Holy Asides
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March 11, 2016, 3:44 PM

Embracing Our Freedom

In the last blog, I wrote about our relationship with Jesus as a wilderness adventure with God. This is one of the ways to understand God’s glory and the freedom we have in Christ. Freedom in Christ is something that is very difficult for us. Partly because, when we become Christians, we are called to a new way of life. “Therefore, anyone in Christ is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.” II Cor. 5:17. We have been released from the bondage of living under a set of rules that were impossible to live fully into keeping. Unfortunately, our response to this freedom is often to create a whole new set of rules and laws. 

For the truth is, we are comfortable with rules and laws. This was the exact problem that Paul encountered with the Galatian church. After discovering the joy of becoming new creations in Christ, the Galatians soon found themselves under the influence of the Judaizers. This group purported that salvation came not through Jesus only, but also through the keeping of the Law of Moses and circumcision. In his letter to the church, Paul writes, “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Gal. 3:2b-3. Yet this is a struggle that continues to this day. We receive the Spirit of God through faith in Jesus. We understand that grace, eternal life, and freedom in Christ are unearned gifts from God. But then we set up “laws” in order to “earn” these gifts.  Some of these laws come from our family, some from our denomination, and some from our culture. 

Yesterday, I was wearing my cassock in the beer aisle at Kroger when a man asked me if I was allowed to be on that aisle. His question voiced the law, “Christians should not drink beer,” that has been created partly by churches and partly by culture. But concerning the law, Paul writes later in that same letter, “The entire law can be summed up in a single command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Gal. 5:14. Our dilemma really lies in the reality that “thou shalt not kill, lie, cheat, steal, etc.” is way clearer than “love your neighbor as yourself.” The problem lies in the truth that “loving your neighbor” is not easily quantifiable. How well are we loving? How are we fairing in this new life of freedom? We have no idea if we are truly living as a new creation. So, we create rules: do not drink, do not dance, go to church on Sundays, receive the Sacraments. We think that this marks us as “good Christians.” But, does this not just place us under a new type of law? Do we subconsciously think that we are somehow “earning” what has been freely given to us? 

The question becomes, how do we live a life of freedom that reflects who we are as sons and daughters of the living God? The answer again reflects that wilderness adventure in which we are embarking on a continuous journey of seeking the Spirit’s guidance and direction in our lives. Unlike a prisoner, who is told what they will eat, what they will wear, when they will work, and when they will sleep, we have options in all of these matters. This carries over into our spiritual lives as well. We pray when we are led to pray; we serve those God calls us to serve; we love those God puts into our path. We live a life where, moment by moment, we are able to seek the Spirit of God—to abide in Christ, who has promised to be with us all the days of our lives. This freedom, which is much harder to define and explain than the law, is where true life in Christ is found. Moreover, this is the message of God’s love that the world desperately needs to hear and to know. We have been set free in Jesus, simply because God loves us and longs to journey with us each and every day.

March 2, 2016, 12:00 AM

A Wilderness Adventure with God

As I stated in Sunday’s sermon, one of the important components of reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word is to write the Word. I regret that I have not been writing as much in this space over the past several months, but I hope to rectify that over these final weeks of Lent and carry on this discipline more consistently throughout the year.

One of my biggest struggles with writing is that my “blurb” blog thoughts often become much greater than I intended. This often prevents me from even beginning to write, because it becomes too overwhelming. The theme of our response to freedom in Christ and receiving the glory of God is a good example of this. What began as one idea, trickled to another, and then another until the idea was bigger than I originally intended. Therefore, rather than attempt to tackle the whole idea in one very long blog (or with a normal-sized, but poorly elucidated one), over the next few weeks I want to write about the aspects of our journey in Christ, and the freedom and glory that we are given.

