Thursday, July 30, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 30

This week I have spent a lot of time thinking and reading about joy. For joy is an essential emotion in our lives with Christ; it is a gift from God that we live into. But we cannot think about joy, and how to respond to it, or even how to pass it on, without also thinking about how prayer brings joyful ideas, words, and thoughts into our minds. While there are appropriate and necessary times to "bow our heads" in lament, or in times of need to God, I find that most often my prayers, which may begin in a self-centered arena, move into thoughts of joy the longer that I linger in the discipline. The more that I am honest with God, the more I find God revealing places and moments to reflect joyously from my day.  

For example, the guy who tailgated me today as I went to an appointment at my doctor’s office, and how also raised his hands in protest that I was only going 10 miles over the speed limit, no longer is something that I roll my eyes at or become frustrated by. Instead, the longer I spend time in prayer with God, the more I feel differently. I feel joyful that I was able to go to that appointment in a non-rushed mindset or practice. My morning, up to that point, proceeded smoothly—and that brought me joy. This unnamed man may have normally frustrated me on a normal day when I was driving, but today, I felt nothing negative rising up in me as I drove.  

The Way of a Pilgrim is a 19th century Russian work recounting the narrator’s journey as a pilgrim practicing the Jesus Prayer. For those not familiar with this prayer, the Jesus Prayer is a simple prayer that is repeated as often as needed. Tracing its roots back to 5th century Egypt, the Eastern Orthodox Church has adopted this prayer as part of their regular worship and find it helpful it moving their thoughts from places and moments of frustration (something they may define as sinful) into a posture of joy and peace. 

When you pray the Jesus Prayer, you can find a rhythm to your breathing that helps ‘pace’ how the prayer is said. Each clause being an opportunity to breath in and breath out. The text is simple: 

"Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

So in The Way of a Pilgrim, this prayer is the central guiding feature of the book. Along the journey, the narrator encounters individuals who he uses to debate or ask questions about the necessity of praying continually (taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:17). In one of those discourses, we find the Pilgrim being given this response which I think is helpful as we seek to remain joyous in a world filled with moments of frustration and resignation: 

The soul which is interiorly united with God is full of joy and like a gentle and simple-hearted child does not judge anyone, neither the Greek, the pagan, the Jew, nor the sinner, but looks at everyone without exception with a pure eye, rejoices with the whole world, and desires that all, Greeks, Jews, and pagans, praise God."

I wonder today if God has brought before you the opportunity be joyful? Maybe something has caused frustration or sadness to grow in you? If that is the case, then what would it look like be “interiorly united with God” so that God’s joy can change your life and heart? 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 29

This week we are focusing on the idea of joy and how that ‘joy’ can take shape in our lives. 

Yes we want live joyously. Yes, the joy we experience in Christ Jesus is real and personal. And yes, we want that joyful experience to be repeated in ourselves and in the church. But how do we differentiate between joy and a sense of contentment—which seems like a natural trap to address? Using yesterday’s image, how do I determine if the casual conversations that I had with my neighbors because my AirPods didn’t work well, are anything more than just a moment to be content at the order of my day? I can look up to the sky afterwards and think, “well that was nice.” What makes that moment, or these encounters, joyful in nature? 

What I am talking about is the experience of reaching a point of mystery. . . This is where joy can begin if we are willing to linger a bit in the moment. 

In a book that I cherish, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson tells the story of John Ames, an Iowa pastor writing in his journal. John knows that his life lis about at its end, as cancer has come and is taking him away from his family far earlier than expected. So, John goes about writing in his journal so that later his son will have these words to remember his father by after he is gone. I have read, and re-read sections of this book more times then I can count as the message of the book lives on with me. 

But one story sticks in my mind. Whenever I think about the book, my mind rests on the story from page 94-5 (I don’t even have to look for it among the highlights and marks on the pages). I know right where to find it. 

In this story, John is a young boy. His father, and other members of the community have been called to the burning, smoldering remains of a church. It was struck by lightening a few days ago and burned down. When they arrive embers from the fire are still visible. So what’s left needs ‘pulled down’ to protect the rest of the community from catching fire. The men work in the rain while the women prepare lunch in their wagons. The smell of pies and cakes are on John’s mind as he watches. The Bibles that can be saved are piled in one place, the hymnals in another. What cannot be salved is buried. The old pulpit is placed under a tree with a horse blanket to protect it from the rain until it can be moved again to its new home. Ash from the fire, when combined with the rain from the day, made a river of gray that covered the all of men. The rain mixing with the burns and scorches the men are dealing with. John says that it was hard to tell one from another on that day. . . 

While sitting under the wagon in a vain attempt to stay dry and play with some friends from church, John is fed a piece of charred biscuit by his father. The rain water running off his father's hat. John said it was the first time that he felt he was receiving communion as it was passed from father to son. John narrates the story in this way:

There’s a sweetness in the experience which I don’t understand. But that only enhances the value of it. My point here is that you never do knows the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature. I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand. . . . In those days no grown woman ever let herself be seen with her hair undone, but that day even the grand old women had their hair falling down their backs like schoolgirls. It was so joyful . . . I mention it again because it seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. . . .when I took communion from my father’s hand."  

