By Sam Gutierrez
For the next four weeks, we will be featuring four Alger Park members as guest writers on the blog. This year for Advent, we’ll be doing a series around the theme of “Hope” and I’ve asked them to write something based on this theme:
In this season of diminishing light, while we huddle at home in the midst of a global pandemic, these writers will share thoughts, stories, reflections, and questions as fellow pilgrims on the journey. None of these good folks have seminary degrees or theological doctorates. They are just ordinary people who are trying to say a deep and heartfelt “yes” to the call of Jesus to “follow me.” If you have been following Jesus for any length of time, then you know the path of discipleship is not one confident step in front of the other. Rather, it’s like a wandering in the desert – there's a clear destination in view, but often you feel lost and turned around half (if not most!) of the time – one step forward, two steps back. My hope is that as you read these upcoming blogs, each writer will light a candle for you – a light shining in the darkness as we reorient ourselves once again and head towards home.
Waiting is not easy. We get impatient. We get frustrated. Even the prospect of waiting in a long line at Chick-Fil-A has us looking for another place that sells waffle-cut fries. But waiting is also soul shaping. As we wait, we grow. As we wait, we breathe deep and steady allowing the spiritual “room” inside of us to expand. Yes, waiting is hard, but hope marks our waiting with expectation – knowing that the one who makes promises will always come through.
By Sam Gutierrez
When I was in Middle School Band, I learned how to play the saxophone. Learning how to make sound through a wooden reed was hard enough, but learning an instrument was also about learning about music and how to read music. When I first started, there were a lot of strange symbols decorating the sheet music. One of the new symbols that I had to recognize and learn to play skillfully was the crescendo. A crescendo starts softly and gets louder as the note is held out.
We are nearing the end of the liturgical calendar. We’ve been in a beautiful but long season of Ordinary Time when the church lives out it’s calling as the hands of feet of Jesus in the world. You might think of Ordinary Time as a long extended musical note. But as we near the end of the calendar (the first Sunday in Advent is a New Year) we see a musical notation for a crescendo! All of this is leading towards “Christ the King Sunday” when we acknowledge and worship Christ – the King of Heaven and Earth.
The Lectionary (collection of Bible passages every Sunday) also crescendos. Leading up to Christ the King Sunday, the Lectionary focuses on Bible passages that are all about “getting ready” for this sure and coming reality.
In Lectionary Year A, the Lectionary takes a deep dive into the three parables found in Matthew 25. All the parables are about wise people who are ready for the coming King, and foolish people who are not ready. Jesus quite clearly states that he will come back to establish his good and sovereign rule on earth, but no one knows the exact day or hour. It could be soon. It could be a long way off. In the end, it will be a huge surprise – for everyone – including Jesus himself (only the Father knows the exact day and hour). So – how can we get ready for a surprise?
That seems strange doesn’t it? The very nature of a surprise is that you are not prepared for it. That is what makes a birthday surprise so exciting – an unsuspecting person walks into a darkened room only to be startled by a flip of the light switch and a chorus of “Surprise!” Jesus tells us that his coming will be just like that – a complete surprise. But he doesn’t want us be to unprepared. So he tells us to get ready.
For many, the return of Jesus strikes fear in our hearts and sends anxiety coursing through our veins. Surprises are usually good and fun; this one, however, feels more like we’re getting caught with our hand in the cookie jar. But notice that Jesus doesn’t say “Therefore – be afraid… because you are sinners and everyone is in BIG TROUBLE NOW!” No. He says, “Therefore – keep watch.”
Jesus is telling us ahead of time how it’s all going to end. He will come back and he will sit on the throne of the universe. It’s like he’s telling us how the movie is going to end – and rather than spoiling the plot – his “reveal” actually gives us hope and purpose as we struggle through the mess of our ordinary lives – knowing that it all has a purpose and history is heading towards a wonderful and amazing end.
To get ready for a surprise is to live today while knowing tomorrow. It means to live your life in a way that synchronizes with how all things will be someday. It’s about saying “yes” to the sure and coming reality of Christ the King.
Are you ready for the crescendo?
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."
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?"