Oil Change

oilcanDo you ever have a conversation with a stranger that is truly profound and gets you thinking? This past week, I had this very experience. It happened in an ordinary everyday situation, I entered into a profound conversation with a guy as I was getting the oil changed in my car. Like all conversations with strangers begin, we engaged in the typical small talk. We discussed the weather, upcoming Louisville happenings, and the great offerings of the city. As we discussed the city of Louisville and all it has to offer, Church and community with others never came up. After a bit he finally asked what I did for a living. I simply replied, “I am the pastor at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church.”

At that very instance the conversation took a big nose dive. Fortunately for me, I am a talker and I attempted to continue our dialogue. I asked him if he currently attended a church. He replied that he previously attended a local church, but had discontinued attending due to his lack of desire to listen to a lecture on how to live his life. In addition, he was fed up with being undervalued by the individuals that attended the church. In fact, he stated they didn’t even truly acknowledge his existence at the church.

This prompted the next question: what was the appeal and attraction to that particular church in the first place? He stated it was due to the fact that they had a cool logo, good music, a lot of people, and were where he thought he could find friendship and community. He continued to say that he found no friendship or community and felt as though he was lost among the sea of people that attend the church. With all of that, he simply decided to not attend any longer.

I left this conversation with many things to ponder. Here is an individual that had stopped attending church all together because he was not welcomed in to the community in the way he needed and was unable to find the friendship and fellowship he so longed and desired for. Is he alone in this? No. In fact, many people in Louisville are just like this individual. Louisville is full of people that are hungry and longing to belong and find community. This is not a new problem. Throughout history, humanity has searched to belong to or be a part of something that is bigger than them. Hence the reason God created community, family, tribes, clans, etc. Furthermore, this very need is the ultimate reason God came down in flesh and blood and lived among us to save us. God knew that God must save us through relationships.

I think that this is one of the keys to making Fourth Avenue UMC a healthy church again. God has given us the opportunity to join with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit to join in ushering in the kingdom of God by being friends with people and inviting them to be part of a community, the community at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church and more importantly the community of God. It is through our opportunities to form relationships and friendships every day that we join God in God’s saving work throughout Louisville and throughout the world.

Please join with me in being a good friend, inviting people to belong to the community/family at Fourth Avenue UMC and in ushering in the kingdom of God to those that the world has shunned. If you can make a friend, you can save a life.

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A Prayer for Lent

Into_The_DesertHere is a lenten collect/prayer that might help breath new life into us all as we journey through the desert of fasting and self-denial.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves
to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and
inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all
adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil
thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus
Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Rabbit Trail

As our western culture continues down the rabbit trail of postmodernity, the church at large has been left behind and is clinging onto the remnants of the not so distant past of modernity.  This is not necessarily a bad or good thing, but is a fact.  The modern church is holding on to obligation, titles of authority and the need for logical rationalism opposed to the postmodern culture that thrives for authenticity, deconstruction of hierarchical structures, and inward experiences.

Many people that are aware of the disconnect that exists between the western church of today and western cultural milieu that the church exists in, think that the church is doomed, or that the only way to recover is to abandon Christian spirituality all together and look to other faith and spirituality to breathe life into the “dying” Christian faith.  The fact is that the answer for the church to become more culturally relevant is not to go in search of a new way that has never been done before, but it is to look back at the ancient way of early Christian and Jewish practices of spirituality and allow that ancient and forgotten ways of premodernism breathe a fresh breath of spiritual renewal into the postmodern society and allow the church to become culturally relevant without taking Christ out of the equation.  As the church moves forward and allows itself to remain grounded in Scripture, connected to its rich traditions, use a since of logical and rational thinking, and invite people into real and personal experiences with the living Triune-God, the church will survive the journey down the rabbit trail and even come out on the other side stronger and even healthier than it was before.

The Ancient Paths

“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls (Jeremiah 6:16).”  The ancient practices of the early Church can teach us to practice peace, joy, self-mastery, and justice.  The old disciplines of fasting, constant prayer, Sabbath observance, sacred pilgrimages, tithing, partaking in the sacred meal, and following the liturgical year do for one’s soul as exercise does for one’s bodies or study does for one’s mind.  These ancient practices are the means by which one prepares for grace to surprise him or her.  They are the habits by which a Christian’s soul is made into the likeness of Christ.

