Walk in Hope

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)

long walk flikr

With each January, I’m usually contacted by several of our congregation’s youth and young adults as well as younger staff members at our school. They want me to write recommendations for college entrance or a new job. Almost always, the person making this request is humbled by the choices before them. They fear rejection or failure. At the same time, they feel dwarfed by the opportunities looming before them. Could their dreams be realized? They are almost afraid to find out!

Certainly, we aren’t always successful in our plans, but perhaps we should not get stuck in despair. Look instead toward God’s plans for us and be comforted. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God tells us, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). God seeks to be in communion with our hearts. Jesus came to rescue not condemn. The Spirit is our gift to console and guide us. With such company, need we become paralyzed in fear?

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, reminds us, “Prayer is to say to Jesus, ‘Tell me what you want. May your will be done.’ Then, unexpectedly, Jesus says to us, ‘Tell me what you want.’ ‘Whatever you ask in my name, I will do…. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it’ (John 14:13, 14).” Peter begs us, “Cast all your cares on Jesus, for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Paul reminds us, “All things work for the good of those that love the Lord” (Romans 8:28).

Fear is very human, but Jesus wants to walk with us through our fear to the place God needs us to be. God’s plans may not prove our own. If we seek to listen to Jesus and follow, even if we mishear him a wee bit or a lot, it is he who will lead us to that place. That’s his promise to all God’s children, yes, even you.

The future is like a cloud to us, but then is it really just a coincidence that God so often is heard speaking from clouds in scripture? I don’t think so. We only have one way to go – forward. We can only navigate properly by following the Christ who loves us…into the gray…into sickness…into failure…into joblessness…even into the valley of death…

Yet through faith, we know any sadness need not last. Grace, forgiveness, healing and a peace beyond understanding awaits us. You see, God is already in our future awaiting us with open arms wherever and whatever that future may be. There’s nothing really to fear. God’s ready and willing to welcome us home. Like the paralytic healed in Capernaum, we really just need to pick up our mat and walk. We are forgiven. We are healed. We are free.

I pray that your Lenten walk be one centered on Jesus and the abundant hope he has in store for you.

Pastor Lou

 

References:

Vanier, J. (u.d.). What is prayer? As posted at Pallotinesisters.org

Voegtli, R. (30 Oct. 2010) Photo: “Long walk”used with permission. The photographer retains all rights to its use. 

Scripture quotations my translation, other than in Jean Vanier’s quote.

© 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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Great things can come from little ones (Advent Week 2)

advent 2.bethlehem“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Micah 5:2

Bethlehem means “house of bread” in Hebrew. It was first occupied by the Canaanites for farming as early as 1350-1300 BC, the earliest known written reference. Overshadowed by Jerusalem only 10 km away, this small, out of the way village – often known for nothing more than its anonymous farmers and shepherds – would play a major part in Jewish history.

Rachel, the favored wife of the patriarch Jacob (also known as Israel) and mother of Joseph, died there. Joseph would be sold into slavery by his eleven jealous brothers while herding sheep on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Guided by God, Joseph would end up saving Egypt and his family from starvation during a time of famine. His ability to interpret dreams would convince the Pharaoh to store grain for the dark days ahead. After subsequent enslavement in Egypt and forty years of desert wondering sustained by manna, the brothers’ descendants would return as one people, the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Later, Naomi and her gentile daughter-in-law, Ruth, would return to Bethlehem after the death of Naomi’s husband and sons. It was Naomi’s ancestral home and former village. If nothing else, they hoped to survive by gleaning, collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields as allowed by Mosaic Law to show mercy toward the poor. Ruth will meet Boaz amidst the grain fields and a relationship will be forged one night on the threshing room floor. Where there had seemed no hope, love and new life would come.

Their descendants would include a simple shepherd boy, David, who would become a great king. According to Matthew 2 and Luke 2, Bethlehem would eventually become the birthplace of Jesus, descendant of David, Son of God, the Bread of Life.

Bread was the basic food for all Israelites, rich or poor. Thus, it came to be a common metaphor for life and abundance. In the Temple, bread would be used as part of a symbolic offering to God. It wasn’t meant to be a food to God, but it was there as a sign of thanksgiving for the provision of the people with their daily bread. In homes, breaking bread became a sign of hospitality. Bread is not really extraordinary. It’s the ordinary stuff of daily life, and yet it proves also the stuff of miracles. For God is active in the ordinary, blessing us right down to the provision of our homes, clothing and food.

