What the Cross Means to Me

31 07 2014

By Ralph Aona, Pacific Islands Mission Centre president

As a young child, I grew up in a congregation that had a framed painting of Jesus, who appeared to be knocking at a door. This drawing was in the front of the church, just above the baptismal font. It remained there for years, and then a painting of Jesus’ resurrection replaced it. His hands stretched out, as if reaching and touching us. Later, a koa (local wood in Hawaii) cross replaced that painting.

When I see that cross, it captures my attention. I am not sure why, but maybe it was the first cross that reminded me of my experiences on my journey with Christ. It is not the physical cross that captures me; rather it is what it represents. It represents my journey with the living Jesus knocking on my life and reaching and touching me.

When I went to college I thought I didn’t need to attend church. No one would know while I was in Washington. I was wrong. Jesus knew. Jesus was knocking on my door, my life, reminding me that he is not only lived out in oneself but in relationship with all sacred creation.

The fellowship and relationship with others in the community was important in my spiritual growth and journey. Jesus was right. On my first visit to the Woodland Congregation, I caught the bus and then had to walk several blocks. It was worth it. I met loving and caring people. In that fellowship, my faith continued to grow, my spiritual journey was strengthened, and Jesus was alive.

On another occasion, I was asked to go to the hospital to visit and pray for a young child with multiple medical needs. When I arrived I met the mother and saw her daughter hooked to several medical machines. The family members were not members of the church. So I had to explain about the sacrament of laying on of hands for the sick. The mother was receptive. She was open to anything that could help her child to live.

On another visit, I offered the sacrament again. After the prayer, the mother turned to me and said, “My daughter has taught me about love.” Her daughter did not have to say a word or move. It was her daughter’s presence that reminded her about love. Her daughter taught her that she was loved. The prayers just confirmed that to her.

Here, Jesus was knocking on this mother’s door through her daughter, and she was able to allow Jesus into her life through her child. The child passed away, but the mother found healing. When the celebration of life for the child was held, it was at a park with games, rides, and good food. It was a wonderful celebration.

The cross is all about Jesus knocking on our door and stretching out his hands to touch us. Jesus can reach us in so many ways—if we allow Jesus in. May we hear and see Jesus knocking and just be willing to open up and feel his hands reaching and touching us.

Return to Me

29 07 2014

By Vera Entwistle, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

Following my father’s suicide, I was bereft. I was angry with God, and I felt unable to pray. I was alone, drifting in my grief—afraid of running aground. One day my counselor asked me to sit facing an empty chair. “Imagine your dad sitting there. What do you think he would say to you?”

My dad’s image came to me so powerfully that I wept. I saw myself as a young child, distressed over some perceived hurt. My dad picked me up and comforted me. For the first time I could sense the distress my dad may feel, watching me wallowing in my grief, and I knew that for his sake I needed to pick up the pieces of my life and go on. But how?

After my counselor left, I again sat facing the empty chair. This time I visualized God sitting there. I demanded that God show me how I possibly could go on.

I felt prompted to turn to the scriptures, and I began to search for comfort. As I turned page after page, one sentence stood out: “God yearns to draw you close so that wounds may be healed, emptiness filled, and hope strengthened” (Doctrine and Covenants 163:10a).

In that moment, I began to heal.


25 07 2014

By Carman Thompson, apostolic assistant

About a year ago, a blog by a Presbyterian minister I casually follow, www.achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com, published “Mistakes Were Made (But It Was OK).” The post was about churches that are afraid to make a decision or take a chance on trying something new. One comment has stayed with me.

IMG_3330“Realize that mistakes are our friends. If your church hasn’t made a mistake in the past year, you haven’t tried anything creative.”

In the past year? Many congregations haven’t tried anything really adventurous in the past decade, probably two! That seems somewhat ironic given that during that same period, the inspired guidance given to Community of Christ has grown increasingly strident in its call for action.

The words that eventually became Doctrine and Covenants 161 were presented to the church by then-President Grant McMurray as words of counsel in 1996 and canonized in 2000. That document contained a fresh and compelling voice. It used the phrase, “Heed the urgent call…” (Doctrine and Covenants 161:6b).

Four years later, in 2004, another revelation was presented to the church, again conveying urgency. “The call to respond is urgent. Look to the needs of your own congregations, but look beyond your walls…” (Doctrine and Covenants 162:7d).

In 2007, Section 163 was given, and the call for immediate action became even more heightened. This document contains phrases such as “Open your ears…Do not turn away…Humankind must awaken…,” and “…equip people of all ages…” (Doctrine and Covenants 163:4a–c).

