Who said growing in grace was easy?

3108_1920x1080There has been a great number of people to pray for of late. Both people in my family and our family of faith faced serious hardship. Some dealt with a reality that so often comes with age – the deterioration of our mortal bodies, some even facing death. Farther afield, too many folks remained hungry, cities burned in upheaval, the earth shook, and war and terrorism was much of the news. Some reported the shrinking of Christianity while an RV on the road was covered with threats: “Repent! The end is near! Jesus is coming in judgment!”

Is this really the abundant life Christ promised us or our doom? Ponder Paul’s words: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:18-19). He’ll go on to say that like birth pangs presenting new life, the Kingdom of God is both here and on its way.

If we focus on our suffering – if it is all we meditate on and what shapes our decisions – then, no, we aren’t likely living the life Jesus intended nor experiencing the fullness of God’s grace. That false “reality” misshapes our lives. To Paul, Christ’s resurrection has changed our world and our lot. We shouldn’t trust gossip or the news. We can’t trust our senses. We need to trust in the promises of God alone. A new heaven and new earth are on their way – as certain as the fall harvest even though we might find ourselves presently under the most blistering sun.

Here and now, the seeds of God’s love are germinating and beginning to sprout, but the harvest day isn’t quite here. That’s right, we aren’t just waiting for heaven in some far off future, but we are surrounded by heaven breaking into a very real and difficult world. It’s being revealed in the signs of comfort offered us and sustaining grace experienced during trial. It proves manifest in new life – creation itself, the birth of new children or opportunities, but also in the transformed and still changing children of God. Peter agrees with Paul writing, “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

This true reality is rooted in faith and a certain hope that feeds the hungry, ministers to the sick and dying, welcomes the stranger, or can love in the face of death. I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking here but radically trusting in the power of God. While we wait, we choose to believe. We seek to trust and follow. We only try to act on the certainty of eternal love around us and in us – not the uncertainty of our passing, present experience. Our Triune God does the rest.

Amidst wars and rumors of war, Jesus will come again. He is coming here and now. Yet, that’s not a threat. It is a new reality that has the power to redirect and bless every minute of our lives.

I pray your summer prove a time of fun, refreshment and new growth.

Pastor Lou

This post originally appeared as a pastoral letter in Messiah Lutheran‘s newsletter, The Messenger (June 2015).

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

© 2015 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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We hasten in darkness…

As I think of and pray for the struggles in Baltimore, this simple chant from Taize’ presented itself once again. It provides shape for my deep, inexpressible cries.

I cry for those who mourn the death of Freddie Gray, for the police involved and those declared guilty by association, for those hurt by the riots and those hurt by historic, ongoing injustices, for all in Baltimore or places like Baltimore, for all the children of God who wound each other from their own woundedness out of ignorance or intentional malice.

Yes, we hasten in our darkness and amidst the darkness which surrounds us. We seek easy answers when love is never easy. The love of Christ calls us to love one another – even our enemy. We are to do good even to those who persecute us and always desire reconciliation. Is this possible? How shall we know if we don’t seek for it together?

People are thirsty for peace, all people. Yet for peace to happen, we need to first listen to God and one another even when difficult – without all the finger pointing and name calling; loving each other without preconditions even as we strive for justice. I have experienced such peace and witnessed such improbable miracles during and after my first sojourn with the Brothers of Taize’. It was a love that changed my life and called me out from isolation.

I learned peace is possible even now – an inner peace as well as with one’s enemy, a peace not of this world and yet within our reach. It begins with our humble and contrite heart, one we dare open to others who might reject us. Christ, too, was rejected, and yet he chose to love us to the end.

Let us search for this peace together no matter how hidden or distant it seems. We should not give up in our thirst, but instead be led onward. The darkness need not crush us.

Choose to love to the end, for the light who is Christ will reveal himself in such love. We will be refreshed. We will find new life where there was none. We’ll discover that we need not walk alone and afraid. We never did.

Lyric translation of De noche iremos: By night we hasten in darkness to search for living water, only our thirst leads us onward, only our thirst leads us onward.

God of compassion, we give you thanks for Brother Roger’s life. In a world often torn apart by violence, through his life and those of his brothers he created a parable of communion. We give you thanks for his witness to the Risen Christ and for his faithfulness right up until death. Send your Holy Spirit upon us, that we may also be witnesses to reconciliation in our daily lives. Make of us builders of unity among Christians where they are separated, bearers of peace among people when they are opposed. Help us to live in solidarity with those who are poor, be they near or far away. With Brother Roger we would like to say: Happy those you abandon themselves to you, O God, with a trusting heart. You hold us in joy, simplicity, mercy.
(Prayer written by Brother Alois to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Brother Roger’s birth)

© 2015 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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A difficult way…but true

baltimore 2As I write this, Baltimore is in flames. Pundits are spouting off. Peace seems a mirage, very much out of reach. Yet the peace Christ officers us isn’t of this world. It is both available to us here and now but also on its way.