As I was preparing for Lent: praying on the pre-Lenten clergy retreat, reading books, and studying passages of Scripture that we would encounter, I was struck by the patterned response that occurs when receiving God’s glory. When the Israelites received their freedom from oppression and slavery in Egypt, they were led through the Red Sea into the wilderness to make their way to the Promised Land, which the Lord had prepared for them. They had experienced a number of miracles. They had witnessed a myriad of plagues. They were released from centuries of bondage and slavery. They were rescued and their enemies were destroyed. They plundered the Egyptians and fled with wealth. In a powerful and glorious way they experienced God’s glory— yet all was not instantaneously perfect. 

Their experience of God’s glory and the freedom that came from being rescued from Pharaoh’s hand did not bring them to an immediate place of joy and bliss. Rather, they were invited to join God on a wilderness adventure with him. In order to come to the Land of Promise, Israel needed to journey with God and trust God would lead them.  God led them visibly in a cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. When there was no food in the wilderness, God fed them with manna from heaven. When there was no water, he gave them water from rocks. God made a covenant promise with Israel that if they kept the Law of the 10 Commandments, then he would never forsake them, and that he would be their God and they would be his people. Yet—many grumbled. They rejected the glory given them. They craved the foods of Egypt, many even longed to return to slavery rather than face this wilderness journey. They used the wealth that they plundered to make a Golden Calf to worship, instead of worshiping the living God. They refused to conquer the Land of Promise and instead of a brief wilderness journey, wandered as a nation for 40 years before finally coming into that land that God had provided for them.

In Jesus, we are given the fullness of the proper response to God’s glory. When Jesus was Baptized and received the Holy Spirit, he responded to this new freedom—this new glory of Godin a way that reflected and mirrored Israel. He ventured into a wilderness journey with God. The difference, of course, is that Jesus responded in perfect harmony with his Father in this journey. He resisted the temptations that he faced concerning food, wealth, identity, and purpose. He grew in his relationship with God and embraced his role as the Messiah, the Christ, the representative of Israel. From this moment, his whole life and ministry reflected walking in relationship with the Father and doing all that he saw the Father doing.

Somehow, there has been a disconnect in what it means to experience the perfect freedom of Christ and the glory of God in our world today. Rather than understanding that this is an opportunity to enter into a wilderness journey with God, we expect freedom in Christ to bring us financial freedom, freedom from all physical ailments, and freedom from the conflict of relationships with co-workers, friends, and family. However, this has never been the promise of God to us. Jesus promises to abide in us and we in him, to be present with us. But he never promised life would become easy. Rather, it was just the opposite; he says that all who wish to enter into the glory of being his disciples, should deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. This is an invitation to die, to be humiliated, to be scorned. Peter, James and John were called to go back down the mountain into the world after experiencing the Transfigured Christ. They were invited to walk alongside Jesus, as he demonstrated the example of living in perfect freedom and as he gave himself up to be crucified for the sins of the whole world. Thus, while we have now been set free from the bondage of sin—and showered with the grace of the living God—we are invited not to a life free from pain and strife, but rather into a relationship where we walk daily with a loving and caring God in an adventure of mercy, grace, joy, sorrow, faith and trust with him and with one another.

January 28, 2016, 2:08 PM

Sowing and Reaping

One of the many future book ideas I have rattling around in my head concerns passages of Scripture that include sayings of Jesus, which, in today’s culture, the Church needs to reexamine or reassess. I believe one such passage is appropriate for St. Joseph’s in the present time: “For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” John 4:37-38. These verses are often lost because they fall between the story of the Samaritan woman at the well leaving Jesus and her testimony to the Samaritan village. Here, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God and the bountiful harvest that exists. Jesus cautions his disciples to understand that while they will reap much of this harvest, they were not the sowers. The patriarchs, prophets, and the faithful before them were the sowers of the seed, which has yielded the harvest they will now reap.


