Pastor’s Blog

There's Some Body in Heaven

Today is Ascension Thursday. The PCUSA Book of Common Worship explains that "forty days after celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord, near the conclusion of the season of Easter, we commemorate the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ into heaven." Today we emphasize that Jesus not only rose bodily from the grave, he also ascended from earth to heaven. The first disciples watched Jesus rise from the earth and disappear into the clouds (Acts 1:1-11). What amazes me about this celebration is that we affirm there is a flesh-and-blood human being in heaven, Jesus. I usually think of people who have gone to heaven as being disembodied spirits. And so they are. They are still awaiting the resurrection of the body at the end of time -- but not Jesus. Jesus has his resurrection body already. He stands like a promise that all who trust in him will also share in his resurrection (Romans 8:23). Even more, as a fully human being, Jesus intercedes constantly for us. Having been tried and tempted like we are, and having now gone up into heaven, he is able to sympathize with us and pray for our own successful journey toward heaven (Hebrews 4:14-16). He is constantly sending grace our way. To me, Ascension Day suggests we have a strong connection with heaven through Jesus. His spirit is in us while we are in this world, and our humanity is with him in heaven. One day, when Jesus descends again, our bodies and spirits will be united in glory. Until then, we enjoy a kind of "long distance" relationship. It comforts me, in the challenges of life, to know that Jesus is exalted on high and calling me upwards. Heaven is our destination, so I can live with that view in mind. As the Scriptures say, "set your sights on heaven, where Christ sits..." (Colossians 3:1-3). May God also fill you with hope, as you celebrate Jesus' ascension into heaven.  

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St. Patrick, A Spiritual Inspiration

Today is St. Patrick's Day. Across many communities and cities the characteristic features of Irish culture assert themselves -- the color green, admiration of nature, leprechauns, shamrocks, live music, Celtic art, and plenty of eating and drinking with friends and family. Originally, St. Patrick's Day was proclaimed by the church to remember and celebrate the saintly man who "brought [the Irish] out of darkness" into the light of the knowledge of God in Christ. For centuries, the Christian Church -- based in Rome at that time -- was unable to make any in-roads with the Irish people, who were fiercely dedicated to their pagan culture and fought off foreign gestures that seemed to threaten their way of life. In the 5th century, a boy called Patrick was taken from England as a slave to Ireland. In his suffering, he prayed to God for guidance and protection. Trusting in God's ability to protect him, Patrick made an escape. Safely reunited with his family in England, Patrick continued to be a devout and prayerful Christian. To his surprise, he discovered that God was calling him back to Ireland -- this time not as a slave, but freely, to preach the gospel to the Irish people who had previously enslaved him. He records a vision that he had:

"I speak the truth, that I saw a vision of the night: a man named Victoricus—like one from Ireland—coming with innumerable letters. He gave me one of them and I began to read what was in it: The voice of the Irish.... It was as if they were shouting with one voice: “O holy boy, we beg you to come again and walk among us.” And I was broken hearted and could not read anything more. And at that moment I woke up. (O’Loughlin, Thomas. "The Patrick Tradition." Celtic Spirituality, p. 73)

In response to God's call, Patrick returned to Ireland. As one familiar with Irish culture and filled with love for the Irish people, Patrick was able to communicate the gospel in ways that made sense to them. He used illustrations from nature, such as the three-leafed clover, to teach about the Triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Showing the self-effacing love of Christ, he helped chieftains to reduce warfare and unite in new bonds of peace. Respecting the mystical powers of the pagan religious leaders -- the druids -- Patrick relied upon and demonstrated the superior power of God accessible through Christian prayer. Patrick's humility and personal holiness won over virtually the entire Irish population. Eventually, Patrick was able to reflect:

"...In Ireland... they never had knowledge of God—and until now they celebrated only idols and unclean things. Yet recently, what a change: They have become “a prepared people” of the Lord, and they are now called “the sons of God.” (O’Loughlin, Thomas. "The Patrick Tradition." Celtic Spirituality, p. 78.)

Soon, Ireland was sending missionaries into other parts of the world. They took with them an Irish Christianity that reflects the cultural elements of the Emerald Isle -- passionate love of life, the beauty and goodness of nature, and a dedication to prayer that sees the mystery and holiness of life.

On St. Patrick's Day, the Irish may say, "Today everyone is a little Irish." While this may be an invitation to sing, drink, and talk, I invite us to consider that it also contains a hint that Christianity is a way of life that is meant for all people. The love of God goes into every culture and, shining light and love, it brings the beauty of each culture into the Kingdom of Heaven. Today everyone can be a little Christian.

