The truth can hurt

When the ways of people please the Lord,
    he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them. – Proverbs 16:7

Try to critique Israel and/or Hamas about the violence in Gaza and this tends to happen…

For those of us not directly in the conflict:

If we truly want peace, we need to start learning how to humbly speak with and listen to each other about the multi-layered costs and causes of war and violence. We need to love our enemy enough to listen to their hopes and fears while seeking to protect and speak for all victims of violence – not just those who reflect the more popular cause of the day.

Instead, we tend to settle for half-truths about the situation presented through emotionally manipulating, agenda driven pictures, memes and reporting. We have educated, peace proclaiming people that present themselves as fair minded but won’t even try to listen to the points made by those on the other side of an issue. It apparently proves easier to dehumanize and condemn others as “enemy.”  We see people in the West calling for peace while throwing stones (or worse).

If simplistically declaring fault only on one side in a conflict with many to blame throughout history and violations on both sides, we are at risk of unfairly choosing a side while representing ourselves as an impartial judge. We can make the opposition feel even more trapped and thus more aggressive. We can miss opportunities for outreach and peace overtures. Even if we feel violence is necessary or one party more responsible than another for the current state of affairs, making broad, one-sided assertions is a mistake. War is always more complicated than that.

Many choices we make can inhibit prayerful, productive discernment. Having only like-minded friends isn’t a sign of intellectual honesty or broad thinking. Reading only sources you tend to agree with tends to lead to warped thinking. Cutting off from those who disagree with us is to be left for the most toxic of circumstances, not our first recourse. Attacking the messengers who challenge our beliefs or seek to call us to account is wrong. It should instead lead us to introspection and honest discussion. Are they right? Could we do better? Is there another way? If they are wrong, we can perhaps point them toward a greater understanding.

In such a society, this tendency to humiliate and defeat our adversaries (often while anonymous) facilitates more fear and violence. It smothers honest discussion and important questions. It promotes closed mindedness. It limits new understandings and possibilities. It helps lead to more injury and war. This will never be a road to reconciliation, justice and peace.

These are not enlightened, loving behaviors. It is sin.

“But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’”

Its past time for repentance. It is time to grow up and admit that loving our enemy is always hard, but it is always what we need to strive to do. It is time to listen and not just shout. It is time to honor our God by loving our neighbor, even those we disagree with.

Someone may always choose us as their enemy or resist reconciliation. We are powerless over that, but we don’t have fall into their trap. Jesus has shown us a better way.

 

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Life Work

National Law Enforcement MemorialMany social scientists call the work of emergency responders and others in the medical field “death work.” This applies to the law enforcement community for many reasons. We certainly deal with a great deal of violence and death, but we also face it head on.

As the recent Law Enforcement Memorial Day reminds us, some within our calling will pay the ultimate price. Indeed, I never really stop thinking about my three coworkers[1] that died over the six years I was a police officer. They and other heroes who I never had the honor to know have somehow become a part of me.

Reflecting upon such loss, I believe the term “death work” proves quite the misnomer. For as the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial reminds us, “It is not how these officers died that made them heroes, it is how they lived.” Their legacy continues to challenge, inspire and shape our service to the community whether still active in law enforcement or retired from it. When I meet current law enforcement officers, I think of the important “life work” they do without often realizing it – whether finding a lost autistic child, helping a domestic violence victim, comforting those experiencing loss or without hope, or seeking justice in a world that is too often unfair.

I remember a police officer in the town I grew up in who planted positive seeds in my life (a somewhat delinquent one at the time) just through conversation and simple kindness. I recall the valor of those who so rightly earned awards for heroic deeds as well as the kindness of other officers done without fanfare as they provided diapers for young families without or shared their own lunch with the homeless. I have seen those arrested for acts that were quite inhumane yet who were treated with human dignity by the officers they claimed as enemies.

These kinds of experiences taught me that the vocation that is shared by law enforcement officers is a sacred one, a holy summons to nurture life and shed light in what can seem a dark world. The long shifts, the thankless tasks, the time away from family and friends are very real costs, but it isn’t without benefit or meaning. It is a death to oneself and one’s desires so that others might live. It is life giving work embodying the truth of Jesus’ words, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

Law enforcement is often a difficult life, but it is a life worth living and sharing with others.

 

[1] Two died in the line of duty and are listed at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. A third died from an unknown congenital heart condition at home following a foot pursuit earlier that evening. A fourth died years later from medical complications after being shot while apprehending robbery suspects.

Originally written for the newsletter of the Hanover County (VA) Sheriff’s Office. 

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation. This post was first published in The Messenger, the newsletter of Messiah Lutheran Church (June 2014). 

