Spiritual Life

Spiritual life: A monthly article from Pastor Susan



Pastor Susan Weaver

Comfort or despair?

January 2016

Did you get what you wanted for Christmas? That was the question my friend Debbie asked me every Christmas morning when I was a kid. What did you get? You know Rich and I are clearly at the phase of our life that should involve unburdening our house of stuff. Which I do regularly. Often I walk through my house, saying “too much stuff”. And I haul bags out – to the PROP shop, to Goodwill.

And yet, despite the clutter, I still wanted things this Christmas. I wanted a fine leather cover for my new favorite Bible. I wanted one of those lights that comes on slowly in the morning, imitating the sunrise, and I wanted a portable speaker. And of course, well, jewelry and books are always good for me. I’m writing this before Christmas, so I don’t know yet what my gifts will be.

There were things I wanted and got last year, but I don’t remember what they were. And even if I did get everything I want for Christmas this year (which should never be; it’s not good for us!), I guarantee you, there will things I want next Christmas too. This kind of wanting can only be satisfied by buying more stuff. And then a little more. And so on.

So let’s leave that question behind, and ask a better question. A more faith-based question. What are you longing for these days? Not what do you want, but what do you long for? It’s a deeper question, and one worthy of a more thoughtful response. What do you long for? And to answer it, we often have to get through a few somewhat superficial answers before we get to our true longings. Go past the “I long for a new car, a better body, more money, a nice vacation” answers. Go past the things that money can buy. Go deeper. What are the longings of your heart? What does your soul want? It’s a good spiritual formation question. A good question to pray into. A good question to talk about with a friend, or maybe to journal about.

It is into a very sharp and specific longing that Isaiah spoke the beautiful words I just read. The people of God are in exile. Judah has been defeated militarily, the people carried off from their homes, their neighborhoods and towns, and forcefully delivered to Babylon. Where they have been for about 60 years. Imagine that. 60 years. Most of the people who were brought out of Judah have died. New generations have replaced them. How do you keep hope alive when so many of your people don’t even remember your homeland?

They long for their old lives back, to be sure. To go back to their homes and be a nation again. But deeper than that, they’re longing to know they haven’t been abandoned, that God is still their god. They’re longing to hear a good word from God again. To know themselves once again as God’s people. They’re longing for a reason to hope.

And into that longing, God speaks such beautiful words, “Comfort, oh comfort my people. Speak tenderly to them. Tell them that their exile is over and that I am still their God, and I will bring them back to their land.” The prophet cries out building instructions – make a highway, a level, smooth highway for God to bring God’s people home.” “He will feed them like a shepherd, gather the lambs in his arms, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Such beautiful words: comfort, tenderness, gentleness. All these centuries later, they melt my heart. I can only imagine what they must have meant to those who heard them first. Relief. Joy. Hope.

What are you longing for this season? Are you, too, longing for a word of hope? A reminder that God is real. That God has not forgotten or abandoned the human race? Are you, too, longing for a Word from God?

We see and we hear, - all day long, thanks to the 24 hour news cycle – the troubles that plague the world and our nation. War planes fill the skies in the Middle East. Refugees by the tens of thousands are looking for a safe place to live. Innocent lives are lost to senseless violence. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. Tensions between the races erupt over and over again. Our elected leaders seem incapable of doing anything about it.

Are you tempted to give in to despair too? Do you sit with the ancient Israelites in exile and wonder if God has forgotten us, or that worse yet, God’s given up on us? Every generation tends to believe that its problems are greater than those of every generation before it, including ours. I don’t believe that the world is in any worse shape overall than it has been. I think we are encouraged to believe this by the hundreds of media voices vying for our attention. And so we have become accustomed to thinking so. I know it’s a pretty familiar meme. I hear it all the time. Maybe you do too. Maybe you sigh and shake your head and bemoan the state of the world. Does it drive you to suspicion? And fear? And division?

If so, then let me remind you of who you are. Who we are. Of why we gather. Let me remind you of our common faith. We are people who claim that our God – the God who created this world - inhabits it as well. It is at the very heart of our faith: Incarnation, God enfleshed. It’s embedded in our name – Immanuel, God with us.

Resurrection and new life define us. They are proclaimed every Sunday in every Christian church. Even in the midst of our darkness – our own personal darkness and the darkness of the world – we trust in the Light. We have this faith. We must join the prophets in proclaiming it. And more than proclaiming it, we must live it.

I worry sometimes that Christians have lost our faith. O lost our nerve. Or maybe lost our voice. That we have forgotten who we are and given in to the cynicism of the day. Which is a thoroughly unchristian thing to do. A thoroughly unchristian thing to do!

Let me remind of what you’ve been told over and over: that our faith is often profoundly counter cultural. We are people who swim upstream! And this is certainly one way in which this is true. In a world that sometimes seems mired in despair, we must be people of hope. We are called to practice active, not passive, but active, resistance to the pervasive pessimism around them. And when others try to stoke that fire of fear, we must offer witness to our faith. In all times and all places, we must look for – and point to, witness to – the coming of God into the world. Over and over and over again.