This story was one where John could have fallen into the trap of contentment. His family was with him and they ate together. It was a productive day. But instead, John looked deeper and saw in the charred biscuit the presence of God—even if that presence wasn’t named directly. I think that is how it became a moment of joy. He found God in a place that he didn’t expect. God was present in the mystery surrounding a church ‘pull down.’ This makes me wonder, what unexpected place could you find God today if you looked at things through a different lens or perspective? 

Do you have your own ‘biscuit in the rain’ story that has shaped much of how you live and feel joy?  

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 28

It has been too hot to run with Luna recently. But today we finally got out together. She was overjoyed as I put on my hat, double tied my shoes laces, and went to the closet to fetch her harness. Up and down the steps she went, crying/whining in anticipation. It was finally happening!!! As I snapped the harness around her at the door, she hopped out the door and trotted as far as the leash would allow (which is about 12 feet). I selected the workout I wanted to use on my iPhone for the morning and pressed play. Peloton trainer Andy Speer’s voice came on, as did some music, and off we went trotting down the parking lot and getting ready to run to Forest Edge.

Now normally, I use a black set of earbuds when I run. The cord on those headphones is soooo long that it almost comes down to my knee—which is not safe when running. This fact presents me with choices. Do I tuck it into my shirt? Or I wind the excess cord around my iPhone. Neither is the great option but they work. Today, I thought, “Hmmm, let’s try the AirPods again.” My wireless Apple earbuds are great but I worry that they may fall out of my ear while running. And with Luna, pulling me around the street in excitement, that is not a good mix. I would probably end up sitting in the street if that happened with a mixture of embarrassment and resignation on my face and Luna wanting to run some more. But back to my day. . . 

Andy’s voice came through loud and clear in my right ear as we started warming up, but the left one. . . nothing. Silence. I ‘fiddled’ around with the left one. I tapped it. . . No change. . . Discontent. . . Reconnect. . .  Re-sync. . . . nope. I offered a silent prayer that this would work so I could run. Didn’t help. Silence in my left ear only. I thought, “okay,  this is going to be weird.” But I was 2 minutes into a run and wasn’t turning back (or more likely, Luna wasn’t willing to turn back). I hope it would fix itself. 30 minutes later and still only the right one worked. It never fixed itself. 

I wonder you have had that same experience in your day?     

The balance of what should be happening, what you should hear, how life progresses, is off and it throws the whole thing out of equilibrium for you. Expectation and reality do not mix in those places well. We have had a lot of chances to reflect on what is happening “out there” as a church. But today, as I did yesterday, I wonder if that unbalance is an opportunity to find joy in a new way? I wonder if God is waiting.  

I could not hear the trainer’s voice clearly today. The music was quieter. But it allowed me to hear traffic clearer—which is a good thing when you run with a puppy. I could monitor my own breathing better and try to calm my breath a bit. The guy who sits on his front porch some morning and I had a conversation about what he did before he was retired (he judged livestock and poultry. So he felt Luna was a beautiful dog, in his opinion. Which I would agree with). I wished a lady and her friend a good morning as they walked, and I heard he say back to me “have a nice day”—something I have not heard recently but assumed she was saying. Two girls were running and asked if they could pet Luna—I said yes. Wouldn’t have heard that if the left one was working. Maybe the lowered-volume of my day was a way for God to break in and give me the chance to see my neighbors differently and to be joyful because of them? 

C.S. Lewis said that “Joy has indeed one characteristic . . . the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.” I find myself wondering if tomorrow I should hope my left earbud does not work so that I can experience joy, as I did today, in a consistent way. . . I wonder, can you find the places in your day when God is attempting to break through, with joy, to bless you?   

Rev. Derek

Monday, July 27, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 27

Every student struggles in some subjects throughout their academic career. As we know, not every concept comes naturally to our minds. While we have to work to master some subjects, others just don’t seem to settle in our minds well. 

For me, the struggle was always with geometry. It was the only class in my entire academic career (which as you know has been extensive), that I could not navigate. While other classes, and subjects brought about periods of struggle for me, geometry was the hardest thing I ever tried to tackle. No matter how long I studied, or how diligently I did outside of the class homework, or whose help I sought, the Geometric concepts never (and I do mean never) became clear in my mind. 

The only time that I did not finish a grading period with a “D” in geometry was the one grading period around Christmas when I was awarded 300 bonus points. It was our teachers gift to us to have a week of trivia that ended with bonus points being given based upon our team’s results. In that grading period, when my scores were combined with the bonus points, I received a “B-.” Like I said, I’m not very good at geometry. 

Oh, Pascal and the cursed geometry that you invented. . . how you haunt me even today. Thankfully JonMark understood geometry so I was not needed to assist with homework. He would work through it silently, and I was thankful. Emma was a different story. It seemed almost every day she asked for help, and every day, I told her that I didn’t understand the concepts. She looked at me blankly expecting that I would figure the problems out for her. I couldn’t. . .  

