Lenten Midweek Meditation: Love and More Love

Dear Esperanza friends,

For this week’s Lenten Midweek meditation, I thought I’d offer this meditation on what Jesus said are the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

Like me, you’re probably seeing and hearing a lot about love during this virus challenge. People are more aware than ever how much they cherish those nearest to them. People are going out of their way to offer help to neighbors they may never have connected with before. Some people are also reconnecting with themselves—you might say, with their souls—as busyness drops away and solitude and quiet reign. (That’s some people. Of course, for lots of folks, the transition is just to another form of busyness.)

This meditation (link below) is from video series called Molten Meditations. It was published in 2010. If you can set aside 12 minutes, you can let Jesus’ words wash over you while you watch a gentle time-lapse video of a darkening then brightening sky. Or you may find it more meditative to listen with your eyes closed.

Either way, see if you can arrange to be uninterrupted for 15 minutes, then take a few deep breaths as you settle into a comfortable but alert posture, pray that you’d hear God’s voice in the meditation and feel God’s love surrounding you. Then, as the ancient mystics used to say: click on the “play” arrow. When the video is over, perhaps you want to sit in silence for a bit longer, then breath out to God whatever prayer is in your heart.

“Love the Lord Your God” Molten Meditation

May you be refreshed.

Peace and health to you!

Pastor Carol

Walking with God, Waiting for God

Readings for this Sunday, March 22, include the prophet Samuel anointing David to be the second king of Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-13), the well-known “The Lord is my shepherd” psalm (Psalm 23), a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians about living as children of light (Ephesians 5:8-14), and the long and fascinating story from John’s gospel about Jesus giving sight to a man who’d been blind from birth (John 9:1-41).

Psalm 23 is a lovely meditation for each of us during this time, when we want to remember that, even as we keep our distance from one another, still we’re never alone. The psalm is attributed to King David (the one anointed in our first reading). It’s lonely at the top, a lonely job being king of Israel, but David felt himself always both led and accompanied by God, tenderly guided in the right way and protected by God at every turn.

“Even if I walk through the darkest valley,” David wrote, “I fear no evil.” Another translation reads “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” These are familiar words to many of us, and soothing ones, especially now. Whether you’re young and healthy or you fall into a higher-risk category vis-à-vis the coronavirus, the shadow of death is looming over our community, our country and our world. The same was true for David. But, surrounded by enemy nations and threatened by rebellion from within, even from his own son, David nevertheless felt confident because he knew God was with him.

Set apart in self-quarantine, God is with us. Separated from loved ones we are worried about, God is with us … and with each of them as well.

To listen to a calming reading of Psalm 23 in the King James Version click here. Or read the New Revised Standard Version translation right here:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters; 

he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff—

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

my whole life long.

See how the promise isn’t that events will never drag down our souls? The promise is that in those times, God will restore us, lift us up, revive our spirits. During this pandemic and the restrictions it has brought and will bring, we’ll experience cycles of emotion: frustration, fear, grief, anger and boredom. When those feelings flood you, perhaps you’ll want to return to Psalm 23 to remind yourself that you’re not walking this path alone, and that all of life wraps up in God’s house—where we do indeed shelter in place.

When we come to our gospel reading, we move from David’s profound but simple words of comfort to the story of a miracle that raised questions for the Pharisees and may raise questions for us as well.

Before I talk about it, please read the account here, or you can watch the events unfold in this clip from The Visual Bible: The Gospel of John, narrated by Christopher Plummer.

Did you notice how the Pharisees refuse to acknowledge what’s right before their eyes? Why is that? It’s because what Jesus does and how he does it doesn’t fit their expectations and their criteria. A miracle has happened, and the beneficiary of the miracle attests that it was Jesus who performed it. But, the Pharisees say, the miracle cannot have come from God because it was performed on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees claim to see clearly, they claim to know definitively, they claim to be in a position to judge. But Jesus tells them: You claim to see, but in fact, you are blind to the truth of who I am and what I’ve done. And so, you remain in a state of sin, a state of separation from the God you say you serve.