The most famous prayer of St. Patrick comes from the "Breastplate of St. Patrick." A portion of the prayer goes like this:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me;

Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me;

Christ to right of me, Christ to left of me;

Christ in my lying, Christ in my sitting, Christ in my rising;

Christ in the heart of all who think of me,

Christ on the tongue of all who speak to me,

Christ in the eye of all who see me,

Christ in ear of all who hear me.

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What Transfiguration Sunday Reveals About Our Bodies

Christian tradition holds that 40 days before his crucifixion, Jesus led his most intimate disciples -- Peter, James, and John -- to Mt. Tabor in Galilee. There, he was transfigured before them. His body morphed from its usual appearance into a glorious, heavenly form. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light. Jesus was joined by two additional figures in glory: Moses and Elijah. They represented the Law and the Prophets, respectively. Then a "bright cloud" descended and a voice from heaven spoke: The Holy Spirit and God the Father enveloped the scene.

Although overwhelmed at the time, the disciples later reflected that this amazing revelation showed them that Jesus was the one who would fulfill all the hopes of God's people and that he was God's very own Son. Even more, the early Christians discerned a glimpse of the destiny of our own bodies. Just as Jesus' body was transfigured into a glorious body, so our own bodies will be transformed from their mortal state into something fit for eternal life. St. Paul would later write, "We shall all be changed...this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality." (1 Corinthians 15:51, 53). In other words, transfiguration is in store for all of us.  

This is a very different vision of the body than what is usually set before us. One popular outlook is that when we die the lifeless body is all that remains of the person. It decays and is lost forever. There is no soul or afterlife. This is a materialistic view of human nature. Another popular outlook is strictly spiritual. When the body dies, it is left behind and the soul goes on forever without it. Having a body is not essential to being a human, and it is often a hinderance. The body can and will be discarded.  

The Christian view of the body is different. Christians believe that God loves human beings in their totality -- body and soul. God sent his Son, Jesus, to give eternal life to the whole person. Jesus died in the body and he rose bodily from the grave. Christians believe that we will share that same pattern of bodily death and resurrection. Christians believe that at the time of death the soul and the body will be separated only temporarily. At the great day of Resurrection, God will reunite human souls and bodies into a new state of being. We will have bodies that are glorious and beyond the reach of death...just like Jesus showed us. All the bodily problems we have right now -- whether of functionality or comfort or approval -- will be fixed. One person said that our resurrection bodies will be "the best version of ourselves," finally showing clearly who we are in God.

Reflecting on this revelation suggests something important for us this Lent. During this season of penance, we can engage our bodies. We can and should embody our faith. We can ask ourselves, How am I using (or misusing) my body in light of the fact that my body is meant for heaven? Paul wrote, "The body is for the Lord... and the Lord is for the body." (1 Corinthians 6:13). Lord, how do I give you my body?

Now is the time to look forward to Lent and pray about how the Lord wants to show his glory through your body. He may invite you to fast or abstain from other habitual behaviors to root out sins. He may call you to a new form of service -- cleaning up an area, building something, or creating a piece of art. He may prompt you to offer gestures of affection to people starving for connection. The possibilities may be surprising because God wants to shine through the whole you.  

In short, Transfiguration Sunday reminds us that the purpose of our bodies is to share in the glory of God. May God bless you through his glorious Son, Jesus, this Lenten season!  

A prayer:

O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah; and in the voice from the cloud you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us, with Christ, heirs of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.  

-- from the Presbyterian Church. Book of Common Worship (pp. 226-227).

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Why are there 12 Days of Christmas?

Every year, it seems that the buildup for Christmas starts earlier and earlier. Decorations and sales have even started competing with Thanksgiving. Then, suddenly, Christmas is over and the world goes back to normal. In traditional Christian observance, however, Christmas Day is the beginning of the Christmas season, not the end of it.

The Christmas season commences with the celebration of Christ's nativity on December 25th and continues until January 6th, the Epiphany of the Lord -- 12 days. On Epiphany ( Greek = "manifestation") we remember that wise men came from distant lands to honor the newborn King. (Matthew 2:1-12) The season of Christmas, culminating in Epiphany, reminds us that Christ was born to be a light for all people.

On the one or two Sundays that fall within the Christmas Season, we focus on events that happen in Jesus' very early life. For example, this year, we will hear the violent and scary story of how King Herod attempted to destroy the newborn Christ. Thankfully, the Child was protected and grew up to later overcome such evil through his purposeful death and resurrection. (Matthew 2:13-18) Such early stories remind us that when Christ was born he truly joined in our experiences of suffering and offers real hope to a world that is needy for it.

Christmas is more than a single-day holiday. Christmas Day is just the beginning.

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Should I go to church on Christmas?

