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The Whole Body, Through Crisis and Comfort

I’ve been thinking about the body. How it works holistically. Especially in times of crisis. When a particular member is hurting, others will compensate to make up the difference. For instance, when I broke my right ankle some years ago and, right or wrong, hobbling along I shifted my weight onto my left side to counterbalance when going to and fro. Or when we get sick, the immune system will work to create antibodies to ward off illness. Part of this, I think, points to how beautifully and intimately we are crocheted together—more so than just the neck bone is connected to the back bone and the back bone is connected to the hip bone. The bones and skin, sinews and cartilage, veins and arteries, muscles and organs that hold us together are each and altogether part of one another. We encounter this sometimes with signs and symptoms of illness or injury. Something will become acutely present in one area of the body as another suffers silently. Pain is often distributed throughout the whole body—inside out—when a single spot suffers. A common example is when a person feels a sharp pain in their left arm, which can serve as an indicator of what is happening or about to take place in the heart.

The wonderfully gifted nurse to whom I’m married, if asked, would say I am no physician—far from it. That being so, it doesn’t take an M.D. to see how the body is cohesively unified even amidst its diverse members. The body is a strange and yet wonderfully complex creation. It baffles, and in the next moment amazes us. I’ve heard medical practitioners and laity alike say that looking at how the human body functions and perseveres through times of extreme trauma is reason enough to believe in a higher power. It’s truly a wonder to behold. For us in the church, when we hear talk about the body our minds immediately go to the Apostle Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 12 on the gathered believers being the body of Christ. This metaphor is core to how we understand ourselves as the church. It unifies us in our diversity, while also affirming the varied multitude of gifts and vocations among the community. None is above or better than another. The whole is less than whole when any one member is disregarded or dismissed. A body functions most effectively—dare I say, faithfully—when it sees and understands its interconnectivity, and affirms that in building up and supporting all members. When one is weak, the others become strong to compensate for them. Where a few are in need, the rest intervene with love and support. The pain and suffering of a particular individual is not theirs alone, but becomes—as it should be—something compassionately shared by the greater group gathered together.

The thing about a body is that no matter how hard we try to ignore or compartmentalize the pain and overmedicate ourselves into numbness, at the end of the day we cannot avoid feeling. Such is the case not just with our individual selves, but also the community as a whole. Too often our society seeks to sterilize itself from pain and suffering—hiding that which hurts and covering up the wounds in denial. Yet, we know deep down inside that the source of the signs and symptoms cannot be hidden forever. At the core of who we are as the church is a living, breathing, hurting, and comforting body. More than just people gathered in a building a few times a week, we are altogether formed by the Spirit into the body of Christ. This means we are connected. With one another. Across the aisle. Across town. Across boundaries and barriers. Across race, heritage, and age. Even across denominations. From head to toe. We feel the pain when someone among or around us is hurting. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. Relationally. Christ calls us to not run or hide from the suffering of others, but instead go to it, be with those in pain, and serve as healing balm for their hurts as best as we can. The whole body is called upon—both individual members and the entire organism—to respond to others in crisis. Dwelling with our neighbor in the depth of their distress. Responding with compassion, which means literally suffering (passio) with (com) them. To be the body is to feel and fight the pain together. When one among us hurts—whomever they are—it becomes the pain of us all. As Paul so clearly says: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (12:26). Who do you see and hear hurting among the community? What can we do to build up and care for those suffering and in pain? To where is Christ calling you to compensate or counterbalance for another? How might we serve to be a more faithful body in the world?  We, though many, are one body.

– Pastor Andrew

That’s how it should be.

Yesterday morning, as I was making my way around the narthex prior to worship beginning, one of the ushers calls me over and says: “You need to see something.” We turn and he points across the area at a young boy, not much older than my 5 year old, who is helping his father greet people and hand out bulletins. The usher says to me: “That right there. That’s how it should be.” At first, I wasn’t quite sure where he was going with the comment. Jokingly, I reply: “You better be careful, he might put you out of a job.” We laugh, and again he says to me very seriously: “That’s how it should be.” The moment was one of those that warms your heart, brings a smile, and assures you that the Spirit is at work, even in the smallest and most simple of ways. I’ve been thinking about this usher and his statement since then–what it means and how it redefines how many of us have otherwise heard similar such words spoken before.

I can’t begin to count the number of times–in the church alone–that I’ve heard someone say: “That’s just how it is,” “That’s the way it is,” or some other variant, as a means of deterring change. We’ve all heard it. It has become for some congregations their unofficial mission statement. Chances are that you and I have even said these words–perhaps not realizing or meaning it in a negative, dismissive way. It flows from the mouth so easily, and yet can be immensely damaging to one’s faith and the life of the church. Change has a way of striking fear and anxiety within us. We wonder if it’s good or necessary, if the desired result will come to follow, and if we ourselves will survive and be able to manage it. The unknown stops us in our tracks and paralyzes us with endless questions. So we say things like: “This is how it should be” to avoid doing something wrong and moving toward a way that might be for the worse. Complacency is so tantalizing because it selectively shines a light on certain parts and pieces, though shielding one from seeing the BIGGER PICTURE.

This usher’s words yesterday were neither spoken in fear nor complacency, but were instead of hope and change. They were and are for me a blessing to ponder and pass on to others. Seeing a little bit of the kingdom of God bursting forth before him, this parishioner felt overcome to share it with another. With excitement he pointed to and named what he saw as the Spirit stirring in his midst. What the church is–not what it should or eventually could be–was faithfully (re)defined. That which could have easily drawn complaint by some, was a joy to behold for us (not to mention countless others who I’m sure witnessed it also). Even if it remained between just the two of us (and now you as well), a new standard was set. That’s how it should be. A change from the norm was looked upon and lifted up as something to be rejoiced in and repeated. How do we approach such small opportunities for change without reluctance and reservation, but rather as that’s how it should be? What is God calling us to change in how we do and be church for our community? Are we pausing to see the Spirit’s vibrance all around us–in the small and simple? Are we reaching out to those around us, drawing others in to share in the sight? How are we naming the joys in the change and redefining how it should be? God is doing marvelous things in and through the Body of Christ. Change is happening–in spite of us and in our very midst. That’s how it should be.

– Pastor Andrew

Easter is Perfect, but Perhaps Differently than You Think

The church is full, each pew packed with more rears than normally—to the point that extra chairs have been brought in so that none are turned away. Standing before the assembly, the pastor pulls the black veil off from over top of the brass cross sitting on the altar. With a word of celebration she breaks the silence, leading the congregation into Easter proclamation. The trumpets blow. Whatever dust has gathered over the past couple days is quickly blown away as the organist cranks out Jesus Christ is Risen Today with pipes blaring overhead. Like the pollen of the lilies up front, joy is in the air. Hope and promise exude from the worship service. Each prayer spoken and hymn sung echo the chorus: “Christ is risen!” Recalling the story of Scripture and receiving the bread and wine of communion, the response cannot be restrained: “He is risen indeed, alleluia!” Following the dismissal, the people make their way out—some to lunch, others home, eggs to be hunted, pictures taken, exhausted bodies asleep on the couch from an emotionally charged weekend. The next day, as the decorations are being taken down and everyone returns to their routine, a small child asks his mother: “Now that Easter is over, what’s next?” Perhaps all of the pomp and circumstance—the pretty and captivating—has missed the point.

In grammar (something of which I am no expert), we have what’s called the present perfect progressive verb tense. The perfect tense conveys an action or event that, though happening in the past, has continual implications carrying forward into the present. It is something that is not confined to a single time (indicative), but rather has implications permeating into the future. Emphasis is placed upon the abiding nature of the event. The static singular action does not remain as such, but becomes dynamic in its progressively connecting what was with what is and what is to come. Think of it as a when a pebble is tossed out into a glassy calm pond. From the splash flows outward ripples of waves. The impact of the initial action spreads from that moment onward. This metaphor, while not perfect (no pun intended), helps us to better understand the present perfect progressive tense. There are a variety of events in life that extend well beyond their initial impact. Love is an appropriate example. When I fell in love with my wife, the feeling did not pass with that moment. The emotion grew and blossomed. Regardless if we are beside one another or not, on the same page or not, that love has continued from when it first happened. In this case, love can be understood in the present perfect progressive tense. It’s like a tsunami wave produced by a distant tectonic shift.

Easter is not a single day. It’s not a distantly past event bound to the pages of history. It is more than the Sunday that follows forty days of Lent. It is even more than the fifty-day season that concludes with Pentecost Day. The Resurrection of Our Lord is a small stone thrown by a pesky kid out onto the placid waters, disturbing death and unleashing new life in marvelously unimaginable ways. We, the church, have failed to convey to the world around us that Easter isn’t just a day marked by putting on your Sunday best, attending worship, and hunting plastic colored eggs. It’s enormously and subversively more than any and all of that. It’s not a worship service completed in an hour flat. Easter is perfect (presently progressive so). The Christ event of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the grave is an intimate instance of God’s grace and love that has flown through all times and places—transforming the lives of all those who trust in it—since it first happened nearly two thousand years ago. Jesus and his ministry are not restricted to a certain time long ago and particular place far far away. Yes, the action of God’s efficacious self-giving into death took place in a specific context, but it perfectly (again no pun) transcends then and there—neither diminishing in any way, nor ever needing to be repeated. God’s love for us is just as present, dynamic, and effectual today as that first Easter morn. The implications of Christ’s death and resurrection flow to and through us—unhindered and uncompromising. Then what does this mean for us, here and now?

Though we may put immense weight on Easter day, really each and every day is transformed and made new by the resurrection of Jesus. We are always ever Easter people, not just for a day or a season. Resurrection is not something we liturgically usher in, but rather a miracle of God’s doing that we are daily called to live in. Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, bids us to die to sin and death. The chains of fear and self-preservation have been broken. God who is good and gracious raises us from the grave to live in renewed relationships with God and our neighbor. Each new day the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of faith to trust in God and God’s promises for us—to trust that we are loved and cherished, always held by God and never left alone. From this, our faith gives way to acts of love and service that lift up and care for our neighbor. Looking upon our pain and suffering—hearing our cries and longing to be with us—God enters into the world and brings about change with nothing more than a tiny rock cast out onto the waters. The efficacious wave of Jesus’ death and resurrection rippling out from this washes over us daily—not leaving us flooded or floundering, but sweeping us up in the good news of Christ and carrying us forward into God’s future for all. What God does in the Christ event nearly two thousand years ago is just as real and potent for us today as it was then. Everyday is a new day—a day marked by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Easter is perfect—presently progressive so.

– Pastor Andrew

An Installation and Reminder of My Call

This past Saturday, on the eve of Palm Sunday, I was officially installed in my position as Associate Pastor here at St. Martin’s in Austin. The day was joyous, filled with lots of love and support from the congregation, my family, and colleagues. Marked by songs of praise and prayers of supplication, it was a blessed beginning to what I hope and expect will be a Spirit-filled ministry with you here in the ongoing work of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we processed in to Be Thou My Vision, I was overwhelmed by the sight of all those who had gathered together for the occasion. Throughout worship, looking around at the many faces that filled the sanctuary, I was reminded that I have been called into this particular place, in part, by you all. The vested rostered leaders sitting around me was a reminder of my calling to the church catholic (universal). The day’s sermon was a prophetic reminder of our shared call as Christians to live out our namesake as evangelical people–sharing the good news of God’s love for us and all in Christ Jesus. The meal of holy communion was a sensory reminder of our daily need to be nourished in the body and blood of Christ who died that we may live.

There was a wealth of reminders that morning during worship. The more I reminisce on the day, the more come to mind. Reminders, specific and shared. Reminders that this is not about me, but rather God and God’s call for all of us to participate in God’s work in and for the world. Reminders that none of us are alone in responding to this call to serve. Reminders of God’s love and compassion shown through the various arms of the body of Christ–reaching out and holding one another up, in promise and prayer. Perhaps the most poignant of reminders was in the laying on of hands (pictured), as the congregational staff, call committee, council, and rostered leaders encircled me and laid there hands on me in prayer while God’s blessing was proclaimed in my starting this new chapter of ministry. That holy moment was for me a personal reminder of not only the weight of the office, but also the exceeding (and ever-growing) number of all those who are journeying with me along this trek of faith. The reminder was a gift that needed neither wrapping nor explaining, only receiving.

