Relationships Over Rituals

From the Pastor’s Study - September 2019: Rev. C. Richards

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel - God reaching out to mankind

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel - God reaching out to mankind

The command be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He [God] is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him – for we can prevent Him, if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale ) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.

From C.S. Lewis’ course on daily faith for the everyday human – Mere Christianity

Have you ever invited someone to church?

When I invite someone to worship – what am I inviting them to? Because coming into worship without any knowledge of what is going on might be intimidating. And worse – Worship isn’t usually designed to teach us about what we are doing. Instead, worship is a time to be reminded of the truth of God and God’s promises. It is the time to be re-commissioned, to re-receive our marching orders. We are to go out and bring others into the presence of Jesus. God is looking to draw all of humanity into Christ and Christ into all of humanity who will allow him to save them. Inviting someone to church doesn’t really accomplish that goal at all. It just gets them to the building. But will they know what we are up to? Or is it easier to just invite someone to worship and hope it does the trick?

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Weekly, in the forgiveness of sins and the praise we give God for that forgiveness we wipe clean the slate. Next we hear the word of God and someone takes the time to bring that word to life in the context of our lives – preaching. Usually it is the pastor – but sometimes it is a volunteer or a lay person. Then after hearing how God and God’s word is alive now in our lives, with examples from the present – we pray for God’s people and for all people and the whole world. Finally, we receive the sacrament of the bread and wine – Jesus coming down and becoming (and re-becoming) a part of our physical body. We thank God for the gift and then go on our way back out into God’s world to share his abundant life with the world.

All the while our old self, the old selfish individual is being daily defeated by Christ, and the new self is being daily created by Christ, until one day we see God face to face and are just as C.S. Lewis described above – perfect. This is what we are caught up in. This is the goal. This is all of what Christianity is. We are being made into the image of Christ, perfected as our true selves, and in the midst of that, sent out into the world for the sake of Christ who desires to save all of us who will allow him in.

So – when we invite someone to join us in the faith journey – I wonder – would it be better to invite them to dinner? Better to invite them to join us for coffee, or come to a bible study, or maybe even go fishing or build something together? Faith can be, and ought to be, present in our friendships and daily life. If what God is working on is our awe-inspiring re-creation, don’t we want that for our friends too? Don’t get me wrong – its fine to invite a friend to Church – please do – but first, be a friend! Show them the ropes! Show them love and honest care – and then invite. We are forming relationships that will end in their perfection and abundant life! Isn’t that worth it?

Christ’s Peace to you! PrCR

Tiny Frog - Big God.

Tiny - not even ¾ of an inch long. 

Tiny - not even ¾ of an inch long. 

I came across a few thousand of these little guys the other day. 

It was 8 in the evening and the cool summer air smelled of cottonwood and tall grass. These little frogs must have just gotten their legs and come up out of a nearby marsh. I saw the one, and then, while picking it up, I discovered that there were hundreds nearby, and more along the way. Each one tiny and delicate. Each one new and amazing. 

In the modern age - it is easy to be lost in the size and complexity of information and life. Where before one could look up things in an atlas or encyclopedia and marvel at distant wonders, never quite immediate or real to our local lives, now, a live stream shows us exactly what is happening.  

Once we were islands, small communities separated from one another by distance and time, but now we are all connected in ways that we still don’t really understand. Video chatting and GPS, email and cell towers, communication and information flow rapidly with little to restrain it and often even less restraint.  

It is overwhelming to be one of 7 Billion, just one more small voice, one more tiny life, one more little frog that just got its legs.  

But as I have lived with scripture over the years, there is something about God that consistently doesn’t seem interested in the big numbers. God routinely talks with one person at a time in the biblical witness.  

Even though God is sustaining and still creating all of our universe - God relates to humanity through individuals in specific places and times. God maybe infinite in love and power, but God acts locally time and again. When the Israelites have a problem - Moses gets roped in, and Aaron eventually. When God’s chooses a people, Abraham and Sarah are on the hook. When Creation needs a reboot, its Noah and his family’s turn.  

And most critically - when God chooses to save all of humanity, it starts with one young girl, Mary, one man, Joseph, and God in the form of one son, Jesus.  

Jesus operates primarily through relationships as well. One baptism at a time, one holy supper, one sharing of the peace, one confession and forgiveness at a time.  

That little frog seemed so delicate and fragile. I was reminded of my own kids and my own feeling of insignificance in the face of the deep issues at work in our community and in our world. But God is not awed by the numbers. A billion voices can be heard all at once by God as one voice at a time. Even while sustaining all of creation, God has attention for the tiny frog.  