This is not a “pie in the sky” way of believing. It’s not naïve optimism or looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. No. This is faith. Faith in the who has come, who does come and will come into our world. A God who keeps promises.

This season, let us take Isaiah’s message of God’s compassion and tenderness in the world. Into our homes and workspaces, and schools, for sure. But let’s also speak it to the cancer ward, to the homeless shelter. To those who grieve. To the neighborhoods of north Minneapolis. To the halls of Congress. To refugee camps around the world. To angry young men everywhere and those that would train them to hate and kill.

Let us stand firm in the faith that God is at work in the world. Will be at work in the world, to bless, to heal, to restore and to rescue. Because if we don’t proclaim it, who will? And more than that, let us join in God’s work of blessing, healing and restoration. Because if we don’t engage in this work, who will? Let us be witnesses of hope, above all, let us be witnesses of hope. What are you longing for this season? I believe with all my heart, that the deepest longings of our hearts, of all human hearts, are the same: peace, belonging, food, clothing, shelter, to love and be loved. And I believe with all my heart that those longings are met, not in some store or website, but only in the heart of God.

This is the God who has come in the manger. The God who comes into the heart of each believer, each moment of this life. The God who will come at the end of all things. This is the cause of our hope. And the name of that hope is Jesus.

Letting Go… A Gentle Art

October 2015

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the gentle art of letting go. As I’ve been in conversations with parents, including my own daughter, about how it feels to have your child move into greater independence, a phrase I used often in my parent educator days comes back to me, “Parenting is all about letting go”. The hard part is determining the pace – how much and how soon. Parents everywhere know the bitter sweetness of having a child grow up and away – so much love, so much yearning to keep them close!

As I now move into part-time status at Immanuel, I am aware that I must be in the business of letting go in my work life as well. Some current areas of responsibility will be passed on to our new pastor. Some planning processes will go on without me. My natural inclination to “do whatever it takes” will need to be reckoned with. Letting go does not come naturally to me!

But there is a much broader way, a deeper understanding, of letting go that seems to come with spiritual maturity. It extends into all our lives – not just family and work – because it’s rooter so much more deeply. It’s not at all the same as giving up. In my mind, when I give up, I fold my arms and stomp away. I’m angry and resistant, and I surrender only because I have no other choice. This kind of surrender is rooted in pride and power.

When I let go, on the other hand, I recognize the limits of what I am called to do and gently set down the things that are not mine. And Lord knows, there are things that I – we – cling to that are not ours! Among these: Letting go of unrealistic expectations of others and myself. This habit wreaks havoc in our personal relationships and our inner happiness! Letting go of making sure that everything comes out like I want. As if ‘what I want’ is the greatest good! Letting go of the need to have everyone’s approval, all of the time. This is the surest way I know to make yourself crazy.

As we grow in faith, we also grow in our acceptance of our place in the universe, which isn’t the same as anyone else’s. We recognize that God is at work everywhere, all the time, and that God’s way is always better than mine. We focus less on what we are doing, and more on what God is doing. In this way, letting go is a “strong surrender”. It’s rooted in patience, humility and faith.

This prayer came from a wise old seminary professor, Dr. Bill Smith:

Give us the blessed gift, O Loving God, of:
Letting go one more time from wanting to be in control.
Giving up one more time the desire to predict life.
Of dying one more time to the fear of not knowing where it will all lead.
Of surrendering one more time to a love that knows no limits.
For Jesus sake,
Amen


God’s Story…My Story

September 2015
These are all snippets I’ve heard as I’ve invited people to tell me their faith story. Notice how varied they are - there are as many faith stories as there are people! Every faith story is valid, including each of these.

Too often we think that a faith story is the same as a conversion story. It’s not. Not everyone has a conversion story. I’ve also found that when you ask someone about their faith story, they will tell you their church story. Not the same. Mostly, we seem to think that a faith story has to reflect some kind of special holiness, to be kind of a spiritual “success” story. “Mine doesn’t count,” we tell ourselves. But of course, it does.

We need to get past the idea that there is a “good faith story” or “bad faith story”. There is only what is, and has been, your experience with God. Name it, claim it, tell it, without pride or embarrassment. There is no contest, no comparison or competition!

We’ve been encouraging people to tell their faith stories for a few years now. Every month, one of our Council members begins our meeting by telling their faith story. For many, it’s their favorite part of the meeting. For those who share, it’s a faith booster. We plan to offer more and more opportunities in the months ahead. Maybe you will be asked!

As you prepare yourself to tell your faith story, here are some questions to think about: Not sit down with a friend and talk through the questions. Or write out the answers. Step back and look at your answers. Once you’d named your experiences, claim them – this is your story! Give God thanks for the life you and God have traveled together, and prayerfully ask God, “what’s next?” Remember, God’s not done with you – not now, not ever!
Pastor Susan

Spiritual Vitality

August 2015

Spiritual [spir-i-choo-uh l] adjective
1. of or relating to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature: a spiritual approach to life.
2. of or relating to the spirit as the seat of the moral or religious nature.
3. of or relating to sacred things or matters; religious; devotional; sacred.
Vitality [vahy-tal-i-tee] noun
1. exuberant physical strength or mental vigor: a person of great vitality.
2. capacity for survival or for the continuation of a meaningful or purposeful existence: the vitality of an institution.
3. power to live or grow: the vitality of a language.

