By Sam Gutierrez
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
1 Timothy 3:16,17
I shared the following story a few months ago: In my early 20’s, I spent some time memorizing Psalm 19. I took two or three weeks slowly repeating the Psalm to myself and letting it slowly trickle down into the depths of my heart and mind. Then, I forgot about it.
Years later, on a sunny afternoon in early summer, I took my road bike from the shed and headed out on a long leisurely ride. Slowly the trail rose and I found myself overlooking the most beautiful green gorge filled with deciduous trees and a gentle meandering river. The sky above was expansive and blue with a few white puffy clouds. Suddenly, the first few verses of Psalm 19 came pouring out of my memory – “the heavens declare the glory of God! The skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech!” As my legs propelled the bicycle up the side of the hill, more and more of the Psalm came pouring out – “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard –
Their voice goes out into all the earth – their words to the ends of the earth… “
Thinking back on that moment now, the most surprising part of that afternoon was discovering that the words of Psalm 19 were quietly stored in my heart. They were waiting there, ready at a moment’s notice to give me the words of praise that captured so perfectly what I was experiencing.
Have you ever tried memorizing scripture? It’s a wonderful practice that gets you into scripture in an intimate way. There are a lot of good books about the Bible and they have their place. But too often we look to these resources and inadvertently substitute them for the actual words of scripture.
So far in this series of faith formation blog posts, I’ve talked about the liturgical year, the lectionary, and story-telling. These practices help shape our communal life together. Memorizing scripture is primarily personal. Of course, whatever is memorized can be shared with others, but the hard work of getting scripture into the heart and mind is something that mostly happens in private.
I truly believe that this practice is one of the most powerful faith formative practices that any person can do. Scripture is powerful and alive, and God uses scripture to shape us into the image of his Son. Hebrews 4:12 says – “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
I’ll end with these words from John Calvin on the uniqueness of scripture:
“Now, this power which is peculiar to Scripture is clear from the fact that of human writings, however artfully polished, there is none capable of affecting us at all comparably. Read Demosthenes or Cicero; read Plato, Aristotle, and others of that tribe. They will, I admit, allure you, delight you, move you, enrapture you in wonderful measure.
But betake yourself from them to this sacred reading. Then, in spite of yourself, so deeply will it affect you, so penetrate your heart, so fix itself in your very marrow, that, compared with its deep impression such vigor as the orators and philosophers have will nearly vanish. Consequently, it is easy to see that the Sacred Scriptures, which so far surpass all gifts and graces of human endeavor, Breathe something divine.” (Institutes Book 1, Section 1)
By Sam Gutierrez
Storytelling is an important faith-forming practice that is often overlooked.
Our God is a storytelling God. Because we are made in God's image, we are storytellers too. Our personal stories fit within the framework of the overarching story of God’s narrative: creation, fall, redemption, new creation.
However, telling our stories does not always come easily to us. Learning to share your story (testimony) with family members, coworkers, and friends can be stretching and faith-forming. We have to learn how to “speak” our faith. We have to practice telling our stories. Why?
Communities that create space for storytelling become places where grace is likely to flourish. Storytelling builds connection and acts as an antidote to pervasive loneliness. When we share stories, we feel heard and understood, and this increases our sense of ownership and belonging.
This is why in our worship services we are intentional about sharing stories from the organizations we support. When we take offerings for our community ministry partners, we invite representatives from those organizations to stand on stage with us and share the stories of how the money we give is used to bless others. During Advent last year, we heard stories from 3:11 Youth Housing (now AYA Youth Collective) – about homeless youth in our community and how our giving could bless and benefit that group of vulnerable persons.
Eric Boer has incorporated storytelling into our Profession of Faith class. As part of the process, young people are asked to write down their faith story and share it with others in the class. We then ask them to share a part of their story with the congregation as they publicly profess their faith.
We’ve also structured Alger 101 and Alger 201 around the theme of story-telling. If you are new to Alger and you attend Alger 101, you'll hear three key stories that shape our life together as a community.
Even in this blog, I like incorporate stories whenever I have a chance. A few weeks ago, I told the story about a child in our congregation who, when asked, “What does Pastor Sam do?” responded with, “Pours the water.” A few weeks after that, I told the story of the baptismal font floating down the stairs and into the parking lot during the Christmas day fire in 1971.
These stories are important. They help shape who we are as a community. They bond us together.
Let’s find creative ways as a community to tell more stories. As we do so, we’ll create space for the Spirit to form us into the image of Christ in ever-deepening ways.
by Sam Gutierrez
What kind of scriptural "diet" are you following? I’ve been a part of many churches over my adult life, and I’ve known well-intentioned pastors who have fed their congregations a steady diet of “pet” passages. In these instances, difficult pieces of Scripture tend to get ignored, and that’s not good for the health of a congregation. A more difficult, more rewarding challenge is to preach creatively within some boundaries. What provides preachers with those boundaries for a structured Scriptural diet? The Lectionary.