Meanwhile, the man who was given his sight knows nothing about Jesus except that it was Jesus who ended a lifetime of blindness. But that’s enough for him. Knowing that truth gives him courage to stand up to the moral and societal authority of the Pharisees. It gives him confidence to go down on his knees and worship what, to the eyes of those lacking faith, is no more than simply another man. Jesus has given this man physical sight (an amazing gift!) but has also opened his eyes to see and recognize Jesus, the Son of God.

Now the story moves on. Did you have the same question I did about Jesus’ answer to his disciples about why the man was blind?

The disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

This puts me off. But it aligns me with the Pharisees, that like them my criteria haven’t been met. It’s me saying: Sorry, but if you’re saying God left a person in blindness for decades, just to tee up this miracle for Jesus … well, I object. That doesn’t fit my understanding of how God does things.

It’s funny how saying it out loud shows me how inappropriate it is. It’s as if I were to turn to Jesus and say, “Look, I don’t wanna tell you how to do your job, but …” Funny – it’s also one way to look at the approach the Pharisees continually take toward Jesus.

But, recognizing the flaw in my thinking, I give it a little more thought and realize that this man may have been more than happy to experience the first part of his life in order to experience this moment: to gain his sight and, at the same time, to become someone through whom God’s power is revealed. An important, abiding character in the story of Jesus the Messiah.

Of course, he didn’t know he was waiting. Only God knew what lay ahead, the part he would play, and the joy he would experience. He certainly may have felt deprived and even angry over the years—at his parents, at life in general, even at God.

Here’s where I find for myself in this story today: in the unknowing waiting. I don’t want to equate waiting out the coronavirus with being unable to see, but nonetheless I’d say there’s a parallel.

None of us knows how long we’ll wait before the world is delivered from this pandemic threat. We’re allowed our feelings, up and down, through it all. Some of us may even face deep grief if the virus or another ailment takes a loved one during this time.

In a sense, we’re all in the dark. We’re blind to the immediate outcome.

But we’ve been shown the future—the future revealed by Jesus when he did miracles like this one—giving sight to a man who’d never, ever seen anything of the world around him. This show of what Jesus called “God’s works” is a vision of the God whose world this is, what that God can do, what that God intends to do, and how that God intends things to be: sight for the blind, a sturdy gait for the lame, good news to the poor, food for the hungry, agency for the powerless, God’s will and God’s wisdom as the organizing principles of the universe, with God’s love sustaining it all.

This is what we await while we wait. We too, once were blind. But now we see. No matter what the reality before us, the eyes of faith pierce through to the truth: Jesus is coming to heal us, to heal it all. We are waiting, as always, just more acutely aware now. We wait with hope and confidence grounded in faith in what we’ve seen and heard and in the one who could give a man born blind a whole new life of sight.

May our hope be contagious. May we find ways to spread it, even through closed doors and across social distance.

And may you all be well in body, mind, and spirit.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Pastor Carol

P.S. Looking for a little music? Here’s a song by David Crowder called “You’re Everything.”

The Woman at the Well

Dear Esperanza friends,

It’s our usual day for Lenten Midweek worship. Though we can’t be together, I invite you to pray with me, read a meditation, and listen to Holden Evening Prayer.

Let’s pray together:

Holy Spirit, you draw us into the eternal life of the Triune God and call us together into community, to be the Body of Christ is the world. In you we are one with Christians of every time and place, so we trust we are connected and united with each other even when physically separated. In this time apart, keep our faith strong and keep our hearts soft toward the suffering of others. Build up the bonds between us and fill us with gratitude for the hope we have in you. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Here’s a meditation on Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, from John 4. The woman at the well was the gospel reading for last Sunday, and this meditation captures how Jesus gently draws her to understand who he is and what he has to offer. This meditation is originally from a sister in an abbey in Australia in 2017. The artwork accompanying it is lovely, too.

Finally, if you’re missing Holden Evening Prayer, here it is with words and room for you to sing along.

Blessings on your Lenten meditations.