This is an important message for the Church to take hold of and grasp. We are often results-oriented. We expect to reap immediately that which we have sown. We want growth, fruitful growth, at once. Yet, these words declare a two-fold message to the Church. One of encouragement, but also one of caution. Jesus declares, “The fields are ripe for the harvest.” John 4:35b There is a great harvest for the Church to reap in the world around us for the Kingdom of God. But we must be reminded that it is often because of those who have labored before us; those who have put in the effort and hard work; those who have sweated and sacrificed; those who have dug and tilled and fertilized. Their faithful effort has now, by God’s grace, borne a bountiful harvest. This is a glorious message. The flip-side of that message can be much more difficult to swallow. At times, our own hard work might be reaped by someone else. We can labor, we can sow, we can pray, and we can work diligently, all for the Lord’s purpose. But, it may be years before the reaping takes place, perhaps even in future generations. And depending upon your outlook, this can be of great discouragement or incredible freedom.


St. Joseph’s is a parish which understands this laborious and challenging process of sowing and reaping. The vision began with a church-plant attempt some thirty years ago. And while this vision did not succeed in the moment, the vision grew roots in the soil. Through much passion, persistence, and prayer, the faithful witnesses of God started this parish. Even then, it took years of hard work to become recognized as St. Joseph’s, an Episcopal parish in the Diocese of Atlanta. Generation upon generation will reap that which they did not sow, as they worship the living God at St. Joseph’s. 


So, as we move forward trying to discern our present mission and vision—we do so with that faithful witness as a reminder and guide. We are called to be faithful to God and God alone. Worldly success cannot be our guide. Immediate growth and reward cannot be the sole measure of what we do. For it may be months, it may be years, or we may be dead and buried before that which we sow is ready to be reaped. As a parish, we must constantly seek God’s guidance and direction for living in this Kingdom harvest. For some will sow and others reap… and those who are fortunate will get the opportunity to do both.

December 30, 2015, 12:00 AM

A Year in Review

As my second full year at St. Joseph’s is coming to an end, I'm reminded of the many blessings that I have received from this parish and the many blessings that God is doing through this parish. This is the time of year when everyone is doing a countdown of the past year’s highlights; a year in review, so to speak. With 2015 about to be in our rearview mirrors, and 2016 upon our horizon, let’s look at some of the events and ministries of this past year at St. Joseph’s. Our worship and parish life is always outstanding, so these events are more time-specific to this past year. 


10. New Directory—This may not be on everyone’s highlight list, but it is on mine. And while I think the directory looks good, it is still maybe not so much the directory itself, but “Finish Directory” being crossed off my “to-do list” that was a top-ten highlight.


9. Burning the Mortgage/ Jubilee— On the Feast of Pentecost, we burned the mortgage note for the parish and celebrated the 25th anniversary of the consecration of the church. The event was a glorious celebration of commitment and faithfulness.


8. The “New” Altar in the Pavilion—A gift from St. Luke’s in Fort Myers, FL, in memory of Joseph Gavin Simpson, this altar will both enhance our worship and encourage us to continue to regularly worship in the pavilion. The picnic services have been a glorious time of fellowship and celebration in the midst of God’s creation.


7. Landscaping and Lighting—The first phase of the landscaping project is a highlight unto itself. The church is no longer hidden, but is accentuated in its beauty, and at night the lighted cross shines brightly for all who pass by to see and notice.


6. The Youth— The twenty-one youth and leaders attending the Camp Mikell retreat with St. David’s, was my greatest highlight in experiencing the camaraderie and spiritual growth of the youth. But, I am also encouraged by their active participation in the Josiah Club lock-in, Fall Break VBS, and Christmas Pageant. This is a group who serves together, as well as has fun together.


5. The Music and Choir— Throughout the year, the music of St. Joseph’s has been great, but it has especially shined this fall. The monthly music series of concerts, worship, and special events has brought the parish together, outside of Sunday morning, for times of festivity, spirituality, and entertainment.  


4. Adult Christian Education— The number of people interested in attending, as well as teaching adult Sunday School, is very encouraging. We have had a great start this past fall, with a variety of topics: biblical, theological, and practical. I pray that this continues to build on Sunday mornings and carries over into the week.


