From the Pastor
"Lent Begins with Ash Wednesday"
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and Ash Wednesday begins, of course, with ashes. But why? Why do we gather and remember that we are all dust and ashes?
Well, the answer is that while we gather to remember who we are, we also gather to remember who God is and what God has done for us in and through Jesus. We gather because all other factors are not equal.
God has given us a way out of our plight of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It is the way of the Cross. The death of Jesus was God's way of placing a sign of infinite value upon that which would otherwise be worthless. Ash Wednesday reminds us that God has chosen to give us some other life than the one which leads to the dust heap and the ash pit.
All that God asks of us in this is that we accept God’s mercy, that we remember we are sinners, and repent and believe in God’s Son. God asks us too that we try to practice a piety that is based on God’s love, instead of being motivated by thoughts of human praise or reward; that we try to show a righteousness that is based on God’s goodness instead of being motivated by thoughts of demonstrating our virtue.
God is committed to us and has given to us a sign of that commitment: the cross. On Ash Wednesday we come to take upon ourselves that sign, we come to commit ourselves to God and the way that God’s Son has shown us.
Yes, on Ash Wednesday we come to remember the words of the committal service, the words "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” but remembering too that just before we say those words we say, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ."
These words we should always remember, for we are born anew to a sure and certain hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a hope that comes to us because of the mercy and the love of God for God’s people; a hope that comes because God has acted in and through Jesus to open the way to new life to all who believe the good news that he proclaimed.
"What Sparks Joy?"
Have you heard of Marie Kondo? She is a bestselling author, star of a new Netflix series, and an international expert in the art of tidying up.
Growing up in Japan, Kondo became interested at an early age in organizing, cleaning, straightening, and just about any other aspect of making her world “tidy.” At first she was focused on ridding herself of the unnecessary or unneeded “things” in her life, but one day she realized she was working backwards. Instead of focusing on throwing away what she did not want or need, she began to focus on keeping only those objects which “spark joy.” With this discovery her career as an international expert in tidying up was born.
Her technique is simple: go through your home, select one category of objects at a time and go through those objects one by one, keeping the ones that “spark joy,” and ridding yourself of those objects that do not. For example, let’s say you have 25 shirts in your closet. Do you need that many shirts? Are there shirts there that you never wear? Then go through them and only keep the shirts that spark joy. It’s that simple.
There is, of course, much to be said about her method. We do live in a world where many people are clinging to stuff, material possessions, things, in other words, and so cleaning up all of that can be a good, and yes even spiritual practice. Cleaning up, cutting back, ridding ourselves of the extras we have acquired can be very helpful. If we seek to find our happiness or joy in the acquisition of “things” then we are looking in the wrong place. We will never find joy there.
However, isn’t that exactly what Marie Kondo is asking us to do? For all of the talk about getting rid of our “stuff,” at the heart of her method is the idea of keeping the “stuff” that sparks joy, and that makes me wonder: is joy really to be found in our “stuff?”
Cutting back is a great idea. Removing unneeded material objects from our lives is a commendable practice. We should all do it from time to time, especially when our efforts can go to help others who are in need.
But joy is found somewhere else. Perhaps we need to look up from the “stuff” in our lives and seek joy somewhere else.
I hope you know where to look.
Yours in Christ,
Well, it’s the time of year when our thoughts turn to making New Year’s resolutions.
I’m sure many of you have made resolutions this year, and that’s a good idea, of course. Pledging to be better in some way is always a good thing to do, so making them is a good thing. But there is a problem with resolutions as well.
When we make resolutions we think we know what to expect in the New Year, but experience shows that when we think we know what to expect we often get the unexpected. We can make all the resolutions we want, but the fact is, there is a chance that the unexpected might happen, and what do we do then?
One of the texts we hear often during this time of year is Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the wise men. We know that story of course, but there’s a line right at the end, almost a throw-away line, that we might not have noticed. It says “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
“They left by another road.” I wonder if there is an analogy in there for us. Could it be that Herod represents the powers of the world and, having encountered Jesus, the wise men found a new and better way home. In other words, a new and better way of walking through this world?