God has care and attention for the little child down the street or the worker in the back room. God has time and love for the tree swallow flying low over the lake and for the fisherman trolling by.  

God has time and attention, love and deep care for you. It is not lessened or diluted by numbers, or time, or distance, or space. Nothing can separate you from that love. It is for you. Jesus entire life and ministry, his death and resurrection, they are for you. And the Spirit that Jesus has sent to us, that binds us with our neighbors and prods us into action for the sake of the world - it is for you.  

Don’t get bogged down by the numbers, by the size or distance or time. God is present and available for you. Now. God’s listening, waiting, and loves you.  

PrCR

God of tiny frogs, beautiful sunsets, all of creation, and also, our hearts.

God of tiny frogs, beautiful sunsets, all of creation, and also, our hearts.

Cardinal Virtues

Fortitude:  Sculpture by Giuseppe Toretto - Photo by Wolfgang Moroder (from Wikipedia)

Fortitude: Sculpture by Giuseppe Toretto - Photo by Wolfgang Moroder (from Wikipedia)

Working through C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity once again, this time with bible study of millennial and gen-x women who are considering social media and the internet in the lives of young Christians, I was srtuck by his words on the cardinal virtues. These virtues have also taken on more central role in our discussion of modern Christian life than any of us expected. 

These “Heavenly Virtues” have been a part of the Christians tradition from the get go. They are Four classical virtues - Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, and their divine companions - Faith, Hope, and Love.  

Today, most Christians are aware of the tradition of the seven deadly sins ( pride, greed, lust, envy, wrath, gluttony, and sloth). I was mostly aware of them thanks to a few horror movies and a mystery novel series with titles of the same names, even after a 5-year seminary education.

But the tradition of the seven deadly sins is primarily from the early church and remained a useful teaching tool within the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. Of course, as is typically human, we remember our failures more easily than aim for our successes. 

These seven deadly sins are the direct correlatives the seven heavenly virtues. The virtues have a longer history. The first four, Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice, have been with us in that form since the time of Plato. The great classic writers and western culture at large throughout the Roman Empire, its prior Greek ancestry, and the following Middle Ages up through the present have accorded these four virtues a central place culturally and in the artistic imagination.   For Christians - to these four are added the three divine virtues - faith, hope, and love named by Paul in 1 Cor. 13.  

Each of these virtues is worth considering on its own. But you certainly don’t have time to read about all that. And I’m not prepared for a big ‘ol blog series unless its requested. So for the time being - a few thoughts on the four cardinal virtues. I’ll save the Divine ones for another time. 

Prudence: the modern translation here would be common sense. We bemoan the lack of it in our young people, and we critique our elders for too much common sense and caution. Prudence is walking that line of trust and caution - considering consequences and outcomes while also living in a way that is good to others and the world. I wonder what our lives might look like if we took a week to focus on this quality. Would we post online in the same way? Share the same pictures? Watch the same television shows? Prudence is the important ability to be in the world, but not OF the world.  

Fortitude: This is courage. But this courage is not simply the courage in the face of danger or fear, it is also the courage that faces one’s friends and family. It is the courage that faces the self with head held high. As Christians - we know that this courage is also a gift of the Spirit. Who could look into their own hearts without fear if it weren’t for the spirit’s encouragement, that shows us ourselves in the light of the one who loves us? We must remember that fortitude is contextual. C.S. Lewis (paraphrased) reminds us that for someone who is phobic of snakes, to pick one up to save another is akin to bravery on the battlefield. Or if one is unable to leave the house with crippling anxiety, coming to a godchild’s graduation is similarly courageous. This also applies to intervening in the lives of our peers and family when addiction, abuse, depression, and the like are poised to attack.  

Temperance by Giuseppe Torreto, photo by Wolfgang Moroder (from Wikipedia)  

Temperance by Giuseppe Torreto, photo by Wolfgang Moroder (from Wikipedia)  

Temperance: It seems like the modern life is most crucially lacking in this virtue. Temperance is knowing when to stop. I’m tempted to say, “All things in moderation” but its more than that. Temperance is  what is at work when we are with a friend who struggles with alcohol and we choose to refrain for their sake. It is the quality that reminds me that, at 39, I can’t just keep working and working on a project until in exhaustion its done, and then I’m no good for the rest of the week for all my other responsibilities. Temperance is the acknowledgment of our human limits and the restraint to consider them in the daily moments of our lives. Just one piece of cheesecake, and maybe less than 3 Netflix episodes...

