Paradise Noticed

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Boomer is thankful to roll in whatever grass we have.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isa. 43:19)

I am trying to grow grass on the clay I call my front yard. It isn’t easy. In fact, it seems downright impossible! I’ve paid people to help. No luck. I’ve spent hours prepping and preening the ground. Nothing. It sometimes seems like my yard is a desert waste. Yet, lo and behold, quite unexpectedly, I witness life in my front yard bloom each spring: rabbits and colorful birds, butterflies and fireflies. Yes, even some green grass manages to grow for my pup, Boomer, to joyfully roll in. It may not look as I planned, but there is beauty there.

Often, how we look at the world needs to change. We can’t perceive God blessings because we are too busy focusing on our own work, expectations or fears. We blind ourselves to God’s goodness. What if we prayed with thanksgiving for what we already have? What if we looked for signs of life instead of counting the signs of death around us? What if we dared to believe that the Lord’s prayer is being fulfilled around us: that God’s name is being hallowed; that God’s will is being done; that our daily bread is being laid out before us and forgiveness is ours to accept; that God is leading us to a better future filled with blessing? This is exactly what Jesus told us is happening.

True, our current life isn’t perfect. We will stumble into brambles and be chocked by weeds at times. Yet, that’s no excuse to miss the beauty around us. Jesus is coming, and Eden will be restored. Jesus sends us signs of that hope to us each day for those with the eyes of faith to see. Even now, recognized or not, God is seeking to create new life out of desert and death.

Out of clay, God created the first humans with sacred breath. Through a small tribal people, God would introduce love to the ends of the earth. Through death on the cross, Christ’s body and blood would offer the world salvation. So, we in turn are asked to continue to expect the impossible. In the face of hunger, we are asked to feed others. Surrounded by poverty, we are asked to share what we have. Even in the deepest, darkest clay, we are to generously plant the seeds that God has given us – our time, treasure and talent – trusting God’s garden will grow.

Jeremiah once spoke for God about you saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). You were planted and born with a purpose. Open your eyes! Open your heart! Open your hands! Behold the glory of God at work in and through your life!

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (May 2016).

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

© 2016 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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Early mourning thoughts and prayers…

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Officer Guindon (center), Prince William County Police, died on her first shift during a domestic disturbance. She was shot and killed. Two other officer were injured.

I’m thinking a lot this morning about my first shift, my first arrest, and the many men and women who helped me have a great (if relatively short) law enforcement career. They actually helped me become who I am today, and so I always give God thanks for them and my experiences. It is why I volunteer as a police chaplain today – to try to give back.

And yet, I’m also recalling the joy my family felt having just seen me graduate from the police academy, and then on that same weekend, seeing their fear as I headed out to my first midnight shift. I also remember with love coworkers injured and killed as a result of their desire to serve others. Thus, Officer Guindon’s death is somehow personal to me, as with every law enforcement death. I can’t help it. I feel like a piece of me has died, although I know it doesn’t make much sense to many.

How many Officer Guindon’s are out there? How many such families sacrifice, live in fear, or are now grieving across our country? How must her Field Training Officer and fellow officers feel as this recruit died and as they try to make sense of it? They all need our active support and prayer.

And yet, I don’t know how to pray for this. She was on her first shift, and the hope of last Friday has turned into community shock and grief spreading across the Thin Blue Line. I remain at a loss for words, especially as law enforcement officers in our country continue to be so quickly and openly hated, condemned and needlessly die. And so, I find comfort in these words. “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:25-26).

To my brothers and sisters still fighting the fight, you are not alone. God has not forgotten you. God will make good come from this evil, although we do not yet know how. No life dedicated to the service and love of neighbor is a wasted one, no matter how short. I remain in communion with you, and you will all be with me at worship this morning in my heavy but hopeful heart.

The Rev. Louis Florio is a former member of the City of Alexandria Police Department and current volunteer law enforcement chaplain with Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia State Crime Clinic. He currently serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church and School, Mechanicsville, VA. This post may be shared freely with proper attribution.

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Hearts of Stone

heart of stone image.pixabay.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

One of the great promises of the Hebrew scriptures is that God intends to give us a new heart and spirit to replace our hearts of stone. This great work has been started through Christ’s resurrection, the Spirit at Pentecost, and the gift of faith. The process continues throughout our lives as we seek to follow Jesus and grow in intimacy with Christ and his church. It is supported through our shared life and blessed Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, means of grace.

Yet even with this great promise, we can take our eyes off the goal. We can become distracted by the world and our love can grow cold. We can ignore fertile soil and choose to hide in the weeds the world offers us – sometimes not even recognizing it. So as we began our Lent together, I challenged all of us to put our hearts into this season of renewal. I asked each of us to rededicate our bodies, minds and souls to Christ, and see what fruit of the Spirit grows.

Lent is meant to be a kind of springtime bringing new life and order to our lives. Yet in the end, we are all led to the wood of the cross and cold stone of the tomb. Jesus lost his life, his body cold and stiff, so that we might truly live and our hearts beat with his love. As unlikely as it might seem, we must go to the tomb to discover abundant life.

For there like a blooming seed, the power of the resurrection sprung from Christ’s own heart on a Sunday morn more than two thousand years ago. Its power still reaches out through the ages to each of us in love. It wants to take hold of our lives and transform them, but it won’t do so through violence. We need to die to ourselves and willfully surrender.

Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. Christ taught this. We are meant to stay connected to one another and to him. We are intended to help each other grow. Don’t cut yourself off. Come back if you have been away. Don’t let human faults or failing, yours or that of others, separate us. Don’t give into the darkness of sin and shame when the light of the Resurrection offers us forgiveness. (Reach out to others with that same light!) No matter your burden or business, cast all your cares upon Jesus for he cares for you (1Peter 5:7). Let nothing keep you away!

Then, leaving your old self in the tomb, go and follow Jesus. Be church with us and all the saints. As Martin Luther said, “Anyone who is to find Christ must first find the church… Now the church is not wood or stone, but the company of people who believe in Christ.”

The tomb is empty, and our hearts newly beat with expectation. It is Easter and time for us to leave the tomb of our past behind. Jesus isn’t there. He’s among the living. He wants you and I to join him there forever.

 

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (March 2016).

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

© 2016 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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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)

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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

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“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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