A Wedding Homily

More and more I am coming to love and appreciate the “art” of preaching; and it is most definitely an art.  We work with existing material to craft something at once both traditionalist (art always owes to what came before it) and original (no one has done it yet precisely like this).  I’m also learning that different contexts demand different styles, and the savvy preacher will utilize and be comfortable with a variety of styles to fit the context.

I haven’t always been aware of that.  I used to think that you simply locked into one style that you were super-comfortable with and then just translated that to whatever it was you were doing.  Whether you were a manuscript preacher, a free-form preacher, a note-free preacher, an outline preacher, a poetic-artful preacher, a 5-points-and-a-story didactic preacher, a word-for-word exegetical preacher, an anything-else-I-missed preacher… whatever it was – you found your sweet spot and ran with it.

For the past several years I’ve been on a really exhilarating and liberating journey of learning to preach without using notes.  It’s been really fun, and I think I’ve gotten a lot better at the craft.  A couple weekends ago, however, I did a wedding.  And I have learned (through my own failures and by listening to some really shoddy wedding sermons) that weddings are no time to ramble.  They are times in which what is appropriate to the moment are carefully chosen words, delivered gracefully and artfully.  So–I’d never done this before–I crafted a wedding homily: a short meditation/reflection on the momentous thing that marriage is.  

Now mind you, I’d manuscripted wedding messages before, but always felt awkward when I delivered it because it felt “untrue” to what I normally did (which was a bit more free-form).  This time, however, I decided to write something that I could comfortably and confidently deliver word-for-word, really savoring the delivery.  And savor it I did.

Anyway… gosh… now I’ve rambled… I’m posting it here for any preachers out there to take cues from, and for any married persons out there to be encouraged by 🙂  

Grace and peace to you.

Andrew

(PS – I’ve changed their names)

Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony. 

The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ blessed this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. 

It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.

Therefore marriage is not to be entered into UNADVISEDLY or LIGHTLY, but REVERENTLY, DELIBERATELY, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

THIS MOMENT…IS SACRED

I realize that you all did not come to church this morning to listen to a minister ramble on about the meaning of marriage… but I do think this is a moment that deserves some weighty words, for it is a weighty thing.

And they all lived happily ever after…  Every couple wants that as a conclusion to their story.  Not everyone wants what comes before “happily ever after”.  Conflict.  Doubt.  Uncertainty.  Inner turmoil.  Forks in the road.  And some pretty deep and often painful sacrifices.  

But no story is a worthy story without those elements.  And stories don’t even get written, or told, if the heroes bail out on the quest.  It’s the commitment to a worthy goal—a commitment that shapes the heroes in deep ways—that makes a story a worthy story. 

Christian marriage, I think, gives us that kind of a goal.  A worthy goal.  “I do solemnly swear to love you, to cherish you, to have and to hold you, to stay committed to you, to stay faithful to you, to serve you…till death do we part.”

Given how prone we are to selfishness, that is a fairly ludicrous promise to make.  One would think that it would take an act of God to live up to it.  We are told in Scripture that it, in fact, does.  

I do solemnly swear…” –Yes.  And may Heaven help you.

With that in mind, let me give you four brief encouragements, and a charge, as you begin your journey:

1) You need to know that God is at work in this.  On one occasion, when Jesus was interrogated by the Pharisees about the human limits of this institution, marriage, he replied, “Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator MADE them male and female…so they are no longer two but one, and what GOD has JOINED TOGETHER, let man not separate” (Matt 19).

Jesus seemed to think that beyond, or even better, beneath the human institution was an act of God.  My own experience has shown me that it is a CONTINUAL act of God.  The energy of the Spirit in marriage is to draw us deeper into the union that God has ALREADY created between us.

Paul, speaking to one of his churches, says “Make every effort to PRESERVE the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4).  He doesn’t say “create the unity,” but “preserve…”  In other words, “Protect what is ALREADY there.”

It is the same with marriage.  When the marriage is sealed, the union becomes REAL, whether you feel it or not.  And God will constantly be drawing you two deeper into it.