Pastor Carol

Endurance Test—a message for March 15

Happy Sunday, everyone. Here are some thoughts on one of today’s Scripture readings…

The New Testament reading assigned for today, the third Sunday in Lent, is definitely timely. Here’s the first part of it, from Romans:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:1-5

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…”

While it appears that only a small number of us in the U.S. will suffer directly from covid-19, all of us will get in on some measure of endurance. The word here connotes an intentional patience in the face of something difficult. For a lot of us, isolating ourselves and waiting is the opposite of what we’re motivated to do in a crisis. It feels better to get more active, more busy rather than less so.

It’s a different kind of trying time, when what we’re called on to do for our neighbor’s sake is stay away from them. Temporary Bible motto: Don’t be a good Samaritan, be like the priest who crossed to the other side of the road?

But, back to our actual passage…

Paul is saying to the Romans that, whatever our circumstances and even in times of suffering, we have the most important thing, and that’s peace with God. We’re reconciled to God and happy in that primary relationship. And, as we know from own home lives (growing up and as adults), unresolved grievances in our most fundamental relationships unsettle everything, but reconciliation brings peace.

So, peace with God is the foundation here. And, when we have that foundation, we can get through anything. We can get through the difficult times, even times of suffering, and grow from those times in our stamina and patience, become stronger people (character), and build deeper reservoirs of hope.

Now, if you know the Apostle Paul at all, you know that he’ll bend over backwards to remind his readers that they have nothing to boast about in and of themselves. Peace with God is a gift from God, a gift to be cherished and even boasted about, so long as we’re boasting about God’s amazing love and generosity.

And the hope we have, the hope that’s strengthened by endurance of adversity? That’s also a gift. If it were just generated by our own ability to survive challenges, it wouldn’t ultimately be reliable. Only hope grounded in God will prove out ultimately, when our own abilities reach their limit and when our life-span runs out.

This hope that we have “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” God has not only reconciled us to himself but filled us with his Spirit and his love. The bond God has made with us is indelible. God’s own Spirit resides in us. Our hope can’t be disappointed, it can’t be thwarted. Nothing is stronger than God’s love.

The rest of the Romans passage goes on to spell out just what God did for us in love (again, without our input, so don’t boast, Paul would say).

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:6-11).

“God proves his love for us”: God doesn’t just want us to be reconciled. God doesn’t just want to be able to look at you and me and say, “They’re OK in my book.” God wants us to know, to see, to understand, and to live in that peace, with all the benefits that come with it, through all the times of our lives.

May you all have that peace and hope. May it be the bedrock of your lives. And, remember that this is something you can share with your neighbor. Social distancing can’t stop the transmission of a good word from God.

In Christ,

Pastor Carol

Here’s a hymn you can listen to or sing along with, in various versions for various musical tastes:

It Is Well with My Soul:

with piano accompaniment and lyrics

gospel solo

a cappella

Mormon Tabernacle Choir

 

Facing Challenging Times Together

Rodney Stark’s 1996 book The Rise of Christianity shows how the early church made a strong impression on the people around them by the willingness of Christians to stick around and care for the sick when the plague came to town. At risk to themselves, they lived out their love for their neighbors in a tangible way. With Jesus as their example, those earliest followers of his were clear on what they were supposed to do if a neighbor was in any kind of need. Besides, there’s no need to run for your life when God has already given you a never-ending, eternal life to work with.

In this time of COVID-19, the challenge for those of us who aren’t medical professionals is to stay away from each other. Keeping our distance and washing our hands are key practices to help slow the spread of this new virus. But we also can be intentional about maintaining supportive relationships by phone and email and keeping up our prayers for each other.

Your Esperanza Church Council spent time considering how our church community can best deal with this situation. Here’s where we are as of the time I’m writing (Friday, March 13):

Communication:

If you are in doubt about whether an event (Sunday service, choir practice, etc.) is going to be held, you can check the Esperanza website. We will post cancellations there in as timely a fashion as possible. In addition, we’ll send emails with information when plans change. We’re working on setting up a system to be able to send a text to everyone who’d like to get updates that way.

Sundays:

We will continue to have services as usual, but with modifications to avoid having multiple people touch things. We won’t share the peace or join hands for the Lord’s Prayer. Communion servers will wash their hands immediately before communion. Baskets for the offering will be set out so that people can simply drop their envelopes in. And we will pause the passing of the attendance folder.