The first ancient practice that is practiced by all Abrahamic faiths is the daily office of prayer.  The root of the daily office is Psalms 119, where the psalmist states “seven times a day will I rise to praise your name.”  Our Jewish forefathers took this notion seriously.  The first written version of daily fixed hour worship and prayer dates back to over four thousand years before Christ.  The traditional liturgical “hours” of prayer were held at daybreak, before the workday began, noon, mid-afternoon, sundown, before bed, and midnight.  Each session was said to open with a call to prayer, followed by an introductory Psalm, and then a hymn of praise sung.  Following was a reciting of former prayers and ending with a regular cycle of readings from the Holy Scriptures.  These practices were held so dear by the Jewish people that even four thousand years later, the first century Church implemented the Jewish practice of rising seven times a day to pray.  The daily offices were one of the major practices that held the early Christian communities together and even in the 5th century during the legalization and secularization of the church in Rome, the desert fathers moved into monastic communities where the ancient tradition of office could be practiced.

As the Psalms have taught one about the daily office and what prayer is, it also teaches one that prayer has many natural companions.  One of prayer’s companions is fasting.  Many times the psalmist accompanies prayer with fasting, this is not the psalmist being overly dramatic or trying to get the reader to see how righteous he was, but prayer was accompanied by fasting because prayer was an activity for the whole body.  Scot McKnight holds to the idea that the Bible does not say the body just contains a spirit, but he tells us that the Bible says that each person is a spirit and is body.  Thus, the whole person, both spirit and body, must be wholly engaged with God.  Fasting is the ability for one’s body to remind him or her that praying is not only about the individual, but is an act to fill the physical pain and sorrows of others.  Saint Athanasius saw fasting as a way to encounter the formative powers of the sacred rhythms of the church calendar.  He saw that the liturgical year moved from mourning over sin to celebrating the good grace of God, encouraging all to fast during times of mourning and to feast during times of celebration.

Another spiritual practice is the sacred pilgrimage.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Yahweh was seen as a nomad, due to His call of Abraham to leave the land of his fathers and travel to a foreign land.  Also, God was worshipped in a moveable tent and traveled in a box slung over the shoulders of his followers.  Just as wanderers in the desert worshiped God, Jesus Christ became a wanderer in search for the needy, the oppressed, and the sick.  Jesus became homeless to proclaim that the mysterious kingdom had arrived.  As Christ has wandered through the desert and throughout Judea in search for individuals, a holy pilgrimage is the ability for one to wander after God.  As one departs on his or her sacred journey, the destination of the journey is not as important as the journey itself.  The journey allows the individual or the community to evaluate itself and enables the individual to leave things behind and gain new understandings in the process.

The next ancient practice that was observed by the early Church was the observance of Sabbath.  The idea of Sabbath was not seen as an option, but was observed as a commandment of God.  The early church fathers saw that once Sabbath was observed as God intended, it was the best day in one’s life because it is an invitation to enter into the delight of God.  Dan B. Allender states that “Sabbath is the holy time where we feast, play, dance, sing, pray, laugh, tell stories, read, paint, walk, and watch creation in its fullness.”[1]  When one takes seriously the menuha, the Hebrew word for rest which means joyful response, tranquility, or delight, one can experience a sensual delight in communion with God, others, and creation.

Unlike daily prayer or daily scripture readings, tithing tends not to be in company by daily or even weekly reflection.  It is often a background habit that is a reminder to individuals that one’s life is not his or her own.  Tithing is like prayer though, in the sense that God is working out His purpose and God generously offers his followers a voluntary place in His purpose.  From the Didache to the early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Augustine, and Jerome, the idea that Christians ought to continue the Jewish custom of tithing to God since they have hope in greater things not of this earth.  As one opens up his or her tight grip on what is thought as his or her money, one realizes that it has only come his or her way by the grace of God.  Thus, it is through the act of tithing that one understands God’s call for His followers to live a life of generosity, compassion, and joy.

Unlike the other Christian practices, the Eucharist is meant to be done together with a body of believers.  It was never meant to be celebrated by one’s self.  One can pray alone, fast alone, and even go on a pilgrimage alone, on the other hand, the Eucharist forces one to be with others to celebrate the saving acts of Christ within the complete koinonia with other believers and Jesus over a meal.  Communal feasts have been part of the Judeo-Christian religion for thousands of years.  These feasts have been implemented for the purpose of remembering, celebrating, thanking, praising, and honoring God for the works that God has done and the works that God will continue to do.  These meals have also been used for the reconciliation of hate, pain, bitterness, and betrayal as enemies come together in complete selflessness to celebrate the mighty acts of God from a communal stance.  This practice joins together the body of Christ as a family at one table for the worship of one God.

