Reflections on Life Together in 2020

Indeed, the past year has been one of much loss, grief, and pain. Challenges in identity, community, ministry. Please forgive me getting this out after the year has rolled over. These reflections have been a long time coming. Longer than most of my posts here. I'm sure we'll still be processing for many years to come, but as we're looking forward with hope in 2021, I do believe that this past year has been deeply revelatory and forming for us as a community.

Sunday Worship

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend from another church. He was telling me about an end of the-year "think tank" of sorts between different church leaders on how to adjust and improve Sunday Worship via Zoom. He shared lots of ideas from that gathering: thoughts on music, streamlined processes, different uses of technology, etc. Surely this year has been one where we've been forced to adapt so it was encouraging to hear that these fellow church leaders were constantly innovating. But the more I considered these ideas and our church community, the more deeply I began to appreciate the ways God has sustained us as we are; that the big draw for our church wasn't our polish in worship service. It wasn't quality of the sermons or the music (even though I think we are faithful to the gospel and have great song leaders in our church!). What ultimately kept our people together was not any gimmick or good that we were broadcasting over Zoom; it was the people.

PC: Uncle Sam

PC: Treyton Moy

Though we did not have true foresight when we decided on our Sunday Service format in March 2020, I'm grateful that every single week since lockdown, our Sunday Service has been live. Our church is not primarily an organization that produces goods for people to consume; we are the good, imperfections and all. I don't think any of our worship presiders is exaggerating when we say our favorite part of Sunday Service is the brief, chaotic, period when everyone unmutes their mics and greets one another. We're not listening to a recording. We're not consuming a good. The church -- the people of God -- are engaged in something beautiful and sacred... together.

I had these thoughts in mind when I was giving the sermon during our last Sunday Service of 2020, when all of a sudden my Internet cut out (2020 must've thought, "this is my last chance. now or never to disrupt their service!"). If I were a pre-recorded sermon, it would be so easy for our church members to check out and "switch the channel" to another church service. If the sermon was just a good to be consumed, then that would make sense! Somehow in that moment, while no one in the church could hear me... but I was able to hear everyone else! I heard the awkward silence as people were hoping for my Internet not be "unstable" (as Zoom would soon inform me). And soon the Spirit got to work, hold us together. There were no changes to the number of participants -- no one checked out. And, Rob led the church to pray for my connection. I was back in a few minutes, preaching the remainder from my building's stairwell -- motion-sensor lights triggering on and off every 2 minutes and all. What a wonderful experience to see the church together in an unexpected moment of testing.

Grace in Community

Not only in our formal gatherings on Sunday, but what an encouragement to see the life of our church extend beyond our Sunday Service. From engaging in Q&A in our brief Bible studies that I've affectionately called "Three Pastors Walk into a Bar" to the song leaders in our church giving of their time and energy to encourage the church through InstaLive praise sessions in the middle of the week to encourage our congregation through some of the darkest months of the pandemic, I'm proud to be part of this community. And no reflection on our church community this year would be complete without mentioning the daily -- yes, daily -- video posts by one member of our community to lighten the mood and bring joy to our lives through reviews of garden tools, tours of semi-empty public spaces, Billy on the Street-esque encounters with people on the street, live drive-bys to see holiday home decorations, and oh so much more! You know who you are. You've left a mark on my memories of this year.

I'm also grateful for how the Spirit has been doing this very same work in our community groups (CGs). Our CG Leaders really stuck it out in keeping our church community connected and together. I'm am so grateful for their commitment to gathering and meeting (virtually!) when the shock of Zoom fatigue was high for all of us. Our community groups also engaged in some difficult conversations -- many of which we are still processing and working through now. Different stories and histories on race. Different perspectives on politics and policy. Conversation topics which have divided our public spaces and threatened to divide us in our church community. I believe it was the grace of God and the presence and power of the Spirit that enabled us to weather the many difficult storms together, bearing with one another in love. One of our CG leaders shared with me that it was their grounding in Christ and the established love and fellowship between their group members that gave their group the confidence to engage in divisive topics and in so doing stretch and build one another in love and compassion. We're far from perfection on this, but this year has taught me that the people of our church are not one homogenous block. We don't always see eye to eye. But God has called us his own and our striving for unity in diversity is a testament to his Spirit at work in us. He's working still and we depend on him still.

