By Sam Gutierrez
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Every year, the liturgical calendar creates space to highlight an important aspect of our faith that often gets overlooked – the communion of saints. We remember this day every November with a Sunday designated as “All Saints Sunday.” Passages from Revelation and Hebrews paint a picture for us: in and through Christ, we belong to a great multitude of diverse persons who have one thing in common – God’s grace.
No one who stands before Christ can stand on their own merit. Some have said that the ground before the cross is level ground – everyone is a sinner in need of grace. The same thing could be said about the ground before the throne of Christ – it’s level ground because those gathered there did nothing to earn their place. Everyone stands before the throne as a recipient of God’s grace and loyal love.
The Worship Sourcebook says this about All Saints Sunday, “The focus on All Saints’ Day should not be on extraordinary achievements of particular Christians but on the grace and work of God through ordinary people.”
The focus of All Saints day is not the “saints.” The focus is God’s goodness and grace flowing through ordinary people like you and me. We are not good because of anything we have done or achieved… we are good because God’s goodness shines on us and through us.
This past year, fourteen people passed away who belonged to the body of Christ located at 2655 Eastern Ave – Alger Park Church. They are no longer with us in physical body. But they are not forgotten, nor are they truly gone in the biblical sense. They are with Christ – around the throne worshipping him now and forever. And because they are in Christ, and we are in Christ, we are still connected to them through Christ.
All Saints day points to a wonderful promise: that one day, death will be banished once and for all and God’s people will be gathered together around the throne of grace. Death is a barrier that separates us temporarily…but not even death can ultimately keep us from God’s love or from one another as God’s people, as Paul tell us in Romans 8:38,
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This coming Sunday, we worship God with an eye towards the eternal family that God is creating – adopted sons and daughters who belong to each other and to God.
Join me in this prayer –
Father, Son, Holy Spirit, we give you thanks for members of the body of Christ who passed away this past year:
Give us faith to look beyond touch and sight to see that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Enable us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Amen.
By Cameron Warne
Sometimes a quote, a piece of art, or a new idea sends me down a theological bunny trail. I have to admit that it’s usually the ones that are controversial and slightly heretical that catch my interest and ultimately force me to grow the most. What’s the truth here? What have I been taught my whole life? What do I really believe? What are the implications?
One that I’ve been chewing on recently are words by the writer, monk and activist Thomas Merton:
“His love is unpossessive.
His love is pure because it needs nothing.”
I have always thought that when we become citizens of God’s Kingdom, we are essentially “possessed” or “owned” by God. The apostle Paul often uses the language “slave of God” and he references the Christian being branded with a “seal of ownership” (2 Corinthians 1:22). Even when God tells us not to fear, he adds the clause, “You are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). So, is what Merton is saying true?
And what about Merton’s second sentence: “His love is pure because it needs nothing”?
I know that I need God but I’d also like to think that God needs me. It’s a two-way street. After all, “How shall others believe in him of whom they have not heard? How shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). I, too, want to own God…
And these questions lead to a million more questions: What about the gift of free will? What is the nature of freedom and grace? Is God really a slaveholder? A jealous boyfriend? Are we capable of a pure love when we like to be needed?
Calm down, Cameron.
Mr. Rogers Saves the Day
For the past couple years, the program we’ve watched the most with our daughters is the Mister Rogers opera, “A Star for Kitty.” It tells the story of a Kitty (Betty Aberlin) who wishes for a star of her own for her birthday. The star she chooses is “Tiny Star” (played by puppet Daniel Tiger) and she tries to take “Tiny Star”. With the help of “half moons,” Kitty learns that “Tiny Star” needs to stay at his home in the sky. As Kitty relinquishes her control of “Tiny Star,” she begins to shine like a star herself and has a wonderful birthday.
It’s what Mr. Rogers says at the end that is so striking and wise. Near tears, he says:
“When Kitty started to care about what 'Tiny Star' was feeling, that’s when she started to twinkle. And then she realized that nobody could own a star, just like nobody can own anybody else. Nobody owns you and nobody owns me. But people can care about us, just the way we are. And we can help each other to feel at home, no matter where we are.”
Mr. Rogers’ last two sentences showed me what I had missed from Merton’s quote: His love is pure. Mr. Rogers calls it "care" - loving people as they are and where they are. Making them feel at home. Unpossessing.
We see this most clearly in the life of Jesus when Mary breaks numerous social norms by pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet (wiping them with her hair) while He is reclining at a table with His male friends (John 12: 1-8). He takes her on her terms and freely accepts her gift of open, unorthodox worship. He makes her feel at home by sticking up for her when her gift is questioned (verse 7). He doesn’t need the worship, but accepts it freely. Her only need is to be herself.
Mr. Roger’s speaking begins at 5:06
by Sam Gutierrez
As cultural memories of Christianity fade and denominational barriers erode, how do we create warm and safe space for everyone to belong? Especially with an eye towards our unchurched friends, neighbors and co-workers? How do we kindly and courageously invite both young and old, from various backgrounds to find their part in God’s rich redemptive story in and through Christ? When it comes to worship, one option is to reduce the worship service to the bare bones – modern, popular worship songs and a practical down to earth message.