Know that.  Believe it.  It will sustain you through hard times.

Following from that…

2) You need to know that this will break you.  What makes this marriage a “Christian” marriage is not that we’re doing it in a church.  What makes this a Christian marriage is that you are Christians, disciples, and discipleship by its very nature is about death and resurrection.  It is about an “old self” constantly dying and a “new self”, a self that lives in the life and the power of the Spirit, emerging.

The passage that we read earlier was beautiful.  “12 Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful…”

But that is not an automatic thing.  The ingrained habits of selfishness, defensiveness, individualism, and lovelessness need to be destroyed in order for the realities that Paul speaks of to emerge.  It doesn’t happen in a day.  It happens over years.  The Spirit constantly breaking us, remolding us… shattering us, reshaping us… until the New Creation comes into being in us.

Stanley Hauerwas put it so well when he said:

When couples come to ministers to talk about their marriage ceremonies, ministers think it’s interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re ‘in love.’ Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.”

And so it is.  But you are the baptized.  Death and Resurrection is your identity.

3) You need to know that your breaking will become the source of a powerful and deep joy.  Scripture tells us that we are “made in the image and likeness of God.”  And God, the Christian Tradition tells us, is an everlastingly happy Communion of Persons who are perpetually giving themselves away to each other in perfect love.  

When God “breaks” us, he doesn’t do it because he’s being mean.  He’s doing it because the things that need to be broken in us are the things that stand in the way of our “image-of-Godness” being realized.  The more selfishness is destroyed, the more love emerges… and the more love emerges, the more capable we are of giving ourselves away to EACH OTHER in perfect submission… and the more the giving, the more the joy.  “Tis more blessed to give than to receive…”

There are places of delight that few couples ever reach.  And do you know why?  Because they abort this process.

Let Love lead you beyond yourselves and into joy, my friends.

And finally…

4) You need to know that this will bless the world.  Marriage, according to Catholic tradition, is a sacrament.  That is, it is a means of grace.  And I don’t think that’s just grace “FOR US”, the married couple.  But it is grace FOR OTHERS.  It’s an institution for the world.  When God’s life takes shape in us in marriage, then we begin, in profound ways, to “image” God to the world.  And the world is blessed.

The world is blessed when couples love each other…

The world is blessed when homes become places of grace and peace…

The world is blessed when families stick together…

The world is blessed when children are brought up “in the Lord”…

The world is blessed when living rooms become places of hospitality and friendship…

The world is blessed when our little plots of earth become places that mirror the order and stability and the fruitfulness of the kingdom…

The world is blessed.  It will be BLESSED through you.  So stay in it.  Stay with it.  Remember what this is about.  God is trying to reach the world through you.

SO, having said all of that, Ben and Sarah, IN THE NAME OF JESUS: 

I CHARGE you – Know in your bones that God is at work in this and that your union is REAL, before and beyond how you feel.  Fight to preserve it.

I CHARGE you – Know in your bones that the breaking and reshaping is part of the point of this.  Submit to the process.

I CHARGE you – Know in your bones that for Christians, resurrection is the flip side of death.  So let Love lead you to beyond yourself and into Joy.

I CHARGE you – Know in your bones that your union will bless the world.  Let your love spill over onto a dark and hurting world, to heal it.

That’s what this is about.

An Uncommon, Common Holiness

Not long ago I was in the midst of a three day fast that culminated in a 24 hour solitude retreat at the Franciscan Retreat Center up near Colorado Springs.

Believe it or not, for all of my emphasis on the life of discipline and devotion, that was the first such personal retreat I had EVER taken.  For real.  

For years, I made excuses for not doing it (too busy, one car = stranding Mandi and the kids for a day or so, not enough cash, don’t know where to go, blah blah blah).  Meanwhile, however, I consoled myself with a thought that I nurtured in my heart: namely, that deep down I really am a “retreat” guy.  A hermit-in-waiting who happens to have, at the moment, a lot of commitments and responsibilities that preclude the possibility of me giving myself over to my TRUE identity.  

So when the day of this little solitude retreat came, I was really looking forward to it, and secretly believed that once I got into it, I’d never want it to end.  That it would be this gloriously blissful day of inspiration and revelation in which I felt completely comfortable, confident, and at ease.

And then a funny thing happened… a realization that at once surprised me and brought me “home” in my heart.  I wrote the experience down in my journal, which I’m sharing with you here.  Enjoy.  Be inspired.  An “uncommon, common holiness” is possible for each one of us.

Been in COS at this lovely Franciscan retreat center for four or so hours now.  Good time so far.  The weather is quite good and this place is literally in the mountains.  Just finished up a really nice walk to the top of a mountain (fasting and all) and back down again.

A funny, and unexpected, yet deeply joyful and freeing thing happened on the way back to my room: I admit to myself that I am homesick.  And that is not at all out of a desire to avoid God (how my soul loves God!), or a fear of solitude (how I love solitude!), because of something deeper: a core belief and desire that holiness should be attained in the tumble of the ordinary.  That the real arena of my sanctification is with Mandi and Bella, Ethan and Gabe and Liam.  That godliness is formed in blessing (and cleaning up!) meals, and in changing diapers with joy, and hugging my friends and saying “hello!” to my neighbors.

I believe that deep union, an emptying of the soul into God, is possible not just in the cloister, but also and perhaps especially in the home and marketplace.  In the familiar sights, sounds, smells, and routines, a radical glory can be made manifest.

If you ask me what my deepest desire in life is, it is that.  Union with God in the ordinary.  A “table holiness.”

Some Tips for Not Losing Your Soul Over the Holidays

Hey friends – 

Several weeks ago, as I was preparing to do our weekly house church leader coaching video, the thought occurred to me: “Gosh, the holidays are approaching, and that means that our leaders are getting ready to head into what is at once the most fun and most harrowing time of year.  At a minimum, it would be great if Bloom’s most important leaders didn’t lose their souls between now and January 1st.”  So I made my little video and included some pointers in it on keeping your spirituality afloat from the little stretch of time that runs from mid-November to the beginning of the new year.

After I made that video I thought, “Geez, wouldn’t it be cool if NO ONE who calls Bloom home lost their souls over the holidays?!”  Indeed.  So I made a little “survival guide” for the good folks of our congregation, which we passed out this weekend.  And now I am sharing it with you.

Here’s to hoping that YOU don’t lose your soul over the holidays, and that you head into 2013 with all kinds of personal momentum and hope in your heart…

Grace and peace,

Andrew

Hey Bloom Family –

You know that “survival guide for the holidays” type things are not my usual way of pastoring. I have a deep disdain for anything corny or trite. BUT, I’ve been through enough holiday seasons now to know that the impact this little stretch of time from mid-November to the beginning of the New Year has on people is usually, at a bare minimum, a mixed bag of good and bad. Often it is straightforwardly negative, and instead of blazing into the New Year with energy and momentum, we limp into it, licking our wounds and trying desperately to pick up the pieces during the coldest, darkest, and most depressing days of the year (January and February – blech). Not a recipe for happiness, if you ask me.

As a pastor and friend to you, I don’t want that for you. So let me give you some tips, recommendations, and encouragements to help you keep from losing your soul during the next month and a half.

1) Prioritize self-care. Don’t overdo it. Don’t overbook your schedule. Don’t get involved with more than you know you can handle. In fact, I would suggest a counter-measure approach: scale back your activity level so that you can actually enjoy the season. Schedule appointments with yourself where you can have uncluttered space to do the things that you know make for a personal sense of wellbeing.

The following encouragements flow out of that first one:

2) Exercise. If you treat your body well, it will treat you well. So take time to exercise. Go on walks. Take bike rides. Jog a bit. Get to the gym. Do yoga. Whatever it is you do to get the blood flowing. Trust me, it will make a difference.

3) Don’t over-, or under-eat. More than that, try to eat regular, good, balanced, wholesome meals. Don’t go on any radical diets so that you look awesome for when you see your family next. Good Lord. Dispense with the vanity. It’s not a path to happiness. And please, and by all means, if you’re prone to run to food when you’re feeling blue, have the self-awareness to know that the food’s not actually going to make you happy the way you want it to. Go on a walk or listen to some good music in a quiet room instead.

4) Pay really close attention to how much alcohol you’re consuming. Make it a point that none of your headaches over the holidays are going to come from drinking too much. And, please, and by all means, if you’re prone to run to alcohol when you’re feeling blue, have the self-awareness to know that the bottle’s not actually going to solve anything. It will usually make it worse. So go for a bike ride or read a favorite book instead.

5) If you’re married, schedule a handful of date nights between now and the end of the year. The holidays can really increase the level of “static” in a marriage. Cut against the grain of that tendency this year. Make it a point to enjoy each other more, to listen better, to fight harder to be in synch with each other. It will pay off.  If you have kidsdon’t see them as a burden or distraction.  Make it a point to make some special memories with them.  Start a new tradition.  Build a freakin snowman or two.

6) Take your regular routines of prayer, meditation, solitude, and Scripture reading MORE
seriously. High-pressured seasons have a way of making us think that we’re too busy to do the things that keep us anchored in God. You’re not too busy to pray. You’re NEVER too busy to pray. Cliché as it sounds, I think it is correct to say that you’re too busy NOT to pray. So pull away into the “desert” as often as you can to center yourself in God and his love for you. Adore the Christ, around whom the season centers.

7) “Hold onto yourself” when you’re around family and friends that you haven’t seen in awhile. Our long histories with old family and friends can be both a source of great comfort and also a source of great consternation—those that have known you the longest are always going to be prone to see you through their understanding of the person you used to be. If you’re not careful, despite the fact that you’ve changed—you really have changed!—you’ll start acting in ways that conform to their expectations. And man, that is a horrible feeling. So let this be an encouragement to you: you have become a different person, and you are permitted to “hold onto” that difference, even and especially around those with whom you have a long history. Don’t let them shove you back in the box. Stay on your feet. If what you’ve become is a disappointment to them, so be it. Your personal growth is too important for you to give up at the first sign of resistance or misunderstanding from others. Hang onto yourself.

8) Worship. Stay with the people of God. Don’t miss church. If you’re out of town, find somewhere to worship. The church I grew up in Wisconsin blew up several years back, leaving me without a place to go to Christmas Eve several years ago. So I went to a Midnight Mass service at the local Catholic Church. I didn’t do it as a gimmick. Gimmicks suck. I went because I needed to be with God’s people adoring the Incarnate Christ. That was an anchor to my soul. Worship always is.

That’s that. Love you guys. Praying grace over you.

Your friend and pastor,

Andrew

With Gratitude, the Sunday before Thanksgiving…

Tonight marks our second annual Bloom all-church Thanksgiving dinner.  At 5:00 tonight, we’ll gather for worship, share a short teaching, and then feast together on turkey, potatoes of various kinds, stuffing, gravy, pies… the works.  Somewhere in the middle of the feasting, we’ll open up the microphone and let people share stories of God’s faithfulness to them over the past year.  Table by table, we’ll then take communion, sing a hymn, and close the service.  My heart is swollen with anticipation…

…and gratitude.  For a lot of things, but this morning, at this moment, most especially for this community.  Bloom.  The “little flock” that Jesus loves.  The little flock that should be dead ten times over.  The little flock that’s been spared over and over again.  The little flock that’s had to bite and claw and struggle for her survival.  The little flock that really has no business being alive…

…except that – oh how clear this is to me now, three years into this journey – Jesus loves Bloom.  And He has willed her survival, in the face of great odds.  And it is a joy to be standing where we’re standing right now.  “We went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.”  Yes.  And we are – I am – grateful.