Then three years later, further counsel was presented to the church, primarily with timely guidance to help us through complex and difficult issues. This counsel, now Doctrine and Covenants 164, continued to call the church to immediate action. It contains urgency in a statement followed by two powerful questions:

The challenges and opportunities are momentous. Will you remain hesitant in the shadows of your fears, insecurities, and competing loyalties? Or will you move forward in the light of your divinely instilled call and vision?—Doctrine and Covenants 164:9e

Then in 2013 came further words of counsel, including:

Lovingly invite others to experience the good news of new life in community with Christ. Opportunities abound in your daily lives if you choose to see them.
Undertake compassionate and just actions that seek to abolish poverty and end needless suffering. Pursue peace on and for the Earth.

Let nothing separate you from this mission.

…Additional innovative approaches to coordinating con­gregational life and supporting groups of disciples and seekers are needed to address mission opportunities in a changing world.

Recognizing the need for innovative approaches in congregational life, is it time we perhaps took a few more chances and risked making a few of those mistakes mentioned earlier? Let’s have a conversation about risking making some mistakes, shall we?

It may just be urgent!

Joy and Gratitude

25 07 2014

By David Bolton, Independence, Missouri, USA

Browne at organI came home from high school and Mum asked, “Would you like to take organ lessons?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Joy Browne offered to give you free lessons.”

I knew Joy Browne as the 80-year-old who played “Freely, Freely” every Communion Sunday. I appreciated the opportunity and took up Joy’s offer. She coached me through my first experiences with playing hymns. She taught me to look to the text for moments to break a phrase and allow time for the congregation to breathe. She emphasized the importance of playing expressively rather than hitting the keys like a typewriter. Most importantly, she taught me about gratitude and appreciating others.

When I played at church Joy expressed appreciation immediately after the worship. It didn’t matter how well I had played, she always encouraged me. As I started to play regularly I wondered whether Joy would stop, but she thanked me every Sunday I played at Oak Hill Congregation for the rest of her life.

As she reached her 90s Joy had difficulty playing. Her joints swelled with arthritis. Some fingers bent to the side, while others curled downward. Her accuracy suffered, and large chords were now beyond reach. Her family lamented that she spent more time practicing for Christmas than being with them. It became painful for her to play for extended periods.

Not long after, the pastors asked if I would play for a Communion service.

I will always remember her coming to me afterward, just as she always did. Except this time, tears ran down her checks as she said, “I wish I could play like I used to, but I’m so glad you were able to play today.”

Joy passed away January 24, 2010, at age 93.

These days, I frequently play for church. I try my best to express the text of the hymns musically and to encourage others as she encouraged me. And whenever I’m scheduled to play for Communion Sunday, listen for:

Freely, freely
you have received:
freely, freely give.
—“God Forgave My Sin in Jesus’ Name” CCS 627, Carol Owens

One Hero, Many Heroes

23 07 2014

By Jimmy Munson, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA

One of our 10-year-old boys has been attending church for weeks and is nicknamed Meal Ticket. He’s a hero.

Thirteen younger cousins live with him and his mom for many reasons. He would bring a different one with him to church each week so they could eat.
We finally found out Meal Ticket’s cousins all stayed with him. They had little food, little clothing, no medicine. So we spent $1,400 to get these kids what they needed. We also arranged for Family Services to come.

But listen to this: The last few years we have not been able to afford T-shirts for Memorial Day Camp. This year, though, somebody saved $700 for the shirts. Butwhen our kids found out about Meal Ticket and his cousins, they voted to help by giving up the T-shirts for camps and their trip to a Passion play.

The kids are really Jesus heroes.

A Spiritual—and Physical—Workout

21 07 2014

By Marilee Martens, Pickerington, Ohio, USA

During the spring of 2012, I attended a 10-week Bible-study class on Monday evenings at my home congregation in Grove City, Ohio. Each week class leader Tara Cummings chose a song that we would listen to before we started our class.

2013-06-09 17.24.20At the time, I also was taking a ZUMBA® Fitness class on Tuesday evenings. After listening to upbeat music from our Bible-study class, I had an idea. Wouldn’t it be great if we had some form of a ZUMBA® class at church?

We could start by sharing prayer concerns and then work out, using Latin and Christian music. We then would finish with a meditation or spiritual discipline.

I asked my fitness instructor if she would be interested in teaching, and she loved the idea!

