God as BFF’s

trinity coolTrinity Sunday begins a new season in the church year – the season after Pentecost, most often called “Ordinary Time”. I love the Godly Play language that this is the “green and growing season”. It is a time where we aren’t focused so much on any one miracle or aspect of God, as we can get during the seasons of Lent, Advent, or Easter.

For me, a belief of God as trinity is the foundation of my faith. I love that in the verse from Isaiah for today, God is both revealed to Isaiah, but also concealed – Isaiah only experiences the hem of God’s clothes. God is mystery, so far away and so close, more than I could ever know yet all I want to seek.

Approaching God from a trinitarian perspective has been very formative for my own understanding of God. Some approach God from a Christological perspective – Christ is the most relatable of the Trinity, having been human and divine. Some approach God from a Spirit perspective, which also makes sense to me as the Spirit is the person of the Trinity I “feel” closest too – my comforter, my guide.

Yet I love the image of God as community.  God as 3, God as 1.  God as God’s own BFF.  This concept helps me to understand how I do not feel whole alone.  I used to think I was just an extreme extravert.  My mother jokes how I would not sleep in a room alone, but pull that playpen into a room with people (even lively people hanging out) and I would happily take my nap.  I believe that when humans were created in the image of God, we were created to exist in community.  In community with others, with all of creation, and with God.

It is when we find our place within the larger community that we can function as God gifted and calls us. When our pride places us above others, that is sin.  When our ego places us above creation, that is sin. I don’t pretend to think that my way of understanding God is right. I am also not a relativist in that I believe that any path can lead to God. However, I do believe that many paths do lead to God, and the existence – the very presence of religious diversity in our world is evidence that God created this diversity and therefore we should foster it.

God is stronger in relationship. We to are stronger in relationship. This is isn’t easy.  It sounds easy, but it’s deceptively hard. I have been married for almost a year, and while I thought I was completely ready for it, there have been moments that have tried my patience in ways I did not foresee. And this is just 2 people trying to live life together. There are moments I am irrational and we simply can’t be in the same room. There are moments he is ridiculously unreasonable and I can’t see a way to reconcile the situation.  But we calm down, we apologize, and we forgive. I don’t imagine that my marriage will always be easy, but I love my husband more than I ever imagined I could and will do anything in my power to maintain a healthy marriage with him.

We are stronger in community, especially with those who are different from us. Differences help us grow and expose us to new ideas, new ways of doing things. The three persons of the Trinity model this healthy difference – even in pictures like the one above or below there are depictions of each person.  There is space for each to live out their calling, their role, and trust in that space.  Yet there is a connection.  An accountability.  Support.  Balance.

One of my favorite theologians is John Ziziolaus, an Eastern theologian – Greek Orthodox.  He wrote the book – God as Communion, and explores this topic more deeply.  As we enter into the green and growing season, I wonder…

I wonder what our mysterious God is calling you to grow in?

I wonder what relationships in your life help you to live more deeply?

I wonder how you approach God in your own theology? (for we are all theologians!) Holy_Trinity

Breezes and Gusts of the Holy Spirit

“When you strip it of everything else, Pentecost stands for power and life. That’s what came into the church when the Holy Spirit came down on the day of Pentecost.”  – David Wilkerson

 When I was in 8th grade I was on a leadership team for a middle school youth event for the Wisconsin Conference of the UMC. I was asked to share my testimony during one of the plenary sessions. After trying to figure out what that all meant, I worked with some great adult leaders to help me shape what became my first sermon. Being on stage speaking to about 500 of my closest friends was a blur. What sticks most in my memory was what happened next. I high-fived many friends on the leadership team as I worked my way back to my spot through the cross legged pre-teens and settled back into my spot in front of the stage.