I bet you didn’t know that while Blaise Pascal is credited with the creation of geometry, he was also a well known as a Catholic theologian in the 17th century. After having an experience with God, Pascal began to write poetry, or open verses, expressing how the encounter between God and himself, changed Pascal forever. In the pocket of his favorite coat he had embroidered the word “FIRE.” But he didn’t explain why that was there. 

A mind that was built to understand the complexity of geometry, was held captive by the work of Jesus and the love of God. He often expressed a sense of joy to God for what God’s work in his life meant. 

He wrote:

Greatness of the human soul.
O righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee,
But I have know Thee
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. 

This is life eternal: That they might know Thee
The only true God, and Him whom Thou has sent, Jesus Christ,
Jesus Christ,
Jesus Christ. 

I have separated myself from Him; I have fled, renounced, 
Crucified Him.
May I never be separated from Him. 

I wonder today, at the start of a new week, in the places of your day that and life that seem unclear or even impossible to navigate, if you can find Pascal’s joy? And if you find in, I wonder what God is asking you to do with that joy? 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 23

As I compose these pastoral thoughts for you, they have, more or less, been carried in the same tone or voice. I wanted to share with you each day something positive, something aspirational, something biblically based, something hold onto when you hear and experience so much negativity surrounding covid-19. When the world tells you to lose hope (which seems to happen almost daily if not hourly), God offers you Christ Jesus as our hope, our grounding, our stability, our center. This choice made not so that we would just ‘forget’ about the pandemic, or its impact on our daily lives, and just hum happily down the street. Instead, I hoped that these words would help you re-focus on the God who calls Himself, Emmanuel. 

Yet part of the re-focusing process is also the needed time to self-reflect on how we are living with God and with each other. 

You and I see many people each day who are in themselves attempting to navigate this viral outbreak in many different ways. Some handle it in a healthy way. They speak about what they feel in a positive way and in their words we can hear some level of hope. But others attack on social media or in person, and we know them well. Their venom about this issue is clear—I don’t have to say much about this either. In noticing and judging how other people act in the face of this pandemic, we can fall into the trap of judgment and self-elevation. 

There is a poem entitled As the Ruin Falls. It was written by C.S. Lewis. It is more or less a confession from Lewis’ heart after a time in Sunday School. When I first read his words, I identified so strongly with the sentiments that he expressed that I had to stop mid-poem and put the poem down. It felt like Lewis was speaking directly to me, calling my name. But I assume I am not the only person who feels this way when we read these words:  

"All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love --a scholar's parrot may talk Greek--
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains."

I invite you to use this poem today as a way to reflect back on how you are interacting with people today. How do you encounter them? I wonder if Lewis is speaking directly to you? We hope to be better, but are we living ‘better’ lives as the summer continues onward? These words sting a bit when we read them, what changes does God ask you to make today as you think and reflect? 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 22

When this years VBS program was announced, I was curious to learn how the program would unfold in the face of covid-19. Would we be in the Red Phase? The Yellow? Was it possible to be in Green when VBS started? Much was unclear, and so, frustration could germinate. Then as the weeks progressed, and Butler county moved through the “phases” into Green, excitement grew about what was possible. . . as did a sense of curiosity, grow in my and the leaders of the church. And so we asked a lot of questions: 

1- What would this year’s program look like with social distance guidelines and masks? 
2- Would it be possible to care for the young people of our community as we have in previous years? 
3- And of course, all of us asked: Should we do this? 

I am happy to say that on Wednesday morning our program is going well. Our fears, or anxieties unnecessary. God is with us at VBS here at Plains. Sure, we do not have 100+ children testing our ability to teach them, or pushing us with their energy to be louder and more excited. |Learning God’s word now is more intimate and personal. Instead, we have something different that I want to reflect with you on. 

We have 20 children. They sit socially distanced apart in pews and families with masks on as they travel around the church. Those 20 children bring something personal to the program that can speak to us. Each evening when I pray for them I do not have to ‘yell’ over them. I do not get to wind them up by asking questions like: “did you have fun?” And then wait for the screams before I leave the stage. Instead, I have the chance to listen to their answers. I have the chance to interact with them personally. I am so thankful that we decided to hold our VBS program because something happens when we dwell with God and with people.

The primarily source for my doctoral studies, The Rev. Samuel Wells, wrote these words that sum up how we can encounter VBS this year. In his book, Walk Humbly, he wrote: 

"Dwell with God. Walk with God. Immerse yourself in God’s story. Open you existence to God’s essence. Every day, discover more about God’s goodness, truth, and beauty—in scripture, in history, in the world, in the universe, in happiness, in the face of tragedy, in abundant life, in the shadow of death: and call that praise. . . . Abide in the stillness such reflections yield."

(Re-read that quotation slowly this time)

The pacing at VBS is different but we are dwelling with God and immersing ourselves in the stories and growth of the children and the leaders. I wonder, where in your day today can you use Wells’ quotation to dwell with God? And what will you learn from doing so? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 21

As I am watching the rain, and enjoying how it continues to come from the heavens long after I figured it would stop, I find my mind naturally drift toward either covid-19, and all that is involved with this pandemic  or, what the future of our world/country look like in a more general sense. Back and forth my mind goes like a pendulum that seems to never find peace. 

I met a gentleman today who plays in a worship band at his local baptist church. This church has been able to meet, as we have at Plains, for some time in person. I could see a sense of contentment in his eyes. He was comforted and blessed by his faith and work in worship  . . But there was something else there to consider, if I looked. 

As we talked more he opened up. He said that the bass player of their worship band succumbed to covid-19 recently. The bass player was a young guy too. He stood in silence for a second looking at the ground through his blue homemade mask.

He went on to say that his church has a lot of anxiety right now. They don't know what to do; he doesn’t know what to do, or even how to begin mourning. The church believes what they are doing is helpful, but. . . fill in your own blank. Our conversation only lasted about 2 minutes. I had to get moving. But from that short encounter I could see that his mind was conflicted. Perhaps he is not the only one in our community who struggles in this time with how to live as a Christian??

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, who was a Serbian Orthodox Elder and writer, wrote in his book, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives

“Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.” 

When we think about what Elder Thaddeus’ words it is important to notice that he is not saying we should not practice an indifferent mind and “don't worry be happy." Instead, even in the most conflicted situation, the ones we feel out of control with and in, perhaps how we engage those moments is impacted in how we practice of faith in Christ. Perhaps the frustration that you are feeling with covid-19 has gotten the better of you from time to time. If that is so, I wonder how Elder Thaddeus’ words could help reorient your mind today? 

Maybe if I delayed a bit longer with this young man something positive and helpful could have grown. I wonder how things could have gone differently. 

Rev. Derek

Monday, July 20, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 20

On Monday morning two things are possible: 

1- the week begins with a BANG! I am sure you are familiar with this idea. . . Your foot hits the floor and you are off and running—and this is not always a negative way to begin the week. As you walk down the hall to find the elusive cup of coffee, your mind fills with all the things that need to be attended to. Meetings. Lists. Appointments. To-do lists. Each step closer to the coffee pot, brings a new revelation to your mind. And like I said, this isn’t always bad. Our society is built upon people being driven, competent, and ready to complete what needs completing. These days speak for themselves. 

But there is another possibility. . . 

2- the week can begin in a slog (cue shoulders slumping down your back). You didn’t sleep well. You are worried about much, and those worries, nag at the back of your head longer than you would like to admit if asked by someone. In this scenario, the cup of coffee is a point of release not a tool to facilitate. It is a retreat. A way to hope that things turn around as you shower and prepare to face the day. I know plenty of people who fall into this option. I do not have to say much about this mindset or perspective as it speaks loudly enough without my help or my imagination. 

Today I was closer to the second option than the first, and let me tell you about my morning. . . 

JonMark left early for work which meant Luna left her crate early. Up the stairs she bounded. Around the corner. I heard our bedroom door creak open slowly, and then it happened. . . a blaze of stars filled my vision as she pounced as gently as a 75 pound German Shepard can pounce on anything. She was glad to see us. A gentle lick hit my chin. Then it was over to Jennifer. She straddled her as Jennifer was laying on her side. The same gentle lick on Jennifer's chin. Ugh, I thought. This is going to be fun, I mused. And Luna ran to see what toy she could find that I absolutely had to throw for her. 

Two hours later and I still hadn’t taken her for a run and I hadn’t found the coffee (I was looking forward to run today as a great way too start VBS week). An hour after that I was sitting in front of my computer when my iPhone went off: Emma was done with work early. So I had to run get her (still no run for me. . . which by now wasn’t going to happen). I got a call from a colleague asking for help with a project, and before I knew it, my early day, which was filled with so much promise and hope was a day half over. I had not accomplished what I hoped to accomplish when it started. VBS is less than 6 hours away and I have a lot to do. 

I wonder when was the last time you felt that way? 

You hope for what could have been dashed by what was, and as you thought about it, this new normal was not as appealing as a long walk with your own symbolic-Luna looked to a worn-down soul. If that is the case then perhaps then maybe the words of Julia Cameron can help. In her book, Heart Steps, she writes: 

"I surrender my anxiety and my sense of urgency. 
I allow God to guide me in the pacing of my life. 
I open my heart to God's timing. 
I release my deadlines, agendas, and stridency to the gentle yet often swift pacing of God. 
As I open my heart to God's unfoldings, my heart attains peace. 
As I relax into God's timing, my heart contains comfort. 
As I allow God to set the tone and schedule of my days, 
I find myself in the right time and place, open and available to God's opportunities.

If today has not met your expectations, of if you feel a little off, then Julia’s words are for you today. God has some wonderful opportunities for you, especially when the day seems far too hectic for anything good to come. So lean in and let God’s timing and pacing direct you. . . 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 16

UGH. . . here we go again. . . Once again the governor has applied restrictions aimed primarily at restaurants and bars. The intended consequence of these restrictions is to limit the spread and transmission of covid-19 in public spaces. We are still to wear our masks in public and practice social distancing continually. Yet, I know you see people every day who defiantly will not listen to these guidelines from either the CDC or Governor Wolf. And I am not here to offer judgement on either side of this situation. 

For now, houses of worship are being spared this closure order—which is a joy to be acknowledged. However, the cynic in my brain groans, “yeah but for how long!” We were just getting our rhythm of worship back under our feet. Worship in our outdoor chapel was a true blessing last week and we have plans to meet there again on the first Sunday of August (hope to see you there!). Things were starting to look and feel more normal around here. The plexiglass that separates us from retailers was not as obtrusive as it once was. Life was moving on. . .  

Then at lunch yesterday, Seneca Valley emailed the parents of the district stating that all schools will open on August 26 with no restrictions and some of us cocked our heads in surprise. “Is this really over?” We wondered. Then 2 hours later, the new regulations were announced. Whatever you think of that choice, or any of the political actions handed down, neither is what I want to reflect upon or offer you today. 

Instead, I want to offer you a gift; a needed gifts. A gift that may just help you move on through this difficult covid-19 season. Receive the gift of compassion. 

In his book, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, Henri Nouwen writes this: 

‘ “I cannot take your pain away, I cannot offer you a solution for your problem, but I can promise that I won’t leave you alone and will hold on to you as long and as well as I can.” There is much grief and pain in our lives, but what a blessing it is when we do not have to live our grief and plain alone. That is the gift of compassion.'

You may be frustrated today. You may want to tug your hair out at either the restrictions, or the response them in the public sector. You may feel that God is not listening to you and your hope might just be a tad bit weaker today than yesterday. . . If that is the case, then receive Nouwen’s words of compassion directly into your soul. We are all in this together. You. Me. The church body. We will continue to pray together, to read God’s word together, to share joys, concerns and stories. I will still send you these thoughts for you to reflect on. Emmanuel is still among us. 

It may feel like we are taking 2 steps backwards and only 1 forward, but the gift compassion offers you might just be that needed comfort today. I wonder how you will use it? 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 15

Before my time here at Plains, I served as Margie Smith’s pastor in Wellsville, Ohio. Margie had a wisdom, a silliness, an honesty that was refreshing to me. I could always rely on Margie to see things differently then I saw them, and yet offer that reflection grounded in love. Margie used her gifts of sewing to create dozens of banners that hand in the church with powerful symbols and words on them. She loved poetry. And above all she loved being a clown—I mean really she trained as a clown. A few times a year Margie’s clown persona (whose name I cannot recall) would visit our church dispensing wisdom and love to the children, and their parents,—if we were attentive. If you could see through the facade of a red nose, a silly shoes, God was at work. 

Another of Margie’s loves with books (she and I share that love as you know). Often when Margie served as liturgist she would bring a poem with her to church. Maybe it was something she wrote, like my favorite one Dirty Snow which addressed how the beauty of a white winter day combined with road-grime to make everything gray and saddened her. 

She loved nature so much. . . So naturally she was blessed by the poems of Ann Weems, a Presbyterian poet and teacher.

In a poem entitled, Lenten Poem, Weems wrote this: 
Lent is a time to take time to let the power
Of our faith story take hold of us, 
A time to let the events get up 
And walk around in us.
A time to intensify our living unto Christ, 
A time to hover over the thoughts of our hearts, 
A time to place our feet in the streets of 
Jerusalem or to walk along the sea and 
Listen to his Word,
A time to touch his robe
And feel the healing surge through us, 
A time to ponder and a time to wonder. . . 

Lent is a time to allow 
A fresh new taste of God!
Perhaps we’re afraid to have time to think.,
For thoughts come unbidden.
Perhaps we’re afraid to face our future
Knowing our past.

Give us courage, O God,
To hear your Word
And to read our living into it.
Give us the trust to know we’re forgiven
And give us the faith
To take up our lives and walk.

This is not only my prayer for you during Lent, but it is also my prayer for you today. I hope that you will take time and walk with God, and by walking with God, you will experience God in a new and personal way.

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 14

Finally, the extreme heat of last week is behind us far enough that I can think and write about it. With my short-term memory, I only remember the coolness from the last few days—and I feel blessed by it. It is still warm enough to swim before dinner, but not warm enough for me to lose weight walking home for lunch. 

My blessed-state was passed on to Luna as we have gone for a walk on each of the last two mornings (well, we actually ran on Monday, today we just walked. . . I was too tired to run and it was so mild). It was a nice walk that was better than most mornings. It was not hot. The sun did not beat down on us. There were no other dogs (I mean “new friends”). Now don’t get me wrong, I love my neighbors and the people of this community around Plains. But, I do not love the way that they drive down Plains Church Road as they head to work. Perhaps leaving 5 minutes earlier would mean that they don’t speed past me a cloud of dust and speed—but I might be wrong about that. Luna lunges at them every single time and my shoulders feel the brunt of her power with each tug. After all, walking her at least 3 miles a day does make her very strong and very fit. 