 Justice : Justice is paid lip-service in our era, but more often than not, Justice is described as the appropriate punishment for actions taken. Justice though in its classic sense is much broader. Justice is fairness to all - the poor are provided for and rescued from systems of oppression, while the wealthy are responsible and contribute to the greater needs of society. Those with power wield it with care and are beholden to the same laws and considerations as those without it. All men and women stand on the same playing field before God and considerations for all are the boundaries of the field. 

One could do much worse than to spend some time considering these four virtues and our current lives. Is your life lacking in temperance? Has Prudence become your primary concern while justice has fallen to the wayside? What sorts of fortitude are necessary in your life - how might God provide you the necessary “nudge” to bring about the change that is necessary?  

I’ve begun using these virtues in conversation with my boys. I am hopeful to raise them into men of virtue in this life. But without having a clear goal to aim for - how can we measure our actions? And of course, we are human, imperfect, inconstant, fallen. Our best efforts will never draw us up to heaven or perfection. But the striving for virtue is absolutely worth the effort - and it might put you into the good company of the saints who have come before.  

Christ’s Peace - PrCR

From the Pastor’s Study - June 2019

PrCR on a Men’s Hiking Trip near Beaver Bay, MN

PrCR on a Men’s Hiking Trip near Beaver Bay, MN

From the Pastor’s Study is Rev. Richards’ monthly newsletter reflection. If you’d like to see this month’s messenger - click here


I look to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD. Psalm 121 

As I write this I’m preparing to get a sermon ready on the peace of Christ. As someone who lives with generalized anxiety – I have always felt a deep echo in my heart around the peace that our Lord offers. It’s an ironic echo though – as I rarely physically experience it.

Anxiety means that for me, my fight or flight response is on a hair trigger. It shoots me full of adrenaline and cortisone for almost not reason at all. Of course – its always been this way for me, so I don’t know what it would be like otherwise. But when Jesus talks about Peace – I long for it – physically, mentally, because it is rare.

But we should be clear here. When Jesus says Peace – we are all hearing something a little different. Aren’t we?

I’ve often heard from confirmation students and junior high kids that Heaven sounds really boring – because its all peace and joy and praising God. Peace to them sounds like not doing anything. On the other hand if I’m talking to a veteran, especially those who’ve done combat duty, a normal day around town is such a miracle of peace – with folks just driving to the post office, getting groceries – this is the home life they desperately longed for – and that they have often fought to restore in villages and cities torn by war.

For others – Peace is being free of the longings that addiction has left deep in the core of their minds, or Peace can be letting go of our need for control and all the things we do that give us the feeling of control.

When Jesus offers us Peace – it is a divine and holy gift – beyond our comprehension or measure. It could be all of the above – but aside from psychological or physical relief, there is something bigger at work here too. Jesus knows our human frame. He knows that we are always pursuing something. It might be progress or control, productivity or status, money, friends, isolation – you name it. We humans, although created to be in relationship and pursuit of God, instead are under the illusion that we can fill that void with something else. We think it is our responsibility to pursue whatever it is to fill our lives because we are convinced that it is our job to create / complete ourselves.

Birch and maple stand just south of Beaver Bay, MN

Birch and maple stand just south of Beaver Bay, MN

We desperately race after whatever it might be that will either distract us temporarily, or fulfill us for at least a little while. I’ll be happy when…if only I just had…but the truth is harder, and also more wonderful. God is in fact pursuing us. God is bringing us the gift of peace. Jesus is himself offering us the gift of peace. And while it may not give immediate relief in this life – it is the beginning of the solution, and it is its ultimate completion in the time to come.

God is welcoming in us into relationship – not because of our pursuit of God (although it doesn’t hurt) – but because of God’s love for us. God created us. We do not create ourselves. We aren’t able to improve and add on and succeed and work hard enough to become our own gods, fulfill our own voids. Rather, the one who made us is ready and offering to do so – and asks our trust, our hearts, our time, and our obedience. And we can imperfectly offer them, human as we are. God is completing us even now.

Peace - PrCR

Bluebird House Problems

By Rev. C. Richards

“In my Father’s house there are many rooms”    - Jesus (John 14)  

I built some “Peterson” Bluebird houses earlier this spring. Hung them up on some fence posts down the side of the yard. According to the interwebs, bluebirds like a field next to woods. This is a solid description of my yard - so I thought, “Lets make a birdhouse!”

Brief Confession, I know little to nothing about bluebirds. 