Much as bread and grain woven throughout the Bible, so was Bethlehem. Unremarkable in and of itself, Bethlehem and its ordinary people would become part of an extraordinary story. It’s the story of salvation which ultimately came to a climax through the life of a small and seemingly ordinary baby.

Our congregation might be small. Our lives might prove ordinary. Yet God is here – active amidst the ordinary, making us sacred, opening a way forward to new life. Here, we share in the joys and struggles of life together. Here, hopelessness is transformed into hope. Here, we are being made part of God’s story, one God is still telling. A happy, miraculous ending lies before us.

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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What do you expect? (Advent, Week 1)

advent 1.expectation

As we enter this busy season of Advent, we seek to dig deeper into scripture, practice spiritual disciplines, and prepare in many practical ways for Christmas to come, but do we really hear the promises of God amidst our hurry?

As human beings, we find ourselves too often really human doers. The scriptural mandate to “be still and know that I am God” probably is far from our reality. With the stress we face and time crunching around us, we probably aren’t so keen on listening to or looking for God. Life can wear us down, and instead of joy, we tend to find it difficult to believe that the ancient promises of God can leap off dusty pages of the Bible and into our busy, modern lives. We tend to expect too little from this season and from our God who loves us.

“Expect nothing and you will never be disappointed.” “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” “Expect the worst and hope for the best.” If you look up this week’s Advent theme, expectation, on the internet, that’s the kind of worldly wise statements that you’ll find. Yet as Christians, expectation really proves the breeding ground for miracles.

For long ago, a prophet foretold that a virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son. He would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Prophesy also promised that the babe would be born in Bethlehem, although it was a small and dusty town on the outskirts of civilized Jewish society. He would be a descendant of a remarkably surprising collection of people: Jews and gentiles, kings and paupers, untrustworthy shepherds and even a prostitute. He came to share our life and lose his for our sake. He would prove to be God with Us, Emmanuel.

Although this all was promised, few could say anyone really expected it to happen as it did. In fact when it finally came to pass, the story starts quite simply, “[Joseph] went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” What a child he would prove to be!

Much like those who first heard the message of the angels and encountered Jesus in the manger, please slow down. Redirect your attention to what God is doing in our world and your life. Ponder the great purpose of Christ’s coming. Don’t let this season pass without its good news touching your life. Advent invites us to expect the impossible. Jesus, who came as a baby, God in the flesh, came for you and for me. He came that we may have life and have it abundantly.

Trusting in Jesus, seek first to know what he expects from you and your life. Expect nothing less than a future full of hope and life without end. Amen.

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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The Christmas rush isn’t all bad

race_of_the_santas_breckenridge_1

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,” so the song goes. Unfortunately, our Advent and Christmas can seem anything but calm. As I write this, it is mid-November, and yet, our congregation’s planning teams have already been working on our Christmas together for weeks. Christmas music has started to play in stores and in some cases on the radio. One of my neighbors has already set up their Christmas tree even though Advent doesn’t begin for almost two weeks!

Our society seems impatient to experience Christmas joy and peace. Perhaps this is because there is too little joy and peace in our world. At this time of year, it gets busier at our congregation and busier in our homes. Light dims and darkness grows. Unexpected bills happen. Sickness and death comes. After Paris, Beirut, Kenya, and on and on, terrorism and war frighten us. We hope for an ideal Christmas because our lives in a fallen world are always less than perfect. Too little is calm, and our future may seem dark to us. We often hunger for a reprieve from our pain and busy, unpredictable life.

Jesus came into a time of trouble not so unlike our own. People were lucky to reach their teens. Thirty was considered old. Israel was an occupied country with isolated rebels and thieves (especially in Judea) seeking to defeat the Roman Empire and perhaps get a little economic advantage and power for themselves at the same time. For their part, the Romans wished to assert their power at all costs. Their vassal king, Herod the Great, was known to be tyrannical if not a bit mentally unstable. It would be he who ordered all babies and toddlers in Bethlehem murdered over fear that the recently born Jesus would usurp his throne. Life was hard and often unfair.

