From the Pastor
Phone Calls and Frustrations
It all started on a Sunday evening a couple of weeks ago.
I was watching television when my phone rang. It was an out-of-state number, so I ignored it; that is until the caller left a voicemail, and I listened to it. Big mistake! Over the course of the next two days, I got over a dozen calls from various numbers, all of which I blocked, but to no avail. The calls kept coming and coming and coming.
It was unrelenting.
I was frustrated, annoyed, and angry.
And I feel like an idiot for having felt that way.
You see, in the grand scheme of things, these calls were actually little more than an annoyance; but so often we let these types of events control our lives or at least control us for a day or two. I certainly took advantage of the opportunity to tell everyone my sad story, and now I’m kind of embarrassed about that.
Too often we let little things like spam calls, the guy that cuts you off on the highway, slow service in a restaurant, control how we think, act, and live our lives. We focus on the minor things and forget to focus on the major things. Things like our faith, our family, helping others, and making a positive difference in the world around us.
2020 has been a mess, I think we all can agree with that. It can make us irritable, short-tempered, and self-centered. That’s certainly what happened to me over those phone calls, but we don’t have to live like that. There is a better path, a better plan, and it is the one offered to us each day by Jesus. It is the path offered to us if we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. That includes the neighbor who is cutting us off on the highway and the neighbor providing slow service in a restaurant.
And you know what? It even includes the one making those annoying spam calls.
Yours in Christ,
A couple of weeks ago I was playing around on YouTube and came across some highlights from the movie “Apollo 13.” I remember the movie and went to see it when it was out, but what I really remember, even though I was just a child at the time, are the actual events. Most of you are familiar with them, I’m sure. Fresh off the successful moon trips of Apollo 11 and 12, Apollo 13 was a very different story. There was an explosion, a loss of power and oxygen, and for several days the world clung to the news, hoping and praying for a safe return.
One of the trickiest parts of the journey home was the “re-entry,” when the Command Module had to plunge through the Earth’s atmosphere on the way to splash down. It was tricky because the heat shield that protects the Command Module during re-entry had been damaged, and no one was sure if it would hold up. It did hold up, of course, and thanks to heroic efforts, the astronauts made it back safely to earth.
This idea of re-entry, and the dangers it entails, has been on my mind a bit lately. It is on my mind because we are beginning to face a dangerous re-entry ourselves, a re-entry into our lives, our world, and our society, into so much that seems to have been left behind during the pandemic. How do we re-enter our lives, and do so in a safe and faithful way? Here are a few thoughts.
Take your time. Don’t rush back into everything you did before until you feel good and ready. I know there are voices out there that are saying everything is fine now, but you must make your own decision. Don’t let anyone push you to move faster than you are ready to move.
Pay attention to what you are feeling. The levels of anxiety and depression have sky-rocketed during the pandemic. As I mentioned in my last article, take time to slow down, pause, and name the emotions that you are feeling. I have found myself to be very much on edge at times, and that edginess has bled over into my encounters with friends and family. Has that happened to you? Sometimes it is the people to whom we are the closest that bear the brunt of our anxiety. Have you had disagreements with anyone lately? Then pay close attention to what you are feeling.
Pray, pray, pray, and when you finish with that, pray some more.Take your feelings, the good, the bad, and the ugly, to God in prayer. It is perfectly okay to feel stress, anxiety, and worry about everything that is going on right now, especially about getting back out into the world. Remember, however, that you do not have to deal with all of this on your own. Turn to God, lay your concerns at God’s feet. Philippians 4:6-7 says “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Yes, re-entry back into our lives may be tough. It may be filled with peril, fear, and trepidation. But remember this: we do not go back by ourselves. God is with us, God loves us, and God will be with us every step of the way.
Yours in Christ,
This is the Day
“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Psalm 90:12, NRSV
Yes Lord, teach us to count our days, because I am starting to lose track of what day it is! Maybe you are as well. Certainly, these times are very different than anything I have lived through before. I continue to pray for the health and safety of all of you, and for an end to this pandemic.
As we have gone through these strange days, I have picked up some helpful ideas and suggestions from a variety of places and I thought I might offer a few of them to you today.
Stay connected to God.Make a daily devotional part of your routine, and try to do it each day at the same time.If you do not have a daily devotional, please note that I am sharing one each day on the Church Facebook page.Also, spend some time reading your Bible every day.If you don’t know where to start try this: May has 31 days and the Book of Proverbs has 31 chapters, so you could read a chapter a day.Another good place to start would be the Book of Luke, followed by the Book of Acts, so you get the entire story of Jesus and the early church.