Advent Hope

Because of our need of him was more strongly accented this year, the season of Advent took on a different tone. There was a need that we acknowledged not only in our minds -- with our theology -- and not only with our eyes -- in all the corruption we could see around us -- but a desperation that we could collectively feel in our gut. Our world is broken. We are broken. And we need a savior. Our theme for Christmas as we closed out the year together was "What does Emmanuel, 'God with us,' mean to you this year?" And the response from the church, testifying to God's presence with us through this year, affirmed God's promise: that he will never leave us nor forsake us. Various members of our church submitted testimony and videos. Bakers making cookies for our covid-19-adapted cookie swap. Artists sent in beautiful expressions of longing and hope. Musicians and readers lent their voices to retell the story of the birth of Christ through scripture and song. In many ways, our Christmas Eve Service was our culminating testimony of God's steadfast love and faithfulness to us when everything else in the world seemed uncertain.

https://youtu.be/QBM1egCm2Cg

This year has affirmed to us that God is ever with us most tangibly through the gift of his body, the church. This past year has forced us to slow down and see one another more fully, not for our gifts or talents, nor for the goods we can produce, but because God has bound us together in love through his Son. It is my hope that as we move forward together in 2021, we will cherish one another more and that this practiced gospel love will spread will be our testimony to the world that the Spirit indeed dwells with us.

Because of Christ, let us look forward with hope.


Advent 2020: We Wait

In this Advent Season, we are reminded that all of creation longs for things to be made right. Everything is not right and longs to be set right. The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Romans that "creation waits with eager longing... to be set free from its bondage to corruption," and we know that this freedom will come when Christ comes again to redeem, not only his people, but the whole world (Romans 8:18-25).

This past year has revealed to us how broken we really are. Sin is entrenched deeper in our hearts than we imagined. The pandemic has revealed selfishness and self-preservation over the love of one's neighbor. The moral and social evils that are interwoven with the structure of society are difficult to untwine and undo.

In Advent we dare plumb the depths of our depravity
because we know our depravity is not the end.

In Advent we can name our evils without fear of being overwhelmed
because we know our hope has already overcome the world.

In Advent we know that even if we despair,
we have a God who can lift us up out of it. And we wait on him.

In Advent, we wait.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, drawing upon the practiced testimony of Israel and the proclamation of the prophets, articulated the message of the prophets in this way:

This is what the prophets discovered. History is a nightmare. There are more scandals, more acts of corruption, than are dreamed of in philosophy. It would be blasphemous to believe that what we witness is the end of God's creation. It is an act of evil to accept the state of evil as either inevitable or final. Others may be satisfied with improvement, the prophets insist upon redemption.
"History" from The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel (emphasis mine)

All our efforts to redeemer our world have failed. Many times all seems lost. But God has not given up. There's something good and true in our longing for a redeemer and in our conviction that evil is not the end.

The Gospel tells us that God has come -- Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is with us in our brokenness to the utmost even to a gruesome death on the cross. He knows our frame and remembers that we are dust. But out of this dust he will once again create life. And so we proclaim with all the church through the ages, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus!"


The EmbRACE Study / 03

We're at this again?

It's just after Thanksgiving -- and not a "normal" one at that. I must confess that the thought of having to engage in another race study... now... sounds... well... it doesn't fill me with excitement. My finger to the pulse of our church and immediate community is that we're tired of the subject, the outrage that once saturated our social feeds has reduced from a raging fire to a simmer (but I must add, still present nonetheless). But we expected this.

