You established a basic pattern for your formation groups last week. The basic structure of the meeting is gathering, prayer, teaching/sharing, and blessing/sending. It’s important to continue that basic pattern today and in the weeks to come. Setting into a regular pattern will help your group gain comfort with one another and focus on the reasons you gather.
This week’s focus is on the second baptismal question: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
Here’s a suggested agenda:
- Brief, informal time of gathering (10 minutes or so) with snacks to share.
- Formal gathering and prayer with participants seated in a circle in chairs or around a table — with requests for prayer for the coming week (10 minutes) and prayer led by the group leader or unison in the group. However you chose to share requests and pray last week, do the same this week.
- Again, one practice I’ve found useful in leading such groups, especially when prayer out loud may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable for some in the group, is immediately after a person shares, the whole group pauses, then says in unison, “Into your hands, O God, we commend our sister/brother/sibling(s) Name(s).” Proceed to the next person and repeat until all who wish to offer requests for prayer have had the opportunity to do so.
Teaching and Testimony (35 minutes) — For this week, there are two verbs to focus on (accept and resist), and the first verb (accept) has two actions (accept freedom and accept power). Once again, give about ten minutes to each of these (accept freedom, accept power, resist), with one to two minutes for brief teaching (see below) and the remaining time for sharing how each is working on each one, how each has exercised each one, what has happened because because each did, and how each seeks to improve.
Before these three ten-minute blocks, set aside five minutes to talk about specific practices that enable or embody acceptance and, in particular, the practice of prayer. See TEACHING 1, below, for more detail.
- Blessing and Sending—Gather in a circle or huddle, lay hands on one another, one by one, and pray over each in unison: “X, may you continue to grow in Christ in the days ahead.” (5 minutes). Thank all for coming, and send the group out to continue to grow.
TEACHING 1: Prayer as a Means of Grace for Practicing Acceptance
If you have used the model of prayer I have suggested above (“Into you hands, O God, we commend our sister/brother/sibling Name”), you have already been approaching prayer as a means of grace for practicing the acceptance of the freedom and power God desires to give us and allow to flow through us to bless all creatures and all creation. In such prayer, we are not asking God to do a particular thing. We are not ordering God around or even offering a wish list for how we’d prefer something take place. We are instead commending people and situations into God’s care, however God in God’s freedom and power may seek or be able to work.
Praying in this way embodies our acceptance that God is the source of the freedom and power and love we and the whole world most need. In this simple act of commendation, we also experience a particular kind of connection. We offer those we love into the hands of the One who is Love. We give up any pretension of knowing or controlling what happens next. To trust Love in love is all, and it is enough.
This dynamic act of trust embodied in such prayer is a gift to us from God. As Christians, we learn and teach prayer as a means of grace by which we let go the illusion of control and instead open ourselves to receive the freedom and power God gives through this simple and power-filled means of communion between Love, the beloved, and those we all love and commend to Love.
TEACHING 2: Accepting Freedom
Part of what seemed to “blow Nicodemus’s mind” about what Jesus shared with him is something he said in a verse you may not have read on Sunday morning. “The wind blows wherever it wants to, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it came from or where it’s going next. That’s how it is with everyone who is born from the Spirit.” (John 3:8). The notion that the Holy Spirit may be this free and unpredictable, like the wind (“wind” and “spirit” are the same word in both Greek and Hebrew) was generally accepted by religious leaders among the Jewish people. The notion that people, generally, might be given a similar level of freedom to speak and act by the Holy Spirit, however, was radical. One might expect such freedom for those very select few who were known as prophets. But not for everyone.
Yet here is Jesus, saying it’s not only available for everyone, but it’s reality for everyone who is “born of the Spirit.”
This is why Paul also writes, “Wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
Where are the places in your lives where you currently find yourself bound or muted and so seek or need to seek the freedom God gives you? What has happened when you have exercised that freedom this week? How might we help you experience and use that freedom better?
TEACHING 3: Accepting Power
When you are set free on the inside, you may find you are also given power to act on behalf of yourself and others in ways you had not done before. John 1:12 (not in our reading today at all, but lying behind it) says, “As many as received him [Jesus], he gave them power (authority) to become the children of God, to all those believing into his name.” And in Acts 1:8, we have these words from Jesus, “But you will receive power (the usual word for power) when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” When we believe into Jesus, or when we experience this “new birth,” as mentioned in our reading this Sunday, we receive both power (the ability to act) and authority (the capacity our authorization to act) as children of God in the world.
The notion that all disciples of Jesus are given both authority and power to act as God’s children in the world may be an unfamiliar notion, even to longtime churchgoers. We may have heard language like this primarily in the context of ordinations, where, after the bishop lays hands on the head of the candidate to ask the Holy Spirit to be poured upon him/her for the particular office or work (as deacon or elder), the bishop then lays hands on the newly ordained person’s hands and says, “Take authority…”
What we may miss is that what we are doing in ordination is simply an extension of what God has already done for us in baptism. All of us who have been born of water and the Spirit have also been given both the ability to act in the world (power) and the authorization to do so (authority) by God.