Another option is for the church to lean into two thousand years of church life, practices and worship, while putting its hospitality foot forward. Practices that have proven themselves over time and unite Christians from various backgrounds all around the globe. Then finding creative and contemporary ways to frame these practices so that worship is not only formative, but welcoming.
At Alger, we lean into the second option. This recent blog series on faith formation draws on this rich history of formative practices such as the liturgical year, the lectionary, Scripture memory, storytelling and prayer. When it comes to worship, we recognize that worship begins with Trinitarian grace. That works itself out in a number of different ways:
Worship is slow. We recognize that because God welcomes us as we are, and because God generally does not transform lives overnight, we are called to be patient. As leaders, we are more interested in what happens in people’s lives and hearts over a period of 52 worship services than in creating a single exciting spiritual experience. (although these also have their place).
Worship is broad and specific. We seek to be “catholic” in the sense that we align ourselves with the church of all times and places. Where traditions and practices are helpful in faith formation, we are happy to adopt them, recognizing that our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters often have more acute memories and many riches to offer us. Even in this breadth, we also recognize that there is great value in specific movements that have been a mainstay of our Reformed tradition, which is why our services also follow Reformed patterns of worship (invocation, confession, assurance, Scripture, communion, etc.).
Worship is deep and accessible. We believe words matter and so we choose them with care. We want our language to be accessible to people at all stages on their faith journey and to people of all ages, not merely “Christian jargon.” To do this, we think carefully before using words that might only be familiar to the long-time Christian, we provide context for ideas that might be new, and we frame our actions to help our newer friends understand what we are doing. We invite everyone to participate in the deep practices of the church such as reciting creeds, baptismal remembrance, confession of sins, passing the peace of Christ and receiving a blessing. We want to lean into the deep practices, while making them accessible people at various stages of understanding, acceptance and belief.
Worship is for the young and for the old (and all the ages in between). We believe faith formation does not begin when everything is understood, but is often a long journey of faithful step after step. For this reason, we delight in having children participate in worship both from the congregation and on stage, being sure that we use ideas and language they can understand. We also seek to have worship of significance for those at every stage of life, recognizing that God welcomes all of us (young and old) into his presence.
Worship is welcoming. We believe we best show God’s generous character when our worship is welcoming. As leaders of worship, we practice this by providing framing for historical practices, addressing the audience as friends at times, and inviting visitors to fill out connection cards. We also practice this by passing the peace of Christ and welcoming all who say “yes” to the grace of Jesus to participate in receiving communion.
There are many good faith formation practices that I did not mention in this current blog series. My goal was to simply highlight some powerful tools that have stood the test of time. May God grant us his grace as we practice our faith – asking the Spirit to transform and shape us into the image of Jesus. The point is not the practices/tools. The point is to open up your heart and say “yes” to God. Then to allow yourself to be used by him to bless the world.
By Sam Gutierrez
My first job after graduating college was at a church 30 minutes north of Sacramento. After a bit of time I made some friends in the area. One friend was a youth pastor who worked with high school students in a nearby Presbyterian church. I still remember the day we were sitting in a sandwich shop eating lunch, when he said to me, “I have no idea how to pray.” His confession made me glad for his honesty, and sad that someone raised in the church and now working for the church had no idea how to pray.
I don’t think he is alone. All of us at one time or another can honestly confess, “I don’t know how to pray.” Sometimes words escape us. We don’t know how to phrase things, or we don’t know what we should ask for (should we ask for complete healing or courage to endure the pain with patience–or both–or neither?).
The only way to grow in prayer is to pray.
So. We stumble around with words. Our feelings around prayer are jumbled and mixed at times. We know prayer is important, but we often feel guilty about not praying enough. We marvel at the miracle of an answered prayer and then feel completely perplexed when God seems silent or distant about a prayer request that seems so reasonable and straight forward. There are moments when we sense God’s presence when we pray, but too often we feel nothing. We try our best to express our needs and wants (trying not to mix up the two). Some of us feel nervous to pray out loud in a group setting for fear of saying something dumb or because we are afraid of being judged.
We gather for worship and pray prayers for people in the community–some we know well, others not so much. We pray the Lord’s prayer, we pray the prayer of Saint Francis, we pray the Psalms. We borrow words, and we constantly search to find the words that give voice to our deepest longings, suffering and pain. We pray prayers that seem rote at times. Sometimes we want to give up… and yet we can feel so encouraged when someone says to us, “I’ll pray about that.” And we know they will. Offering to pray for others is a very simple and powerful way to say, " I care about you and what is going on in your life."
Prayer is a central faith formation practice. However, it’s a practice that we never conquer or become experts in. We are always starting over, wandering in the dark, and finding old and new ways to let God know what is going on in our lives and the lives of those we love. As we pray again and again – imperfectly, God shapes us into the image of his Son.
Prayer is mysterious. Prayer is beautiful. Prayer is strange. Prayer is challenging. Prayer is all those things and more. We pray because Jesus taught us to and because praying is a part of what it means to answer the call of Jesus when he says, "Follow me."