The life of faith is marked by reminders. In worship, we are reminded in song and Scripture, prayer and presence, bread and wine, taste and touch, water and proclamation, sound and sight, etc., that we are always loved, forgiven, claimed, and made new in the God who became human in Jesus the Christ for our sake. The ever-present Holy Spirit is constantly using a variety of means (of grace) by which to remind us of God’s love for us. The words of institution spoken by the pastor before communion are to draw us into remembering what Jesus did in that meal among his friends, and thus remind us that we are invited to partake and receive its gifts as well. The meal, itself, is a reminder of the deep physicality of God’s grace and love for us, in body (bread) and blood (wine). The font, front and center in the sanctuary, is a reminder of our baptism–drawing us to live in and through the promises spoken over us as we are washed and cleansed of sin and death. The water, accompanied by word(s), is a reminder of Jesus’ efficacious death and resurrection, in which we share and through which we are given new life. The various symbols that adorn our space each serve to remind us of God’s faithfulness to us. All of these reminders draw us to faith, trusting in Christ who died for us, and become manifest in acts of love and service to our neighbor.

Like that of the Israelites wandering through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land, we need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness and love regularly along the pathway. Knowing that we can be stiff-necked from time to time and otherwise swept away in the tumultuous waves of uncertainty, God never fails in pouring out on us reminders of who creates, sustains, and saves us. As we gradually move through this Holy Week, look and listen, taste and see, be moved and transformed by the reminders all around you. Reminders of the One who paraded into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, gathered with his friends around a final meal, retreated to the garden to pray, was taken into custody on trumped up charges, beaten and bruised ascended to Golgotha, was lifted upon a cross, publicly humiliated, died as a enemy of the state, and laid into another’s grave. Remember all this as we are slowly guided toward the ambivalence of Resurrection Sunday. May these reminders be for you steps of eager anticipation along the path that leads to the empty grave of Easter and throughout the journey of faith.

 

– Pastor Andrew

Let My Prayers Rise Up

As the stained glass windows dim with the setting sun, in round the congregation sings: first altogether, then just the women, followed by the men. In a psalmody that is simultaneously a communal offering of thanks and gift for all those present to hear, the people of God imagine their prayers floating up to One who receives them as fragrant and pleasing. So we sing: “Let my prayer rise up like incense before you, the lifting up of my hands as an offering to you.” For these past five weeks, churches across all regions and borders have gathered in silence, song, and prayer led by Marty Haugen’s Holden Evening Prayer. Personally, each time I hear a piece of this gorgeous liturgy a flood of memories and emotions comes surging back–of past times gathered in worship, amidst various places, surrounded by a multitude of faces met along the journey of faith. We return to this setting time and time again because it strikes a chord within us, both by its melody but also with a message deeply relevant as we call out to God, seeking to be seen and heard.

I’ve been thinking about this imagery drawn from Psalm 141, of my prayers rising like billowing smoke clouds to God who is moved by the offering. Some days the scent of my prayers is faint at best, either the flames weak and smoldering or the winds of change swiftly carrying my thoughts into the distant horizon. Yet, days like today the cloud of my concerns is so dense and expansive that it seems to have dimmed the sun’s light from shining through. Sisters and brothers in Christ, my heart is heavy and strained with many things. Friends hurting. Uncertainty in the futures of several close families. The life of a mentor slowly drawing to its close. Growing concern over another package bomb explosion in the area. A community torn by panic. Reports of a school shooting. My prayers are rising and continue to do so increasingly. I imagine God having to move to lower ground in order to regain sight amidst all of the disorientation wafting from just me. My prayers are swelling as my eyes do the same from tears of grief.