A few moments after sitting down I felt the warm embrace of a hug from behind.  After enjoying the hug I turn around to thank the friend who reached out. There is no one there. There is no one within an arms distance from me…

It took a few more experiences in life to begin to understand that this very really physical experience was what I like to call a “breeze of the Holy Spirit”. I have really grown to love Pentecost, as it is a celebration of the Holy Spirit in such a powerful way. Some communities of faith are more comfortable with the idea of the presence of God being with us here on earth through the Holy Spirit – however I totally understand how it can be an interesting thing. God with us that unlike Jesus, we can not easily see, we can not easily hear, and is altogether elusive yet with us? Yes – I understand how the Holy Spirit is mysterious.

One of my favorite references of the Holy Spirit is when Jesus is preparing his disciples for his death. Jesus asks the disciples if they love him to obey his commandments. He then assures them by promising to ask the father to send another comforter.

A comforter.

What a beautiful image. I think of the warm comfort of a fire on a cold night.  The flames can be deceptively warm and inviting – yet are also full of live and power.

Christian faith throughout history and today has been often misconstrued into many things it is not. Theology has helped me personally find answers to so many questions and assumptions I had. I have heard many times from friends and critics that the church is dead. While religion sometimes can seem old, dated, or irrelevant – it is the Holy Spirit that breathes life and the power of God into the church.  It is the Spirit that connects us with with the divine. Sometimes that connections is a light breeze, like a hug, bringing us comfort and the knowledge that we are with God.  Other times that connection is a gust, the tongues of fire, setting ablaze all of God’s creation with love and fullness of life.

I pray that all believers can be comforted, embolded, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit to share the love of God throughout the communities we are blessed to be a part of.

Descending and Ascending Jesus

This Sunday is the final Sunday of the season of Easter, which is Ascension Sunday!

The ascension is a very important part of the incarnation of Christ!  It took me until seminary to really start to explore the ascension.  Growing up, if I thought about it, I just figured it happened on Easter Day (or Resurrection Day).  I was really surprised to learn that the Easter season is 7 weeks long!  Concluding with Ascension Sunday and then heading into Pentecost.  (Lectionary for this week)

What a remarkable change – Jesus ascending and the Holy Spirit descending on the believers in Jerusalem…. I can’t imagine how this felt to the early followers of Jesus!

To help children begin to explore what the amazing miracle and mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, from Christmas to the Ascension this fun science experiment might be a great conversation starter!  Dancing Raisin Experiment raisin ex

*** Object Lesson Caveat*** Object lessons are often used to help children have a concrete visual or metaphor for a abstract concept.  It is important to remember however that children struggle with metaphors and abstract concepts because their development phases.  It’s not just a simple matter of learning.  When using object lessons, it’s important then to talk with children about how this is “like” something else and not like it too.  For example – God is “like” a father to us in how God wants to have a close relationship with us and cares for us like parents do.  God is not like a father (or parent) in many ways too – God is not human like parents are, and sometimes parents are not able to be the parents they want to be.

  • Wondering:
  • I wonder what kinds of things you know that ascend? descend?
  • I wonder what it was like for God to come to earth, to descend, and be born a baby?
  • I wonder what it was like for God to leave the disciples?
  • I wonder how it feels for you to know that God loves us so much, that God came to live with us?
  • I wonder how it feels to know that after God in Christ ascended, the Holy Spirit descended to be with us forever?

