By Rev. Sam Gutierrez
I have a friend who is a math tutor. She told me that when students throw up their arms in frustration and say things like, “I’m just not good at math,” it is most likely because they have important information missing in their math education—“gaps”. Math builds on itself and students with gaps in their understanding pass through the education system until the gaps are too big or too many and they get stuck. Frustration fills the gaps and spills over through tears and feelings of defeat.
As a pastor, I’m curious to learn how people grow and change—more specifically, how believers are shaped into the image of Christ. There are different ways to frame this conversation, but I invite you to consider the “math” of faith formation. Thankfully, today’s lesson only involves addition and subtraction (no fractions here).
Most likely, the only faith formation you’ve heard about is: addition.
Christian Reformed folks are good at addition. We have a long history of thorough and thoughtful theological education and grounded biblical preaching. We’ve encouraged our young people to participate in children’s ministries, youth groups, and other gatherings. We then guide our youth to continue their Christian education by attending Christian colleges and universities. We take seriously Paul’s admonishment to please God by “growing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:10). Most of us are good at addition – or at least, we understand it. No need for a tutor yet.
However, there’s another aspect of faith formation where we struggle: subtraction.
I suspect that for many church folks, subtraction is a significant “gap” in our learning. Subtraction is about surrender. Subtraction is about letting go. It’s about letting go of the need to be right, have answers, prove or justify yourself, or the need to be in control. Simply put, subtraction is about dying.
I still remember a chapel talk given by Dr. Syd Hielema years ago at Dordt College when I was a student there. Emphatically and gently he told a room full of young and optimistic students that the Holy Spirit is given to help us to die. At the time, I nodded my head in agreement, but I had no clue what he really meant.
Twenty-three years later, I’ve lived some life and I know what it means to cry myself to sleep, to struggle with depression, to lose hope, to make mistakes, to be filled with fear, to fail, and suffer. Because of this struggle and pain and the surrender that comes with it and from it, I have a better understanding of what Dr. Hielema was trying to say--faith formation is about subtraction too.
Spiritual subtraction is more about tears than it is about theology. Subtraction emphasizes surrender over sermons, grieving over giving, humility over hermeneutics, letting go over liturgy, dying over doctrine.
For many Christians, it’s hard to believe that we might grow equally by subtraction. However, we need both addition and subtraction in order to look more like Jesus. If we only focus on addition, our spiritual lives can start to look like an overstuffed closest packed full of helpful books, practices, insights, ideas, words, accountability groups, Bible studies, service projects, church services, conferences, adult education classes, websites, podcasts, curriculum, blogs and articles (like this one).
In a culture of overstuffed closets, garages and storage units, it’s hard to talk about letting go. It’s hard to talk about dying. It’s difficult to learn subtraction… but we must if we want to grow into the image of Christ.
by Rev. Sam Gutierrez
A number of years ago, I led a group of university students on a four hour walk. We spent weeks memorizing the Psalms of ascent (ancient Jewish pilgrimage songs) and then embarked on our own version of a pilgrimage to “Jerusalem”—a nearby medium-sized hill. We left early in the morning from the university and meandered our way through streets, old neighborhoods, new housing developments and poorly marked trails. As we walked, we talked. We got to know each other. I saw students who didn’t know each other walking side by side sharing stories and building relationships. We sat in parks to rest and we recited the Psalms we had memorized together.
Jesus also walked. Jesus never flew in a plane, rode on a train, drove a car or zipped through dusty streets on a moped or motorcycle. Chances are he never rode in a chariot either—he was too poor for that. Jesus walked. As Jesus walked, he taught, healed, blessed, prayed, challenged, called and formed disciples. Walking is the pace of discipleship. It’s the speed of faith formation. Anything else is just too fast. Human beings were made to walk. Walking is the rhythm of relationship.
I love Thanksgiving. I love the food, the flavors, the variety. But there’s another aspect of Thanksgiving that I like just as much as the feast—the after-dinner walk. This particular walk is mostly a necessity, the result of eating too much. But walking with those who have gathered around the table deepens relationships in a way that eating together does not. Walking is about going on a journey together even if it’s only around the block. It’s the shared journey that bonds. It’s walking shoulder to shoulder. It’s about facing the same direction with purpose.