We started in September 2012 with a few members from our congregation. Soon we began to invite friends. Then the friends began inviting their friends. The class has evolved so that a friend of the church now leads the group. She invited a friend who leads yoga stretches at the end, and a Community of Christ young adult leads meditations.

I envisioned this group as an opportunity for congregation members to meet with each other and those from other congregations in the Columbus area.

Instead this group has become an opportunity for invitation and outreach.

We all look forward to our “Body & Soul Fitness” class. Last week I even heard someone ask if we could meet twice a week.

“This ministry has really blossomed, and it’s obvious that we enjoy each other’s company as much as we enjoy the act of building up our bodies,” said Karin

Blythe, a group member. “I have grown to value these new friends because we are able to share in a physically, emotionally, and spiritually rewarding activity. I also love how the group has been able to…remind us that we each have a gift to share with one another.”

Stained-glass Trees

19 07 2014

The Spiritual Practice of Creating Sacred Space

by Brittany Longsdorf, Princeton, New Jersey, USA

Most of my life, I have lived in rural towns and villages in the Southern and Midwestern USA. I was raised by wide-lined cornfields and formed in the branches of oak trees. These spaces were sacred to me, though I often undervalued their spiritual essence while living among them.

photo 1When I was in college I read a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. It suggested that trees can be a home once you destine one to be. In a light-filled, clarifying moment I realized I had always done that—I somewhat unintentionally had made tree-homes.

Tree loves of my past flashed through my memories:

  • An ancient oak that sprawled over a creek near my grandparents’ house in Alabama, where I would fish and read novels.
  • A tall and rotund walnut in the woods by my house as a teenager, where I would cry and vent.
  • A circle of three pines that I ceremoniously dubbed “heaven” at Graceland University, where I used to study, laugh with friends, and discuss theology.
  • A warm, yellow ginkgo outside my apartment at seminary, where I would sit for hours, attempting to discern vocation, call, and mission.

These tree-homes were intentionally created sacred spaces where I felt safe to live fully in the present and explore my relationship with others and God.

My husband and I recently moved to Boston, and I am thoroughly enjoying the adventure of living in an urban place for the first time. The city is abuzz with life, diversity, and culture. Working as a university chaplain I am blessed with meeting incredible students every day and exploring spiritual formation in this generation in new and beautiful ways.

But for a while, I struggled to make this vibrant city feel like home. I missed the cornfields, the bubbling creeks, and the chirping woods. Facing the stress and labor of moving, starting a new job, and setting up a new apartment, I was determined to find another tree-home among the Bostonian brick and mortar.

The large maple in our front yard sits next to a busy road, which didn’t feel quite right. A beautiful magnolia on the lawn outside my office is convenient, but it’s always surrounded by students and picnickers.

After a few months, I found an ancient weeping willow in the Boston Public Gardens that had been planted nearly 200 years ago. The curving branches barely caress the ground, and I can sneak under them into a holy green fort of peace and prayer. I seek those willowing arms every couple of weeks and journal, meditate, and pray.

In our search for spiritual growth in experiencing the sacred presence we often wait for the Spirit to “find” us. In our quest for holy awareness, we want to be shaken, stirred, or struck with an overwhelming emotional experience of God. In waiting for these moments, we often forget we can seek, find, and create.

What I discovered through my tree-home search is that sometimes we can “find” the Spirit by intentionally creating sacred space. Rilke said a tree becomes a home if you destine it to be. We can name those sacred places, those holy havens, ourselves.

We can turn something entirely ordinary into hallowed ground for prayer, for peace, for spiritual formation. These are places for faith, places for hope that we create through intentionality and thoughtfulness. Katie Harmon-McLaughlin says it beautifully in her poem:

I pray with my whole heart
That generations from now
The stained glass leaves
Of setting sun trees
Will still remind people
Of hope

You have the ability to create holy spaces—to make a tree a stained-glass sanctuary, turn a porch swing into a church bench, or transform a candle on your work desk into a sacred altar.

Not all tree-homes are trees: Discover the sacred space unique to you. Push yourself to grow, change, evolve, and create in the spaces you find holy every day.

We grow in love and relationship as we join in community at church on Sundays. This is a beautiful, sacred time of assembly and worship where we join in our calling as the body of Christ. Further your spiritual formation by acknowledging you also have the opportunity to continue to grow throughout the week in all the sacred spaces of the world.

The stained-glass trees of setting-sun leaves are holding firm in their old holy ways, awaiting your discovery. Seek those tree-homes and stand firmly beloved and blessed on your holy ground.