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?"
By Sam Gutierrez
On Christmas night, 1971, Alger Park Church caught on fire.
A single light bulb illuminating a stained glass window was left on, overheated, and ignited fabric covering a pew. The fire quickly spread and soon the windows collapsed, melting into fragments. The fire department responded quickly and began spraying thousands of gallons of water into the sanctuary in an attempt to douse the flames. A few firefighters entered the back of the building, finding their way into the pastor’s office. In an attempt to save a lifetime’s worth of collected resources, they tossed books and commentaries through the window onto a tarp on the ground. As the fire continued to blaze, more and more water poured into the sanctuary. There was so much water covering the floor that the baptismal font rose from its position near the pulpit and floated into the center aisle. From there, the font swirled around until it eventually descended down two flights of stairs, through a door and out into the parking lot.
I tell this story because it perfectly illustrates the fourth thing that I want to highlight about baptism: Mission.
Jesus gave us two sacraments: The Lord’s Supper and Baptism. The most basic definition is that a sacrament is a means of grace. This is why the sacraments are really about God and who God is. God is love and we are the recipients of God’s love. I invite you to touch your forehead and say, “I am baptized.” Now do it again and say, “God loves me.” The two are synonymous.
Yes, you are loved. But just like that baptismal font floating down the stairs and into the parking lot, there is an outflowing nature to the love you’ve received. The baptismal waters are not meant to stay in the sanctuary – they are meant to flow out into the surrounding neighborhood and community.
Simply put: You are loved. As a loved person, you are called to witness to others that they are loved too. You’ve been given promises not to simply bask in them, but to go out and tell others that God’s good promises are for them, too. This is the missional theme of baptism.
The waters of baptism are not static. They are flowing waters. They drench and move outwards. This is why at the end of every worship service, the congregation is sent as a “blessed” people. A baptized people. Blessed to be a blessing.
On Christmas night in 1971, the Baptismal font floated down the stairs into the parking lot. Did it really happen? I don’t know. Legend has it – Yes! But the spirit of the story is true - the Baptismal waters are flowing waters. God’s grace is always trying to escape the confines of the church walls, out through the doors in order to drench our community in endless waves of blessing.
By Sam Gutierrez
3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
In these recent blog posts we’ve been exploring the sacrament of Baptism. Last time we looked at adoption. Today, I want to highlight another major theme: Death and Resurrection.
A sacrament is a means of grace. This means that in and through the sacraments, we know and experience something important about who God is and what God is like. Just like water, God’s grace flows and saturates us. God is a generous gift giver to loves to pour out his goodness.
We are the recipients of this generous gift giving. As a result, with our hearts full of gratitude, we offer our lives back to God – mirroring his generous self-giving.
In previous blog posts, we talked about two gifts (graces) that God wants to give us: forgiveness of sins and adoption into his family. These are easier to explain and easier to accept. But baptism is also about dying and rising.
In an earlier blog, I talked about the mind-bending spiritual law: whatever goes down, must come up. In baptism, this spiritual dynamic is made visible. Jesus went down and came back up. We also must go down in order to come up. We have to humble ourselves in order to be exalted. We have to die in order to live. We must go down in order to go up. But, we can’t do this on our own. We need to get linked into Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. Only Jesus is good enough and strong enough to overcome sin and death. The gift that God wants to give us in baptism is HIS death. He also wants to give us the gift of HIS life. This is why Paul so clearly states that “for you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3)
The theme of death and resurrection is where full immersion adult baptism really shines. The old life, the old self, the old identity, the old efforts and being “good enough” are buried (die) – and there is an embracing of a new life, new self, new identity, new purpose and new power.
For this week, I’d like to encourage you to touch your forehead and say the words, “I’m baptized.” Now touch your forehead and say, “I’ve died with Christ and I’m alive in Christ.” When we do this, we acknowledge that we are dying to our old way of sin and receiving the gift of new life in Christ.
By Sam Gutierrez
12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
In this recent series of blog posts, I’ve been exploring the sacrament of baptism. Last time we looked at forgiveness. Today, I want to highlight another major theme: adoption.
As I mentioned in my last post, a sacrament is a means of grace. In and through the sacrament of baptism we experience grace in an audio/visual way – we hear and see grace being poured out and splashing around. In baptism, we see grace saturate the forehead, run down cheeks, and soak clothing.
Baptism is a sign that points us to Jesus. The sacrament of baptism is like a giant arrow pointing us to the cross because water can’t save us – only the blood of Jesus is strong enough to cleanse our hearts of sin.
Baptism is also a seal. The promises symbolized in baptism don’t just float around, they land on folks. Here is another way to think about baptism as a seal – shortly after a baptism, the water dries up…but God forever sees us sopping wet. The promises soak us through and through – they get “stuck” on us – they get “sealed” upon our hearts. God wants us to know that his promises are for you and for me.
I’ve been ending my posts by having you touch your forehead, saying, "I’m baptized." The important thing here is the wording – it’s present tense. When you touch your forehead and say “I’m baptized,” you are also saying “I’m adopted into God’s family now and forever.” Not only does God’s grace displayed on the cross forgive us and cleanse our hearts, but God also graciously adopts us into his family. We have a home. We have a place of belonging.
Through adoption, we become brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are children of the King. Believe it or not, this makes us royalty (see Romans 8). We are God’s royal children, exercising power and authority over creation so that everybody and everything may flourish. This is the whole point of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet. It’s a lesson in the royal use of power – not to self-serve, but to serve others.
For this week, I’d like to encourage you to touch your forehead and say the words, “I’m baptized.” Next, touch your forehead and say, “I’m adopted.” When we do this, we acknowledge that we are being swept up into a wonderful story of belonging.
It’s important to remember that the sacraments are primarily about God. The pouring of water is a sign point us to God’s big heart where there is room enough for millions and millions of children. The pouring of water also seals God’s promises onto our hearts. We know without a doubt that we are the royal children of God – princes and princesses in the Kingdom, ruling and serving with loving kindness – just like God.