I’m sensitive as I write this to those who can’t walk because of illness, disability, or age. If you can’t walk, do not be discouraged. Walking is not only physical, it’s also a feeling. It’s a posture. It’s a pace. It’s about slowing down and creating time to build relationship. It’s about breathing deep and paying attention to your surroundings. It’s about journeying alongside someone as they share their story. Thankfully, you don’t have to walk physically to embody the “spirit” of the walk.
I’m also sensitive to our current reality. Because of social distancing, for many of us walking is the only exercise we can do right now. Maybe for the season of Easter (the 50 days following Easter Sunday) we can engage in a “Jesus practice”--the practice of walking. While we walk, we can:
Friends, let me say it again—Jesus walked. What does this mean for faith formation? What if walking wasn’t simply a circumstance of the times that Jesus had to endure, but a way of discipleship?
Jesus walked… maybe we should too?
Rev. Sam Gutierrez
Alleluia–Christ is risen! “Alleluia” is a common refrain during the Easter season. It means “Praise the Lord!” Easter is the second major feast day in the Christian liturgical calendar, followed by a fifty day season allowing us to explore the wonder, depth, and far-reaching implications of Easter morning.
There are many verses in the gospels that pertain to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. One of my favorites is John 20:7 (ESV) “…and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, was not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.” On that Sunday morning two thousand years ago, Jesus woke up from his death sleep. His eyes opened and he untwisted the funeral robes he was wrapped in. Next, he folded the cloth covering his face and placed it neatly on the ground. This simple and silent moment speaks loudly about God’s redemptive work. Death is defeated once and for all, but not with fireworks, bullhorns or flashy billboards. God’s defeat of death is marked by Jesus calmly and quietly folding up the death cloth.
Yet in that moment the world shifted on its axis. Nothing has ever been the same.
Easter is not only the defeat of death, but is also God’s stamp of approval on the Jesus way—the path of peace and nonviolence. God does not resort to redemptive violence; God saves the world through redemptive suffering—by taking the violence upon himself. This is why the first Christians were called followers of “the way.” This “way” is the way of love. The church is called to follow Jesus in his way of love and to join God in his work of healing and reconciliation—praying for and loving enemies rather than excluding them and exterminating them. The radical gospel movement is towards inclusion rather than exclusion, towards reconciliation rather than retribution.
This is why many of the lectionary passages during the Easter season are drawn from the book of Acts. Following the resurrection, the lectionary texts highlight how the good news of Easter works its way from the garden tomb into streets, cities and homes. The early church speaks and lives the message that death has been defeated, fear has been unmasked, and “the Jesus way” is the only way to bring healing to our world (and our hearts).
Easter is a feast day—I pray you were able to feast and to celebrate the risen Christ with your loved ones at home. But the season of Easter continues for the next fifty days—fifty days to pray, read, talk, eat, laugh, reflect and dive deep into the far-reaching implications of Easter morning. Take a moment to reflect on God’s quiet and calm defeat of death, when Jesus took off the cloth covering his face, folded it up, and placed it neatly to the side. Alleluia!
Rev. Sam Gutierrez
A few years ago, some friends and I toured the home of the multi-talented artist Prince. We waited outside patiently while a volunteer told us about the artist, his home/studio, and how he built it with the intent of opening it to the public after his death.
After passing through a door where Prince’s penetrating eyes were painted above the frame, we entered an open and light-filled space that was said to be the place where he felt most comfortable. On one side of the large space was his private eating area and on the second floor was a bird cage housing two white doves (Majesty and Divinity) whose quiet cries were spilling into the space below.
The tour guide asked us to observe a moment of silence and pay our respects to Prince, whose ashes were in a tiny purple box on a podium in the center of the room. I was surprised because although I had anticipated seeing lots of purple during my tour (I was not disappointed), I had not anticipated standing in the presence of Prince himself. As I stared down at the little purple box, a disturbing thought flooded my heart, “That’s how we all end up—as ashes in a box.”
