Saturday, May 2, 2020

‘Prodigal Apostles, a reflection on spiritual formation by Rev. Nicole A.M. Collins

“Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God let your hearts revive!” This is verse 32 from Psalm 69. It holds quite a punch doesn't it? I haven't written a blog entry in quite some time since I've been letting the Holy Spirit write my messages every Sunday morning. This writing is not to be misconstrued as a sermon. This writing is purely reflections on what it truly means to be alive in Christ.

One of the lines of Ministry of recently gotten involved with the past few months has been hospice chaplaincy. Every single day that I serve in this ministry, I am left to ponder with these three thoughts: how do I continue to minister to people in understanding and clarity what is Body, Mind and Spirit care? All three of them are needed for the wholeness of the person. In particular, on this journey, becoming whole as the one who is preparing to meet God… it also means becoming whole within your own family and within your own life.

Now if this was a dish that I was putting together on a stove top, that image should be on the back burner for now or getting warmed up and then beginning to put oil in the wok.  When you think of the shape of that pan, it is in the shape of a bowl. We could take that a little bit further and think of Our Lives as being in the loving and gracious hands of God. And then perhaps our minds go wandering to become lost in many images and things that are not seen.

Things that are not seen but are lived. This is what we would like to call the mystery, amazement and magnificent power of the person of the Holy Spirit within the very heart of the person. I have said in probably many previous writings or messages that the heart is the Tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy of Holies where Christ himself does work on our very lives. How can someone, in this day and age, even wrap their mind around the truth of the Holy Spirit?

I recently read a wonderful book: ‘Alive in Christ, The Dynamic Process of Spiritual Formation;’ by Maxie Dunnam. I must confess, that it did spur me enough to want to write some words, not only because I was chewing on what her book was prayerfully, spiritually doing to me, but what does a faith that can move mountains really, truthfully look like? We can come up with myriads of examples such as Mother Theresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reformer Martin Luther and so on. There are many people who have led extra-ordinary lives when they allow that Holy Spirit the truly begin to shape their inner personhood.

Shaping that entire personhood... we've been doing a lot of shaping the last 300 years since the thoughts of the Enlightenment and ambers of the Renaissance. Perhaps these great eras of human history have gotten us to on one level, re-invent Adam and Eve to present "Apple 2.0" to the world? The positive side of being “prodigal children” of the Enlightenment and beyond in this 21st century can think of, is that when we open ourselves up enough to see a personhood developing beyond the self, we then realize the true beautiful indwelling of Christ himself teaching us to be “doers of the Word.”

Realizing the Holy Spirit in our very lives is not about theology. It is not about intellectualism, more than it is thinking of what just exactly is the nature of Life, the nature of the Soul? I have been blessed within my journey into Ministry to read many beautiful things alongside the scriptures of other disciples’ reflections on the nature, and the seat of the Soul. The very foundation of the kingdom of God in His Infinite Wisdom is planted within those very walls as the seed of the New Nature.

One of the things I have been enjoying moving back to the Midwest, has been the seasons turning. When the leaves begin to think about coming out of the branches. When the birds are grateful for the rain to rinse their feathers and line their nests with a soft dew for their young to drink. This is a part of tapping into being alive. This is what it means to be fully flourishing, beginning to fully realize Christ within your very heart as the person and power of the Holy Spirit.

What has been troubling with what has been going on protecting ourselves during this horrible virus, covid-19, is how we are seeing and hearing, too much despair. This disparity can come in forms of not being able to be as social people. Truly realizing what it means to be isolating and isolated. All these heavy things fall upon the heart in a burgeoning secular world perhaps on the negative end teetering into godlessness. On the positive ends, I have been finding that I'm listening more. I am listening deeply to hear God over the evil one’s voice in my heart. Let me tell you, the world has grown in a lot more colors more than this former artist painted on pieces of paper and prepared wood.

God's timing is not our timing God's thoughts and God's plans are not something that will be fully revealed to us. We do not have the right or the place to presume and conclude. This has been a problem coming from the Enlightenment era. Where God was cast far above into the heavens beyond and we became Deists.... and the true bonding of the spirit from the early church has been lost to an inward world that listens to other voices.

I love many of the terms that have gathered their own understanding over the centuries of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the story of Jesus, the Christ. Apostle is one of those wonderful words. We see them as the sets of characters that were drawn, privileged  and wonderfully illumined by being in the true physical presence of the Son of God, Jesus. 