Maybe what’s going on here is we are being called to see there is another way of walking through life. Maybe we are being called to see that once we, like the wise men, have met Jesus Christ we will finally realize that the reason the unexpected throws us for such a loop is that we just aren’t good enough, or smart enough, or strong enough to make our way through this world on our own. Maybe we’ll realize that trusting our own earthly powers is just not enough to make our lives be what we expect or want them to be.
There are two roads home, you see. Our road and God’s road.
It’s not too late to resolve to take God’s road this year, to follow the path that God has set before us, instead of the route we want to take.
And doing that is a resolution well worth making.
Let me conclude with a word of appreciation. I was so very, deeply touched by your incredible generosity to me and my family by remembering us this year with your Christmas Love Offering. It is difficult for me to express how much I appreciate your gift, but even more so your love, support, and friendship. I am so very grateful to serve as your pastor and look forward to the coming year.
Yours in Christ,
"What Are You Hoping For?"
What are you hoping for this Christmas season?
Now, did you notice my question? Did you notice what I did not ask?
I did not ask what you are wanting this Christmas, and I certainly didn’t ask what you are wishing for this Christmas. It’s not that those are bad questions, they’re perfectly fine. After all, how would we buy gifts for others and how would others buy gifts for us if we didn’t talk about our wants and wishes. This is the season of gift giving, which is a good and right thing to do. Sharing with others and giving to others is one of the wonderful things that makes this time of year so special.
But wants and wishes are not the same as hope.
It is interesting to me that the first Sunday of Advent is often referred to as “Hope Sunday.” Advent begins with the idea of hope, but it is not an empty hope, it is not hope in things, possessions, gifts, or presents. For Christians hope is rooted and sought for in the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus embodies our hope, our hope is found in him.
Too often we forget that. We seek hope in a million other places, or people, or things. Perhaps that is why we so often find ourselves restless, unsure, frightened, and afraid. We are lost and looking in wrong place.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann has this to say about hope:
“…the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God's first love.”
What are you hoping for this Christmas season?
Yours in Christ,
"While I pray daily to be delivered from the most awful things that can happen to human beings — land mines, wasting illness, killing poverty, civil wars — I give thanks for even the semi-terrible things that have happened to me, since they have shown me what is really real. They have made me tell the truth. They have quashed my illusions of control, leaving me with no alternative but to receive my life as an unmitigated gift."
~From “An Altar in the World,” by Barbara Brown Taylor
A number of years ago I taught a class in a neighboring church and we used Barbara Brown Taylor’s marvelous book, “An Altar in the World,” as our text. I commend all of her work highly, and the other day I was reminded of this when the quote above popped up on my Facebook feed. There, in the middle of funny cat videos and angry political rants, I found myself pausing for a few moments to read something that actually had depth and meaning.
I vaguely remembered the quote from my study of the book, but for some reason, this time it has stuck with me. Perhaps it’s her reference to “the awful things that can happen” especially as our state continues to try and recover from the hurricane. There are, of course, awful things happening every day, and so often it seems that they happen to good, decent people, people who don’t deserve all that pain and suffering. That, of course, is a conundrum that theologians have been debating for years, and to be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve ever found an answer to the problem of suffering that has satisfied me.
Of course, it’s on that pain and suffering that many of us choose to focus. That’s understandable, but here Taylor shows us a somewhat different way to look at all of this. She reminds us that times of trouble often help us see what is real, what matters in our lives. There is much to be said for pruning, for cutting away, for cleaning up the detritus that accumulates in our lives.
But more than that, I think, is the way she ends this passage by stating that sometimes we need to remember that we are not in control, despite our deepest illusions to the contrary, and our lives must be received as “an unmitigated gift.” Do we do that? Do we truly see our lives, and all the strange, wonderful, painful, joyful, and broken pieces, as a gift from God?