Friends are Not Servants

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” – John 15:12-15
I lost a close friend of mine in the last year because our relationship changed drastically as I prepared to marry my husband. Madly in love I spent more of my time with him and less with her. Our routines changed and I was not as dependable or available as I had been at time she needed support to deal with a loss of her own. Feelings were hurt and tears were shed. Today I can still say however, that we both did our very best to love each other. Not every story or relationship in our lives works out to a happily ever after. Uncontrollable and bad things will happen.
Jesus here knows that he is about to leave his friends.  We find this passage in a section of the Gospel of John called the “Farewell Discourse”.  He doesn’t offer parting guidance to the disciples to care for each other when they feel like it, or even to tolerate each other through difficult times.  Jesus reminds them that friendship is deeper than that – it’s about love.  A deep abiding love that does what is best of the other person even when it is difficult.  A love that calls us deeper to a relationship of mutuality and honesty compared to the hundreds of transactional interactions we have all day with others.
Our world is full of simple transactions. I order a sandwich and pay for it, someone makes it and brings it to me. I ask a co-worker for their time and help on a project, and in the future expect to give some of my time and help with their work.  I cook dinner, and my husband does the dishes.  When it works, it is a world full of expectations as well as a series of giving and taking.  If for some reason we don’t get what we expect, we feel slighted.  If someone gives me more than I expect, I am grateful – yet somewhat hesitant to what they want in return.  That hesitancy shows us that this transactional social economy we function in is not generally one of transparency.  We do nice things for others earning “brownie points”, and then cash them in when we need their help.
Hierarchy and power only further complicate these relationships with questions of what one can ask for or expect in the perpetual give and take.  Instead of working together, we so often work literally around others without collaborating as we try to put forward our best efforts.  As employees we do not always clearly know what our supervisor is doing or what the vision they are working towards is.  As managers we know that it is not always effective or helpful for those we supervise to know how all the pieces are going to fit together.  As children we do not always understand our parents actions or motives, and as parents we know that children can not always understand the rational or big picture of our answers.  (See #reasonsmysoniscrying)
The systems we live and work in everyday are part of the reality of our human society we must live with.  We do not have to accept them entirely, yet we must struggle to live in the tension of what the world is and what we believe God intends the world to be.  This passage in John shows us that Jesus intends his relationships with the disciples to be friendships – not servants.
Being a friend is hard.  It is about love more than any of the transactional relationships in our lives.  Love includes honesty, mutuality, communication, empathy – over earning brownie points or proving that we can follow through on our commitments.  Christ shows us that he models this love and that is directly from God. Further more, we are loved.  This is important.  Some days feeling trapped in the systems around me, I do not always feel entirely loved.  Yet this is what Jesus tells his followers.
Jesus loves me, sometimes this is all I know.
As I get my barrings back together, I then remember, I love Jesus too.  And it is precisely because I love Jesus that I choose to love others.  For me, this is about treating as many people as possible in a non-transactional way.  About giving without the expectation of receiving.  Intentionally being honest and focusing relationships in my life around mutuality and compassion.  When I fail, as I too often do, it is my faith and grounding in God that helps me confess this.  We do this together every week in worship. Then through hearing the word of God through scripture and preaching, we are challenged and supported by the Holy Spirit to live out the command Jesus gives here.
 
“This is my commandment, 
that you love one another as I have loved you.”
 
I wonder how Jesus’s love has impacted your life?
I wonder what it means to you that Jesus wants you as a friend, not a servant?
I wonder how your faith helps you to be a good friend?

Approach and Follow Through

I love it when the lectionary texts fit together in a way that makes sense in my head.  With 4 different texts weekly, often it is easier to just pick one and stick to it.  I always admire a preacher who can effectively tie them all together in a way that is meaningful and less like the sport highlights on the evening news.

This week’s texts (read them!) each touch on the importance of relationship with God and neighbor – and it is all about the approach and the follow through.  In Acts, the focus scripture our Sunday School curriculum highlights, Philip approaches an Ethiopian man who is reading Isaiah and so smoothly asks “do you understand what you are reading?” – beautiful.  Not – do you need the saving grace of Jesus in your life – but a simple question and offer to help.  How does Philip get this kind of smooth entry and wisdom?  By staying connected and listening to the Holy Spirit.

The gospel lesson for the week is John 15: 1-8 “I am the vine, you are the branches”.  Philip is doing the work he is called to do and being an awesome fruit producing branch.  All because he is connected to THE VINE.  This passage also talks about pruning the branches.  We can’t let the metaphor carry us too far away here.  This isn’t about any sort of judgement, because all branches need pruning to produce better quality fruit.  I am sure each of us could think of things in our lives that ought to be pruned.  We have to let the Holy Spirit do this work.  To guide us to the work that we are called to do (the approach) to put in the work to build relationships and serve (see how Philip took the time to go through the scriptures and share his knowledge) – this is the follow through.