If we say we want peace and justice, I found through the years that it isn’t achieved by pointing fingers of protest or in harsh judgments. It begins with a searching, fearless and ongoing look at my life and how I contribute to the injustices around me. Then, I make amends where I can.

It requires listening to the voices, pain, and problems of those I disagree with or who might not wish to listen to me. It comes from loving your enemies, and doing the good to those who hate you.

This is all difficult, but I think it is the only way for real and lasting change – Christ’s way.

We don’t offer such a love based upon people deserving it. We love because Jesus loved us even when we were his enemy. It is a conscious, heart centered choice. We make this offering even though we might be rejected, made fun of or worse.

This doesn’t mean we become doormats, for even the first disciples needed to dust off their sandals and walk away at times. Yet we might at other times be called to a form of martyrdom, where our pride, prejudice and preference are surrendered to the will of God despite the cost.

Our relationship with Christ calls us into relationship with others, even our enemies. That has to be our intentional goal. We need to seek them out. Again like the early disciples, we might have to return multiple times to try just once more to offer our faith and friendship. The person we seek to love might never get it. They may never understand and remain suspicious of us. Yet, change is possible.

If nothing else, you’ll witness the peace of Christ breaking into your heart and your world in a new way. Christ promised this. And maybe…just maybe…one who was your enemy might become your brother and sister, an unexpected gift in your life and to the world.

This is a difficult way, but it is true. Let’s seek to walk this way together, no matter what others might choose.

Christ’s peace,
Pastor Lou

This post originally appeared as a pastoral letter in Messiah Lutheran‘s newsletter, The Messenger (May 2015).

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

© 2015 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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A Resurrected People

“I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” (Psalm 118:7)

Recently, I finally broke down and bought a smart phone. After eight years with my old phone, it was sadly necessary and overdue. One of its many features is the ability to play a musical alarm. Recalling my past joyful experiences with the Community of Taizé as well as the many prayers shared between All Souls Episcopal and Messiah Lutheran, I immediately thought to make a Taizé chant my alarm tone. Of all the many choices available, I selected Psalite Deo (Praise God), based on Psalm 118. [Listen below]

What a blessing it has proven to have my first conscious thoughts each day be of God’s love and the great things done and being done in my life. “This is the day the Lord has made” with all its opportunities. “Sing a new song to the Lord for all the wonders God has done.” It is another day for me to give thanks and praise with all the earth. “Sing out for joy!” No matter what happens in this day, “I shall not die but live!” “For God’s love endures forever.” “Alleluia! Alleluia!”

With such affirmations thrust upon my mind and heart, my day begins somehow differently than before. I recognize once again that God is always doing something new in my life. No matter the adversity laying before me in wait, I need not be afraid. It is truly time for me to awake from my slumber and witness to the new, joyful reality of the Risen Christ in my life.

In our Lenten class on grief, I mentioned that life can often seem like a number of “little deaths” with its many trials and losses. Yet as we might rightly grieve, we should never forget that through Jesus we have access to an abundant life. Our “little deaths” will be used by God to show love for us. Blessing will surely come, and so, we can live in hope. We are called as a resurrected people where we trust God is doing new and wonderful things in and through our lives. We need not get stuck in our doubts and darkness. We can instead embrace the resurrection dawning in our lives.

“In my distress, I called to the Lord. God heard my voice and set me free. God is my strength. God is my song.” How shall I proclaim this Good News? How can I not? It is humbling to think that our extraordinary God is breaking into our ordinary lives in such a joyful, intimate way.

Yes, we have access to God through the Risen Christ. The tomb is empty. Let us not linger there, but instead run and tell all we know through word and deed. Jesus is Risen! He is risen indeed! A new song and new life lie before us.

In thanksgiving, I want to live for him and those he entrusts to our care. I intend to lift my voice to the Lord for he is surely good, for his steadfast love endures forever (Psalm 118). I pray your life will join mine and the lives of all the saints in singing praises to God forever.

Happy and blessed Easter to you all!

Pastor Lou

Posted again (after an earlier, recent post on Psalm 118), here is Psalite Deo the Ecumenical Community of Taizé

This post originally appeared as a pastoral letter in Messiah Lutheran‘s newsletter, The Messenger (April 2015).

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

© 2015 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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In Christ’s Defeat, Our Victory: Meditation on Psalm 118

Psalm 118 is perhaps the consummate psalm for Palm Sunday and as we enter Holy Week. Throughout the Gospel According to Matthew, the gospel writer has lifted up how Jesus was the fulfillment of all God’s promises in the Jewish scriptures. For example within the text, Matthew recounts five major lessons of Jesus’ teachings; much as there are five Books of Moses. When Jesus delivers his first recorded teaching in Matthew, Jesus gives his commands called the Beatitudes from a mountaintop; much like Moses was given the Decalogue on a mountain. Fourteen prophesies are explicitly connected to the actions of Jesus; fourteen being the traditional number of generations between Abraham and the establishment of the Davidic Dynasty, fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to Jesus’ birth. It isn’t much different with Psalm 118. As with many, this psalm reflects aspects of the life and death of Jesus.

Psalm 118 is often recited as part of the Hallel, a Jewish prayer consisting of a verbatim recitation of Psalms 113 through 118. The Hallel is used for praise and thanksgiving on holidays such as the Passover, when the Jews recall the Angel of death passed over Jewish homes in Moses’ time leading to their freedom from Egyptian slavery. As Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, he deliberately enters “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This fulfills the apocalyptic prophesy of Zechariah 9 regarding the coming ruler of God’s people and the judgement of Israel’s enemies.

To an oppressed people under Rome’s authority, Jesus was considered by many a messianic figure in the political sense. They quote Psalm 118 (verses 25-26), “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Many likely expect Jesus to precipitate their freedom as Moses did long ago and reinitiate a Davidic kingship. In celebration, they will “Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar” – the way to the Temple where Jesus will come into his final conflict with his adversaries.

Yet, Jesus hasn’t come to be king in that sense. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.” (v. 8-9). Like the ritual sacrifices in the Temple, Jesus will become a bloody, final sacrifice for our sake. Throughout the week, Jesus will remain in conflict until he is finally betrayed. He will be surrounded by adversaries like bees, pushed hard, and find himself crowned with thorns (v. 12).  He will die on a cross like a rebel, falsely accused of proclaiming himself king. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” The Temple will be destroyed in 70 CE, but the church, Christ’s body, will rise in its stead.

Thanks to God’s steadfast love, we will never be rejected. Through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, we have access to our Father in Heaven and forgiveness for our rebellion in sin. With Jesus, our lips and hearts can pray with confidence, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” Through the events of this upcoming week, we become conquerors with Christ (see Romans 8). We can rightly sing a song of victory – the victory of Jesus for our sake.

Christ’s peace be with you as we enter Holy Week together, Pastor Lou

 

Please enjoy a musical meditation on Psalm 118 from the Ecumenical Community of Taizé

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

© 2015 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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Ash Wednesday – Not really cancelled, just different

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With regret, Messiah Lutheran Church and School‘s building will close at 6:00 pm tonight. There will be no Ash Wednesday service.

Reviewing several television and government weather forecasts as well as other public safety resources, it seems our region is expecting an inch or less of snow accumulation. Unfortunately, a number of these same resources suggest that it could come fast and with heavy “bursts” causing a quarter mile or less visibility in some areas. Wind gusts could reach 30 mph with temperatures dramatically falling into the single digits this evening. Wind chill is expected to be in the below zero range (-5). Melting prior to nightfall is expected to refreeze causing hazardous road conditions into tomorrow.

The snow is supposed to arrive in our region right as we would have gathered for worship (5:00 pm – 8:00 pm). As our membership comes from such a wide expanse of territory in our region, we are cancelling tonight’s service for safety reasons. Yet for those interested, we will offer the imposition of Ashes on the First Sunday of Lent, February 22 at both services.

In addition, it is important to understand that the imposition of ashes need not be done only in a church or by a pastor or priest. As our upcoming Wednesday night Lenten program, “The Priesthood of All Believers,” will help remind us, we are all called to ministry and every home is a little church. For those interested, there is a home liturgy available through the article, “Ashes on Ice: Celebrating Ash Wednesday at Home.”

The imposition of ashes on the forehead as a sign of repentance recalls the Jewish practice of wearing sackcloth (a coarse, black cloth made from goat’s hair), fasting, and sitting in ashes as a sign of mourning or repentance. Christians began to practice this ritual by the 10th Century AD. It became an official rite of the church by the 13th century. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Methodists, and other liturgical Protestants continue this tradition. The practice serves as a symbol of our mortality as well as the regret we share over our individual and collective sin. Imposing ashes in the sign of the cross, it serves to witness to others and remind ourselves that we are sinner-saints, people who struggle with sin but who also rely on God’s grace. It echoes the marking of a cross on our foreheads with anointing oil during our baptism.

