gas. Or it could be like an apple—a core, a peel, and the inside part.

As much as we might try, explaining the Trinity in rational terms is difficult. We cannot ever fully understand the mystery that God is. As human beings, we so often want full, complete answers to all our questions. This is, in part, how the understanding of the Trinity came to be. Early followers of Jesus were trying to understand who Jesus is, and how that relates to God.

We have one God, but God plays many roles interacting in the world. God creates, God is like a parent, God is like a rock, or a wind, or a word, or a breath. God is fully present in creating the world, in walking with our suffering, and in bringing us from death to new life. Jesus is with us.

By the fourth century, some Christians thought that Jesus was fully God. Others thought that he couldn’t be the same as God. These questions were addressed at the Council of Nicea. Christianity was starting to be a religion of power, and Christianity would start to bring even more power for the people in power if all the Christians agreed about who God is. The Nicene Creed was a result of the debates in Nicea. The Council of Nicea was organized by the Roman Emperor, and the Creed organized there could be taken as another symbol of Christianity being an oppressive and patriarchal religion.

Yet, the image of the Trinity can also be taken as a symbol of equality and communality. The three parts of the Trinity all share in being God. One is not more important than the other. Where one is, the others are also present. The Trinity is who God is—community. It is relationships between the three parts that makes God God.

If we are created in the image of God, then we are created in the image of community. What would that look like if we took seriously the image of being created in the image of God as community?

Perhaps it would look like what our congregation does every Sunday before Communion—pass the peace. As we shuffle around the sanctuary, we greet one another, look each other in the eye, shake each other’s hand, and show the other that they are important. We remember that God is with us.

It's been a while...

It's been a few weeks since I've shared anything here. I spent a week in Chicago learning about baptisms, weddings and funerals. At church, we had Confirmation and a congregational meeting. Now, we're gearing up for Vacation Bible School and living in the midst of construction.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Up, up, and away!

Today is the day we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord. Jesus is lifted into heaven, leaving instructions for his disciples to await the coming of the Holy Spirit, as he is blessing them.

We are now forty days after Easter and ten days before Pentecost, reminding us of the forty days Jesus appeared on Earth after his resurrection. It’s the day we remember Jesus, after appearing to his disciples, is no longer with them on Earth. The disciples do not get Left Behind. Rather, he is present with them and with us in a new way, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Now I think that with the Ascension it’s tempting to get caught up in issues of levitation rather than the theological meaning Christ’s Ascension has for us. In the modern quest for the Historical Jesus, one could ask what the disciples actually saw, or what the Ascension would look like on 35mm film. Curious minds also could wonder how exactly Jesus ascended into heaven. Did he have a beautiful balloon? Did he have a George Jetson rocket pack or one of those personal hover devices powered by a vacuum cleaner that used to be advertised in comic books? Were the clouds cirrus or cumulus? If gravity were suspended for Jesus, why didn’t the disciples standing right next to him float away, too?

These questions are fun to think about and imagine, but they are really missing the point. Ascension is less about flying away and skyward journeys than it is about Jesus and his divine role. It’s not a science fiction tale, but rather a story of faith.

“Lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). Notice that this happened while he was blessing them, as opposed to after he blessed them. It seems that Jesus hasn’t finished blessing his people. He is still doing it. This is the gift of the ascension—Christ’s blessing on us forever. Amen.

Trash talk

At last week's council meeting, our congregation voted to get a dumpster. This is very good news. Over the past years, church members have taken turns taking church trash home with them. Now we have an easy place to deposit it. I know that I have had days of stinkiness linger in my car after my spin as a garbage courier.

I wonder what this means theologically. I think of biblical images about repentance and being washed clean: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1-2). Having a dumpster makes it easier to get rid of our church trash.

That phrase, “church trash” intrigues me. Of course we have garbage at church—paper cups, napkins, and things like that. But we also have our trashy feelings. I’ve noticed that some of the worst and mean-spirited grudges can come from people at church. I guess Luther was right in describing us as simul justus et peccator. We are both saint and sinner.

In that sense, we’ve always had a sort of dumpster at church. It’s called a baptismal font. Perhaps having a physical garbage container on our campus will help us get rid of actual garbage and remind us that we are daily washed in the waters of baptism.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


On April 18, our congregation had a forum to help us think about who we are as a parish. Participants were assigned to small groups and asked to discuss strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) at Amazing Grace. These were then shared with the large group and compiled into this listing. It is shared here to continue conversation.

Large property/5 acres
Talents & spiritual gifts
Young new pastor
Youth program
Message of grace
History/long term memory
Programs in general
Great council
Worship opportunities
Well order worship/Bible based

Communication/internal & external
Lack of volunteers
Status quo
Aging congregation
Long term memory
Lack of maintenance
Nothing for children during service/no cradle roll
Space/small facilities
Curb appeal/visibility
Lack of shared vision
Not many young people
Difficult to retain young families
Lack of fellowship after service
Lost members

Neighborhood garden
Space for organizations to meet
Young neighborhood
More signage
Opportunity to be witness to neighborhood
Visiting and supporting fellow parishioners
Resurrecting amphitheater
Spanish speaking service
Areal of large growth
Expanded youth program
50’s+ program
Learning how to invite others/reach out
Neighborhood youth program
Using holidays as way to include community

Lack of tithes/money
No shared vision, strategic plan of common goal
Other growing churches have more to offer
Members unwilling to change
Slowing economy
Not making church a priority
No financial cushion
Not looking at own strengths/assessing strengths
Unwilling to change/my way or the highway
Lack of unity
Homosexuality controversy/ELCA decisions
Instant gratification/desire to be entertained
No active participation by some in congregation
Tagging in neighborhood

Suggestions for what to do with this information
Action plan/strategic plan
Set goals with timelines
Put on blog, newsletter, bulletin insert
Prioritize issues we want to deal with
Timeframe when to look at these again
Have congregation prioritize one area a month
Talk to small groups/cottage meetings

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Synod Assembly

I spent the weekend at our synod’s assembly in New Braunfels. Here is the Synod’s report of what officially happened. I’ll try to have some of my own commentary here in the next days.