Despite these threats, Jesus came as a most vulnerable babe. He was a child of scandal, for his neighbors had heard of Mary’s pregnancy prior to her marriage with Joseph. Many in that day were poor like Jesus’ own family, and they often lived and died by the discretion and generosity of others with higher stature. Jesus didn’t come into the world to avoid our pain. Instead, he embraced and crushed it forever. As one liturgical communion prayer reminds us, “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory.”

Most certainly, we can be encouraged that Jesus shared in our weakness and sorrows in order to share with us his victory over sin, suffering, death and the Devil. Against all odds, peace forcefully broke into our world to live among us and die among us through Jesus. For a moment, all was calm and all was bright because God was finally with us in the flesh. It was time for all creation to pause, worship and give thanks.

A mere 33 years later, all too soon, Jesus died, rose and ascended into heaven. We were warned life would not be easy in his absence, but it wouldn’t remain hard for ever. Similar to our wait for Christmas morning, creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” It might prove a bumpy, fearful ride at times until then, but there can be joy on our journey. For Christmas day has come, and Easter is on its way. And all the while, we’re not alone. We are the church together: enlivened by God’s Spirit, sharing both our pain and joys with one another; offering pardon to those still in darkness. We are rushing not toward our death but toward a certain future filled with hope.

With all the saints before us, we can pray with confidence as we face any darkness, “Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come.” We don’t know the time, but we can trust Christ is already on his way. And when he comes, all will be calm and bright forevermore. For this time, Christ will be here to stay, and despite whatever might go on around us until then, I for one can’t wait. If that’s our future, let time fly.

 

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (December 2015 – January 2016).

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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Hanging Around With God

amy

Amy Delph of Messiah Lutheran goes Over the Edge for Special Olympics Virginia.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. (Psalm 91)

 

As our Virginia Synod team, “Fools for Christ,” prepared to rappel down 25 stories as part of Over the Edge for Special Olympics Virginia, there was indeed noticeable anxiety. One heard some nervous gallows humor about last words and breaking ropes. People pointed to those they blamed for getting them into this mess. Some people ascended to the roof top only to think better of it when looking at the edge separating them from the cold, hard ground below.

It isn’t unusual or foolish to feel fear at such moments, as fear is ultimately a God-given survival mechanism. Yet, some overcame their fear trusting in a greater purpose. Even for those who turned back, there was no shame. They had made the attempt. We all recognized our fear and vulnerability, and it created a comradery on that roof top; a sense of community. People sought to support each other with their prayers and kind words of encouragement in success or defeat – much like any church should do.

Yet for those of us who believe, it struck me that there was even greater comfort to be found. The certainty of God’s promises. When Jesus faced temptation on the pinnacle of the Temple, he thought of such comfort too.[i] He quoted Psalm 91 in the face of the Devil. It was the words he clung to for encouragement and safety.

Jesus understood his Father in Heaven and the heavenly host remained on guard. He could trust God as his dwelling place, and nothing could truly harm him. No fear need stop him from his mission. It is the same with our lives as we face whatever highs or lows, blessings or curses that might come. God is with us. God intends to protect those who love him and know his name. These are God’s promises, “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation” (emphases added). We can go over the edge into our future with confidence.

Yes, fortunately for us, God never lies. We need not let fear dictate our choices or behaviors. Failure need not define us. We are the beloved children of God together. Whether barely making it on a wing and a prayer, finding ourselves out on a limb, or hanging by a thread (or perhaps even a rope 400 feet above Cary Street), we are not alone for we have one another to turn to. Perhaps better still, God and the Heavenly Host is not only ready to catch us if we fall but has plans to lift us up to new life no matter what happens.

This month, we can rightly give thanks to God even if we feel at the end of our rope. God is with us, and God will never let us go.

[i] Matthew 4

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (November 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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Gentle Living

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:1-3)

By now, word is spreading that there are some big changes going on at Messiah, and change is never easy for anyone. Our new worship time was generated by multiple requests to our worship team by lay members. Your elected leaders took this forwarded request (as with all inquiries by members) very seriously. They offered a survey to try to better discern preferences and insights, but they also have been reading and discussing articles, studies and books on congregational life, growth, and attendance patterns. They have considered historic practices at Messiah and the current practices of other congregations. They wrestled with the lack and inconsistencies of our financial and volunteer resources. They have attended retreats and workshops on stewardship and mission to help serve God, the church, and you better. I thank them for their service.

