By Sam Gutierrez
The season of Epiphany begins with the feast of Epiphany on January 6 and ends the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Depending on where Easter falls (it’s a moving holiday) the season of Epiphany can be as short as 4 weeks and as long as 9 weeks. The word Epiphany means “to appear” or “to bring to light”– it’s a season of increasing light and ends with the lights on maximum: Transfiguration Sunday. On the mountain top, Jesus’ glory is revealed and we catch a glimpse of his divine nature – a vision that’s a little too bright for human eyes.
The beginning of Epiphany is framed by three key stories from the life of Jesus: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the first miracle when Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana.
For this 2021 Epiphany post, I’d like to take a look at the first framing story for Epiphany – the visit of the Magi.
Just recently in the news, there was talk of the “Christmas Star” – a conjoining of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky. In reality, their distance from each other was immense, but their orbits made them appear close together as you looked towards the horizon in the month of December. Some think that a similar astrological “sign” happened around the time Jesus was born.
The Wise men are sometimes referred to as kings or even astrologers. Some have called them Magicians or “Magi,” meaning “Sorcerer.” They came from the East (many think Persia) and were probably wealthy. Mostly likely, they traveled in large “family bands” and their total group far outnumbered the traditional number of “three.”
As strange as it may sound – they looked to the sky and saw something powerful and unmistakable in the alignment of the stars – something that told them that something equally important was happening on earth. This is not new – many cultures throughout history have drawn a strong connection between what happens in cosmology and what happens in human history (just study ancient Egypt). Now that we know so much more about the universe thanks to modern technology, it might be easy to debunk this kind of knowledge. But again – as strange as it might sound, there seems to be some sort of connection between what happens “up there” and “down here.”
We can sometimes get fixated on the gifts, or the star, or even the song “We Three Kings” while missing the point that Matthew is trying to make in telling us the story of these mysterious visitors.
For Matthew, the point is two-fold. First, Jesus is not just a Jewish king. He is the King of the whole earth. Remember, Matthew is primarily writing to a Jewish audience in his gospel. From the very beginning, he wanted to tell his readers that the birth of Jesus is a cosmic event that has comic implications – Jesus fulfills the promises made to Abraham – that through Abraham’s family, God will bless all nations. It’s easy to think that God is only interested in blessing certain tribes – in this case Jewish – but the birth of Jesus is for the non-believing Persians as well. This has tremendous implications for us today. God is not interested in merely blessing Christians – his overflowing grace is for everyone, everywhere. The blessing poured out on you and me is meant to communicate to others that they are blessed too.
Second, God is not bound by Scripture in order to communicate. Not only did God guide the Magi toward the manger via a “star,” but God warned them in a dream to return home using a different route. To these non-Jewish “outsiders,” God used an alternative means to speak - a star and a dream. It seems that God will use whatever means available to communicate his grace. This should give us a good dose of humility – knowing that God can and does work outside the walls of the church (and scripture) to gather folks into his family. It’s true, God does reveal himself in and through Scripture, but God also likes to get creative – recruiting planets and stars and diving into the unconscious dream state to share his promises and grace. Wow.
Epiphany is a rich but unfamiliar and overlooked season. January is considered a cold and dark month – the merriment of the Christmas season is over, the new year has begun, and we’re back at work or in school. Culturally, these weeks are marked by a return to routine.
Liturgically, Epiphany is a season of quiet hope with a watchful eye towards God’s promise to bring wholeness to the entire galaxy in the person of Jesus. It’s also a time of spreading this good news and so we look for little ways to spread hope to those around us. We pray for our friends, neighbors, relatives, children, family members and spouses who don’t know Jesus yet.
We believe that “in him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:4-5
Advent Blog Post 4 - by Lauren Cooper
2 Samuel 7:1-16
A couple of weeks ago marked four years that we’ve lived in our current house near Garfield Park. As I reflected on that, I realized that four years is the longest I’ve lived in any house--ever. While I’ll admit to wanderlust deep in my bones, I had never considered myself quite so nomadic until I started doing the math. But we did move every few years when I was growing up (across the country twice and then blocks away). And living in both Chicago and Seattle for ten years after college meant a regular shuffle of roommates and apartments. Total count? 19. So needless to say, home as a location has always felt kind of temporary.
All that said, I do like the idea of home being something more permanent and I understand the desire of King David in 2 Samuel 7. Feeling comfortable and settled in his own home, David declares that he wants to build a permanent house for God, replacing the portable tabernacle that was housing the Ark of the Covenant. But, through Nathan, the Lord tells David that this isn’t what we wants. In fact, we know that David’s son Solomon did build a temple, but it was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. A physical dwelling won’t work—and isn’t necessary.
