Informal Musings
Over Coffee

James Rissler

James has served as pastor to Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship since October of 2006 and was ordained in May of 2010. In what seems like a prior life, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from the University of Notre Dame. So he can be called Rev. Dr. James Rissler, but that sounds ostentatious. The only people who call him that are public officials responding to letters advocating for greater justice for all, which he signs with those titles, hoping they’ll be impressed :-) James is married to Christina, and they have two boys, Andrew and Peter.

James emphasizes the love of God and the importance of loving relationships with God and with all persons. He believes that relationships take precedence over doctrine, and that, almost always, people can find common ground that is wider and deeper than our theological differences. His enduring optimism is grounded in God's creation of us in God's image, a creation that God called very good.

Our Halcyon Days

“I’ve wondered for a while about the tension that seems to exist within many of us between being uncomfortable with change and yet not embracing what is either.”

In his sermon last Sunday, Silas not only quoted poetry from Rainer Maria Rilke, he also reminded us of the Calvin and Hobbs comic strip below.  

I’m still thinking about Rilke and his invitation to try thinking of God as our child, and we as the parents.  I can appreciate a sense of letting go when we have done what we can, and trusting God to mirror the best of us, while also being much better and more than we are.  But I’m not quite ready to delve further into that line of thought today, and don’t know if I will be.

Silas used Calvin’s question to point out our tendency to sometimes cling to the past, to tradition, to the idyllic golden days of our youth.  And based on the discussion of Silas’s sermon during our time of “further liberty,” that resonated with several of us.  One of our retirees recalled his wife and him being told by an acquaintance during the years in which they were juggling young children, school, and beginning careers that they would one day look back on those days as the happiest of their lives.  And he said that as they look back at those years, that seems largely right.

I wonder about this tendency to remember our past as better than our present.  

Rose-Tinted Glasses?

Last week, I had lunch with a pastor friend, who I wouldn’t expect to idealize the past, or remember it with rose tinted glasses.  But at one point, the topic of allergies came up (Andrew is allergic to tree nuts), and he wondered why we hadn’t had to worry about peanut allergies when we were kids (he’s just a bit older than me).  “I don’t think I knew anyone who was allergic to much of anything growing up - bee stings, maybe,” he said.  I responded, “Maybe, but I didn’t think I knew anyone who was gay when I was a kid either.”  (This friend is gay, and in retrospect, I did.)  We went on to speculate about the “hygiene hypothesis” that we all need to have more dirt and germs in our lives to allow our bodies to learn to respond to various allergens.  But I wondered about our relative memories of our youth.

As I listened to Silas preach, I was glad to find myself thinking along these lines: “Well, yes, there’s much that I remember fondly from the past.  But I’m also pretty happy with life right now.  And I look forward to finding joy in the years to come.”  I happen to think that’s a pretty healthy perspective.

Of course, my life has been blessed and privileged in many ways that others’ lives have not been.  On balance, I think there’s a lot of good stuff in my life, and hope that will continue.  I’m not saying that those who face much more difficult lives are wrong to view them less favorably than I do mine.  And I’m not saying that the couple in church who looked back on their lives as young parents as their most joy-filled are wrong to do so.

I do, however, think that it’s important to appreciate the good in our lives in the present, and I do think that sometimes, clinging to the way things were can make it harder for us to do that.  Always looking ahead to a hoped for better future can do the same.

The Tension of Being Present

I’m not very good at being present, and most people I know aren’t either.  I’m an optimist, and I find myself often planning for happier days, rather than enjoying today’s happiness.  Others I know seem pulled from the present more often by remembering happier days, and others by worrying that their future days won’t be as happy.   

I’ve wondered for a while about the tension that seems to exist within many of us between being uncomfortable with change and yet not embracing what is either.  

I think that tension parallels a tension I often feel in living a life of faith: when do I need to do more, to work harder to bring God’s reign closer, and when do I need to trust that circumstances are in God’s hands, that I have done my part and must release the rest to God?  In a way, I answered those questions years ago, even wrote a dissertation about it.  But in the ways that matter most, I’m still trying to live into those answers.  

I believe that we act best on God’s behalf when we act out of a posture of resting in God’s presence.  I believe that when we are attuned to God, we’re better able to do what should be done, without looking for accolades and without guilt about not doing enough.  In order to bring about positive changes, we first need to be present to the Goodness that is already (and always) available to us.  But I’m still struggling to live into those beliefs.  

Christina and I took a mindfulness class together a couple years ago.  (I loved it; she did not.)  But I haven’t kept up my practice of meditation, despite really thinking I should.  My prayer life has always been fitful.  Yet I hold onto my beliefs about being called to an experience of God’s Presence in as many of our present moments as we can, and to living out of that sense of God’s love.  And I pursue them, fitfully, in as healthy a way as I know.

I remember with joy and appreciation times that I have practiced prayer and meditation more diligently, and seen how they made me a better pastor, parent, and spouse.  I do my best to practice looking for God in as many moments as I remember to, and I am embracing the moments that I am encountering God today.  And I look forward with hope and optimism to living more fully into God’s presence.

May we find love and joy and Presence in many of the presents of our lives.

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