Whenever I find myself looking back and reflecting on particular experiences in my life, I am always reaffirmed in the belief that God listens and hears our prayers. During this season of Lent we intentionally focus on prayer and how we are constantly being called by the Spirit to return to the Lord and recenter ourselves in prayer. These days as much as ever before, there seems to be no shortage of reasons why we should pray. Our heartstrings are being tugged and torn. With each Breaking News our stomachs churn. We wonder when the next drop or loop of this daily roller coaster will come, or if we’ll ever get off this horrendous ride and reclaim some kind of normalcy. Just as our hearts begin to heal from one tragedy, another one breaks them all over again. Scar tissue seems to be that which seams us together–coarse trails retracing our not so distant pain and sorrow. Still we pray. In the moment. On the slow-moving rush hour car ride home. Hanging from the edge of our seat. Walking from one task to another. In conversation with each other. Spiritually hunched over, hands folded, in hopes of receiving any kind of relief so that our heart, mind, and body might find rest from the weary day.

Pray. Make it a routine. Gather with those around you, and together join your hearts as one in speaking to the One who knows every heart. Let every thought, feeling, concern, and question rise up. No matter the stench–pleasant or otherwise–may they flow out and upward. God listens. God hears not just our joys and thanksgiving, but God also hears the cries and supplications of all God’s children. You are heard, even when you don’t utter a single word. Give it all to God. Let your prayers rise up like incense before God, the lifting up of your hands as an offering to the Lord.

 

– Pastor Andrew

A Change in Scenery

It seems like it was just a week or so ago that we were in Nebraska, tearfully saying goodbye to dearly loved friends and parishioners, packing all of our belongings in any box we could find, and preparing to embark on a new chapter of our family’s journey in ministry. The transition has been nothing short of bittersweet. With the past four plus years of our life in the rear view mirror, we remembered and gave thanks to God for all those whom we had been blessed with and the wealth of experiences we had received while serving in the Big Red State for first call. Yet, at the same time looking ahead with hope and trusting the Spirit’s guidance, my family and I have also been full of excitement and eager anticipation about what Christ is calling us to participate in here at St. Martin’s in Austin. It continues to be a cultural adjustment for us as we become acquainted with the area and all that comes with it. In some cases from one end of the spectrum to the very opposite, it is safe to say we are slowly but steadily getting use to the change of scenery.

The dirt roads and fields of soybeans and corn we have grown accustomed to seeing along the landscape, separating one house from another, have been replaced with highways of cars that simultaneously connect and distance us from one destination to the next. I laughingly told someone just yesterday, what formerly took twenty-four miles roundtrip to pick up a pizza has now become a quick call and delivery to my front door in no time. #firstworldproblems The silos, combines, and tractors are for us now downtown high rises peppered with a multitude of store fronts and the such.  What had been little towns of a hundred or so people is now a metropolitan area nearing a million population. That which was not considered is in some ways now assumed, and in the same way those aspects of life previously taken for granted are no longer so readily accessible. None of this is to say one setting is better than the other. Each context has its highs and lows, its pros and cons. But in the adapted words of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in [Nebraska] anymore.”

As Brandy, the boys, and I become more at home here with each unpacked box, picture frame hung, and new relationship formed, I cannot help but see a parallel between our acclimation to Austin and the liturgical journey we the church are on right now amidst Lent as we draw ever close to Holy Week and Easter. We, four weeks deep into our Lenten journey, are gearing up for a change in scenery. Focusing during this season on acts of humility and practices of faithfulness, wrestling with how we are daily called to love our neighbor and continually remain centered in our relationship with God, we know what lay ahead for us. We will hear the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his final meal among friends and commission to love and serve one another followed by his arrest on Maundy Thursday, the trial, crucifixion, and death of the Son of God on Good Friday, and finally after a time of mournful waiting on Easter morning the joyous acclamation of Christ’s resurrection and promise of this shared reality for all who trust in him. The transition is not just one in the story of Scripture, but a mystery transforming our entire being as we, ourselves, through and through are changed. By the power of the Spirit, God daily puts our sinful selves to death and raises each of us to new life in Christ the Crucified and Risen One. We are made new, freely receiving both a personal and communal change in scenery in our very flesh and blood and relationships with one another. God is preparing all of us, not with boxes and moving trucks but rather the cross of Jesus, for a change in scenery. Are you ready for it?

– Pastor Andrew

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