We may be a bit squeamish about exercising this power and authority. But we oughtn’t be. We may be afraid to act lest we use it poorly. Let me assure you, yes, sometimes, if not often, we do use it poorly. But it’s still given to us. And we can teach and support one another in ways to use this power and authority more and more constructively and effectively over time.
So how have you used your power and authority as children of God this week? What happened when you did? And how might we help one another do this better?
TEACHING 4: Freedom and Power...to Resist
The freedom and power we are given by God is not primarily to make ourselves feel better or even be better. The primary purpose of the freedom and power God gives us is to enable us to join God’s resistance against everything that destroys or corrupts the creatures of God and the creation God has made.
In the “Baptismal Tai-Chi,” I teach seminary students and participants in the “Living the Covenant” retreats the embodiment of “resist” is to face toward the east (toward the risen Christ or toward the front of the worship space), left foot forward, and leaning forward, both hands lowered and pushing back behind the body.
We continue moving forward, following the way of Christ. We have already repented (turned away) from the way of sin. But evil still exists and pursues us and others. So, facing Christ, and moving forward in him, we continue to push back, to resist, the evil that might draw us back or harm others along the way, in whatever forms it presents itself.
The freedom and power we receive from God enable us to continue to move Christward, forward in the way of God’s kingdom. They also enable us to resist, precisely as we look toward Christ. Think of Peter walking on the water in the storm. As long as he looked toward Christ, he did not sink. The moment he let his attention wander to the howling of the wind and the power of the waves, he began to sink.
So how have you done this week in looking toward Christ, source of freedom and power, and then channeling that power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression? What happened when you did? And how can we help you do this better?
Courageous Conversations Events
by Scott Hughes
Lent is a forty-day period of self-reflection, contemplation, and reconciliation. Lent is also traditionally a season connected with preparing for baptism or reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant. The following Lenten Courageous Conversations materials are is an attempt to relate the vows made in baptism with people who are or could be feeling estranged.
The Courageous Conversations event each week should not be seen as displacing or replacing the work of other formation groups, but rather as supplementing and underscoring what it means for us to live “in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.” Given the persistence of deep divisions in our nation, divisions that are replicated within our churches and communities as United Methodists, we believe these weekly Courageous Conversation events offer an opportunity for mutual listening, care, and healing that are critical for our future as a denomination, yes, but more importantly critical for the future of Christian witness wherever our churches are across this country.
This series of lessons will focus on homeless people who often suffer in isolation due to stigma, despite the various causes of their homelessness.
The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church invites us to consider: “As people of faith and religious commitment, we are called to stand with and seek justice for people who are poor. Central to our religious traditions, sacred texts, and teachings is a divine mandate to side with and protect the poor...We share a conviction, therefore, that welfare reform must not focus on eliminating programs but on eliminating poverty and the damage it inflicts on children (who are two thirds of all welfare recipients), on their parents, and on the rest of society.”
This series of lessons will focus on immigrants (documented and undocumented) who often suffer in isolation due to language, culture, and even fear.
The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church invites us to consider: “Reflecting upon the Scriptures, we are reminded that United Methodists are a global church. In the United States, we may be descendants of economic immigrants or forced migrants, or we may have recently arrived in the US. We may have formal documents proving US citizenship, or we may be undocumented. Regardless of legal status or nationality, we are connected through Christ to one another.”
Prisoners live isolated from loved ones. Former prisoners carry stigmas that last long past their terms of incarceration. Without overlooking ministry to the victims, the church is also called to ministry with those in prison and those still carrying the baggage of being imprisoned.
The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church invites us to consider: “While acknowledging that the biblical concept of justice focuses on the victim, the offender, and the community in the hope of restoring all to a sense of God’s wholeness, it is also important to understand that our Methodist heritage is rich with examples of ministries carried out in jails and prisons. John Wesley...had a passion for those in prison. As early as 1778, the Methodist Conference adopted action making it the duty of every Methodist preacher to minister to those who were incarcerated. United Methodists have reaffirmed and expanded the mandate for prison ministry and reform in many different chapters of our denominational history. This is a part of our identity and call.”
This series of lessons will focus on soldiers returning from war and/or from active duty who often struggle with physical and/or emotional injuries and have the difficult task of reentry into civilian life.
The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church invites us to consider: “that the Church commits itself to extend its pastoral ministry to members of the armed forces and their families during their time of service and after their return; and...that we call upon our churches to extend a welcome home to persons who return from service in their armed forces, to respect their stories and interpretations of their experiences, and to value and encourage expression of their contributions to the ministry of our churches...”