In all the above traditions, a pastor, deacon or lay person can impose the ashes. Although ashes can be distributed “on the go” at any location, we prefer to gather corporately during public worship as a reminder of our interconnectedness in a fallen world.  We suffer from and contribute to individual and systemic sin. We live in hope with all the heavenly host and communion of saints.

Thus in the spirit of the prophet Joel’s admonition, we seek to live in a manner that reflects the short time we have to live out our baptismal call and share Christ’s love. We gather together in a spirit of repentance but also in hopeful expectation of Christ’s imminent return: Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. (Joel 2:1)

Life is too short, and Judgment Day will surely come for all. Yet as part of the communion of saints, trusting in Jesus, we are never alone. Even on that terrible day, forgiveness is ours. With confidence, we may await the day of Christ’s return.

While we wait, let us cooperate with the grace offered us to reform our lives. Let us struggle to love God and others all the more.

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

© 2015 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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Kayla Mueller: child of God, child of Love

kayla

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Kayla Mueller, an American hostage of ISIS, has been in the news a lot since her death was announced. Her Christian faith and love, inspirational to her friends and family over the years, is now being recognized by the wider world. In confirming her death Tuesday, the Mueller family quoted an earlier letter the young woman penned to her father on his birthday in 2011.

“I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you,” Kayla reflected. “I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

In her final letter, she wrote “If you could say I have ‘suffered’ at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness. I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else…. + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another…”

A friend, the Rev. Kathleen Day, recently commented, “They tried to silence her. They locked her up. They kept us silent out of fear. But now she is free. She said she found freedom even in captivity. Her light shines. And we thank you for shining your light, not on Kayla, but shine your light on the suffering that Kayla saw.”

As humans, our political solutions to the world’s problems may differ. People may disagree over faith issues. Yet, I think we all could learn something important from Kayla.

Our lives need to be shaped by the love of Christ, who humbled himself to serve us and set us free to love.

Certainly, God will present us with different calls and spiritual gifts. (Charisms some call this.) We will find Christ reaching out to each of us differently through ordinary people, places, situations, and for some perhaps a more direct, mystical call. It might prove hard to see the Christ in others, and at times, ourselves. Still, we are all created and called to share in the same purpose: making God’s love manifest in the world.

Most simply, we are asked to love God and one another.

Through our faith and baptism, Christ declares us the children of God; a God who is only love. Our acts of love – no mater how small – will never be wasted. We and the love we seek to share remain God’s own forever. It changes our world a relationship at a time. God intends to use us all – liberal, conservative or anywhere in between.

Listen for Christ’s call in your life at all times and in ever place. Seek him even in the utmost darkness when God seems most silent and far way. Don’t fear mistakes or rejection, but instead love with abandon. For, God’s kingdom will surely come. It is already at work through remarkable people like Kayla and like you, children of Love created and sent to this time and place.

Some might argue, “…but I’m no saint.” Yet before we ever recognized it, the Love which is God knew us. Jesus promises to be with us always. The Spirit is sent to sustain us. Wherever we find ourselves, it is the right time and place for us to make Christ’s love known throughout the world. For, deny it as we may, we who believe in Jesus are his saints in communion with the Heavenly Host and one another. We are never alone, and our lives prove part of a sacred plan bigger than ourselves. Miracles will happen (both large and small) when we only seek to love.

So, seek Jesus in your life as Kayla tried to do – in nature, love, suffering, whatever. Keep your heart and mind open, for God can meet you anywhere and at any time. Don’t be afraid. We won’t all be called to martyrdom. (Yet, if we ever are, Jesus will help us find freedom even then.) We only need start with our small piece of the world. Our context is our mission field. Our gifts are Christ’s own.

Just try to love those Christ has entrusted to your care or sends to intersect your life. Seek and serve Jesus in others. He is there. Don’t fear mistakes but please reflect upon your actions as honestly and gently as possible. Speak with trusted friends and spiritual advisers to help you discern your course. Listen to those who oppose you with patience and a desire to learn. Be open to repentance if you ever sense you are wrong.

As scripture attests, you were created to be a child of Love. Do your best to love. Then, trust Christ has done or will do the rest. He’ll lead all his children home.

Sources:
http://www.azcentral.com/…/kayla-mueller-portrait…/23218063/

http://www.nytimes.com/…/document-kayla-muellers-letter-fro…

http://www.azcentral.com/…/12news-parents-receive…/23165397/

Picture: A photo of Kayla Mueller previously volunteering as a relief worker in India found on AZCentral.com

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

© 2015 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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