The final ancient practice of the early Church is following the liturgical calendar.  Beginning with Advent and rolling through the following November, the liturgical calendar represents the life of Jesus Christ, a life that all Christians try to emulate.  Thus, the purpose of such a calendar is for the Christian to immerse one’s self repeatedly into the “sense and substance of the Christian life, until, eventually, we become what we say we are: followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God.”[2]  Through celebrations from Sundays to saint’s days, the liturgical calendar helps one meld his or her life with the life of Christ and connect to the greater community of worshippers throughout the world, for the liturgical year transcends culture and nationality.  While its roots are deep, the liturgical calendar is not merely and ancient practice, but the resounding reality of life in the present lived out of an ancient but living faith.


[1]Dan B. Allender, Sabath (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2008): front cover.

 [2]Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2008): backcover.

Bread and Wine

By He QiDuring the Last Supper, Jesus performed a monumental act of prophetic symbolism. Using the simple elements of grain, olive oil, and grape, the essential and common exports of the region, Christ presupposed his crucifixion on the cross. As Christ initiated this sacramental act, he both accepted and interpreted his imminent death. His crucifixion was a willing self-offering to God that created a new relationship between God and his people. It was this sacrificial act that was being foreshadowed during the Last Supper. By allowing his disciples to share in the bread and the cup, Christ was giving them an opportunity to share in all that his death would achieve. It is in this meal that the Christian Eucharist is rooted. For every follower of Christ is called to partake in this sacrament in order to remember the redeeming sacrifice of Christ and much more.[1]

The very act of the Eucharist is a communal act where individuals come together at one table and partake of the shared elements as an act of worship. While this act is very much about the acts of Christ in the past and the future acts of Christ to come, the Eucharist is also the opportunity to take part in community both with Christ himself and all Christ followers throughout the ages. As one comes to the table, Christ meets them there in love and in fellowship. The very act of the Eucharist is where the church becomes one. It is the full expression of the unity of the Body of Christ.[2]

It is at the table where the fellowship of God’s children assembles and worships. The Eucharistic table is where the individual bonds with Christ and with the community of believers, expressing the true form of koinonia. For in the “eating and drinking at the [Eucharistic table], individuals are linked to the community in which is visible in these acts.”[3] The Eucharist is the sign of the life of the Church because it is the sign of the one who is the life, Jesus Christ. This is why throughout Church history; the Eucharist has been used as a public sign of one’s profession of faith. It is this act of worship that points to Christ, the great Redeemer and Savior of the world.[4]

The bread and wine within the Eucharist is not just a source of nourishment, but is the disclosure of the whole story of God, where one can see creation, incarnation, and recreation. This resides within the elements as the body of Christ consumes them.As the church participates in this symbolic act, a reality is present.

[The present reality is] the divine action of God redeeming his world through Jesus Christ; the call for us to see that our union with God, and indeed the union of all heaven and earth is accomplished by God alone in Jesus Christ. In eating and drinking we experience a foretaste of the supper of the Lamb in the kingdom of Christ’s rule over heaven and earth (Revelation 19). We become what we eat – living witnesses to Christ who lives in us.[5]

 

As the church partakes the body of Christ, the church becomes the body of Christ moving into the world, surpassing ritual and moving into action. The Eucharist is the very point where the gospel enters reality. Theory and theology become experiential reality where Christ is experienced and lives are transformed.[6]


[1]Hugh Wybrew, The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite(Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), 13.

[2]James F. White, The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith (Nashville:

Abingdon Press, 1999), 107-110.

[3]Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1977), 243.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 146.

[6]Dr. Robert J. Stamps of Asbury Theological Seminary, interview by author, 12 April 2011, Wilmore, personal interview, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore.

Trinity!

The understanding of what exactly the Holy Trinity is and to wrap one’s mind around it is a difficult task.  And throughout the centuries we have tried to simplify the essence of the Trinity by using things within creation to explain the essence of God.  We have compared the Triune God to an egg, water, three-leaf clover, three interlocking circles, but all of these analogies somehow end up falling short of explaining the mystery behind the Trinity.  I think Albert Einstein hit the nail on the head when he said, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” In this Einstein argues that we must explain the most complicated of complicated of things in a language that is easily understood, but in doing so we must not loose the complexity within the object being explained.  So, instead of asking what exactly is the Trinity and trying to understand it, from this passage in John we must ask a different question.  Instead we must ask, in what way does the Trinity interact with us?  And in addition, in what way do we interact with the Trinity?