When we, the pastoral staff, started mapping out how to help our church engage with the issues of justice in our day, we decided to "slow drip" our engagement with the issues for several reasons. One reason was our assessment that our church has many diverse perspectives on the issues, and it will take us some time to process and absorb. Many of us have histories and stories of our own (or stories inherited through our parents) which color our view. It would take some time to get to distill our experiences and stories to discern the gospel call in this particular moment -- we're still working through this as a community call together in love and harmony (Ephesians 4 and Romans 12).

we must continue to pursue righteousness and justice long after our social feeds moved onto other subjects

But one other reason was that we knew that these issues would not be resolved quickly. We knew that the wide public outrage could not be kept at a fever pitch, and eventually, we must continue to pursue righteousness and justice long after our social feeds moved onto other subjects. For many of us (though I recognize, not all), we can choose not to talk about injustice because we do not deal with it every day. But that may not be an option for many of our friends and neighbors -- people we are called to love and care for. This does not mean we ignore our own troubles, but we're called to follow in Christ's footsteps and extend ourselves for others around us.

The missing lament

For this third EmbRACE study, we'll be focusing on lament. As we enter the Advent season this Sunday, it is fitting that we enter into this lost (at least in the vast majority of the American church) spiritual discipline. The Advent season is not synonymous with what many of us call the "Christmas season" (jolly hot chocolates and cozy fireplaces); it is a season marked by longing. In the season of Advent we are to name the brokenness in our lives that require a Savior. Lament requires us to go deeper in our call to "love our neighbors as ourselves" by naming and entering into that pain to better see our hope. Sometimes, when we are faced with problems, we immediately look for solutions rather than taking the time to dig deep into the problems that plague us as a people. Lament requires us to restrain our assumptions about we [think we] know about the pain of our neighbors and enter into that pain. When Jesus entered into the company of mourners at Lazarus's grave (see John 11) he did not first offer the "solution" to their sadness (namely, himself). Rather, the scriptures tell us that he wept, he sobbed, he bawled. With this upcoming study, the challenge before us is to identify with those in pain.

Does the brokenness of this world break your heart and deepen your longing for Christ in this Advent season? As you join your CGs in this next EmbRACE study, I encourage you resist the urge to bypass the sadness and ugliness of our world in order to get to the "solutions" to our condition. Rather dig deep into the brokenness around us and let that orient our hearts to the coming King who comes to save.

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox
    that the way down is the way up,
    that to be low is to be high,
    that the broken heart is the healed heart,
    that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
    that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
    that to have nothing is to possess all,
    that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
    that to give is to receive,
    that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
    and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
    thy life in my death,
    thy joy in my sorrow,
    thy grace in my sin,
    thy riches in my poverty
    thy glory in my valley.
The Valley of Vision
The Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions


Fighting to be Still

Pastor Rob gave us a very good word to consider this past Sunday from Psalm 146 in anticipation of this week and all the anxiety many of us may be experiencing regarding the election. Yes, as citizens and members of society, we are called to "submit our ballots," yet, as believers, we are not called to "submit our hopes." Still I find it difficult to completely detach myself from this contentious election race. I've focused my attention to some books. I've played several games of AmongUs. I've joined some fellow anxious saints in prayer. I've been running around trying to distract myself with anything to not see the live updates. And I was convicted in my busyness to slow down.

Psalm 46 ends with the familiar line, "Be still and know that I am God." If you're feeling anything like me today, I encourage you to stop where you are and take a solid few minutes to read and let this psalm get into the core of your being today.

Psalm 46

To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song.