© 2014 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Living Hope

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s gracewith me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. (Philippians 1:6-7)

We members of Messiah often face some tough days. This past week, I have had conversations with brothers and sisters facing serious disease, family discord, financial difficulties, homelessness, and more. Institutionally, our old van broke down again at the cost of over $1000. For a small congregation, there is a lot going on here, and not all of it seems good.

Yet amidst all of this, we keep coming back and reaching outward. Why? We have been blessed to live an abundant life found in hope. This isn’t the hope of our secular world – as when we hope to win the lottery and magically have our financial (and other?) problems drift away. It is a hope found only in the reality of Pentecost.

The Spirit is moving in, around and through us. It offers us unexpected opportunities and roots us in Christ’s victory. There is an understanding and expectation that God is doing something here, and that although bad things will happen, God is always good. So although we might at times feel like we are in prison with Paul, we share similar hearts and expect the same wonderful destiny.

Rather than relying on any strategic planning and committees (although these can be helpful), we surrender to the Spirit. We are flexible because we know that we are reeds that God might allow to bend but not break (Isa. 42:3). We are courageous and generous in our love for our neighbor and one another because we believe God won’t allow us to be tempted beyond our abilities. Yet if it seems we are about to fail or give up, scripture goes on to say, it is God who will provide us a way out (1 Cor. 10:13). We are strong because despite any quirkiness, shortcomings or disagreements, our abilities or challenges, we strive to live out our baptismal covenant to love and forgive one another as Jesus loved us first (John 13:34). We don’t obsess about mistakes and program challenges, nor do we fret about political differences. We meet people and embrace them as they are (2 Tim. 2:23-26Rom. 12:9-21; Gal. 3:28). We can come to our assembly without makeup or dressed to the nines because we know we are welcomed, known, and loved here (Mark 9:36-37). I have witnessed how we live as family, brothers and sisters in Christ, and I and others are encouraged and inspired to believe in Christ all the more.

Yes, there are many larger, well healed congregations on our street and in our community doing wonderful things. (The Spirit is at work there too.) Yet, we pass those by to share in a call to this unique spiritual home called Messiah Lutheran. It is a place where both our needs and our talents fit into and find purpose. As brothers and sisters, we don’t give up or turn away when life gets hard. Instead, we dig in and get to work defending and confirming the Gospel. We hold on tight to one another and Christ to face our problems together and overcome. We do so trusting the Spirit is upon us.

Tough times will come and go, but the love we share – Christ’s love for us – will last forever. All things remain possible. All is and will be well.

Pastor Lou

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation. This post was first published in The Messenger, the newsletter of Messiah Lutheran Church (June 2014). 

© 2014 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Food for Thought

psalm34_8-taste-the-goodness-of-the-Lord“O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Psalm 34:8

Ironically a time commonly associated with fasting, Lent can prove a time of refreshment and renewal. Through intentionally refocusing our faith, seeking out spiritual disciplines, service, and yes, even simple food and fellowship together, we can grow as children of God and be used to build Christ’s church.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus first invites his followers, “Come and see.” To walk with him and share his life, that’s where we will come to know him – and perhaps ourselves and our purpose – all the more. Rooted in faith, we often grow by doing. When Jesus calls himself the living water or bread of life, you’ll also read that Jesus invites all to come to him, to taste and see, so that we will never hunger and thirst again.

Certainly, faith in Christ alone saves us, but his intention is for an active, communal faith that blesses us and others. It is a faith that calls us to assemble regularly to feast on his Word, share our gifts to honor God as well as for the good of others, and ultimately “remember” him and meet him; receiving his body and blood as a means of grace through his holy supper. This prepares and empowers us to go back out into the world, where we come to him in the lost, lonely, sick and dying. We become the vessels which carry his living water and bread of life, and yet, we often (if not always) find ourselves blessed more by such compassion than those we serve.

At home or away, we can always take private moments of prayer and meditation, but we are and remain the body of Christ. Jesus doesn’t want us to go through this life alone. Faith in Christ implies relationship with God, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and all our neighbors. For such love always feeds our lives, and Jesus seeks to love us always.

Yet, will we come to the feast being offered us? Do you feel you have been too busy laboring for your daily bread, running after things that don’t last, or beat up by the world, empty or alone? Perhaps you realize you haven’t loved Jesus as you should – that you are human? Well, don’t just sit there. I encourage you to come join your local family of faith. Come, taste and see. Rediscover the love that you were always meant to share.

Everyone is invited to eat, drink and be merry with Christ and his church this Lent, for “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (Psalm 34:22). That’s surely something to celebrate with our lives.