I recently read an article which described how a major congregation was going to cancel Sunday morning worship this weekend. The reason? It will be Christmas morning. The church leadership does not expect that the congregation will attend on Christmas morning.

This set me reflecting. I can certainly appreciate that many Christians have obligations or family dynamics that simply make it unworkable to attend worship on Christmas morning. For many Christians, this may even be a source of mild disappointment. So, I'm not interested in taking cheap shots at them by suggesting that they are failing to "keep Christ in Christmas" or capitulating to secular culture. I am sure that they will find ways to honor Christ on Christmas, just as we all do whenever Christmas falls on a weekday (which is often).

Still, I am very glad that my church will be gathering for worship on Christmas morning. There are several reasons for this. The most important to me is that it gives me the opportunity to put the adoration of the Christ Child right at the center of Christmas Day. Amidst all of the gifts that will be opened on Christmas day, the gift of Jesus is the most precious one -- a gift from God. The Child is God's gift of life and hope to me, to my loved ones, and to the whole world. Worship on Christmas morning is like taking the time to open up God's gift and really appreciating it. For me, it puts all the presents under the tree into the right perspective. They are signs of the joy we feel for the gift of Christ.

Next, I find that worshiping on Christmas day is a way for me to teach my children (and remind myself) that Christ is the One who makes all of life significant. By taking the time and making the effort to go to church on a holiday as big as Christmas, I send a message to my children that Christ is Lord. We can treat Him as such at all times, even at Christmas. In our experience, Santa is perfectly fine with this. Santa respects our priorities. Santa never claims to be Lord, rather he seems to wish us an all the merrier Christmas when we worship.

Lastly, I deeply appreciate gathering with my Christian brothers and sisters on Christmas morning. It is a joy to see their smiling faces, to hear them sing, and to exchange wishes for a Merry Christmas. By gathering in the sanctuary, we reenact how Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds gathered around the newborn Christ. As wonderful as it is to be with our own family on Christmas, Christ invites us into a larger family -- the family of God. The divine family extends all over our neighborhoods, across our nation, and throughout the world. When we gather together on Christmas, we get a glimpse of Christ's family. We are reminded that along with Christ, God gives us the gift of being part of a spiritual family.

This year, Christmas falls on a Sunday. I am glad that it does. The last time this happened was in 2016. It will happen again in 2033. So, it does not happen often. When it does, we have a precious opportunity to gather together to welcome and worship Christ on the day of his arrival along with all those who celebrate him.

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What is Advent?

Advent is a four-Sunday season that marks the commencement of a new Christian year and serves as a prelude to the celebration of Christmas. Fittingly, it is a season of expectation and hope. During Advent we remember that God's love was made manifest in the birth of Jesus Christ. The Son of God "became flesh and dwelt among us." (John 1:14) For Christians, all of life is anchored in Jesus Christ. During this season, we seek to prepare ourselves to welcome Jesus into our hearts and into the world all over again.

It is likely that the observance of Advent goes back at least 1,500 years. When you enter the church sanctuary, you will see traditional symbols of the Advent season. The color purple, signifying royalty, reminds us that Jesus is the coming King. The four candles of the Advent candelabra represent hope, peace, joy, and love. Each Sunday we light an additional candle, signifying that Jesus is the light who comes into a dark world. (John 1:4-5) The Christ candle in the center of the candelabra will be lighted on Christmas Eve. Music and preaching during this season tend to emphasize the nearness of the Kingdom of God and the need to be watchful.

Importantly, Advent mirrors the season of Lent, which also utilizes the color purple. During Lent we remember that the King who came on Christmas suffered and died for our salvation. For this reason, Christians often reinvigorate their spiritual devotion during Advent, seeking to respond as generously to Christ as possible. Spending extra time in prayer, repentance, and service are typical practices.

"Advent" means coming. Throughout this season, we are encouraged to be alert to the nearness of God. The miracle of Christmas is precisely that God comes among us in Christ. I invite us at the outset of Advent to prepare to make him welcome.  

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The Spirit of Thanksgiving

Every year the President of the United States calls all Americans to cease from work and normal occupations to give thanks to God for the many blessings we enjoy and to beseech God's blessing upon our country. In many ways, Thanksgiving is comparable to Fall festivals held the world over. Fall is a natural time to enjoy the fruits of the harvest and to ready ourselves for the challenges of winter. The President usually issues the Thanksgiving edict in the most general of terms so that Americans of all perspectives may share the holiday according to conscience.

It seems to me that we Christians should embrace this holiday whole heartedly. We believe that God has indeed blessed us. We believe it is right to give our thanks and praise to God. We believe that we should be praying for our nation and all nations. We give thanks and pray every Sunday. In other words, we are already a thanks-giving people.