Here’s how the Congregation Assessment Tool that Immanuel members recently took defines spiritual vitality. “The degree to which members believe that their faith is central to their lives rather than peripheral or episodic.” Spirituality vitality was our lowest score, as compared to other churches of similar size and style.

The good news is that, according to the survey, 64.7% of us agree or strongly agree that, “my spirituality is the basis of my whole approach to life.” My question is, do we agree on a definition of “spirituality”? Are we all talking about the same thing when we say our, “spirituality is the basis of my whole approach to life.”?

I have a friend who often refers to others as, “a very spiritual person.” In many ways, “spirituality” has become a buzz word these days. Truth is, there are dozens of “spiritualties” out there: new age, Buddhist, eco- , neo-pagan, etc., etc. What is it that characterizes Christian spirituality, particularly? Here is the best definition I know: Christian spirituality is the process of being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ, for the sake of the world.

Unpack that with me, please: So, how vital is your spirituality? Is it exuberant? Vigorous? Powerful? How vital is our congregational spirituality? How shall we measure it? How shall we grow it? For sure, spiritual growth is slow, gradual work. It involves ALL our lives, not just our church lives. And given the level of distraction and busyness in our lives, tending to your spiritual life requires an intentional commitment.

Will you make that commitment to yourself and to this congregation in the year ahead? Together, let’s learn to talk about our faith, to pray regularly and often, and sometimes in silence. Let’s learn to claim God’s story as our own. Let’s give our lives over to the One whose love can change us into the people God designed us to be. Let’s support each other in this process and rejoice as we see each other grow. Let’s become vital, spiritual Christians!

Pastor Susan

Thanks for Up

June/July 2015

When the weather gets nice, I return to the outdoors to get my much-needed exercise. Usually that means a morning walk in my lovely, tree-lined neighbor (thank you, God). The trouble with my lovely, tree-lined neighbor is that it is very, very hilly. When I leave my little cul-de-sac, I have two choices: go down, down, down and then up, up, up. Or go up, up, up, and then down, down, down. The down, down, down doesn’t bother me, but oh, that up, up, up is awful! (The same is true on my bike, by the way.)

Especially now, as my hill-climbing muscles are still winter-soft, I stand at the bottom of the hill, sigh, mutter something about living elsewhere, and then head up. I’ve never walked away from the challenge, and never failed to complete it, but it’s tempting – every single time!

This week, I had a brilliant idea. Instead of looking up and groaning at the bottom of the hill, how about if I look down and rejoice at the top of the hill?! So I did. And it was good. I stood at the top, turned around, and saw how steep that hill really is (and it is!). It was satisfying - and encouraging too. “I climbed it!” I said to myself, “Yay, me!”

As we come to the end of another school year, which for most of us is still how we order our months and years, I encourage you to look back at the “hills” you’ve climbed. Where in your life – your workplace, your family, your inner life – have you stood at the bottom of a hill and groaned? Where have you doubted your strength? Where have you wanted to turn around and go back, but didn’t? What challenges have you faced, and mastered? Take a few minutes and contemplate the view from the top of the hill.

This “backward glance” is so essential in our growth in relationship with God. Too often, we are moving forward in life with so much intensity (stuff to do!), that we never acknowledge or stop to reflect on where we’ve been or what God has done in and through us. And if we don’t reflect on it, then we aren’t likely to give thanks for it.

Remember, please, that God is at work for good in your life. God hears your prayers. God carries you in ways you often aren’t aware of, and blesses you in ways too numerous to count. This summer, before you take off into whatever your summer schedule demands, stop. Turn around and look back at the year behind you. Have you mended an old relationship? Started a new one? Grown in patience? Watched your kids learn a new skill? Developed a new prayer habit? Are you moving ahead in your grief? Learning to trust God in trying times? Has your spirit been expanded by the Holy Spirit? Turn around and see. Give thanks - and take strength for the next part of the journey.

God loves you and so do I.

Pastor Susan

Archives

May 2015: Does God go Beep?
April 2015: Don't Skip the Hard Part
March 2015: One More Umbrella
February 2015: Mindfulness: It’s the New Old thing!
January 2015: Divine Mystery… The Freedom to Say “I Don’t Know”
December 2014: A Prayer for Advent
October 2014: The Important Thing about Silent Prayer: Don’t Give Up!
September 2014: Alone with God
August 2014: On the Road with God
June/July 2014: Summer as Sabbath...or not?
May 2014: Tougher, stronger, smarter...stop!
April 2014: The Spirituality of …… Everything!






Comments:

I love this broader discussion of spirituality, thank you for writing about this important topic!

--- Heather --- Posted on April 21, 2014

Living “the spirituality of everything” sure challenges our temptation to try to keep God in the “God-box.” There is no separation of sacred and secular.

--- ILEditor2 --- Posted on April 22, 2014

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