Stay connected to each other.While we may not be able to visit in person right now, we can connect through calls, texts, and social media.Is there an old friend you’ve meant to call for awhile but haven’t done so? Then give them a call.Missing a regular lunch companion? FaceTime or Skype with them during a meal.The important idea is to reach out before the loneliness kicks in.
Stay connected to your emotions.One of the most important things we can do for ourselves right now is to take time for self-examination.Stop for a few minutes each day and ask yourself what you are feeling.Are you worried? Think of times that God has taken care of you.Sad? Focus on times in your life that were filled with joy. Angry? Name what is causing the anger and make a plan to deal with it.If we can name what we are feeling then we can begin to handle that emotion.
Stay connected to current events (but not too much).It’s important to stay informed and on top of the news right now.There is also a need for caution as there is a lot of bad information out there.Go to the sources that you trust and regularly follow, but don’t watch too much news! Sitting there watching the news all day can be overwhelming.
I started this article with a verse from one of the Psalms and now I’d like to end with another. It reminds us that each day, no matter how difficult, is a gift from God: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24 NRSV
Yours in Christ,
Hope in Darkness
Last year, just before Easter, I posted an article on our website entitled “Easter Hope.” As I was thinking about all that is going on in the world around us today, I decided to revisit that article, with some new thought added, so here is my offering.
There is so much in the world that is frightening these days. Every time we open up our newspapers or turn on our televisions and computers, all we see are stories about growing infection and death tolls, job losses, economic collapse, and the collateral damage this is having on our bodies, minds and spirits. Stress, fear, anxiety, depression, and loneliness are becoming the new “normal” for far too many people. When all of this will be over is anyone’s guess, and when it is over many people will be faced with picking up the pieces of their broken lives.
To me, one of the toughest problems is the fact that we cannot be together as a church. Perhaps we will learn how much we need each other, how much we need to come together for worship, teaching, and fellowship. We are, of course, trying to stay connected through phone calls and social media. We continue to put out a sermon each week, and I am also posting a devotion each morning. But that’s not the same as “being there,” as “being together.”
At the same time, however, I am struck by how many comments I have seen or heard from people who say they will “miss” Easter this year. Understand this: while we may miss being together, Easter will happen, we will not “miss” it. The beauty, the glory, the power, and the mystery of Easter will be there, whether we are or not.
In fact, it may be that we need Easter more than ever this year. We need the great, good news that is found in this day. Easter reminds us that in the face of all that is frightening, maddening, and dark, comes good news of life, news so good that it can transform the way we look at the world, because we have a glimpse of where we are going, and where Jesus has already gone.
Think of those first disciples. They came to the tomb that morning with spices and ointments, expecting to find death, but instead they found the tomb empty, and the stone rolled away. That is also what we find in Easter. Instead of death and despair, we find life and hope.
In Mark’s Gospel, there is a mysterious figure that greets the disciples when they arrive at the tomb. He is described simply as a young man, dressed in a white robe, but it is his words that are important. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Go and tell everyone that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you.”
In that moment the world’s “No,” has become God’s “Yes.” And we know how this story ends! It ends with the good news we proclaim each year on Easter. “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.” Thanks be to God!
Yours in Christ,
It’s time for New Year resolutions again, and I have to admit, I’m not a fan. We start out with the best intentions, of course, and then, somewhere along the way, we just give up.
I wonder if part of the problem is that so many of our resolutions have to do with stopping, or quitting, or giving up. “I’m going to stop eating sweets now that the Holidays are over,” we say, but then there’s a birthday dinner, a covered dish supper, or a visit to a friend’s house and you can’t say no, and there goes that resolution.
So, here’s is something different to think about: What if we made our resolutions deal with positive action to do God’s work in the world? What if instead of resolving to lose weight this year, we resolve to take the money we waste on junk food and gave it to charities that feed the hungry. What if instead of resolving to get more exercise this year, we resolve to exercise some spiritual muscles and adopt spiritual practices such as prayer, bible study, or working with a worthy charity. What if instead of resolving to spend less time in front of the TV, we resolve to reach out to those who are lonely, lost and afraid? What if our resolutions were focused on doing God’s work in the world, and sharing the love of God in Christ to transform the world?
A fresh New Year lies unblemished before us. What do we resolve to be in that New Year, and for the rest of our lives?
Yours in Christ,
Well, football season is upon us again. That means we’ll be hearing a lot about losers and winners, the vanquished and the victorious, and the conquerors and the conquered. That language makes sense, of course, after all football is a game, so someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. But what happens when we talk about the so?called “game of life?” Or, perhaps more specifically, the “Christian life.”