I can’t say that I always do, but I know that life is sweeter when I try.
Yours in Christ,
"Each Week We Gather to Worship"
Each week, all over the world, there is a group of people who gather together to do something completely radical, counter-cultural, something that flies in the face of everything the world teaches us. They gather together to publicly affirm that there is someone greater than they. They gather together to say that there is a power, a force, a presence, a being, that is more important to them than anything else.
These people who gather together to do this are called the church, and what they gather to do is worship God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Now I realize that we might not think of what we are doing as being quite as radical as I have described it, but in fact I really do think that worshipping God is probably the one thing we do as a people that flies in the face of the ways of the world.
For example, think for a moment about why people usually gather together as a group. People gather together to watch a sporting event, hear a concert, watch a movie, celebrate a birthday or holiday. These are all, of course, perfectly valid and good reasons to gather, there is nothing at all wrong with them. But they all have something in common: they all have to do with enjoying ourselves, with being entertained.
And, while there is nothing wrong with being entertained, the problem is that more and more people are gathering for worship for exactly the same reason. They want to be entertained and amused. But worship is not entertainment.
Think about the word worship. What does it mean? One of the definitions given by Webster’s is this: to regard with great, even extravagant respect.
The question is this, if we think of worship as entertainment, who or what is the object of this regard and respect? Who are we really worshipping: God, or ourselves?
Sometimes you will hear statements like this: “well, I didn’t get much out of worship today.”
Now, before I respond to that notion I do want to say that the church is often guilty of trying to lull people to sleep. Goodness knows we’ve all sat through dreary worship services and boring sermons; I’ve preached a few myself. And that’s a shame because I think we do have an obligation to offer a worship service that is executed with a high level of excellence, just as we should strive for excellence in everything we do for God.
But did you hear that last sentence? The part about “everything we do for God?” You see, worship is something we do for God, not for ourselves. We don’t worship to “get” anything. We worship to “give,” to give praise and glory to God.
So when I hear a statement like “I didn’t get much out of worship today,” my reply would be this: “well, what did you bring with you?” Did you come with a heart filled with gratitude to God, prepared to offer yourself up to God as a living sacrifice, your life given to God as God has given his life to us in the death of Jesus Christ? Or, did you come wanting to be entertained, amused, hoping perhaps for a pleasant diversion?
My friends, when we do that, when we come to worship with that attitude, then the object of our worship is not God. It is instead ourselves.
And that is a problem, because worship is not about us. It is about God.
At its heart worship is about encountering the God who made us, who sustains, who saves us, who has a plan for our lives and who we are called to serve.
Worship is not an event that we attend; it is, rather, something we do.
You see, if we make the focus of worship, the object of our worship be ourselves, then we are doing nothing different from the world. That is why worship is so radical. When we worship God, we are saying that there is something greater and more important than ourselves, there is another to whom we owe our allegiance, love and devotion. And that other one is God.
The world tells us that we can have it all, we can do and be whatever we want, that the human ego, the human psyche, is what is ultimate, and to satisfy our own wants, needs and desires should be our ultimate concern.
Worship, on the other hand, tells us that God is our ultimate concern.
"Using Our Gifts"
"An Antidote for Anger"
Everyone sure seems mad these days. Turn on the television and you’re going to see two talking heads going at it. Go on social media and you’ll find even worse. Everyone has an opinion, and it’s a strong one. They simply know that they are right, anyone who disagrees with them is wrong, and if you don’t like, well…
Of course, this isn’t a new problem. People have been fussing and fighting with each other ever since Adam tried to blame Eve for that whole fruit incident. The church is, of course, no stranger to these arguments, fights, and disagreements. If you spend much time at all in the New Testament you’ll find this out, but you will also find some pretty good advice on better ways to deal with conflict.