If you are providing coffee hour snacks during this time, please consider bringing pre-packaged items.

Sunday, March 22:

We’ve been strongly encouraging everyone to make a concerted effort to be at church for a day-long workshop on Sunday, March 22, in preparation for beginning the call process for Esperanza’s next pastor. At this point we plan to go forward with this event. However, we don’t want anyone to come who feels anxious about being with a group for so many hours. If you are hesitant to come, there will be both online and paper options for sharing your thoughts. In addition, we’ll offer the option of a phone conversation with a member of the Ministry Site Profile Team or the Church Council. This is especially for people who might have trouble doing extensive writing.

If you have non-urgent questions, please get in touch with Pastor Carol (pastor.carol@myesperanza.org) or Joni Thorpe (esperanza@myesperanza.org). Urgent questions can come to me at 224-422-9552.

Finally, I want to mention what a blessing it is, at a time like this, to be part of a community like Esperanza. Belonging in a community and knowing that there are people who care is a great benefit to both our spiritual and our physical health. Let’s lean on that. And, if you know of neighbors who are already isolated, even before the virus, you can be like those early Christians by reaching out and extending the support you have to others who need it.

May you remain in good health and good spirits.

In Christ,

Pastor Carol

Love in a Time of Choler

I’ve been reading 1 John and finding no place to hide.

The author writes to a Christian community with this straightforward declaration, one of many like it:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:7-8).

You could try to find a little wiggle room here, because John maybe means we (Christians) need to love one another (other Christians), and not that we need to love everybody.

But I’m thinking that’s a bit of a dodge.

I mean, even if John was referring to life within the Christian community, there’s still his big, universal statement: “Love comes from God.” It’s hard to parse that out to convince ourselves that God is really perfectly OK with us hating people who aren’t part of our community, so long as we love our Christians sisters and brothers. God did create every single one of those other folks too.

So, here we are in a time of high dudgeon—so many, many things to be angry about and so many, many people who do or say those things we’re angry about.

On top of that, many of us are over-busy and chronically stressed, which wears away our good intentions and makes us more prone to irritability and anger. In this environment, how well do we do when we check ourselves with John’s litmus test?

This time we’re in could be a great opportunity for us to demonstrate the counter-cultural nature of a life spent following Jesus, by letting love undergird our relationships and our opinions and our comments and our stance toward people who disagree with us—even those whose views we find truly disturbing.

If we practice loving, if we consciously adopt an attitude of love-first/agreement-or-disagreement-second, it will show. People will sense it. It will make a difference in the world—a real, tangible difference.

And, as a bonus, it’ll help us know God more fully. It’ll help us experience, on a small scale, what God is doing every moment of every day: loving people no matter what.

In Christ,

Pastor Carol

There’s an App for That!

Please excuse me if I use my space this week to plug an app. I just want to make sure people have heard of the YouVersion Bible app.

This app offers an apparently limitless number of reading plans to help guide your Bible-reading. You can choose a plan focused on a personal issue you struggle with (worry, busyness, etc.) or a theme like grace or stewardship or Sabbath. Or you can launch into a particular biblical book, a section of Scripture, or the whole Bible, using a plan that provides guidance and devotional content for each day.

I’ve known a lot of people who’ve found the Bible app to be the perfect answer to the dilemma of wanting to read the Bible more but not knowing where or how to begin.

Personally, I’m at day 310 of a through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan that includes daily devotionals reflecting on each day’s readings.

Of course you can look up the readings in your own Bible if you prefer not to read from a screen. Bu you can also highlight verses and make note in the app.

The app is also good to have simply to look up passages or read whatever you want to read. And it comes with lots of different translations and versions in English as well as in lots of other languages.

The app is free. If you don’ have it, I encourage you to give it a look. Online it’s at bible.com. In the app store, search “Bible” or “YouVersion Bible app,” skip past the paid ad, and look for the icon below.

And remember: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

May God bless your Bible-reading!

-Pastor Carol

 

Welcome Pastor Carol!

Hello, Esperanza Lutheran Church!

I’m excited to be beginning my ministry with you as your interim pastor. In case you’re not familiar with that term, an interim pastor takes on all the responsibilities of a “regular” pastor and also supports the congregation’s work of self-study and preparation to call its next pastor.

This can be an exciting time of special openness to the movement of God’s Spirit. And, while patient listening and discernment can be a challenge for those of us who live our lives in constant motion, this is a chance for us to slow down, trust the Spirit and each other, and let God be our guide.

While all that’s going on, we’ll continue to reach out with the gospel, gather together in worship, love and care for each other, grow in faith and understanding, and serve our neighbors in need.

And when this transitional period is complete, Esperanza Church will be ready to move into a new future with energy and enthusiasm.

Sound fun? I think so, too.

See you Sunday!

In Christ,

Pastor Carol

 

Birth Stories

Dear friends,

 

Pastor Steve Holm

It’s hard to believe but my time as your “fill-in pastor” is rapidly drawing to a close. My last service as preacher and presider will be on Christmas Day. I want to thank you for your patience and encouragement over these two months–I’ve enjoyed working with the texts and preparing sermons.

 

This week we get an opportunity to look at the birth story of Jesus through the eyes of both Matthew and Luke. As you know, they have two very different accounts. Matthew, whose story we hear this Sunday, tells the story from the perspective of Joseph and says nothing about angels, shepherds, or a manger. He emphasizes Joseph’s faithfulness and mentions Mary only in passing.

 

The other story of Jesus’ birth, the one found in Luke, is the one we’ll hear on Christmas Eve. It’s undoubtedly one of the most familiar and beautiful bible stories and has been carefully crafted to capture our attention and imagination. Many of us could probably recite portions of it from memory, especially if we’ve ever participated in Sunday School Christmas programs. Luke makes Mary the central figure and Joseph is the one who gets the non-speaking role.

 

Both writers speak of Mary’s virginity in order to hammer home the point that Jesus is the messiah and that the fullness of divinity rests in him. Jesus is different–he has no earthly father. For some that notion of a virgin birth has been distracting and troublesome, almost a stumbling block to faith. It’s even caused some to reject the entirety of the gospel narratives. Others, including myself, try to understand the reason for telling the stories in this fashion, and reject a wooden literal interpretation.

 

These really are beautiful stories and each of them contain powerful truths behind the images. To get at those truths will be the aim of my sermons this last week of my time with you.

 

Thanks again for the chance to serve. You will be in my prayers as the interim pastor begins her work and you begin the exciting process of finding a new pastor. I can’t wait to see who it will be.

 

Blessings,

 

Steve

Pink Candle Sunday

Isaiah 35:1-10

Psalm 146:5-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

Pastor Steve Holm

Dear Friends,

One of the things that drew Cherie and me to Esperanza seven years ago, in addition to Pastor Steve’s stimulating sermons, was the amazing choir that we heard regularly at the 8:30 worship service we attended. What a blessing they are! Not only do the members have exceptional voices, the highly skilled director, Robin Neely, coaxes excellence from them without fail. To hear them sing is definitely worth the price of admission!

The third Sunday in Advent, also known as “pink candle Sunday,” is a time to reflect on the joy that is ours in Christ Jesus, and this year it will be packed with joy for all of us. Not only will you not have to listen to me, you’ll hear the choir at their best as they perform their annual Christmas cantata while accompanied by a six piece chamber orchestra. Because it’s a special occasion, and to save the vocalist’s voices, we’ll be combining the 8:30 and 10:30 services into one and meeting at 9:30 a.m. I have a feeling you’ll definitely want to get there a bit early as it’s likely to be a sell-out!

And while you’re checking your calendar, don’t forget the Blue Christmas service at 7:00 p.m. on December 18. This is the fourth time Esperanza has offered the community this opportunity and I know I’ve attended the first three. I’ll be there again this time and am looking forward to the blessing it provides for those of us feeling a bit of sadness during the holiday season. I know I’ll be thinking about Pastor Steve’s absence–and I won’t be the only one!. Losses are magnified in moments of celebration and it’s good to have time and a place to reflect on the myriad of feelings that loss of any kind can bring.

Thanks again for the opportunity of serving you during these months.

Blessings,

Steve

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