There is a great passage I want to share with you. It’s 1 John 5:3-5 — “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Now, let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean that bad things won’t come our way; they will. Instead the passage is telling us that our faith in Christ will keep us connected to God, no matter what life throws at us. Our spiritual link will remain strong, in spite of frustrations and failures, breakdowns and betrayals. As Paul writes to the Romans, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38?39)
Nothing will be able to separate us. Absolutely nothing. That’s victory. That’s world conquest.
And it’s clear too that this victory has nothing to do with domination, and everything to do with transformation. Jesus changed the world forever when he gave his life on the cross, and we follow this path when we imitate him with lives of sacrifice and service. Jesus conquered the world and its death?dealing powers by rising to new life, and we show our own commitment to his way by responding to darkness, despair and evil with light, hope and goodness. As Christians, our goal should never be to crush the world. Instead, it should be to change it.
Yours in Christ,
“What are You Thinking About?”
What are you thinking about? What’s on your mind? A lot of things, I’m sure. Sometimes it seems like our minds are racing along at 100 miles an hour, jumping from one topic to the next and, sadly, many of those topics are bad. There are bills to pay, appointments to keep, loved ones to worry about, health concerns, and don’t even get started on how angry so many people seem to be these days. Is there an antidote for all of this?
When Paul was writing the book of Philippians, he must have had a lot on his mind as well. He was in prison, not the only time that would happen to him, but it had to be tough. Prisons in the Roman Empire were not exactly known for being comfortable places. Despite this, he writes a letter to the Philippians that is full of love, joy, and encouragement and, near the end, he offers a few thoughts on what we need to be thinking about. Here are his thoughts:
“8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Isn’t that wonderful? What would happen to us if, when we feel our minds beginning to race, filled with worry, anxiety, and doubt, we turned to these words, and thought about all the topics Paul mentions here? What would happen if we followed Paul’s advice?
What are you thinking about?
Yours in Christ,
Mary & Martha
Do you remember the story of Mary and Martha? They were sisters and close friends of Jesus. One day he goes to visit them and Martha is busy running around, making preparations, assuring that everything will be perfect. Meanwhile, Mary just sits down at the feet of Jesus and listens. Martha is not happy at all with her sister’s failure to help, so she asks Jesus “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” (Luke 10:40 NRSV)
Well, who can blame her? After all, most of us, I suppose, have been in a situation where we were working ourselves to death while others just sat around doing nothing. But she doesn’t get the answer that she was hoping for. Jesus says “Martha, Martha, you are worried about many thing; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10: 41-42)
The story of Mary and Martha, and our reaction to it, shows us something about ourselves. It shows us our need to judge and it shows us that there are choices to be made, choices not about what is right or wrong, but rather choices about what is good and what is necessary, about what is wonderful and what is even better.
Through this story, we not only learn about God, but God also reveals to us something about ourselves, should we care to listen. In this case, for many of us, the message may be "Don't be so anxious about getting things right; don't be so busy. Stop for a minute; maybe even two. Look and listen. Enjoy the experience that is set before you. There is grace here — receive it."
Ultimately that's what I hear in this passage. Be careful about yourself. Know yourself better. Know what is important. Isn't it time we slowed down a bit to make Jesus feel welcome in the home of our hearts?
Yours in Christ,
Shaking the Foundations
There is a marvelous story in the 16th chapter of Acts. Paul and Silas are in prison. Now, that’s nothing new, Paul seems to be in prison quite a bit, but what happens to them is what interests me. They are praying and singing hymns when “Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”
I think there’s some wonderful symbolism here for us. Let me explain. I hear many people today say something like this: “Okay God, I really need you to take care of this problem for me (in other words, break this chain that is binding me), but in asking we expect God to do this problem-solving, this chain-breaking, in the way that we want.
But look at the story in Acts that I mentioned above. How does God break the chains? By sending an earthquake; an earthquake so violent that it shook the very foundations. I absolutely love that. I love the part about the earthquake because it reminds us that when God goes about chain-breaking he may just need to shake us up a bit; shake the foundations that we have chosen for our lives in order to build new foundations, strong foundations, that will stand firm when the storms of life come at us.
In fact, it may even be that sometimes God has to shake us up and tear down our foundations just to get us to realize that there are chains binding us at all.
And that’s okay. Frankly, most of us who call ourselves Christians today, including myself, could stand a little shaking up. We could use an earthquake, or maybe a life quake, to shake us up and help us to look at our chains and see what is binding us down and holding us back from being the kind of people that God is calling us to be.
And if God has
got to shake us up a bit to help us to see that, well, that’s alright with me.
Yours in Christ,
Yours in Christ,
"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.
Yours in Christ,
"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,