Two years ago this Sunday marks a crucial turning point for our community: Bloom held its last service in the upstairs sanctuary at First Baptist Church in downtown Denver.  We didn’t know it at the time, but that moment would prove to be a watershed for us.  We were a struggling community.  Struggling for vision, struggling for leadership, struggling for a sense of identity… it was not at all clear that we would make it.

The week prior to that Sunday, we had a conversation with Michael and Lisa about where Bloom was at that would prove to be decisive.  I’ll never forget the penetrating, deeply illuminating question that Michael asked: “So what if we were the first Christians in Denver, and there were 100 or so of us, and we had a place to gather each week?  What would we do to stay spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and missionally healthy?”  SO illuminating.  Even a bare bones evangelical “liturgy” (songs, announcements, worship, etc) can become pretty rote.  If you don’t have a clear sense of what the “bullseye” is when you gather, you’ll gather for all the wrong reasons.  Christians gather as a family to connect with each other and God in the “beauty of holiness”, being formed together by God as a people called to “bless” the city with the love of God.  Whatever GETS you to that, or serves that goal – DO THAT.

And that’s what we did… we decided to take Bloom back to its roots.  Get out of the big, ornate sanctuary.  Head to the basement.  Set the chairs up in the round so that we can see and hear each other when we sing.  Put the “Table” at the center.  Make the gathering feel more human, more humane.  Create space for people to connect.  To greet and be greeted.  To center ourselves in our common identity in Christ Jesus.  Eat together.  One of my favorite Bloom gatherings of all time comes from Advent of 2010 (a couple weeks into the new experiment).  We had people make soup to share and bring bread, and decided that – even with 100+ folks – we’d try to eat together not BEFORE or AFTER the service, but DURING the service.  Like a family.  So after worship, we dismissed folks to get their soup and bread, and then come back into the “round” to eat while I preached.  It was and remains one of the most fun and “normal” feeling preaching moments I’ve ever had.  “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing…”  Yes.  With soup and bread.  With Word and Sacrament.  Nourished at the “Table(s)”.

From that moment on, we really began to recapture a sense of identity and momentum as a community.  And I regard the last two years’ worth of ministry and mission as a “fleshing out” of the core intuitions of the turning point just described.  “What does it look like to be a family on mission with Jesus?”  That question is the North Star of our ministry… an endless probe that takes us deeper and deeper into the heart of God.

My God in heaven, I am thankful for this community.

Michael and Lisa – I am grateful for you guys, for your friendship, for your vision and passion, for thinking highly enough of us to let us share in this work with you.  Here’s to many, MANY, more years of friendship and building a work that resonates with our deepest convictions…

David and Elise, Patrick and Charity (our elders) – My goodness.  What would Bloom be without you guys?  Thanks for sticking in there with us and believing in what you saw, even when we had trouble seeing it.  Your presence and leadership in our community means the world to me.

Rusty Gates – It is impossible for me to tell you how much your friendship has meant to me, say nothing of your service in the community.  And no one will ever be able to calculate how much of an impact your friendship and our early conversations had on the development of our DNA as a church.  You have left an indelible impact on us, and I am grateful for you.

Jamie and Bre – You two, your friendship, your presence, your leadership, your love, are like the pure warmth  of a crackling fireplace on a winter day.  Like being wrapped in a gigantic down comforter.  There is an expansiveness to your love for people that’s really like nothing I’ve ever seen.  What a strength you are!  Thank you for jumping into the story with us!

For our department leaders (Amy and Marietta, Aaron Purdy), and our house church leaders – Bloom grew approximately 0% under the stellar vocal and musical stylings of the Gungors and the truly exceptional preaching of Andrew (ahem, ahem) until all of you folks started stepping up and owning the ministry of this community with us.  I – honestly – wake up daily with gratitude in my soul for you guys.  You make pastoring this community a far – FAR – lighter load than it should be.  It is a joy to serve you, to serve with you.