    God is our refuge and strength,
        a very present help in trouble.
    Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
        though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
    though its waters roar and foam,
        though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
    
    There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
        the holy habitation of the Most High.
    God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
        God will help her when morning dawns.
    The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
        he utters his voice, the earth melts.
    The LORD of hosts is with us;
        the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
    
    Come, behold the works of the LORD,
        how he has brought desolations on the earth.
    He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
        he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
        he burns the chariots with fire.
    “Be still, and know that I am God.
        I will be exalted among the nations,
        I will be exalted in the earth!”
    The LORD of hosts is with us;
        the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

This psalm describes the raging nations of today so well. We make all this noise, and somehow distract ourselves into thinking and believing that this -- this -- moment is the ultimate moment. But this psalm lays down the truth that it's not; the LORD merely utters his voice and everything melts.

The lead up to the familiar "Be still..." line shows a God who brings desolations on the earth. He allows our nonsense to ensue until all is dust. Perhaps only when we let the chaos and restlessness in our hearts stop, can we finally recognize who is God. God is found in the stillness. And we need to fight the noise of today to seek that stillness. Slow down. Slow down so you can keep pace with God. Slow down so you can hear his voice. Slow down so we can discern his leading in this tumultuous time.


So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

Today is Halloween, or as the church has historically recognized, All Hallow's Eve or All Saints' Eve -- the day of preparation before All Saints' Day. The church has had a rich history with death and what it means to those in Christ, but it is lost to many of us today. Since death seems nearer to us in these past months of pandemic, I believe we can draw richly upon the witness and testimony of the church that has lived out its faith through the observance of All Saints' Day.

When I first watched Pixar's Coco, a film about Día de Muertos ("The Day of the Dead," which is concurrent, perhaps not coincidentally, with All Saints' Day), I was surprised that the portrayal so accurately captured aspects of our Christian hope associated with death. The observance of this holiday typically takes the form of celebration, rather than mourning -- acknowledging that death is not the end and those who left this earth before us have not left us completely. In the story, Miguel Rivera, the main protagonist goes on a journey between the land of the living and of the dead and discovers a richer understanding of himself, his family, and the beautiful and storied inheritance he has as a member of his family. While it is unlikely that Disney/Pixar would put an explicitly religious backing to their films, we in the faith know that it is because of Christ, the living and the dead are not forever separated, and we live out our faith "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12).

In the Apostles' Creed, we affirm this in the line, "I believe in... the communion of saints," which confesses the truth that both the living and the dead share a fellowship in Christ that cannot be broken. Our practice of communion (The Lord's Supper) touches upon this truth every time we partake; we do not partake alone, but with all the saints present, past, and future. At the table, every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we do it with all the saints -- including those recently departed -- proclaiming the death of our Lord until he comes again in glory.

I know for many of us, there are many whose presence is sorely missed. As the holidays approach, the heavy presence of empty chairs in our homes is a weight we'd rather not bear; the idea of observing All Saints' Day seems too painful in light of our grief and fresh wounds. For some of us we'd rather keep feeling that pain, because we think without that feeling, we'll lose what we have left of those who died. Sometimes we only dare to take sips of our grief for fear we'd be overcome with despair and spend all our grief at once and then forget. In Pixar's Coco, Hector, a character from the world of the dead, explains the conflict to be resolved when we says, "If there's no one left in the living world to remember you, you disappear from this world. But you can change that!"

But the gospel that proclaims the communion of the saints gives us a better promise and hope than Hector's. The lives of those we have loved do not exist based on our keeping of them in memory; surely there may come a day when we will adjust to our grief and "move on" in some form or another. The gospel gives us confidence to mourn and grieve deeply because it is Christ who remembers our names and knows each of our souls better than we know ourselves. Because of Christ, we can mourn deeply and fully, not worrying if we will drown ourselves in our grief or expend all our sadness at once because we are completely sustained by the grace of God.

I invite all of you to observe All Saints' Day. Not to focus primarily on our friends and family who have passed, but to turn that longing-for-their-fellowship to worship of our loving and gracious Savior who sustains our communion. In both the Apostles' and the Nicene Creed, we affirm the resurrection of the dead/body and life -- full and vibrant life -- in the world to come. Our Savior and fellow saints cheer us on in faith. "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith."