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Weekly Update

Living the Promise

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. — Acts 2:17

Dear Gatherers,

We’ve always prided ourselves on our Pentecostal heritage—not in the denominational sense, but rather in our Early Church roots and their emphatic promise of inclusion. “I will pour out my Spirit on all people,” Peter preaches, quoting the ancestral prophet Joel. “All means all,” we like to say, often adding, “Anything less than all means nothing at all.” That’s what being Pentecostal means in its truest sense.

What interests me is how Peter’s message didn’t come with a process for establishing a community’s intention of being radically hospitable. That was safely assumed. We likewise have no record of policies and procedures. No paperwork—if there was any—has been discovered in clay jars in the desert. No organizational documents exist. Instead, the how-to of ecstatic inclusion is characterized by two behaviors: young folks having visions and older folks dreaming dreams. That, by itself, is unusual. In Peter’s day, the reverse was more typical. Young people were dreamers. Their elders were the visionaries. Right off the bat, the Pentecostal movement in Acts flips the paradigm.

Embracing youthful visions and experience-based dreams is how we live the Pentecostal promise. What is the Spirit urging us to envision? What dreams are being brought to life in our community? If we do our vision work like young people, we’ll believe anything can be done. If we dare to dream like seasoned elders, we’ll recognize commitment and effort make dreams come true.

This Thursday at 7:30pm CST, we’re coming together to do some visioning and dreaming about the next 12 months. There are so many wonderful things coming into focus it’s breathtaking. Please make time to be with us for this conversation. It will take all of us to bring Gather’s 2023 vision to life and turn our dreams into reality. See you on Thursday!

Peace, with much love,

Pastor Tim

Startled Awake

Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you. Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. – Isaiah 60:1-2

 

Dear Gatherers,

 

We’re approaching the halfway point in our Advent journey. To get to its true value, we must dive beneath the high-contrast dark/light, waiting/receiving, seeking/finding symbols to locate them in our own contexts. And the journey between Advent’s extremes can be very different for each one of us, depending on when, where, and how we find our way.

 

Isaiah’s wake-up call to Jerusalem—coming out of a 70-year nightmare of foreign captivity—resonates with anyone who loves Christmas hymns about angel choirs rousing a weary world out of its slumber. What Isaiah and the carols don’t mention, however, is how unsettling being awakened by bright light can be. The Advent call to rise and shine is a kind of “glory alarm” that startles. It may take time to adjust our sight and get our minds clear before the promises of hope, love, joy, and peace come into view.

 

One my favorite Advent companions, the 20th-century mystic and pastor Howard Thurman, captures this sensation. “There are times when the light burns, when it is too bright, or when it is too revealing. Somehow I must accustom myself to the light and learn to look with steadiness on all that it discloses. I will not yield to the temptation to regard the light in me as being all the light there is… Even in darkness I will learn to wait for the light, confident that it will come to cast its shaft across my path at the point of my greatest and most tragic need” (“I Seek Truth and Light,” Meditations of the Heart).

 

Advent’s wake-up call is a very specific promise to each of us in our respective contexts. Let us arise to the light, peer into its brilliance, and patiently wait for our eyes adjust to new sights around us, knowing the light we possess is not all the light there is. Light often breaks into our lives from unusual places and unexpected sources in unpredictable ways—kind of like the God of Creation showing up in a borrowed cow crib surrounded by perfectly imperfect strangers. The glory alarm is shining. Our light has come. Time to open our eyes!

 

With much love,

Pastor Tim

The Y Factor

The wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them. – Isaiah 11:6

 

Dear Gatherers,

 

It’s just about that time of year when the History Channel lights up with specials about “what really happened at Christmas.” How do you explain Mary’s pregnancy? What’s up with the Star of Bethlehem? How do we reconcile the historical anomalies? It seems our post-modern minds only grant truth to “factual” events and rational “reality.” When did imagination leave the life of faith?

 

In Isaiah 11, the prophet imagines a time of serene cohabitation, when lambs feel unthreatened around wolves, leopards and kid goats nap in the sun, calves graze beside cubs. This is the divine vision often referred to as “The Peaceable Kingdom.” And of course, it’s more than domesticated wildlife. In fact, it’s probably not about predators and livestock at all.

 

The prophet wants to shock the system of a people that has suffered relentless turmoil and become heartlessly enthralled in predatory, psychopathic behaviors. While they chafe under foreign occupation, they fixate on “survival of the fittest” fatalism. (As Billie Holliday famously summarized Matthew 25:29, “Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose…”) God longs for the day when wolves and wildcats stop pouncing, when lambs and kids no longer feel threatened, when walls and fences come down because danger is no more. And a child shall lead them.

 

Many turn the child reference into a Messianic oracle, saying, “This is all about Jesus!” But that alters the prophet’s intended meaning. The world needs children simply because they can imagine what God envisions. Is that so far-fetched we put it on the shelf beside all the other biological contradictions in this picture? Have we become so “adult” we only see young people as “adults in the making”? In elevating the text to mean something mystical we lose the common sense it wants to convey, especially in an hour when imaginative thinking is scarce.

 

For the past few months, Gather has been working with the Children’s Defense Fund and Lilly Endowment to create a culture of child wellbeing in our community. It’s a three-year program out of which we’ll offer transformative opportunities to young people. In our conversations we keep coming back to one fact: we’re missing the Y factor at Gather. We need young folx to lead us. That’s why, as your pastor, I’m declaring 2023 as Gather’s Year of Youth. I challenge us to go through our friends and family lists to find young people for Gather. As they come into the community, we’ll figure out how best to provide what they need. In the meantime, we must figure out why we need them to lead. And for that I give you one word: imagination.

 

Grateful for vision and youth,

Pastor Tim

 

(Above: Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, c. 1834, oil on canvas.)

Your Soul Needs a Home

God sets the solitary in families. – Psalm 68:6 (NKJV)

 

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of preaching at Congregational UCC in Arlington Heights. I spoke about “Excessive Love,” based on Luke 6:27: “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you.” I told the church Jesus calls for a love so over-the-top that it overshoots the haters and abusers it targets. And that makes a whole lot of sense because its real objective is enabling us to get over and around hatred, scorn, and emotional violence we may suffer for the sake of believing God is big enough and powerful enough to love everyone without condition.

Excessive love started making sense as I thought about civil rights icons who took this notion to glorious extremes and then I scaled it down further, using Gather as an example of how excessive love works in faith communities. I talked about how often we hear from people who’ve been “wounded by traditions and congregations… by pastors who were supposed to be shepherding them but instead beat them out of the fold… of families who would rather hold on to their religion than their own kin and blood.” (Catch the sermon here: https://youtu.be/CZeeHaq9t5Q.)

I felt the congregation lean in. They recognized what we understand all too well at Gather: too, too often spiritual trauma hangs a neon DO NOT ENTER sign over church doors. The horrors of previous abuses advise against ever taking that kind of risk again. Just stepping into a space that feels “churchy” can trigger unwelcome emotions and memories. (The late great bell hooks called the lovelessness that creates these sensations “soul murder,” and she’s right.)

Yet an avoidance strategy only works so long because it doesn’t address the primal issue: our soul needs a home. The God in us craves the company of God in others. Spirituality is—has always been—a group project, despite trendy attempts to work out an eccentric solo variety. Our soul needs a home. The souls of others we love need a home. We all long to sit at table surrounded by eagerly loving family… to know a place where home-cooked flavors are tasty yet free of toxins and dogma we recall from past kitchens… a home where we show up exactly as we are, with whomever we invite, confident there will be no cold shoulders or drama or backlash.

This Sunday, Gather invites you to come on home. Don’t come alone, either. Find someone whose soul is looking for a home. We’ll be serving up some old-school home cooking with some fresh, life-giving flavors. There will be plenty good room at the table. We’re going to do all the things we think of when families get together: we’re going to rejoice, tell stories, think about the future, eat and laugh and dance and love on one another. Come home for the holidays. You’ve been away far too long.

 

With all my love,

Pastor Tim

De-Weaponize the Word

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:14-16

 

Dear Gatherers,

 

One of my first jobs out of undergrad was teaching high school English, back when kids learned how to diagram sentences. While I haven’t thought about diagramming in years, it all came back while reading Ephesians 4, where one sentence runs a total of 81 words (see above.) I couldn’t begin to diagram it. But the message is hard to miss. Here’s the Tim translation: “We need to leave deceitful foolishness alone and tell the truth in love, growing in Christ, so we can mature into a high-functioning, healthy community grounded in love.”

 

This is not to suggest Gather is not a loving, healthy community. We’re all of that. What brings this text to mind is how floridly Paul describes windbags who spew doctrinal gusts to trick and deceive and promote hatefulness. Once he sets that scene, Paul uses the rest of this elegant, runaway sentence to effectively say, “Yeah, we can’t grow if we keep falling for their baloney.”

 

Now this is hard for many of us hear because some of these blowhards (forgive the pun) raised us and prayed with us and taught us the Bible. Yet, in retrospect, we can see how—for good or bad—they used scripture to manipulate and demean and clobber us, often with such craftiness we don’t want anything to do with faith or the gospel or even God. And that’s understandable. But is it viable?

 

Paul doesn’t think so. And I have to say I’m on his side. Allowing the schemers and deceivers to stunt our spiritual growth hands leaves us deprived. The way we overcome deceitful doctrines and tricky translations is by de-weaponizing the Word, knowing scripture for ourselves—not only what it says, but why it says what it says, and what it was originally meant to achieve. We start there and then we grow into deeper love for God, for scripture, for one another, and for others like us who’ve not yet found their way home.

 

That’s why our current series, Queer Theology 101, is so vital. It goes right back to the source and tests what’s there against everything we’ve been told was there. Once we sort through the misleading, often flat-out incorrect doctrines used to demean and deceive, we can move on to “speaking the truth in love.” Get some of that good word in your system and I promise you’ll grow!

 

Join us this Thursday as we work through more of the so-called clobber texts that have been abused to shame and condemn LGBTQ folks. You’ll discover going back to unlearn some of this stuff is how we find our way forward. The conversation starts at 7:30pm CDT. I look forward to seeing you!

 

Peace,

Pastor Tim

Body Love

See to it that nobody enslaves you with philosophy and foolish deception, which conform to human traditions and the way the world thinks and acts rather than Christ. All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body. – Colossians 2:8-9

 

Dear Gatherers,

 

In an infamous April 1823 letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson went off on Christian theology, saying belief that God’s existence is revealed in Jesus amounts to “Atheism” since it ignores sufficient proof of God found elsewhere. (Jefferson was a devout deist with no use for Christian dogma.) The Incarnation was especially prickly for him. He called it it a “fancy absolutely incomprehensible” and hoped “the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding” to focus solely on the teachings of his hero, a first-century Jewish philosopher from Nazareth.

 

Despite boundless respect for the man who crafted so many unforgettable American ideals (that many Americans have lately forgot), I have to say, “Pres. J, you missed the point.” The fully embodied expression of God is necessary because it models an alternative way of being that achieves the ideal. We are created to house something too great to fashion on our own. We embody love more powerful than any ability we possess. We embrace life that defies labels and transcends boundaries. That is our divine birthright. As the Psalmist famously confessed, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it” (Ps. 139:6).

 

That’s why incarnation matters. Our Maker took on human flesh to demonstrate what lived-in divinity looks like and how it behaves. We are flesh-and-blood organisms living in a material world with flesh-and-blood needs. And when we cynically ignore this (getting all skeptical or super-spiritual—they’re essentially the same thing) the most pathetically pious among us turn against bodies. Look at the Far Right’s obsession with bodies, not as holy habitations, but as political fodder that scoffs at God’s undeniable presence in bodies of women and queer folx and immigrants and differently abled people and people of color and anyone else who doesn’t conform to a white supremacist, patriarchal norm. The odiousness of this stuff is plenty wrong. But there’s a fundamentally faithless confession in it as well. To denigrate or oppress “other” bodies exposes an atheistic belief there’s no God inside them. I have a real problem with that.

 

Dear Mr. Jefferson, you may be correct when you see atheistic bankruptcy gift-wrapped in pseudo-Christian nonsense. It wasn’t only in your time. Lots of that on display these days. But the incomprehensible “fancy” you despise at the core of Christian thought? It’s not that hard to comprehend. It’s not even that fancy. God dwells in us fully in the same way God fully dwelt in Jesus. That makes our bodies sacred. Our choices sacred. Our lives sacred. And when we learn to love our bodies and the bodies around us—even disagreeable ones—we’ll get much closer to the divine inside.

 

Join us every Thursday through November, for a compelling Queer Theology 101 conversation that challenges all kinds of presumptions. We meet at 7:30pm CDT via Zoom.

 

Peace,

Pastor Tim

 

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NO U-TURNS

Each of you proclaimed liberty for the other and made a covenant before me in the temple that bears my name. But then you went back on your word. – Jeremiah 34:15-16

 

Dear Gatherers,

 

If you were unable to be with us for last Sunday’s Gather Live, you missed a treat. We felt real freedom in our worship. It was so thick that by the time we arrived at the Communion table, I simply held up the loaf and cup and told the church, “This is what freedom tastes like.” We came very close to breaking into a holy dance. (We’ll have the video up on YouTube soon.)

 

Accepting our freedom empowers us to proclaim liberty to others. Not simply because it’s a wonderful thing that everyone deserves—of course, it is. But helping others get free enables them to join the fight for freedom. That’s the lesson from Jeremiah 34. Well, part of it.

 

The Babylonians are bearing down on Jerusalem. The prophet tells the king to free all slaves, enabling them to join the fight against their oppressors. (It turns out they were due to be freed anyway.) Then, after proclaiming liberty, the owners do a U-turn and revoke their freedom. God’s anger is chilling: “Since you have defied me by not setting your fellow citizens free, I’m setting you free, declares the Lord, free to die by the sword, disease, and famine! And I will make you an object of horror for all nations on earth” (Jer. 34:17).

 

We’re living in a perilous time with authoritarian movements and tyrants trying to revoke freedoms right and left. But God says freedom is irrevocable. This will not go well for them. Now let’s bring this a little closer to home. We want to change the world for the better. Make it a freer and more livable place. Lift our communities as citadels of justice rather than objects of horror. Throw open the windows and doors of our churches so fresh wind blows in, pure light casts out shadows, and no one is denied the Pentecostal proclamation of liberty, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:15).

 

To do that, we need more people. We build our ranks by proclaiming freedom to folks who want it. Many won’t believe it at first. Many will have experienced U-turns in other places, other churches, other family settings. But let’s show them we’re for real. Who in your circle needs to get free? Proclaim liberty—not just for them, but for everyone. Let them know freedom is possible. God wills it so. Not just for them, but because the world needs more free people in the freedom fight.

 

Peace,

Pastor Tim

The Experience-Based Vision

Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”– Luke 24:31-32

 

Dear Gatherers,

 

Were your ears burning? I spent last weekend writing grant applications for us to do the work God calls us to do. That means I’ve been talking about you! One application required nearly a dozen 300-word essays, asking everything from how we gather to our demographic mix to what’s our vision for the community outreach center. So you’ve been on my mind. Well, you’re always on my mind—but you’ve been intensely on my mind these past few days.

 

One question asked to describe the “intersectional identities” involved in in our ministry. I didn’t have to think twice before writing, “The beauty of Gather is how its leadership and congregation can be placed along multiple matrices, many obvious, others less so—all of which reflect the racial and cultural diversity of the communities we serve.” In non-grant speak, all I was saying is that you can’t put us in a box. We’re not a white church or a black church, a mostly straight or mostly gay church, a Southside or West Side church, an in-person or online church. And in the end, I believe that’s what makes us a truly Pentecostal church. We can’t be boxed in. And that witness brought new fire to my heart. The word on the street about us re-ignites my soul. And if you’ve lost some fire, look at what God has already done and let new flames kindle up. Gather 2.0 is going to catch fire!

 

After Jesus was unjustly executed, two suburban brothers from his community headed back home, dejected. They’d just gone through something so horrendous they couldn’t possibly have seen it coming. Their leader was murdered in plain daylight. Gone. Except he wasn’t! He met them on the road, speaking to them with such passion that their trauma-induced blindness lifted and their hearts caught fire.

 

Gather, we’ve been through something. Let’s not pretend otherwise. But we are not abandoned. The Living Christ meets us on our road, as a community and individuals, and we need to see that. Let it set a new fire in your heart. Let experience fuel for your vision of what’s next. That’s where we’re going as a community. That’s what we’ll be rejoicing about this coming Sunday in our live worship. See you there!

 

Peace,

Pastor Tim

Remote-Control Repair is a Non-Starter

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature. – Romans 12:2

Dear Gatherers,

If you’ve not been to our Thursday discussions on capitalism and Christianity, you’ve missed some of the toughest conversations we’ve ever had at Gather. The Gospels make it very plain: Jesus was no capitalist, which means if this really were a Christian nation, our economy would look very different. The Sabbath principles of freedom, equality, and rest would dominate every enterprise. Racism and supremacist thinking would be taboo. Yet in today’s toxic atmosphere of faux religion and home-school politics, can we even follow Jesus’s teaching in a capitalist system? Well, the answer is: we must. While we make our livings, do our shopping, and pay our taxes, we also live into Jesus’s principles of generosity and justice. We subvert the system by defying it from inside.

That’s also how we reverse the tide of religious harm that has weakened Christian witness everywhere. To remedy the church’s wrongs calls for a brave bunch of folks willing to subvert the system by defying it from inside. Why? Because you can’t fix something from afar; remote-control repair is a non-starter.  That really is Gather’s mission. And it’s not impossible. It’s necessary. That’s how I’ve started talking about it to people, saying, “Gather is a bunch of bruised and brave believers who are just bold enough to get in and revolutionize what church is, what it looks like, and how it works.”

All those folks who’ve turned their backs on religion? The ones the Pew Researchers call the “nones” and “spiritual-but-not-religious” crew? They’re not changing a thing. What’s more, their assumption that leaving Christianity will hurt the church bullies’ feelings is childish. If you want to stop the pain for others (and get well yourself), you’ve got to risk getting in and creating a new kind of church—something folks will recognize and find restorative.

Believing we can’t fix this is hellishly wrong. What we need is the audacity and commitment to subvert the system by defying it from inside. Our light has to shine brighter. Our witness has to be bolder. Our worship has to be truer. Our faith has to be more faithful. Our willingness to sacrifice has to make us unstoppable. Is Gather up for that kind of subversive project? Hell yeah! The conformists and con artists have had their turn. Now it’s our time to be transformers, not half-heartedly, but true to the end. Because when you’re inside you can change things much more forcefully than you’ll ever accomplish standing outside, calling names and throwing stones. Let’s get into the work of repairing the church!

Peace,
Pastor Tim

Flattery Gets You Everywhere

Dear Gatherers,

 

Quite often my reflections here begin with an image search. This week the focus is on how following God (“imitating God” is how St. Paul describes it) positions us to speak truth and goodness into the lives of people we meet. So I Googled “imitating God” and got ticked off, because most of the images were of fathers walking on beaches with little sons. The silliness of casting God as a papa figure we all want to be like when we grow up!

 

That’s a big part of the problem in so many Christian circles. The supposition that God is the only adult around and we’re all toddling along, unable to think and do and decide for ourselves, too immature to imitate or follow God for ourselves. It’s that kind of toxic mentality that enables many self-professing Christians to ignore responsibility for their actions, with no concern about how their “God’s got it” nonsense that translates into an endless list of social, moral, and ethical failures.

 

The divine imitation that St. Paul describes is how we position ourselves to “go for God”—not in the selfish sense, but more literally, as God’s transformative presence in the world. We are the voice of love at the table where racist relatives speechify about “those people.” We are the arms of acceptance in situations where folks are outcast or denied because of their identity. We are the heart of justice when we see hatred codified into law and social custom. We are the feet of protest that take to the streets when outcry must be heard and witnessed in mass numbers. We go for God. And in going, our actions translate into something more powerful than words. People see God in us.

 

Is imitation the highest form of flattery? In terms of faith, it gets you everywhere. I can think of no better way to give God praise than following God’s ways, yielding to God’s will, and measuring our reflection in God’s word. During this coming Sunday’s YouTube worship, our own Shea Watts will bring these ideas to life—without the Hallmark daddy images and the “not my job” nonsense imbedded in them. Don’t miss it!

 

With much love,

Pastor Tim