One of my favorite contemporary Christian guitarist Phil Keaggy, did a song and an album entitled: 'What a day.' This came out the year I was 5 years old, in 1973. This came out during the era of the new wave of Jesus’ movement that some have just rationalized away as perhaps being a commentary towards the Vietnam War.  Whether or not there may be an inkling of truth to that ... we love to do what we need to stop ourselves in our willful tracks from doing--this is to dismiss that the good aspects of who we are, the seat of our soul, our personhood responds. 

This reflection could probably turn into a giant book if I had a 48-hour day and much better voice translating software to put to paper my thoughts on what it means to be an apostle, today.  Speaking straight from my conversion experience some 17 years ago now. It was very real for me and will always be that page that God turned in my life to become and reap, begin thinking about the New Nature.... Change is a part of that shaping that God's work within you seeks to accomplish. It is a transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly. It is a transcendence from being an ordinary person, oppressed to be a label or category... into being an extra-ordinary person that can move mountains not with just words from the heart but with faith-filled conviction in action.

The gospel of the Holy Spirit is the Book of Acts, but who are we to say that the Book of Acts stopped at a certain point? Does it end simply with the initial 12? I don't think we have the right to say that, for I think God is still makes apostles. He makes Apostles out of disciples. He turns wolves into sheep, and He shepherds our hearts into a new direction especially when we listen. The author of the book I just read, goes in-depth into talking about the dying and rising process we are to do as Christians seeking and willingly wanting true spiritual formation, to be alive in Christ.

This dying and rising aren’t just beautiful words that flowed through the heart of St. Paul given to him by the Holy Spirit, at that point in time, centuries ago, but it is a real thing. When we spend enough time to look beyond our noses and stop navel gazing at our own little worlds… We can begin to see everything experienced in our everyday as a lesson, a blessing, a painful shaping element to keeping us on God's mission for His creation.

We have a hard time however, wanting to accept that dreams can become a reality. That they are visions, words and plans said to us to truly become a reality of our journey as disciples of Christ. If we can for a moment, beyond the world's approval of who we are, adopt Groucho Marx statement: “I wouldn't want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member..” then we could see that our own Journeys with God need to be rebellious. Rebellious towards the world and its worldliness and oppression. This is not being rebellious against God and His Holy Spirit.

One of the statements I really love that my dad had penned years ago was “never say never.” I have learned to see that since my conversion experience and since my radical transformation as a disciple of Christ that when the world says no, God always says yes. When He says yes, however, God is seeking our response. It's beyond being a “doer of the Word,” it's being an apostle in the world, but not of it. Service is something that is still a huge part of the Christian message, but the service can't just be how we think of service. Serving through Christ being truly alive within us, has to be fueled by that love that we do not understand and that is agape love.

Agape love Is that unconditional love of God, that infinite misunderstanding that we continue to try to grapple with as we live our everyday lives. It is a fire in the heart. It is like that flame on top of the Apostles’ heads on the day of Pentecost. It is that light that we see when we close our eyes at the edge of our eye. It is an entry into some place that we really don't know enough about, don't pay enough attention to.

God continues to try to open doors for us of understanding but what He would really like us to do is to believe.  Believing is beyond what the word itself means for us of faith. It is to accept many things we do not understand even though we want to have all the answers to everything. It is to accept without question, the great mysteries of God, the lights of life in our hearts and His Holy Spirit guiding us and the beauty of creation all around us. We want to invent the next tree with greater forbidden apples of knowledge and understanding.  Unbelief is when we justify the self and our actions over and above God and His Will and purposes for us. 

Along with unbelief comes the fruits of the Old Nature that become the doctrine of who the world thinks the human creatures should be and do. Unbelief seeks great power and this power is only understood as greed and indifference. Greed and indifference are the core stem to all sin. It is avoiding that reality that we are, as Martin Luther once said, rot-gut sinners but aspiring saints.  When we become visionaries through listening to the Holy Spirit speaking to us, this is placing our obedience in a beautiful trust because we are blessed to be children of Grace and promise. We are freed by grace and Christ's promise lives within us as the New Nature. This is when we love God and we love neighbor fully and completely beyond ourselves through service with compassion.