Some of those people wave at me, most don’t. One of the electricians working on the new plan beyond Hope Road slows down and says good morning to her every day and then he comments on how beautiful she is (He has a pair German Shepherds himself). I wonder about those who do not wave. . . 

It is those non-waving people the one who don’t even look as I grab Luna’s harness and hold her tightly that I thought about today, that I am thinking about this morning. I wonder about the state of their days? Their homes? Their families? Their children, if they have any? Their faith? The societal expectations that are upon them? ? I wonder about how they have been treaded upon and why they rush off to work so hastily as to not even make eye contact with another person. What is going on in their lives, I wonder, that causes them to live in a way that seems inhospitable, rushed, and unfriendly? 

Shusaku Endo, wrote in the book Silence that: 

Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; 
it is not to steal and tell lies. 
Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another
 and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” 

Silence is the story of how Christianity was forced out of Japan a generation ago. It tells the true-life story of a Jesuit priest who goes looking for the last missionary that was sent into country. In a story that wrought with suffering and torture that makes Christianity illegal, a powerful thing emerges that cannot be snuffed out by the cruel leaders of the day. . . .hope. A silent hope for an unknown future. 

Perhaps as a Christian I am partial to seeing these ‘hurried-souls’ each morning in a certain way. But I wonder if what I am witnessing is nothing more than the long-lasting effects of souls being ‘brutally walked over” carelessly and haphazardly. I wonder what I, or you, could do differently when we are confronted with these moments in our day? 

Rev. Derek

Monday, July 13, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 13

As Monday continues to chug along, church family, I wanted to share something I read this morning that has stayed with me and I hope it helps you in your busy Monday. But before I do, let me offer some surrounding details to frame this reflection. . . 

After waking up and feeling strong and rested, I decided to take Luna on a run (it has been far too hot to either run, or make Luna run/walk with me). But as it was mild today, we ran a little bit further and longer while I listened to some music. Her tongue hung out of her mouth (literally) as we cooled down and walked the last half a mile. I knew she was happy but thirsty. I sat on my blanket chest in my bedroom in a mixture of exhausting and exhilaration. I was tired and “glistening," but it felt good to run on a cool-ish morning and so I gulped down some more coffee and headed for the day. . . 

The morning here at the office began quickly as I had my weekly Zoom meeting with presbytery colleagues. It was a productive meeting where I shared some helpful material to other churches from Plains. We talked about how Plains fills its pulpit when I am away. About how we handle several other things related to our ministry that helped other churches (I hope). I shared resources with other pastors and reflected with them on a passage from Matthew’s gospel. . . It was a good meeting.

Then I answered the slew of emails related to the on-going ministry at Plains, and on issues of worship. I talked with our CNS director about the potential start date for the school and some practical matters that have arisen (I mean who actually knows if the government is going to let us hold classes in September. . . I’m still a bit fuzzy on it). Then I needed to help Jennifer with some things at home over lunch. 

Finally, I got back to my Mac. 

It has been a good day, but very busy. And I am happy for it. I feel like I have been productive. Nina loaned me a book that I needed finish today and so I finished it. It is a very easy read and I highly recommend it. It is entitled: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse. I won’t spoil the message if you want to read it. But I can say, it is well worth the investment to read. About a third of the way through the book, one of the four characters says: 

"Isn’t it odd. We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.”

Its a small sentence but quite profound if you think about it. My outside has been very busy today (as evident by the fact that my morning Pastoral Thought is being released around 2pm). I could look frazzled. I could justify looking or acting worn out (I mean I did run an extra mile). But my inside is at peace. I am calm. I have purpose. I feel good. I sense God’s love at work in me and around me. 

I wonder, what that quotation means to you today, on Monday? Does it invite you to think differently about your day? Is it encouraging?  I guess that is up to you. . . 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 9

Church Family, 

I know that this is a recurring theme—but once again things are getting tough out there and I feel, we feel, out of control. 

We are encouraged to wear masks in public. Eating in restaurants and bar has been limited for a 2-week time period because of virus spikes around us. The governor is watching the covid-19 numbers climb around us and is threatening restrictions. In Westmoreland, Washington, Beaver, and Allegheny we see positive confirmed cases climbing which means that is is only a matter of time until Butler county is in danger too.  
The tension is high and growing higher (If that’s possible). 

I hear people tell me that they want to get away, but that is not possible right now as the beaches and popular vacation spots are now covid-19 hotspots. We feel trapped. There is nowhere to go and almost nothing that can be done to stop this. Many of you have told me that you are working from home “indefinitely” and that you seek answers, but are finding none. A normal life. . . yeah right. 

Like you, I yearn to breath free again. I yearn to gather in worship without restrictions and fear. I long to leave my mask somewhere other than in the visor of my truck (with my spare two safely stored in sandwich bags in the center console).  I don’t want to have to cross the road when walking Luna because I see someone and don’t want to risk being infected by them. I am anxious about the fall and worried about school, about sending my son to college and what dorm life will look like in a pandemic. . . not to mention that it is so bloody hot today that I feel like I am melting when I walk to church and becoming more dehydrated under my mask. 

So today, to address that tension, I want to offer you the words the Mechthild of Madgeburg—a 13th century mystic—as a way to "breath again” with God again.' While living with the Beguine community in Germany, she explored the soul's relationship with God. In a section of her work entitled: “HOW GOD ANSWER THE SOUL,” we read: 

"It is my nature that makes me love you often,
For I am love itself.

It is my longing that makes me love you intensely,
For I yearn to be loved from the heart.

It is my eternity that makes me love you long,
For I have no end."

When you feel that tension rising in you, when you shoulders are creaping up to your ears in stress, re-read Mechthild’s prayer. Let the love of God that you find there become a means to press in to God and be made whole again. Remember you are loved by God and that God will see you through any tension, any stress, and any pain that comes. 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 8

In the 14th century, Julian of Norwich served God as an anchorite in her hometown of Norwich, England. The city suffered a great deal during the Black Death (1348-50) and felt full impact of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. 

Julian lived much of her life in permanent seclusion—as her post dictated. Anchorites were individuals who committed themselves to prayer and solitude for the remainder of their days. They lived in small cells attached to church building that were often ‘bricked up’ so that contact with the outside world ceased. They would commune only with the bishop and could speak to community members through windows above, and below, the line of sight. In these ‘cells of seclusion,’ anchorites prayed and interceded for the church and the community. This was Julian’s life as well; a life we have written down. 

From that place of solitude and constant prayer, she and God communed in a powerful way. 

After suffering from a fever that the bishop felt was going to claim her life, Julian emerged with a profound understanding of God’s love and presence that was with her moment by moment as she suffered. The visions and interactions with God were written down and published after her death in a book entitled, “Revelations of Divine Love.”  Julian wrote: 

Pray even if you feel nothing, see nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to God, even though you may find little joy in it. This is true of all believing prayer."

I do not suffer from either the Black Death or the effects of the Peasants’ Revolt, as Julian did. I am not absent from my community as an anchorite. But I, like many in the church, suffer in other ways. We suffer from a lack desire to be faithful. Too much time can be spend on the internet, watching television, gossiping with a neighbor, complaining to a loved one, judging the faith of someone else. We know that we should spend more time praying, reading, meditation, and serving the world in which God has blessed us with. But we don’t. I don’t. 

This extends into our prayer lives which can feel inadequate or ineffective. But God did not intent this line of community to be a one-way road.

I wonder if instead of dwelling on what I cannot do, or what I cannot receive, or how busy we are, or even on things we judge to be false from those around us, I wonder if we could just come to God and pray? What would that look like and how would it change all of us?  

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 7

As I began my day at the church, I picked up my black Bible; the one that always sits on the corner of my desk. It is also the Bible that I use to begin sermon preparation. And I read. . . Today I made it through about three verse before I felt my eyes begin to skip words and phrases, before the familiarity of the story gave me permission to skip to the end because I knew what was happening on the page. I tried to re-read the passage and correct the behavior forcing myself to bear down. However, the more I read the passage, the more I tried to dwell with it, the more easily my eyes wanted to “get to the good stuff.” This happened so much that I became frustrated. . . Why can’t I read this! Romans, the book that I am in, is a familiar read with easy phrases to grab onto and think about. Why was I failing to be present in God’s word? I felt like less of a Christian for a moment.

Maybe you have been there too recently. Maybe your devotional time has suffered because you know what the Word says and so you skip or skim through it trying to find something meaningful or new. The familiarity of what you are reading makes you fast-forward in a vain attempt to learn something new from God. But is that truly how God’s word makes it way deep down into your soul? 

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, The Preaching Life, says this about the Bible:

“The Bible is my birth certificate and my family tree, but it is more: it is the living vein that connects me to my maker, pumping me the stories I need to know about who we have been to one another from the beginning of time, and who we are now, and who we shall be when time is no more.” 

For me, those are strong words that speak to me about my unwillingness to dwell with God’s word—the thing that gives me life, purpose, and breath. But Taylor then tells her reader how we might consider reading and studying God’s words if we feel this first quotation is true. She writes:

“I am willing to work. . .: by living with the text day in and day out, by listening to it and talking back to it, by making sure I know what lies behind the words it speaks to me and being certain I have heard it properly, by refusing to distance myself from the parts of it I do not understand, by letting my love for it show up in my every day acts of life. The Bible is not an object for me; it is a partner, whose presence bless me, challenges me, and affects everything I do."

God’s word is not something that we read because we are ’supposed to’ as Christians. It is not something that should be seen as a chore—even when we feel that it is. Instead, I wonder if God’s word invites us to interact with it? Interact with the parts we know and the parts that challenge us. The parts that speak and the parts that are still a mystery to our ears. I wonder what spending time with God’s word, in this way, might lead you to today?