Peace,
Pastor Lou

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2014 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Biding Our Time Wisely

Rattlesnake_Mountain_as_seen_across_Chandler_Reach_vineyard_-_1Abide 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. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.  (John 15:4-5; emphasis mine)

In Virginia, we are surrounded by a number of vineyards and wineries. Over the years, I have visited many and learned of the great efforts and loving, intentional care needed to help the plants prove fruitful. It is no accident that in Jesus’ own day without our modern agricultural skills Jesus spoke about our faith life in terms of a vineyard. Many people would have been familiar with them and the intensive work and oversight associated with them. The image of vineyard was common to Old Testament writings signifying safety, abundance, the people of Israel, as well as God’s harvest. Thus, Jesus used that same imagery, and bread and wine would become part of the sacraments Jesus would leave us; means of God’s grace.

Yet in John 15, Christ’s believers are invited to become intimately part of the vineyard. He is the vine, and we are the branches. His word and the gift of faith have already made us worthy to reside there. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is reported to use the Greek word for abide. It signifies that we are to do more than just stay with him. “Abide” (meinate) in John is used over and over to imply much more. Life springs from, stems from, arises from this relationship; a relationship that begins to bear fruit as soon as we say, “We believe.” God dwells in us, and the love which is God wants to grow and expand to fully bless us and others with a love that overflows. It is an image of intimacy, relationship, and abundance.

We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This is most certainly true. Yet, for all those that grow tired from long hours at work, for those fatigued from dealing with strife or illness, for all those who hunger and thirst because of anything amiss in their life including sin, please remember the abundance Christ speaks of rarely if ever just grows on its own. Ultimately, it is a gift of the Spirit dwelling within our hearts, yet it helps for us to be intentional about our relationship with Jesus and his church. We must accept and cooperate with the grace offered us, for relationships deepen and mature over time shared with one another. So, all of us need to spend time together in worship, study, fellowship, and service. At home and work, we are richly blessed by caring for our own spiritual, emotional, and material needs, but even more blessed as we seek to care for and share faith with others.

These days, “Christian formation” is the phrase often bandied about for educational programs of the church. Like a potter with clay, God shapes our lives and future through such active, intentional times together. Perhaps it could rightly be called abiding in Jesus – a supernatural process of growth and new life rooted in Jesus while connecting us to one another. Yet such formation is ongoing. All we do and experience can become part of the process. Abiding in Jesus takes us out of the home, classroom, and sanctuary and boldly into the world!

Do you abide in Jesus? Does Jesus abide in you? If you have faith at any level, do not doubt that this is so. You are saved. Still, Jesus said he came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. Nurturing our faith and church, the days ahead might not necessarily be easy, but they can prove more fruitful – filled with Christ’s joy, peace and love.

Dare respond to his many invitations, and watch grace grow. “Abide in me. Follow me. Come, taste and see.”

Peace,
Pastor Lou

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2014 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Epiphany Blessing

 

3kings blessing

 

 

Epiphany, also historically known as “Little Christmas,” marks the end of Christmas celebrations in Western Christendom on January 6th. The arrival of the Magi is often remembered as part of these celebrations. Although scripture never numbers the gentile Magi who came to worship Jesus, a tradition developed that there were three; each one baring a special gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  They became popularly known as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar and are often artistically represented as being of different peoples and races, for Jesus came to offer salvation to all.

Over time, a popular custom began to bless one’s home on Epiphany with the words in Latin, Christus Mansionem Benedicat (May Christ bless this house). I surmise this was because of the biblical scene from Matthew 2: 1-12. (Jesus was no longer in the stable but described to be in a house with his own family when the Magi visit.) Yet, I have not confirmed the origin of this practice. The first letter from each word of this blessing corresponds to the traditional names given the Magi. Which came first – the blessing or the names – remains a mystery, but their development within popular culture is likely related.

As we move forward into a new year, I suggest use of a simple blessing ceremony I have adapted from the internet. You can further adapt it to meet your family’s needs:

Once gathered, all may make the Sign of the Cross.

Leader: Peace be to this house and to all who dwell here, in the name of the Lord.

All: Blessed be God forever.

Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

Using chalk, write on the outside of your house’s door or frame (alternatively, on a path or driveway, or above or next to an entrance):

+ 20 C M B 14 +

This stands for the first half of the current year written out, Christus Mansionem Benedicat (Christ bless this house), then the other half of the current year written out. Start and end with a cross.

Optionally, the entire phrase may be written out. Each marking or word could be written by a varied member of the household if desired. The leader can share a prayer of their own or simply ask God to bless your home as the markings are made.

When finished, all can join in a closing prayer – “Lord God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only begotten Son to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness and the keeping of your law. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our love for each other may go out to all. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

May a joyful and blessed Epiphany be yours!

Pastor Lou

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Filed under Christmas, Community Life, Epiphany, Liturgical Year, Uncategorized, worship

My Heart Remains in Wonder

stained glass nativity with sunOn coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)

Have you ever taken a good look around our sanctuary? Our stained glass windows are beautiful and educational. Long before the average person could read, people attempted to capture and share the wonder of God’s love for us through the art of stained glass.