Connecting Thanksgiving to our regular Sunday morning worship is helpful because it reminds us of the point of the holiday -- giving thanks to God. We want to enjoy a feast, of course. But let us not stop there. Let us be sure to give thanks. We want to be with family and friends. Let us bless God for them. We want to enjoy our religious liberty and free society. Let us pray for God's blessing upon all nations.

My hope is that we -- with our clear vision of God's goodness toward all in Christ -- would role-model the spirit of this holiday.  

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What is Christ the King Sunday?

The Christian year is built around our experience of Jesus Christ. As we come to the end of the year, we set our hope firmly upon the promised reign of Christ. One day, Jesus will return from heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God the Father in glory, to establish his kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace for all people. Celebrating Christ as King makes us a hopeful people. For us, reality is not random. Rather, Christ reigns and he is guiding history toward a glorious end.

As Christians, we seek to live into Christ's kingdom right now. We obey Christ's commands and follow his example. This is our way of showing that Christ is our Lord. It also points others toward faith in Christ. Through our faithfulness we become a "provisional exhibition of the Kingdom of God to the world." (PCUSA Book of Order, F-1.0304)

Importantly, we remember that King Jesus knows the endurance required of his people. The first crown Jesus wore was one composed of thorns. Before he was lifted up into glory, he was hung on a cross. It was because Jesus was willing to humble himself for our sakes that God lifted him up and gave him a name that is above every other name. (Philippians 2:9) Since he is the one who died and rose again, we give him our allegiance and our adoration. (PCUSA Book of Worship, p.394).

Although our world is often chaotic, I invite us to find hope and perspective by embracing Christ as King. May he reign in our lives, as we trust his promise: "In this world you will have trouble, but be of good courage for I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

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All Saints Day, Nov. 1st, 2022

Today is All Saints Day. According to the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, this holiday has been observed since the ninth century. We remember our predecessors in the faith, who have completed their baptism through death. They have gone ahead of us into glory. While we mourn those who have died, we also rejoice in the promise of eternal life given to us by Jesus Christ. Today, we emphasize the calling we share with all saints everywhere to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit and to live in faithful expectation of the Kingdom of God.

While All Saint's Day is a special day of observance, we remember throughout the year our connection with all of God's people -- throughout time and space. When we say the Apostle's Creed, the most unifying and universal expression of Christian faith, we affirm that we believe in the "communion of saints." We believe that to be a Christian is to be a member of a vast community of people who belong to Jesus Christ. When we celebrate communion by eating bread and wine, we remember and show that Jesus' death and resurrection has united us to God and to one another.

Today I rejoice in the profound truth that to be called into relationship with God through Christ is to also be called into a community of other people. We are connected to God through Christ, and through Christ we belong to one another. In short, because of Christ we are not alone.

This All Saints Day, I invite us to pray for those who have lost a loved one this year, to celebrate the good news of eternal life in Christ, and to be active members of the community of faith.

Here is a prayer that you may choose to use today:

"Faithful God, source of every blessing: teach us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who persecute us, to turn the other cheek, to share our possessions, to give to those who are in need, and to do to others as we would have them do to us, so that we may join that company of blessed saints who feast with you in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Luke 6:20-31)

May the blessing of All Saints Day be with you today!

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Reformation Day, October 31st, 2022

Every year, many Protestant communities acknowledge Reformation Day on October 31st. This observance reminds Presbyterians of the origin of our distinctive way of being Christian in the 15th century. Pastoral leaders, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, challenged the norms of their day with bold visions of Christian community.

Today, Presbyterians seek to continue the ethos of "reformation" by constantly evaluating our faith and practice in relation to contemporary needs and in light of God's ongoing mission to the world. We are willing to make changes. We seek to challenge the norms within our church that are harmful or obscure the gospel. We seek to clarify and strengthen our vocation to be a representation of the Kingdom of God.

While Reformation Day has strong connections to the Protestant community, it also calls us to think about ecumenical relationships. We are partners with Christians all around the world. Our Book of Confessions, which includes ancient and universal formulas, such as the Apostle's Creed, also contains documents like the Confession of Belhar, which was adopted by our denomination in 2016.

This year, the PCUSA highlights the Belhar Confession because of its relevance to the contemporary issues of racism and division.

You may like to read this confession. Here is a link:

This Reformation Day, I invite us all to embrace a hopeful outlook toward the future. God is always doing new things and leading us into more profound expressions of discipleship. Prayerfully, we may identify areas for repentance and areas for renewed vigor. On Reformation Day, we celebrate that every day is a new opportunity to be and become the people of God.

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