Rev. Derek

Monday, July 6, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 6

Good morning, 

As we begin a new week, I want to share with you to words of Father David Pivonka that spoke to me. In his book, Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles with Jesus, he wrote: 

"Following Christ. . . is not simply about those first exciting days. It is about days that are hard, days filled with trials, days that are dull and empty with seemingly nothing happening. But we keep on walking because this is a part of life, and it is the only way to get to a place of rest. I often need to be reminded that this is a spiritual life, not a day, week, month or year.” (Underline added)

The Camino is a historic pilgrimage that ends in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela which is located in Northern Spain. Routes exist all over Europe that end at this sacred place. In fact, pilgrims who travel the Camino can obtain a “pilgrims’s passport” or “credentials” which will allow them to stay in hostels along the way and be provided food and lodging. It is believed that at the end of the journey, sojourners will find the final resting place of St James the Great, or as we might remember him, James the son of Zebedee. 

500 miles. . . that is what Father David walked along this pathway. He was alone with God. Learning from God. Being shaped by God in an intimate way. Father David learned many lessons about having the proper perspective as a Christian. While times exist when I am tempted to see only to the tip of my nose and believe that is all that is before me, this quotation challenges that notion. 

Our spiritual life is different. It spans the entirety of my/our existence—if I am willing to embrace it and continually learn from it. I wonder what Father David’s word conjure up in your mind? Is “nothing happening” today, or is today an opportunity to lean into God? 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 2

I was reading a selection from Andre Louf, a Belgium writer from the 20th century, this morning. He is an experienced teacher of prayer who belongs to a spiritual group sometimes called the Trappists. His focus is two-fold: teaching the church to pray and living a life of simplicity. Both fit nicely together in the church. While this selection that I am citing is from his small book, Teach us to Pray, the implications of these words resound in many places in the church and its ministry. Louf writes: 

Authentic prayer can never be learnt from someone else. It has its own instructor within it. Prayer is God’s gift to him who prays.” 

I wonder if there are more aspects to your spiritual life could be substituted for “Authentic prayer?”

In seminary, one of my education professors, Dr. Gibbs, said that an expert is someone who lives more than 50 miles away from you and your church. What my professor is saying is that we do not need to search to the furthest reaches of creation to find an expert on a specific topic, we just need to look a county or so away. He said this with a bit of tongue-in-cheek of course. But I think his point is taken. Rather than look to God for the daily instruction that we need with our faith, we tend to look down the street, or in the popular mega-church, or on social media, or in a book that comes highly recommended (that last one hits me rather personally). 

I don’t need to call someone from Pittsburgh presbytery or Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery to teach me about being a Christian in this context. Instead, God is already present enough, and willing enough, to teach me everything that I need to learn about practicing my faith continually. God’s revelation is available continually for me, and for you, if we are willing to go to God. All that I have to do is seek that revelation and learning out from God. 

So why do we look for someone to teach us about _____? (Fill in the blank for yourself). If God’s presence is enough to solve any problem, answer any question, reveal the hidden meaning behind everything that you come across daily, then what does that say about our faith walk and our relationship with God?  

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Pastoral Thought--July 1

Today’s pastoral thought comes from the writing of Donald Miller. I was introduced to Miller’s work some years ago when I was given his first book, Blue like Jazz—its a book I highly recommend. The follow-up to that bestseller is A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned while Editing my Life. The author’s writing style is a combination of Christian essays and revealing narratives about himself and his struggles with the faith. Donald struggles in much the same ways that you and I struggle. His willingness to put those struggles on paper is helpful for us as the church today. 

In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, he writes: 

"The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” It’s in there over two hundred times. That means a couple of things, if you think about it. It means we are going to be afraid, and it means we shouldn’t let fear boss us around. Before I realized  we were supposed to fight fear, I thought of fear as a subtle suggestion in our subconscious designed to keep us safe, or more important, to keep us from getting humiliated. And I guess it served that purpose. But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life."

One of my favorite podcast commentators says that each week he finds himself hiding behind his couch in fear. Think of all the things that are rooted in some form of fear. . . The coronavirus. The economy. The political landscape of our world. Our children’s schools and relationships. The future of the church universal. Our health and the health of our loved ones and friends. The social unrest that lives in our world. I could go on and on about what there is to fear. In that way, I join my podcast-friend in wanting to hide behind the couch in fear. 

But if we read Miller, and if we stop and think about what he saying, then we realize that fear does not have the last work in our day. If God is with us, and if we trust in God, then what remains to fear? If we left fear have the last word in our days, if we let it limit who we can become and how we can speak about God at work with us, then we are guilty of allowing it to be a “manipulative emotion that can trick up into living a boring life.” 

This type of fear is not something that Jesus wanted us to address alone. Instead, if we remember the biblical promises that Miller mentions above, then we find a way to move forward in a fear-based world. . . I wonder, how do you address fear when it surfaces in your day? 

Rev. Derek

I Wonder--November 29

I wonder if you would pray with me for someone you have not met?  Today I had my yearly physical with my doctor and it went very well. Heart...