The Lectionary ensures that we get a steady diet of Scripture. It takes the power of selecting sermon passages out of the hands of pastors and places it in a resource that has proved itself in church life and worship.
The Revised Common Lectionary is a collection of scripture readings bound together by a common theme. It’s based on a three-year repeating rhythm with designations A, B, and C. Each Lectionary cycle starts at the beginning of a new liturgical year - the first Sunday in Advent. The four readings are meant to give churches a steady diet of scripture and normally consist of an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, an Epistle, and a Gospel reading. Moreover, the passages are arranged to correspond to each liturgical season (which we talked about last week).
What I also love about the Lectionary is that many churches around the world follow it, so when we reflect on the four scripture passages each week, we are joining with Christians across the globe who are hearing and reflecting on the same passages.
Twice a year, Stephen and I spend 2-3 days reflecting on the Lectionary passages for a given season and dream up the sermon series for those passages. Quite often we look at each other and say, “I’m not looking forward to preaching THAT passage…” and that is the genius of the Lectionary. It forces us to preach on passages that are difficult, messy, and complicated – passages we would rather ignore, but are essential for the health of a congregation.
The Revised Common Lectionary is not a perfect resource. It was put together by a diverse group of people who did their best to take samplings from Scripture, bringing together passages that touch on similar themes. Critics of the Lectionary point out that “important" verses or passages are excluded. Those criticisms have merit. But, as a resource that keeps churches regularly in contact with a steady diet of scripture, the Lectionary does a pretty good job.
When it comes to faith Formation, regular engagement with Scripture is KEY. It’s one of the main ways that the Spirit works to form and shape us into the image of Jesus. The Lectionary is a tool that Alger Park Church uses to aid the Spirit in the formation of Christ followers.
By Sam Gutierrez
"What time is it?"
It’s a familiar question kids ask their parents. Knowing the time orients us. It helps us to mark events and plan our days. Knowing the time helps us to fall into proper rhythms of rest and work, playing and producing, celebrating and silence, feasting and fasting, praise and lament.
How do we mark time? How do we answer the question, "What time is it?"
The liturgical calendar is a way of telling time. More specifically, it’s a way of telling a story that centers on the saving work of God in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The liturgical year is divided into seasons that have specific themes and practices that help us live into the story of Jesus. Over the past 10 years, I’ve come to understand the formative power of the liturgical calendar. I’ve also come to believe that if we are serious about spiritual formation, then we have to get serious about time.
Many churches already acknowledge certain liturgical seasons, mostly Advent and Lent. Others decide to jump in and jump out of the liturgical calendar depending on if it “works” with what they want to do. For many years, I belonged to a church that did this—they always dropped the calendar after Easter Sunday. I can personally tell you that I still benefited from this picking and choosing. However, jumping in and out doesn’t maximize the formative power of the liturgical calendar.
Here’s the church calendar in a nutshell:
●Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas and marks a new liturgical year.
●Christmas itself is a mini-season—a celebration of 12 days (ever heard of the 12 days of Christmas?).
●Epiphany starts on Jan 6. This season lasts from 4 to 7 weeks depending on where Easter falls.
●Lent is 40 days and concludes the night before Easter.
●Easter Sunday is the beginning of a 50-day period of exploring the resurrection.
●Pentecost/Ordinary Time stretches from Trinity Sunday (50 days after Easter) to Christ the King Sunday (the Sunday before Advent).
Each season has its own postures and practices that help shape us into the people of God. For instance, the key posture of Advent is waiting (looking forward to celebrating the first coming of Jesus in the manger but also waiting for his return as the glorified King). While we wait, we’re invited into two key practices: singing and groaning. We sing and celebrate God’s arrival (Emmanuel—God with us) and we groan while we live in this broken and painful world, hungering for Christ to return and restore all things. This way of “telling time” is profoundly powerful.
If we’re not using the Christian liturgical calendar, then we’re probably telling time using a North American calendar. This calendar also has formative power, orienting us inside the American story. The North American calendar wants us to live into a different story – telling us that to be human is to be a consumer. It marks the beginning of the holiday season by promoting and celebrating sales and deals (Black Friday, Cyber Monday) as way to prime the pump for a frenzied season of shopping with an aim towards an explosion of material goods on Christmas day. I’m not saying that shopping or giving gifts is bad – but what I’m trying to highlight is that the marking of time “telling time” is a way of “telling a story.” The question is: What story am I living in and how is that story shaping me? Which story do we identify with more?
One of the most powerful faith formation tools that any church can utilize is the liturgical calendar. It’s a way of telling time –more specifically–a way of telling a story that orients us and forms us into the people of God. Telling time is not something we think about often, but I encourage you to stop and ask the question –
"What time is it?"