Bird House Exhibit A (After Modification)

Bird House Exhibit A (After Modification)

Now as is usually the case, nothing is ever that simple, or if it is, its only simple for other people. (Usually people who post things to the interwebs.) Regardless - I built two birdhouses and spaced them far enough apart to satisfy the requirements posted on the birdhouse instruction page. 

Fast forward four weeks - the birds are now returning. Almost all the bird species that local “birders” tell me are good to look for have now returned. I have not seen any bluebirds. I hear from a fellow who likes birds - bluebirds like suet, a kind of bird-food that I was unaware of. They also really like mealworms, a kind of bird-food that I now wish that I was unaware of. 

I hang a seed bird-feeder. I hang some suet feeders and put suet into them. I do nothing with mealworms except shiver when I see them.  

Now I watch the birds most mornings and some evenings. I notice so many more species with feeders out. I especially come to enjoy watching the swallows. They are magnificent fliers - speed demons and daredevils, creatures after my own too-fast and somewhat risk-taking heart.   

During this time I find myself proud of my birdhouse building success! The interwebs told me that swallows (which I have now learned are actually ‘Tree Swallows’ from a birder) will probably take over the birdhouse, and how dare they do so, as they are not nearly as desirable as a bluebird. I believe this when I read it because it sounds authoritative. 

I am proud of my houses because swallows have been landing on my birdhouses quite often. They perch at the entrance. But having followed the advice of the online gurus - I made the entrance hole small enough that only the elusive and wonderful bluebird will be able to enter and the ‘Tree Swallows’ will be barred from entrance. I am proud of my skill in building the proper birdhouse. 

So what does this have to do with God - pastoring - faith etc. ? 

Note the situation: I have built a birdhouse which no birds live in. There are birds who would like to live there. But they can’t get in. It isn’t really built for them. The birds that the houses were built for don’t want to live there or haven’t yet found the houses built for them. I am proud of a house that houses no-one, but properly rejects those that might actually have a use for it. 

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This is like the predicament of the post-modern church today. Our ancestors built houses of worship - many now sit empty. We do the same things we have done in the past because they are familiar. The meaning those things had for our grand-parents and great-grandparents is no longer immediately apparent to most of us. But we do those things anyway as they feel good and comforting and they are what the house is for.

Those practices also have the effect of keeping out those people who don’t know our traditions or customs, even if they are honestly looking for a house of worship, or a house where God lives.

And really, isn’t it easier if the people we see at the church are just the ones we usually see? It’s more comfortable. It doesn’t challenge us. We can feel good about our somewhat impractical and not quite understood worship service and house of worship, because it succeeds not as a house of worship, but as a home for the worshippers (who are decreasing) and at the same time it keeps out those for whom the house was not intended and protects us from having to explain ourselves.

I found out today from a friend that if the Tree Sparrows can’t get in to the bluebird house, it means I got the hole too small. He gave me proper information. Sparrows and Bluebirds are the same size. 

My pride evaporated. My houses were built for the idea of a bird, not actually for a bird that I hoped to see.  I was told that the bird was valuable. So I pursued it. But on my terms, and with bad information. 

We do the same thing at church, unintentionally. We want to welcome in our neighbors. Come to our house of Worship! It is very nice here. We have good food. We have many friends here. It has been a good home to us! And all of those things are absolutely true. But it is a home that was built for others, at another time, and in a different era and culture.  And, while we have made it our home, it isn’t really open to others, unless they already know the story, the rules, the patterns, and they look somewhat and speak somewhat like we do. We’ve built bluebirds houses with tiny doors, where there aren’t any bluebirds. We built them for bluebirds but we don’t actually know anything about them. 

This afternoon I walked down to the birdhouses with a portable jigsaw. I cut the holes oblong and larger to the right size. Now Tree Swallows can get in. Bluebirds too. Maybe someday a Bluebird family will move in. But until then, I’ve changed my expectation. I’m hoping some Tree Swallows move in. I really like them, even though they aren’t as “desirable” to the bird gurus. Besides, I don’t want to touch mealworms so I may never see a bluebird anyway. 

I wonder - how might we jigsaw open our expectations of church life? What if the house of worship was God’s house, not ours? What if our expectations of worship and ministry were current to our needs and the needs of our neighbors here and now? What if the people who were looking for God recognized our church as one of God’s houses? Not just another church? What if there are no bluebirds who ever move in, and instead it becomes a church filled undesirable birds? What a ruckus that would be:) 

Christ’s Peace -  

PrCR