For everyone who calls Bloom “home”, who sacrifices even a little to make this community happen.  I think that I get to pastor the coolest people on planet earth.  I love seeing your faces.  I love getting to do what I do with you, giving the best of what I have and can give to you.  Thank you for your continual support of and encouragement to me.  The little notes you drop here and there, the emails, the text messages, the tweets (although I don’t tweet anymore 🙂 ), and any other of the myriad of ways in which you’ve communicated love to me… YOU WILL NEVER KNOW HOW MUCH THEY HAVE MEANT TO ME AND MEAN TO ME STILL.  I love you.

And to Mandi, my love – No one sacrifices more on a daily basis for this than you.  You make our life and ministry here possible.  Your friendship is of inestimable value to me.  Your strength and capacity are absolutely immense, and I am constantly amazed by you.  It is a shame to me that no one really gets to see all this – albeit in glimpses.  But I see it.  You have all of my respect.  I LOVE life with you.  I am HONORED to be married to you.  And I am SO grateful for you.

So this Sunday morning, in the year 2012, before Thanksgiving, I can say honestly that “my cup runneth over…”

And He JUST KEEPS POURING.

Thank you, Father.

Election Morning Pleas

As a rule I don’t do a lot of political commentary, but since a Presidential election is a big deal and concerns all of us as its results will have wide-sweeping ramifications both in the immediate and long term future, I thought it would be worth sharing how I prayed this morning for this election.  Do with it what you will.

Three “pleas” on election morning.  Perhaps not revolutionary, but I hope helpful:

1) That we (the nation) would realize that presidential elections really do matter.  There’s a sentiment I hear sometimes that goes something like this: “You know, in our modern political climate, its really hard for a president to do anything substantive; to really make changes.  Therefore it is better to work for local change and engage in local politics, etc etc.”  True enough on the latter; but as pertains to the former, I think that is a sentiment that is totally falsified by recent history.  Presidents can help create legislation that leads to economic collapses, they can lead us into costly wars, they can push us further and further into debt, they can contribute to and calcify a divisive and bitter political atmosphere.  Decisions made in the Oval Office lead to people holding cardboard signs asking for money on my street corner.  I am a citizen and a Christian, and I care about that.  It matters.

2) That we (the nation, and Christians in particular) would vote not selfishly or angrily but with humility and according to our highest convictions about what will create the most good for all people.  People have different opinions on what will lead to the “most good for all people”, and even what the “good” actually looks like.  This is a way of saying that these choices (for one candidate or another) are not nearly as straightforward as they sometimes appear.  And voting for any candidate is inevitably a gamble.  Who knows whether or not this person will actually live up to what they said they’d do?  It’s a bet.  My prayer is that we’d understand that and still try to make the best choice we possibly can.

3) That we, the People of God, would remember where our primary allegiance lies and understand that the real “politics” of the People of God is neither the politics of the Right or the Left, but the new reality that we live in, under, and through in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” said Jesus in a memorable moment in the Gospels.  We give our votes to the Republic.  We give ourselves to God, spirit, soul, and body, as persons bought by the blood of Christ.  And in giving ourselves completely to God, we give ourselves over to a new polis, a new politics: the city of God, the politics of the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus: a politics of grace and peace, of self-giving love, of unity in the Holy Spirit.  And whenever and wherever the politics of the “empire” divide us, then, sadly, it is clear that we have “no king but Caesar.”  This is NOT a plea for a giant “kumbayafest” in which we all just hug and get along and pretend that this stuff doesn’t matter.  Nor is it an argument that we shouldn’t have vigorous debates about what is best on the national level (politically speaking).  Good grief.  We’re such an oversensitive nation that the mere expressing of one’s own opinions is often seen by others as a threat.  Gosh.  Enough of that.  It IS a plea however that we would remember that when we come to the Table, we relativize our old “tribal” loyalties: Democrat and Republican, Male and Female, White and Black, Slave and Free.  No – Christ is all and is in all.  Let us remember it.

So… breathe on this election Lord God.  Keep this nation under your care.

In the Name of the One who is called the “Ruler of the Kings of the Earth”,

Amen.