Reflecting on my experience later that night, I had to be honest with myself about my own fear of dying. While I journaled, I uncovered an even deeper fear—my fear of being forgotten. Prince will be remembered for a long time. He had an impressive studio and home, starred in movies, and gave an iconic super bowl performance in addition to his countless records, accolades and awards. But what about me? What have I done? What will be left behind when I die? Will anyone remember me?
The sad truth is, in a short period of a few generations, almost everyone is forgotten. Maybe some of us keep detailed records of our family tree, but even then, all that might be left of a person’s entire lived existence are some pictures and a few scattered details. It’s enough to make a person fall into despair and wrestle with questions of legacy, meaning, and how to live a truly significant life.
As I thought about all of this, I remembered a story when a criminal hanging on a cross next to Jesus turned to Jesus and said “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) I had never given much thought to that criminal’s request, but now the Spirit was whispering in my heart, “That’s the key!”
If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that sometimes I am motivated by my fear of being forgotten. I am desperately attempting to create something that will last. But my anxiety settles when I remember that there is Someone who will remember me—someone who will remember my name and who I was. Someone who knows me and knows everything about me. Strangely, I have much in common with that thief hanging next to Jesus.
Lately, whenever I feel fear about my own mortality and my place in the history books, I pray the prayer of a criminal, “Jesus, remember me.” I can feel my fear start to diminish as the Spirit confirms deep down in my heart--Jesus will.
By Pastor Sam Gutierrez
As we grow into spiritual adulthood, we come to see more and more clearly that following Jesus will cost us something. It requires us to die to our selfishness. It requires us to lay down our wills. It requires us to abandon false pursuits. In other words, following Jesus means… we have to die.
Jesus teaches us to pick up our cross and follow him. Jesus never asks us to do something that he himself is not willing to do first. During Holy Week, we see Jesus struggle to lay down his life and trust in God’s provision, goodness, and care. It’s not easy to do. With surrender comes a great deal of struggle. Dying is hard. Yet, the call of Jesus remains, “follow me.”
Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and concludes the following Sunday on Easter morning. The days between are a journey that includes Jesus’ confrontation with religious authorities, washing the disciples’ feet, a final meal, and Jesus’ crucifixion and death.
Holy Week is one of the most significant weeks in the Christian Liturgical calendar. Here are five key moments from Holy Week to pay special attention to:
Jesus enters Jerusalem as the city swells with pilgrims from all over the region to celebrate the feast of the Passover. As Jesus enters the city, people place palm branches on the ground before him, celebrating his arrival as if he is a victorious king returning from battle. But Jesus rides a donkey, signifying that he is a different kind of king—a humble servant who identifies with the poor. His victory will be one of self-sacrifice and ultimate love, not military might.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus eats his final meal with his disciples and washes their feet. In bending down and washing his friends’ and enemy’s feet, Jesus demonstrates true spiritual maturity and models for us the right use of power and authority – to serve others rather than self.
The suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus redeems the whole word by laying down his life and trusting completely in the love of the Father. Jesus’ life, broken and poured out, shows us the depth of the Father’s love for us. Jesus cries out from the cross, “It is finished,” meaning that Jesus has completely paid for our sins and has done everything that needs to be done to bring about the reconciliation and renewal of the whole world.
A strange, empty and “in-between” day. Jesus is dead. The hopes and dreams of the people who followed Jesus also died on Friday. Hope is gone. The light of the world has been extinguished. This is the end of the story…or is it?
Jesus is raised from the dead. His resurrection is a stamp of approval of his faithful obedience to the Father and a decisive victory over sin – a triumph of life over death. Hallelujah! He is Risen! Yes, He is Risen indeed!
Holy Week has the potential to form us in powerful ways. The invitation is to participate and find our story inside the big story of God’s loving, redemptive work. The main lesson of Holy Week is if you want to live, then you have to die.
Holy Week will look and feel different this year. The “shelter in place” mandate means that we will be walking the Holy Week road with those in our households and watching online worship services. But we also walk with Jesus – who is with all of us – in our homes and in our hearts. He is calling us to lay down our lives and follow him through the pain of Golgotha. He is calling us to rise with him on Easter morning. Alleluia.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”