Your council made such efforts as much of the literature and research indicates that leading by seeking consensus alone tends to kill churches. Such church polity has been shown to promote both stagnation and discord. It can easily pit brothers and sisters against one another through lobbying, alliances and simple votes – breaking apart congregations as people take sides; resulting in support of what’s popular and not necessarily God’s call or what’s prudent. Governing the church by consensus isn’t biblical in and of itself. Yes, your council needs to consider the desires, expressed needs, and possible reactions of others out of love, but the church has always called leaders forward to use their God given gifts and seek the will of the Spirit all the more.

As promised when this process started, I said I would agree to whatever was deemed best for the health of the church. I did not vote on this matter, and I tried to play a Devil’s Advocate to all views. In the end, your elected leadership unanimously made their decision fully knowing not everyone would likely be happy or accommodated. They hope to promote health and stability in our shared mission.

No matter how you feel about this decision, I encourage all of us to remember our ultimate strength is found in loving God and one another even amidst differences. We won’t always agree as Christians. None of us always make the right or best decisions as human beings. Yet promoting unity and peace while continually seeking God’s guidance is always our best way forward.

I encourage all of us not only to give this effort a chance, but also to voice your questions, concerns or alternative ideas gently and in love to your council. If you feel called to do so, run for council or participate in ministry teams. I ask that you pray for patience, guidance and wisdom – for your own, but also for mine, the council’s, and the church’s benefit. Pray especially for those you feel are “enemies” or are failing you at any level.

The survey made clear that we are a very eclectic group with extremely varied needs and preferences. Worship styles, attendance patterns, giving and volunteering are dramatically changing across denominations. No congregation can ever meet all your needs any more than you can meet all of any congregation’s needs. Yet, we always need God and one another. The Spirit works in community despite our human frailty and sin. Community is the vehicle Christ has chosen to move his mission forward – asking for faith, hope and love rather than our perfection.

Christ’s peace be with you,
Pastor Lou

This post originally appeared as a pastoral letter in Messiah Lutheran‘s newsletter, The Messenger (September 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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No Human is a Pig

fergusonThese images from a recent Daily Mail article reminded me of something Br. Roger of Taize’ once shared while I was a volunteer with his community in France.

When the community was forming, a group of French communists in a nearby village wanted to protest the injustice and riches of Christianity. So, they killed a pig on some church steps one Good Friday. The pig was supposed to be Jesus.

Now, no police officer is Jesus per se, but it strikes me that systemic injustices (no matter how true or not) can’t be addressed by effigies reflecting personal agendas, ignorance, anger or hate. In doing so, we tend to objectify and dehumanize our “enemy”, which makes it harder to recognize any of our own wrongs. We also tend to promote conflict rather than justice and peace. A poet in the 1960s (Ginsberg?) said something like this: “If you call a person a pig enough, they’ll surely become one.”

Like Br. Roger, I’ll strive not to waste time with anger in response. I’ll seek all the more for reconciliation, justice and peace. I will pray for all in Ferguson and our nation, even those who might wish to be my enemy, for I think we all know not what we do when it comes to our current racial divide. I’ll take stock of my behaviors and try to repent where I can identify any of my wrongs. To be sure, there’s enough sin and stupidity to go around, because we all are human.

Perhaps instead of angrily talking, tweeting, posting and pointing fingers, we should try to listen better to one another and learn. Perhaps we should try to seek and recognize the love of God which is planted like a seed within each of us. We are all part of the problem, and we all have a lot to learn from one another.

Entering relationship with one another – as difficult as it might sound – is the way forward. I have seen its power at work through Taize’ prayers and gatherings time and again. Relationship is how Jesus often changes our lives and our lot. It is harder to hate our neighbor when we get to know them, but to do so, requires we put our anger, agendas and arrogance aside. We have to be willing to reflect upon and admit our own sin.

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.” Proverbs 18:2

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Read Matthew 5:43-48

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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