Take, for example, Ephesians 4:1-3: “I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
We can tell, of course, that these are instructions for how we, as Christians, are to behave toward each other because the passage begins by talking about our calling and implores us to live a life worthy of that calling (which is probably worth a sermon or two, but I’ll save that for another day). But then it goes on to lift up several qualities that should define our relationships with each other. Qualities like humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, maintaining the unity of the Spirit, and the bond of peace.
The question, of course, is this: are these the qualities that we display in those moments of disagreement, those moments when we are sure we are right and the other is wrong? Do we “look” like the people described here, or do we look more like those talking heads on television?
It’s difficult, of course. It’s not easy to live this way. But maybe if we did at least our little corner of the world might be a better place.
"Misfits and Messes"
I sometimes wonder what it must have been like for those early disciples in the days between Easter and Pentecost. Waiting, wondering, and watching, not sure what to expect, what their future might hold. I’m sure there were doubts. Were they up to the task of building the church? How could a messed up bunch of misfits and societal outcasts really do anything for God? At every turn, it seems, they had done little more than mess things up. In other words, they were a mistake waiting to happen.
Perhaps, at times, we feel like that too. Our best intentions, our strongest attempts to be the kind of people Christ wants us to be, winds up leaving us, beaten, battered, and bruised. We are so often Christian misfits as well.
One of my favorite Christian misfits is Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. In her book “Accidental Saints,” she speaks about this:
“I keep making mistakes, even the same ones over and over. I repeatedly attempt (and fail) to keep God and my fellow humans at arm’s length. I say no when I should say yes. I say yes when I should say no. I stumble into holy moments not realizing where I am until they are over. I love poorly, then accidently say the right thing at the right moment without even realizing it, then forget what matters, then show tenderness when it’s needed, and then turn around and think of myself way too often. I simply continue to be a person on whom God is at work.” (Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Accidental Saints,” Convergent Books, 2015)
It’s the last line there that really speaks to me. “I simply continue to be a person on whom God is at work.” It speaks to me because, in the midst of the messes, doubts, and fears in which we live, this is the part that we so often forget. Yes, we are misfits, yes we will stumble and fall and hurt ourselves and others. But God is not finished with us yet. God is still working on us.
And because God is still working on us, that also means that God is still with us in the middle of our messes. Sometimes, we need to remember that.
Yours in Christ,
"What Does Easter Mean?"
We often forget that Easter is not only a day in the church year, but is a season as well, a season in which we remember and focus upon the resurrection of our Lord, and what that means for us and for the world.
But what, exactly does it mean?
To be honest, I’m not sure we always “get” Easter. Perhaps we get bogged down in Easter baskets and bunnies and colored eggs, and somewhere in the middle of all that we know that there is something more, something deeper, and more real, and more powerful than all of this. But what, truly, are we speaking of here?
Well, simply put, the message of Easter is this: Christ has risen. Christ was dead, he was buried, but the tomb could not hold him, and because of him the tomb cannot hold us either. It cannot hold us when we die, but note this as well: it cannot hold us now.
This indeed is what Jesus promised before he died, a promise that seemed at the time totally incredible, a matter, at best, of metaphor, and hyperbole, but which, because of the first Easter morning, we now know to be true.
I want you to think about this: What if, on that first Easter morning, when that stone was rolled away from the tomb, it wasn’t just to let Jesus out? After all, God could have brought Jesus out of that tomb any way God wanted to. What if instead that stone was rolled away from the tomb to let us in, to let us see in there like those first disciples so that we, like them, might know that the tomb is empty, and that death is not the end — but rather a new beginning.
A beginning that proclaims the victory of life over death. A beginning that allows us to turn our backs on the grave and set our faces toward a future with faith and hope, joy and love. A beginning that allows us to even now in this place to live lives that have been resurrected by the power of God.
That is the truth of this day and this season: The tomb is empty. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
Yours in Christ,
“We want to grow!”
That’s a phrase that is heard around many, perhaps most churches. There is no surprise in that, after all I don’t think there are many churches that are intentionally trying to get smaller! I wonder, however, if we have really taken the time to think about the “what” and the “why” of church growth. So I’d like to take a moment or two and unpack these ideas a bit.