At this time of year, my thoughts are always drawn to meditate upon the meaning behind our nativity window. It shows the star of Bethlehem shining above a manger. In the manger is the ancient “Chi Rho” symbol. This symbol is the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek joined together. Early Christians used this mark to represent Jesus. The window reminds us that Jesus, the Christ, came to us in human form at Christmas. Such news becomes even more wondrous when one considers that he comes to us throughout time. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end – present before history began and will be after it ends – because Jesus always was, is and will be our God who is with us and for us.

Luther once wrote that the Bible is like the manger where we can meet, know and worship Jesus the Christ over and over again. This, too, is true, but it also doesn’t quite capture this special relationship – the intimacy spoken of goes well beyond “knowing” Jesus with only our intellect. Our holy texts assure us that Jesus has come to live with us in our hearts. Jesus wants to abide in us. He longs to be an intimate part of every aspect of our lives. This joyful mystery cannot be captured fully in written word or by any other human art, yet my thoughts came back to an old 18th Century Danish hymn which focuses upon the joining of our human hearts with the divine heart though the incarnation and gift of faith. It is one of my favorite pieces of Christmas music.

BrorsonWritten by a Danish Lutheran pastor and later bishop, Hans Adolph Brorson, Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker (in English, sometimes entitled “My Heart Always Wanders” or “My Heart Remains in Wonder”) movingly grasps at the surprise and mystery of the incarnation. Soundly pietist,  the reflection remains more oriented toward his feelings and heart rather than any intellectual exploration. The lyrics reflect relationship and intimacy, as well as grace and gratitude. Contemplating this miracle, God coming to us as a vulnerable newborn in a stable, Brorson’s own mind and heart wanders and enters a blissful wonderment as he thinks about his current saving, relationship with Christ.

O come, my Lord, I pray Thee!
And be my honour’d guest,
I will in love array Thee
A home within my breast.
That home can be no stranger
You bought it all yourself.
Thou will surely stay here
Swaddled in my heart.

We will never be able to fully appreciate, capture, or understand the miracle of love offered to us through Jesus Christ. Yet because it is not just an historical event, each and every day we may strive to cooperate with grace and make room for the Christ child in our hearts above all other things. His birth should move us to reflect upon the ultimate, ongoing Christmas miracle which comes to us through Christian faith, worship, fellowship and service. Christ’s Spirit continues to shape us and sanctify us into the gift God first intended with our own creation. We become part of God’s greatest gift to the world, where in Jesus’ name, we will love others. Through grace, we concretely become the Christ’s body, here and now.

Throughout your holiday wanderings and celebrations, I pray that you, your family and friends stop and ponder the nativity. Continue to wonder about and experience this joyful mystery and invitation in your life. Rejoice, for a child has been born for us! His name is Jesus, and we will never be alone or unloved. In response, let us seek to rightly worship him, opening our hearts and offering all that we are to him in thanksgiving.

—————————–

Many variants of the song exist in English due to the difficulty of translation. Along with the above video, here are English lyrics for this wonderful Christmas song:

My Heart Remains in Wonder/My Heart Always Wanders

My heart remains in wonder (or better translation: My heart always wanders)
Before that lowly bed
Within the stable yonder
Where Christ, my Lord, was laid. (or: was born)
My faith finds there its treasure,
My soul its pure delight,
Its joy beyond all measure,
The Lord of Christmas night.

But Oh! my heart is riven
With grief and sore dismay
To see the Lord of heaven
Must rest on straw and hay,
That He whom angels offer
Their worship and acclaim
From sinful man must suffer
Such scorn, neglect and shame.

Why should not castles royal
Before Him open stand,
And kings, as servants loyal,
Obey His least command?
Why came He not in splendor
Arrayed in robes of light
And called the world to render
Its homage to His might?

The sparrow finds a gable
Where it may build its nest,
The oxen know a stable
For shelter, food and rest;
Must then my Lord and Savior
A homeless stranger be,
Denied the simplest favor
His lowly creatures see.

O come, my Lord, I pray Thee,
And be my honored guest.
I will in love array Thee
A home within my breast.
It cannot be a stranger
To Thee, who made it free.
Thou shalt find there a manger (or: Thou will surely stay there)
Warmed by my love to Thee.[i] (or: swaddled in my heart)

In English, it is difficult to find a flowing, direct translation of the traditional final stanza in Danish or Norwegian, but it means roughly:

I’ll willingly spread branches
Of palms around your bed.
For you and you alone
I will live and I will die.
Come, let my soul find bliss
In this moment of delight:
To see you born right here,
Deep inside my heart’s abyss. (or: loving heart)[ii]


[i] English version on Hymnary.org

[ii] Translation merging multiple sources, primarily the above video and pust.org

The above piece was adapted from one shared in Messiah’s newsletter, The Messenger, in November 2009. Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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