3. The Healing Ministry— This year saw our first School of Healing Prayer class, the launch of monthly healing services, and the prayer chapel being available at all services. Much like the music ministries and Christian education ministries, I am hopeful that this year laid the foundation for a growing ministry in the future.


2. Friday Friends/ Partners in Education— The outreach that we are doing in the community and in the world has become very focused, which has led to a greater investment within the parish. This is seen through the alms, angel tree donations, Boscobel Primary School support, and the Friday Friends ministry. Moreover, this year we were recognized in the community for our commitment to outreach through our Partnership in Education award.


1. Exploring Who We Are/ Identity Statement— My greatest highlight was the way in which the vestry and parish collaborated throughout the year in examining our purpose, mission, vision, and identity. In so many places (churches, schools, businesses, etc.), there is a small minority who spend a couple of hours hammering out a statement or slogan. But St. Joseph’s took its time to talk, pray, and share with one another to describe who we are, and to dream about who we will become, if we continue to seek God and be partners in the Gospel with one another.  


I look forward to building on many of these highlights this coming year, especially the last one, which is a foundation for us achieving the Big Dream of St. Joseph’s becoming “the Church” (click here) that God has in store for us. Have a blessed New Year!!!

November 24, 2015, 1:12 PM

Who We Are

After months of prayer and discussion within Vestry meetings, conversations with parishioners,  parish events, and even a webinar, we have created the following identity statement for our parish:


St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church, a parish in the Diocese of Atlanta located in Henry County, is a community of grace: demonstrating the transforming power of Jesus Christ as we engage in joyful and meaningful worship; growing spiritually together through prayer, study and fellowship; and radiating God’s healing love to a broken world with compassion and outreach.


This identity statement reflects who we are at this present time, and directs us into fulfilling our purpose, vision, and mission. We are an Episcopal community. We put a high emphasis on worship, outreach and spiritual growth. We see the importance of fellowship and care with one another, while also recognizing our responsibility to engage with the world. I am thankful to the Vestry and all who have contributed to the crafting of this statement, but more importantly to this congregation for clearly reflecting who God has called St. Joseph’s to be.

Until recently, I had never heard of an identity statement. Mission statements, vision statements, and purpose statements are all normative in determining the direction of an organization. In fact, much of the Diocesan Council meeting revolved around adopting the Diocesan Purpose Statement. Knowing your identity helps you define your purpose, vision, or mission. This is important, because our identity is always changing. Indeed, the identity of the Church changes and shifts, which sometimes can create a crisis and conflict surrounding our purpose or mission.

One only has to look back a century to see the radical ways that the Church has lost part of its identity in our country. Nearly every hospital was run and operated by the Church, for most did not go to the hospital to get well, but to die without infecting others. The poor, sick, and outcast were cared for in hospitals run by the Church. Most orphanages and social assistance agencies were run by the Church. As the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, it was the Federal Council of Churches that appealed to President Roosevelt for the government to help assist in the efforts of caring for those suffering in extreme poverty. This, of course, became Social Security.  Over the years, government agencies, civil not-for-profit organizations, and other businesses have taken over many of the roles that the Church previously held. This is neither a judgment nor a critique; it is simply fact. But then the question must be asked, “What is the identity of the Church today? How do we continue to care for the poor, sick, broken, and outcast in the midst of these changes?”

This is where purpose and identity are interdependent. God meets us where we are, and God loves us as we are. At the same time, God always calls us to follow Him and become who we are intended to be. From Matthew 28, the Church is called to “Go into the world, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them all I have commanded you. And I [Jesus] will always be with you.” This is our simple, bare-bones purpose: go, disciple, teach, baptize, trust in the presence of Christ. How do we do those things today? Worship. Fellowship. Outreach. Healing. Sunday School. Friday Friends. Celebration. How we live into this purpose is our identity. And as we know who we are, we strive to become who God has called us to be as a community of grace.

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