First, the “why.” Why do we want to grow? Sadly, in many churches, the answer has to do with numbers. In other words the thinking goes something like this: “We are running out of people and money so we had better do something before it’s too late.” The problem with this thinking is that it is too pragmatic, it lacks a spiritual component. While this kind of thinking might be fine for a club or social organization, it’s not for the church. The why behind church growth must rest on our desire to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. In other words, we have a message so wonderful that we want others to hear that message.
That still leaves the question however of “what.” What do we mean when we talk about a church growing? I think the answer lies in the idea of growing “deep” and “wide.” By deep I mean that if we want to grow then we must place a strong emphasis on spiritual growth. We must be growing deeper in our walk with God each and every day and we must make that a priority in our individual lives and in our life together as the Body of Christ.
By wide I mean the welcoming of new members through the sharing of the good news. Again, this is not numbers for numbers sake, but rather the reaching out and welcoming of a broad range of people - people who are hungry to hear some good news for a change, inviting them in, and making them a part of our fellowship.
Is this easy? In a word “no.” To do this we must examine all our actions to see if they are working to facilitate this growth. By actions I mean everything from decisions of the Session and Committees, to individual decisions we make, conversations we have, and so forth. We must ask if these actions are serving the goal of building up the Body of Christ or are they tearing it down? Are our actions helping to grow the church or reduce it?
A simple way to put this is the following question: Will this action help our church to grow deep and wide? You will be hearing more about this question in the coming weeks and months. Also you may have noticed that there are already a couple of signs posted around the church with this question. I want to keep this question front and center for our congregation as we look toward the future God has prepared for us, and I believe that it will help us to more clearly discern that future.
In closing, please allow me to take a moment and thank all of you for your Christmas gift to me and my family. I was very deeply touched by your generosity and the love you demonstrated through this gift. I hope that we will have many more holiday seasons together!
Yours in Christ,
“I hate New Year’s Day”
That’s what a friend told me recently. I greeted their words with a healthy dose of incredulity. After all, who could hate a day given over to non-stop football and the copious consumption of pork products? I wish everyday could be like that!
“No, no, that’s not what I’m talking about,” they said. “It’s all those resolutions. Every year I start out with a list of the ways that I am going to be different, the ways that I’m going to be better, and every year, usually only a few days in, those resolutions have long gone.”
Well, it’s a familiar problem, isn’t it? Most of us have been in the same place. Big promises! Bold decisions! New Year! New me! We start out thinking that we will reinvent ourselves this year but somehow, each time, those resolutions slip away one by one, leaving us right back where we started from. Instead of New Year, new me, we end up with same old, same old.
As someone once told me, “If I had lost all the weight I had set out to lose I’d be invisible by now.”
All of this makes me wonder if we might be looking for “newness” in the wrong place. It seems to me that all this business about resolutions too often focuses on what “we” can do, what “we” are capable of, what “we” are able to achieve. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to be said for self-improvement, self-discipline, and hard work. But none of that will produce a “new me.” I might end up with a “better me,” a “thinner me,” a “happier me,” but a “new me?” I’m not so sure.
In Isaiah 43:19 God says this: “I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” I like that. First of all, I like it because the focus is on what God is doing, the newness that God is bringing into the world, into the church, into our lives. That’s a very different kind of newness than what we can bring. Second, I like it because God is bold enough to ask if we have even bothered to notice. Most of the time I don’t think we do. We don’t because we are so wrapped up into ourselves that we lack the vision, the perception, to see what God is doing, even when God is acting right there in front of our noses.
You know what I think would be a great New Year’s resolution? To fully embrace, look for, and actively seek the new thing that God is doing. To set aside past hurts, past grudges, past failures, past brokenness, and embrace the “new” that God brings. Not just once a year on January 1st, but each and every day.
Yours in Christ,