What message does David get in response?
The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.
What does this look like? Through Jesus, God provides His permanent presence in a house that stands forever. Not the physical building, obviously, but through us. The house—His kingdom—that will stand forever is the community of believers in whom the Holy Spirit lives. We are the living stones, providing structure for this spiritual house and—because of Jesus—making an impact that far outlasts anything physical or temporary.
When I reflect on every place I’ve lived, I realize that it’s really never the building that make a place feel like home. And length of time in a place doesn’t necessarily mean anything either. It’s always something that rises above anything physical or tangible. When I think about my college semester in London (which, though my shortest residence, remains the most magical five months of my life), what made it feel like home in such a short time had nothing to do with my tiny dorm room. It was the non-sanctioned bonfires in the back field with our new English friends, where we’d laugh at the strangeness of ourselves and share secrets until the sun started peeking up over the horizon. And still, it was temporary—and it fades over time.
During this season of Advent, we’re reminded that in a world full of temporary things, God provides something permanent that can satisfy the longings of our hearts. As we wait and anticipate and sit in our weariness this December, we are comforted by the knowledge that, through the birth of Jesus, God gives us His permanent love. A love that is intentional, enduring, and without condition. It’s this permanent feeling of home that we hope for through a covenant that lasts forever.
Advent Blog Post 3 - by Nancy Vander Meer
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The year 2020 was like none most of us ever imagined. So many of our sisters and brothers at Alger Park Church experienced disappointments and frustrations this past year, exacerbated by COVID-19 and political situations. We all kept waiting for good news to come, for the weeks and months—and the year—to just be over. Yet sometimes it seemed like the news kept getting worse.
I don’t know many people who like to wait, especially through difficult times. In challenging situations, we are tempted (and often succumb) to blaming God. “Where are You, God? Why are You allowing this pain, these disappointments, the setbacks? We believe the everlasting covenant You’ve made with us (Isaiah 61:8), but we aren’t seeing it. It’s a little (or a lot!) difficult to rejoice and praise You right now (v. 10). My faith is faltering.”
Ah, but isn’t that exactly when our faith grows? When we see God being faithful no matter the circumstances. Even when we can’t see His immediate plan, we stand rock solid on God’s truth and past experiences of His faithfulness. During some deep disappointments in my earlier years, I held on to the encouragement in a song by Pam Thumb. The chorus kept repeating, “When you can’t see His hand, trust His heart.”
Our pastors have often reminded us to look for God’s big picture. I imagine this Sunday they’ll explain how the people of God in Isaiah 61 were able to go from the ashes to crowns; from mourning to joy, from a spirit of despair to a garment of praise. Because Yahweh is the faithful covenant God who keeps His promises.
We may have to wait for the bigger big picture in the circumstances we are struggling with. We will have to wait for the perfection of Christ’s kingdom here on earth. But while we’re waiting, God continues to send glimpses of His grace, and reminders of His faithfulness, even—or especially—through the difficult times. We can now look for and see the Greater Good News that Jesus came to earth to dwell among us (John 1:14); to experience everything and anything we might be going through (Hebrews 4:14-24); to proclaim the Good News to the poor, brokenhearted, prisoners in darkness, mourners (Isaiah 61:1). He is waiting with us, and that gives amazing hope.
In what ways are you seeing God at work in your time of waiting?
Advent Blog Post 2 - by Jamie Reynolds
There’s something a little bit magical about Advent as a child: four weeks of candles, carols, and stories at church while colored lights, ornamented trees, and ribboned gifts pop up everywhere else. Advent is a marathon of anticipation, of waiting, and Christmas is the finish line. However, as an adult, I feel like I have become painfully aware that when we do finally reach Christmas Day, our waiting is actually far from over. When Jesus was born, humanity’s initial wait for the arrival of the Savior indeed came to an end. But when Jesus died and rose, when Jesus ascended to return to God in heaven, we began waiting anew – waiting for him to come once again, to complete the work of redemption he began in the manger.
At the end of a year like this one, that thought can make Advent feel a bit like poor comfort. We are living through a pandemic that has upended our lives, devastated families, and impoverished countless people in the midst of heartbreaking political and racial unrest. On days when our world is so obviously broken, it can feel like Christ’s Birth just isn’t enough. Jesus came to save us – an act of extreme grace that, without question, merits every ounce of celebration that we can pour out – but I also find myself yearning so deeply for The Rest of It. I’m ready for that second part, the Big Finish where Jesus comes back and, as Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it in The Jesus Storybook Bible, “make[s] all the sad things come untrue.” I am ready for the fulfillment of comfort, not just the promise that comfort is coming.