Many scholars wonder if this is Philip the apostle, or another Philip mentioned later in the epistles showing the spreading of the gospel already. Whoever he was, the text notes his Jewish knowledge of Isaiah. This act of reaching out to the Ethiopian man would have been in many ways cross cultural.  We can gloss over this unique interaction when reading, but these two men came from very different contexts.  The willingness of both of them to enter into this relationship center around the stories of the people of faith shows that when we allow it to be – the message of God breaks down boundaries and unites people through the love of God.

We all have different callings.  Our world has plenty of need.  This weeks headlines show us that over and over again.  Nepal.  Baltimore.  Nigeria. The US Supreme Court. And these current issues do not replace the many many other issues we face – affordable housing, homelessness, an unfair education system, debt, and so many more.

Some of us are called to be teachers, preachers, healers, wayfinders, helpers, advocates, musicians, and so much more.  We are gifted and equipped by God to tackle the worlds needs – but we need to answer our calls and do our work.  We must stay connected to the vine to help with the clarity of what is our work and what is others.  I know I for one, get distracted easily and jump into the work of others.

Callings, fruit, vines, building relationships and breaking down barriers – SO MUCH going on.  There must be a why, a reason.

Why are you a disciple of Jesus?  Why do you do any of this hard work? Why are you reading this?

The why will be different for each of us, and it will change over time as our discipleship deepens.  Yet it is important to have a grounding in our own why.  For me, I believe that all of creation, created in the image of God, is worthy to be cared for, nurtured, and loved so that it may flourish as God intends.  I believe this of every child, adult, ecosystem, and community.  I am called to the work of building connections, be that between people and the natural world, individuals and others around them, or across communities.  I do this because of the intense love of God in my life.

The epistle lesson for the week reminds us (1 John 4:7-8) “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
4:8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

  • I wonder – what is your why?
  • I wonder what work you are called to do?
  • I wonder how God guides you in your approach and follow through?
  • I wonder how the fruit of your branch brings a sweet taste of God’s love to the world?

May the peace of God be with you and yours. ~ Deacon Erin

Vine Craft

This week’s lectionary texts fit well together – a great take away image for children is the vine from the gospel reading.

John 15:1-8            15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 15:2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 15:3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 15:4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”

There are SO many creative ways to explore this verse with children of all ages.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Have a “vine run” where your family grabs hands to make a chain and sets a goal of how far they can run together (across the park, to the basketball hoop, etc).  I always recommend goals that are achievable while being somewhat of a challenge.  If it’s too easy the first time, set a farther goal, or see how fast you can do it!  Once you’ve caught your breath from running and laughing – talk about vines, the branches need to stay connected to stay alive and produce fruit.  If God is the vine, and we are the branches, I wonder what the fruit is?
  • Since it is spring, take a trip to a local garden center.  While shopping for some cool plants or seeds for your home, see if you can find some vines growing in the shop.  Great photo op!  The same questions can help unpack this passage, but might be done best on the walk or car ride home.
  • Do some vine art!  So many possibilities here – but pictured below is one of mvine crafty favorites for young and old.  On some paper (any size will do, but the bigger the better!) draw a vine with some branches.  Grab a clean soda bottle from the recycling and prepare a small dish of paint (if you don’t have paper plates, lids from the recycling work great here too).  Just dip the bottom of the bottle into the paint, and stamp along your vine to create some awesome “fruit” or “flowers”.

In this gospel lesson, Jesus says I am the vine and we are the branches.  I wonder in what ways we can stay connected to Jesus?

Healthy vines need to be pruned to produce more fruit.  I wonder what in our lives could be “pruned” to help us be healthier?

In the lectionary lesson from Acts this week, Philip is guided by the Holy Spirit to a Ethiopian man who is reading Isaiah in his chariot.  Philip asks if the man understands what he is reading and has a great conversation with him.  It is through this conversation and relationship that the man learns more about the love of God and asks Philip if he can be baptized.

We can see how in this story, Philip – who is a branch, connects another person to the vine growing the church.  By Philip being guided by the Holy Spirit, he blesses others through his fruit.

I wonder how your fruit helps the world have a taste of God’s love?

God’s peace to you and yours ~ Deacon Erin