In John 3:1-17, we see the laying out of the Trinity, but not as we normally see it.  Instead we see it in reverse where first the Scripture discusses the Holy Spirit and its role and relationship with us.  Next, it lays out who Christ is and Christ’s relationship with us.  Thirdly, it lays out who God the Father is and role and relationship is with us.  From this text, we see the heart of the Christian understanding of God that is declared as Triune, three in one, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This means that God’s eternal essence is one God in a social reality.  The Triune God is a relational God with himself and with humanity.[1]

The Holy Spirit is discussed in verses 7 and 8 in relation with us and us in relation with the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the thing that empowers us and gives us new birth.  The imagery portrayed here is that the power of the Holy Spirit is like the wind.  This reminds me of my home in West Texas.  On an average day the wind blows around 30 miles per hour, but I have seen a true windy day where the wind is blowing at 75 miles per hour.  In fact, I have seen the interstate close down because semi-trucks have blown over due to the high winds.  You may not be able to see the wind or even control it, but the effects of the wind can be felt.  From land erosion to the moving of large objects, the wind can be experienced in a powerful way.  The people in this passage would have also wind in this sense.  The wind was known to sweep through the Sea of Galilee in a similar fashion.  They would have known that wind is powerful and its effects can be felt and seen by everyone, but it cannot be controlled.  This analogy between the wind and Holy Spirit would have painted a vivid picture for the audience here.  And it would have been understood that even though it cannot be controlled, the power of the Holy Spirit is a positive thing, not a negative thing.  It changes you, shapes you in such a way that other people will notice the effects of change inside of you.  When we open ourselves up to the wind and breath of the Holy Spirit, it allows us to be changed ourselves, but to also see where the Holy Spirit might be blowing to and be involved in the acts and movements of the Holy Spirit.  Just like the wind, we do not see fully where it is coming from or fully where it is going, but we have a sense of direction of where it is going.[2]

Next we see our relationship with God the Christ and Christ’s relationship with us.  In verses 12 and 13, we see that Jesus Christ is revealing that he is not just the incarnation, God as man, but also we see that Christ is the full revelation of God and of the Kingdom of God.  This is affirmed when he says that he came down from heaven, the Divine Wisdom of God, Word of God, and Law of God came down from heaven in human flesh to share with humanity about God.[3]  Jesus Christ becomes not just the source of heavenly wisdom, the Word of God, and the fulfillment of the Law, but Christ also bears witness to God’s relationship with humanity.  Christ came to know us, to walk with us, to eat with us, to drink with us, to be happy with us, to be fearful, to be in torment with us, he came to go through our entire human range of emotion, experiences, and feelings, so that he might have relationship with us once again.  Christ becomes the God who walked in the garden and beckons us back to take a stroll with him once again.[4]

Next, we see God the Father’s relationship with us and our relationship with God the Father.  In verses 16 and 17, God is shown to be the great provider by providing His Son and the gift of divine grace.  He created us and he has provided for us by giving us material and immaterial sustenance.  He provides for his creation due to his great love for creation.  This is most evident with the giving of his one and only Son.  It was through his love for us that he gave his Son to be the great sacrifice that saved us all.  For God the Father is our creator, our provider, and he is the ultimate the giver of eternal life through Jesus Christ, his Son our Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is here with us, moving, and breathing a fresh new life into our broken world.[5]  The Triune God is alive and well.  May you realize that the Triune God is not just alive, but is at work in our very lives.  And may you interact with the Trinity as the Trinity interacts with each of us.


[1]Stanely J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 53-76.

[2]Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 270.

[3]Ibid.

[4]D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 99-201.

[5]Ibid.

Pentecost!

By He QiPentecost throughout the Jewish history has been a feast day to commemorate the time when God gave the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai.  The reception of the Law was what set the Jewish people apart and called them to live a life of Holy action. Similarly, Christian history marks Pentecost as a day that God gave the Holy Spirit to the followers of Christ.  The reception of the Holy Spirit is what sets the Christians apart from all others and calls them to live a life of Holy action.  Pentecost is a day in which we are called to remember that we as Christ followers find ourselves intertwined within the Grand-Narrative of the great Triune-God and that God is at work within the vary narratives that we find ourselves in.  Pentecost allows Christ followers today to be connected with one’s entire Judeo-Christian history.

More importantly, Pentecost is about the Christian’s call to Holy action and Holy living through the power of the Holy Spirit.  For in Pentecost, we realize as a church it is not who we are as the body of Christ, but what we do as the body of Christ that really matters.  Through Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we find the empowerment to fulfill the great commission.

The Church today must move past doctrinal, ecclesial and denominational differences to become the united body of Christ set apart for the blessings of the nations that the Pentecost feast calls us to.  The Pentecost feast reminds us that the Church is called to be the bearers of the Gospel and to bring restoration to the broken world around us.  It is through these acts that Gods’ “Kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven.” The Church must be “one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world.”

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