Those feelings can make God’s words to Isaiah in the midst of Israel’s own devastation into a bit of an emotional roller coaster. While I feel such relief at God’s command that Isaiah declare bold, tender, and certain comfort to his people, to joyfully “cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,” that “ Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,” that “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,” I look around me and ask the anguished question of, “But when? When?”
Somehow, in the midst of that anguish, the comfort refuses to evaporate completely, like an echo remaining just within earshot. Maybe at times like this, the comfort comes when we whisper fervently in the depths of our hearts, “This is not the way things are supposed to be!” and the Spirit whispers back, “Oh, my child. I know.” Maybe Advent is the time when we celebrate that whisper, when we cling to it, waiting for its completion, its fulfillment. We wait to celebrate the comfort of Christmas – the comfort that the end of our divine separation began with the birth of a tiny baby, and that redemption is still in motion – even as we wait some more for the day of Reunion, when comfort will finally come in its full and complete form.
Advent Blog Post 1 - by Annalise Kontras
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.
My hunch is that few of us have called for the kind of intervention Isaiah does in the passage, asking God to rip open the heavens, shake the earth, and terrify enemies.
Instead, some of us will recall acute experiences of fervently calling out to God from the miry pit of tragedy and trial, petitioning him for the interventions of healing or reconciliation or provision. Others may reflect on their prayers for God’s intervention over the past nine months during the pandemic, political tensions, racial injustice, strained relationships, economic hardships, or enduring loneliness.
Other cries for God’s help arise from everyday circumstances in which we are confronted with our sin, or the monotony of ordinary existence, or our own inadequacies. That is how it usually goes for me.
My oldest child was a difficult newborn. For months, my days consisted entirely of soothing her to sleep while she wailed, holding her so she’d stay asleep, and feeding her. Though I attempted to hold it together and tell myself this new mom thing was a joy, the truth was that moment by moment, I felt like a failure. One lonely winter day, during what felt like the hundredth hour of cradling her while bouncing on an exercise ball (in the dark bathroom with the fan on for white noise, of course), I broke. “I need your help, God. I don’t like this, and I don’t know what to do. Please help her fall asleep. I need to rest. I can’t do this. Please, help me!”
In this real, very human moment, I called for God to intervene on my behalf and for my cause. I wonder how often my requests for God’s help are to this end: to accomplish my purposes and fulfill my desires.
I don’t think such requests are sinful; in fact, examples of God’s people calling out for help in human situations abound in Scripture. We are told to cast our cares on Him, for he cares for us.
Yet, the request for intervention in Isaiah 64 is situated in a broader context beyond our immediate needs and desires. To paraphrase: God is Lord! We, in contrast, are shriveled leaves swept away on the winds of our sins. How can we be saved?! Because despite our brokenness, we are clay, being molded in the merciful hands of our Father.
This context causes me to consider that God’s intervention is often internal. Through a fussy, dependent newborn in my arms, God was intervening powerfully. He was molding, shaping, and forming me to be a mother who is more and more like Christ. He was refining me through peeling away the layers of self-centeredness and perfectionism and comfort-seeking that had calcified on my heart.
What an incredible thought, that even if the external intervention we hope for isn’t realized, God is working so intimately and compassionately within us! That through the valleys and shadows, God intervenes at the heart-level for His good and loving purposes.
During Advent, we wait and hope for The Intervention--the Emmanuel, the “God with us” who will make all things new. We long for His intervention on the individual, communal, and societal levels.
As one who also longed for the coming of the Christ, Isaiah writes, “For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down...” Indeed, the intervening Messiah who came down was not what the prophets and religious leaders and Hebrews expected. He was a lowly, poor carpenter from Nazareth, for starters. And his interventions completely missed the mark: while they expected a king who would establish a prosperous earthly kingdom, this Messiah described an upside-down Kingdom and sought to intervene in their hearts.
The unexpected, amazing Intervention of God is tangible mercy and steadfast love, packaged in the unlikeliest of wrappings: the meagerly clothed, dependent body of a newborn baby, born amidst filth and stink.
That our hearts prepare Him room this Advent means that we--like the sinners and outcasts who readily believed--see our need for Christ’s intervention deep within us, that we invite him into the broken places that we strive to cover up or mend ourselves. It means that we surrender, contrite and willing as clay.
Questions for Reflection:
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.