The very spark of life within us is the soul itself. And it is not a poetic imaginary.  It is a real thing, an element that we do not understand, but in and through faith, we know it is to be shaped by God. Through faith, we know that it was created by God and is a part of His glorious creation, which He does call good. We are in the muck and mire of the world. It's even beyond what I am during the week as a Hospice chaplain, being an unspoken essential worker during this pandemic of Coronavirus.... I need to be in touch with every aspect of my apostleship to God to Christ Jesus the Lord. My whole self must bear witness, live witness truly ALIVE. I need to let the Holy Spirit do His work. I need to listen. I need to grow, and I need to change.

I will leave this reflection with one final thought: it is often heard, especially from people who feel strong convictions from the wrong place.... I do not need to change; it is the world that needs to change. What part of that is my business? Why should I care? For the Christian Journey, there is no staples’ “easy button,” there never was an easy button. And when we reduce the cross to be our final answer, Jesus would expect us to realize what it means to be a Resurrected people. Being and becoming a Resurrected people is tapping into that ‘metanoia,’ which is a fancy word for change and even fancier word for repentance. May we be the change in the world beyond the saying of that. May it not be about us but be about our great Heavenly Father's plan. May we live into the beauty that is being the attitude of Grace.

Rev. Nicole A.M. Collins 

Sunday, December 29, 2019

"Leaps of Faith;" Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas by Rev. Nicole A.M. Collins

Being this is the first Sunday after Christmas we are seeing a picture of the Holy Family needing to take a great leap of faith to save themselves from Herod’s diabolical plan of the slaughter of the innocents and journey to safety for a time to Egypt.  I was reading a few things about this evil event of Herod’s speculating if it truly happened or not. The vote is still out on some of the details of it. As we know some in our contemporary culture challenge with speculation, the horrors of evil that took place during WWII with other maniacal leaders driven by a different fear of God… When we take an even greater look at Jesus entering into our humanity, we can see how our fears and our mustard seed faith have fought a brave spiritual battle into simply just making that great leap of faith, taking that giant step forward.

Taking that giant step forward is why we even gather together breaking bread, praying and studying together under the providence of God’s Word.  It’s been 2,000 something years since the Lord was here journeying on earth, ministering to His wayward children of Grace and Promise.  He was here is not accurate because He IS truly here with us now as the Holy Spirit.  The third person of the Trinity we have a very hard time listening to yet alone understanding all the times He provides for us, but we are still stuck within our needing clarity. When should I do this?  Where do You need me to go Lord? Help me, I keep getting confused!  The bride of Christ is His church and we are a living tribe of nomadic individuals acting at times like the same Israelites complaining in the desert while poor Moses needs to be their spiritual director leading them through the wilderness…

With the Holy Family, Joseph’s faith had three amazing convicting dreams that first helped him to marry and protect Mary and the infant Jesus.  Joseph’s second dream was also a doosey as they say because he was told to flee to Egypt because Herod was out to kill Jesus.  Joseph had a faith that moved a few mountains in the sense that he had a wisdom and a fear of the power of the Lord who was, who is and reigns—Jesus. Returning to the present, our calendar, being BC and AD and so much more are but a few fingerprints of the reality and impact of God with us, Jesus. As a former agnostic for some seventeen years, God was pretty patient with me as I wandered through my own wilderness of growing into who I am today—a minister and a messenger of His Gospel to my little corner of the world.

Being a “faith leaper” you could say is something we battle with when we allow the world to rule and oppress our deep inner convictions. Sometimes we allow our lives to be shaped by an oppression we create when we stray away from the very real providence of God all around us and yes, within us! Being sent with a purpose and a mission in the world as a follower of Jesus we don’t give ourselves enough credit to wrap our hearts’ understanding around.  All people are called and gifted with moments, miracles and dreams that CAN become reality.  Making these things into reality is being a visionary, a church planter, caregiver, pastor, missional… At least these are now a few descriptive elements of my faith that God has built me up to begin moving mountains of doubt with. We have to remember that most often we’re the ones stamping God’s plans out of our hearts. These are radical things to think about but when you think about the egomaniac that Herod was, why would he be threatened by the rule of love and peace coming into the world—Jesus? That’s the nature of evil though, greed and indifference are the substructure to all sin and to the “unholy trinity of I, Me and Mine.”  His fear and self-preservation were a delusion of grandeur at the expense of innocent children being massacred.

The season of Christmas is our time of growing as disciples into the very real truth of God WITH us, Jesus. The man of Nazareth, the Divine redeemer, savior taking with Him our sins to the cross and beyond with the resurrection. This is a very real truth we need to be reminded of especially during our moments of wavering faith as His children of Grace and promise.  When we are wandering the valleys of our lives’ journeys we have to leap occasionally over those chasms of impossibility and doubt.  And those moments of doubt can be pretty great where everything seems to make you question the very notion of a God who truly provides for us as His loving and Gracious Spirit within us!

The other day I was assessing a new hospice situation with a grieving wife and her beloved husband whose mind was beginning to disappear to the ravages of end stage Alzheimer’s disease.  Her husband could no longer speak yet alone walk anymore. What is typical of the end stages of this terrible disease is the grave fear of others that the patient exhibits.  Mistrust and a deep paranoia manifested with continual silent screams coming from his contorted face when I simply began to introduce myself to him and try to explain how I was to be there for both him and his wife.  A huge part of me wanted to bolt out the door as snap “old nature” reaction of feeling over my head. I began to pray an inner prayer as I talked with the wife about what her next plans were to be for him. God quieted my fear and brought me back to realize His guiding presence to help me minister to this couple.  Beyond the thoughts I had had, I also heard the evil within my own heart having me doubt not only myself but God.  Why would that even flash into my stream of thoughts? The world for one moment revolved around me and I wasn’t reaching out to this couple as I had learned to do in training years ago as a Stephen’s minister.  Stephen’s ministry has a beautiful image of the Stephen’s minister holding onto the tree of Christ while reaching down to those in the pit needing to be spiritually rescued, aided and loved.  Just having God remind me of that right after those bad thoughts put me back on track.

There will be other days to journey with this couple as well as other couples I am doing marital counseling for.  Every day is brand new with unknown twists, turns and whatnot to them… But as the Psalmist this morning has to share with us: Be and DO—"Let us praise the Lord, giving Him thanks with our whole heart,” (our whole selves fully engaged each and every day)!  Thanks be to God, alleluia and amen I say. Rolling with the punches or olive branches as I prefer to say, is continually making leaps of faith that God truly guides you with.  This is the difference and the potential endless joy that the Christian can truly claim with thinking about God with us, Jesus, the Lord—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  When we sang our Christmas hymns of “Happy Birthday” to Jesus this past Wednesday and then opened those presents one by one from friends and family did we pause upon that moment and wonder?  Beyond what’s in it for me, did we see and believe in the unknown future for just one moment with hope and faith? Probably or most likely? Be honest.

That’s a great way to look at things isn’t it? Every day is a present from God, His Living Word, the bow that entices us to unravel it and reveal His plans for us inside our hearts and out into the wilderness of the world. We must thank God for the amazing faith that Joseph had to persevere in acting upon a message from a dream to protect Mary and Jesus. With the turning of another year, we must see it with hope-filled and visionary, missional eyes no matter what we’re currently doing.  Remember what I said in my Christmas message from this past Wednesday—the world may say no to you, and you may let this “Bogart” your heart with doubt and questioning…  but we are truly not alone, God always provides.

Being the church in the world is being a visionary, is harboring a faith that can move mountains and shepherd others to the truth of New Life and abounding love that yes, we can make a difference in the world, doing! Jesus told His disciples in another Gospel to come and follow Him.  Many followed, lived and died with Him.  Many triumphed and failed with His Gospel…  The most important thing though is that they were willing to try and DO.  Even as an infant, Jesus’ reality told His earthly parents that they needed to protect Him from Herod’s evil. The vulnerability of an infant, the almighty providence and power of God… we will still be a people wandering and wondering to understand but its beautiful truth remains: God IS with us, for us, loves and provides for us.

Let us Pray,
Loving and Gracious is the Lord our God,
Whose providence we need to shape our visions into action
Our love into lifting mountains and our hearts into reaping a mustard bush of faith!
You are our present, each and everyday, O Lord.
Thank You for everything You have us grow in and experience
Even those valleys… Your Holy Spirit is our guiding Grace
May we come to praise You with our whole hearts and grow to reap
A wisdom that has us realize our place as Your children of Grace and Promise
In Your most Holy Name, we lift this prayer—

Here's a link to a variation message via youtube delivered at the Grace Hub at 11:30am: