Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 29

Now stay with me. . . I am going in a lot of different directions, but this will come together at the end. . . I promise. 

Yesterday, I watched a video commentary about the Supreme Court vacancy following Justice Ginsberg’s death. The video addressed the fight that is inevitable because the president has nominated a replacement. The confirmation process is not going to be smooth, in my opinion. Political rhetoric is what we are going to read, hear, and see. Personal attacks, character assassinations, are going to become normalized and necessary to ‘win the day.' The commentator on this video has strong feelings about the president’s nomination, and his language was even stronger in opposition to it. Feeling a bit ‘yucky’ after watching about a third of this video, I stopped watching it and resumed my afternoon activities. 

Once again, outside I heard chainsaws roaring in the driveway adjacent to our home. Scott, Rich, Larry, and Clint were cutting and splitting more wood from the downed oak. With that roaring as background, Emma and I had a conversation about some “teenage girl drama” that she knew about at work. As she told me her story, I noticed that it was so black and white. . . "this person is wrong and that person is right.” This was the basic tenor and tone of what Emma was saying to me. I have no idea if she is correct, but I trust Emma’s judgment. I confess that I was having a hard time following her as I was still thinking about the video that I started and stopped in frustration. How could her issues at work be so clear when so much in my mind isn’t, I wondered. . .  

With ’girl drama,’ chainsaws, and the Supreme Court rolling around in my head, I walked over to the burn pile to stir it up. I knew that it was going to rain so I wanted to get as much of the stump that Tom and I hauled over burned up. JonMark followed me with Luna in toe. . . Before he arrived at the fire, he texted me to ask where I was. As I read his message, I figured, ‘oh great, now he wants something.’ That’s unfair of me, but it is where my mind was at that precise moment. I was divided. . . 

He arrived, and we just stood there talking about. . . well. . . nothing. . . He just wanted to be where I was and see what I was doing. And with Emma’s story fresh in my mind, and again still thinking  about the video, I wondered about the purpose and formation of community? I wondered why so many choose to create community by dividing one person from another instead of unifying—which is what I think Jesus did. . . Why is community now only about who I agree with in the moment, while anyone I don’t agree with is pushed away as a heretic? Why has a larger sense of community been replaced by a form of tribalism and division? And if community-building is suffering, what can I do to reclaim a sense of normal community building?  

Sadly, I don’t have a complete answer that will solve this issue. But I do have the words of Henri Nouwen to help instruct me. He wrote: 

“However, community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own. The question, therefore, is not ‘How can we make community?’ but, ‘How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?’ “

“Giving hearts,” “being present for one another,” I wonder what that might mean for us as the Body of Christ when we think about community and how to form and create it in this context? 

Rev. Derek

Monday, September 28, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 28

My forearms have matching, stinging, scratches on them—each about 4 inches long. My wrists show signs of abrasions just below the line of the gloves that I was wearing. Generally my hands are a bit sore and so making a fist causes some ‘cracking’ of my knuckles as the tension is released. Finally, I have a strange rash that has grown between most of my fingers. Before it was seeping and oozing, now it is dry at scratched up. Blood blisters surround some of them. 

And to be honest. . . It feels good to see these wounds because of what they represent. 


This weekend the work continued on removing (or cleaning up) the trees from around the manse. Tom and I split, by hand, the very large stump that sat on the west side of our property. Its diameter was at least 6 feet across. He and I spent Saturday morning driving my one splitting chisels through the tree with JonMark’s sledgehammer so that we could break pieces off. With each split piece, Tom and I would lift the pieces, together, into my truck. Each piece took all we had to lift. Then each piece could be driven over to the burn pile and be consumed in the fire. We did this for a few hours and both of us were very, very tired. But it felt good. And I gained some of those wounds in the work.  

Then Sunday, the work began again, as our neighbor, Clint, needed to have a dead oak tree removed from his property before it fell onto Plains Church and stuck the power lines. So, JonMark, Jennifer, and I, joined Rich, his nephew Scott, and Rich’s brother Larry, and our neighbor Bobby, in helping Clint. Mark the tree-remover was back with a lift and he and his helper, Bill, removed the tree piece by piece down. We hauled them off with tractors and trailers. We cut the branches up into manageable sizes, and disposed of the leaves. We stacked and split the firewood in piles and loaded some into Scott’s truck, Bobby’s trailer, and Rich’s trailer. 

By late afternoon, we were all spent. Yet there was a sense of joy in the work. Being part of a community means that we are willing to do this. And I, and we, would happily walk over there right now and do it again. 

Peter Block writes that, 

"Community. . . is about the experience of belonging. . . First and foremost, to belong is to be related to and a part of something.” 

My family is part of a community in this neighborhood. We belong to it. We care for “it" and “it" cares for us. And because we belong to this community, to this neighborhood, we will serve it faithfully and consistently—even if that means working to our breaking point. We will work together and not leave anyone to work alone. We value the community and we wish to foster its growth. 

When we were done working, Clint looked at me and said with sawdust on his face, “I can’t thank you enough. If you ever need anything, at home, at church, whatever. You call me, and I’ll be there.” He is part of our community and I am thankful for the bruises and scratches that I offered up to help him. As I said, I would do it again, as I know Rich, Scott, Larry, Jennifer, JonMark, and Bobby would. 

I wonder, who, or what, would you define as your community? What do you belong to? And when you identify that, notice how committed you are to the people of that community and give thanks to God for them.

Rev. Derek

Thursday, September 24, 2020

September 24--Pastoral Thought

So as you know from ready yesterday’s post, Emma took the ‘knowledge’ portion of her driver's test. She said that she felt confident in the test and was ready for it. The line moved easily and we headed in. But sadly, she did not pass the examination. The test ’tripped’ her up on a couple questions so we left the DMV without a driver’s permit and with a sad 16 year-old. Emma’s spirit was a bit bruised. She thought that she knew what she needed, but did not. We rode home in silence. Her head faced the window. It is painful as a parent to witness your child fail at something that they are excited about—even something as minor as a driver’s knowledge test. For them its a big deal, and so it should be treated as such. 

But Emma was determined. She came home and studied. . . and studied. . . and practiced. . . She asked a lot of questions of us. And so today, she and I stood outside the DMV 15 minutes before they open so that she could get in and take it again. We went through the same process and I went back to my truck to wait for her. This time I could not do anything. I was a ball of nerves. I tired to relax and listen to a podcast that I enjoy. My mind could hardly concentrate. I hoped she would do better. 

Then she was walking back out to me before I knew it. I could not tell if she was happy as her mask obstructed her smile. I noticed the papers she had in her hand, and they did not look any different from what she brought in. Ut-oh. . . I gave her “2 thumbs up”—no response. So I jumped out preparing to comfort her if she failed and knowing that she would get very discouraged if it happened again. My face a picture of hope as walked toward her. Still she is not jumping up and down or giving any indication of a positive result. “Did you pass,” I asked. But as the words left my mouth, her outlook did not change. . . oh boy. . . . ‘Yeah” said said, and her black mask could not hide the smile any longer. Relief! She showed me the signed form and gave me a big, two-armed, hug. I could feel the relief in her sigh. 

Once again, I thought of Samuel Wells’ words: 

What gratitude knows is that existence is made up of setbacks, mistakes, challenges, and obstacles, and it is in facing and tackling and sometimes enduring those adversities that mortality is discovered, dependence recognized, and relationship sought. And it is in such relationship, and the unanticipated benefit that accompany it, that true joy lies."

True joy. . . that is what Emma felt. She rode excitedly with me downloading the app on her phone that will track her driving as she approaches the required 65 hours. She looked through the booklet and held that permit in her hands smiling. Yesterday, I suspect that she did not think she would feel this good when she passed. I don’t think she knew that her chin would sit a bit higher and her outlook would be better just because she scored and 18 out of 18. But she knows that truth now. 

We stopped in Callery and she had her first driving lesson. And when she was done, she grunted in affirmation at herself. 

I wonder if your setbacks, your mistakes, your challenges, and obstacles are a prelude to an experience of true joy as Emma experienced it today? And I wonder, who you know that is going through the same thing today? Maybe a word of encouragement is all that is needed. . . 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 23

As I am writing this article, I am sitting in my truck waiting. . . This is not a comfortable “wait” as the seat has been adjusted to an uncomfortable position relative to the slope of the parking lot I’m in. But here I wait. . . Emma is taking her knowledge test this morning so that she can begin learning to drive. 

As COVID is a daily issue that we confront, only 1 person per group is allowed in the building so, she is in there. I wait out here hoping all is well. I cannot see her. I cannot check on her. Again, and so I wait. And I am getting anxious as more people come out and Emma isn’t one of them (but that’s another story). Per COVID, we also must line up, 6 feet apart, outside of the building. Then the gentleman who is working the door works the line… “Whose here for a license pic?” he asked. “Who needs to transfer a tag?” Why are you here is his basic question and he does his job quickly and effectively. He takes Emma and I and puts us in a different spot to wait. 

Like I said, he’s doing a great job of managing expectations and issues this morning that people bring to him. When someone tries to, accidentally, jump the line, he’s there to guide them firmly and kindly back to where they need to be and the process continues. 

The line is growing again... and I still can’t see Emma. While I am wait and watching, I begin noticing the casual, mundane-ness of what’s happening on the sidewalk . . . This occupies my attention for a few moments. There are parents loving babies. People checking their paperwork over to make sure nothing was forgotten or left out. I see a gentlemen taking on the phone and I wonder if he is ‘working.'  Even people whose arms are on their hips in ‘projected’ frustration and impatience, catch my eye  (this is the dmv and they don’t always go fast here so what did you expect). It’s all orderly and normal and I am grateful. 

Dr Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Seminary, wrote: 

After wasting far too many years trying to accomplish something impressive, [we] eventually discover that God prefers routine days of service. And that’s when [we] start enjoying their work. God created routine and loves to watch it unfold over and over again. Creation gives praise to God by doing the same things over and over. Winter, spring, summer, fall—praise God from whom all blessings flow. The challenge is seeing the blessings that flow onto all of the things we dare to call ordinary and routine.”

Emma will be along soon. . . I wonder what ordinary thing you will have the chance to see God at work in this morning? And when you do, will your first choice be gratitude??

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 22

This morning as I was finishing getting ready to come to the office, I watched an interesting scene unfold that I want to share with you. 

As you know, several trees needed to come down around the manse over the weekend. The 2 blue spruce trees that sit adjacent to the manse have been dead for years. When bad storms roll into the area, the trees rock and sway to such a degree that Jennifer and I worried that they would come down either on the manse, the pool, or on our cars. Thankfully the trees are down and, as I write to you, they are being cleaned up and hauled off by a number of people. 

The clean-up work started on Sunday evening and has continued each day for a few hours. But the remaining tree, the one the team was working on this morning, needed the most attention. 

So this morning, as I made poured coffee into my cup, and wiped down the kitchen counters, I saw Rich, Jay, and JonMark working away on the tree. Jay was cutting branches off and placing them off to the side neatly where they could be gathered up and hauled into the woods. He knew what to do, and how to proceed with cutting up the tree. His steady presence was making quick work of his side of the tree—which I am thankful for. 

JonMark, however, is still learning how to cut up a tree safely. He does good work. As I said before, he works hard and does not complain. But the tree that the guys are working on split at the top as it grew. This provides an added degree of difficulty when cutting up a downed tree because, as the tree is cut, you don’t know which direction it might roll based on where the weight is on the slip-top branches. 

As I watched, JonMark was knee-deep in cutting branches off his side of the tree. Jay had his side easily in hand. But the scene that I witnessed was Rich teaching JonMark how to proceed with cutting the tree safely up so that it would neither fall onto their legs, or roll onto them directly. I never heard a word of what Rich and Jay said to JonMark, but based on their body language, how they pointed, and where they stood, I could see that JonMark was learning from them both and their relationship was growing. As JonMark’s saw blade stuck in the tree, Rich leaned forward to help and Jay stopped cutting and, I am sure, gave him encouragement. I did not need to hear them, I knew what was happening. . . and more than that, I knew how I felt watching them teach my son. 

As we continue to think about gratitude this week, I read another quotation from Samuel Wells that applies to us. He wrote: 

Relationships unearth untold gifts and assets and blessings and innovations. And gratitude names the process by which the deficits. . . turn, through our becoming open to one another’s gentle companionship and unexpected grace.” 

This ‘unearthing’ is what I was watching as Rich and Jay worked with, taught, and encouraged JonMark in their combined work this morning. I wonder today, what relationships has God placed in your path that might just help you witness untold gifts and express gratitude for that person’s presence?

Rev. Derek 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 21

Today as I sip my morning vanilla-Carmel tea that Jennifer bought me, I had a thought. . . She knows of my affinity for tea. So when she is at the store, and sees a flavor that sounds appealing to her, she buys it for me. It is a lovely blessing to find a new, unexpected, box of tea on the counter waiting for me. As I sip that tea, my mind is lingering on the idea of gratitude. Each sip making me feel blessed as I remembered what I wanted to share with you. 

This feeling of gratitude comes from 2 recent instances. . . 

The first occurred last night. Jennifer and I have been worried for some time that a maple tree near Plains Church Road would crack, and fall into the road hitting the power lines. The inside of the tree has a dead spot in it that measures almost 3 feet in length and a foot in diameter. It is a big hole in the tree. This tree still produces leaves, but the hole grows bigger each year significantly—and so does our anxiety. So, sadly the tree had to come down before it fell down and, as I said, struck either the power lines, or just blocked the road. 

The now down tree laid in our yard all of Sunday afternoon as we left to run errands. After supper, Jennifer asked if we could work to clean up the down tree. It would be a lot of work, but it was work we could do. Without any prodding, JonMark and Emma changed their clothes and met us outside. JonMark on his chainsaw. Emma carrying branches and driving my truck (she was supervised in this) with those branches over to the woods. Jennifer and I carried, pulled, stacked, and raked the yard. 

The four of us worked for about 2 hours—which was how long we had until dark. Never complaining. Never winning. Not even wanting to stop for a drink. No moaning when the chainsaw slipped off the bar, or when the branches fell off the truck a bit earlier than expected. We just worked. . . I felt a sense of gratitude for their hardworking nature.

The second occurrence then, which is related to this first story, came when I read my devotional book for the day and remembered that evening’s work. The Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells’ wrote: 

“Gratitude is the moment we turn from seeing dependence as a burden and begin to see it as a gift. Gratitude is the window we are given into how dependence creates relationship.” 

His words echoed in my mind as I sip my tea and thank God for evening’s events. Even as we stacked the fire wood by a tree in our backyard, there was no complaining. No petitions to stop. Just a resolute determination to keep working hard in the headlights of my truck. We were a family. Even as Jennifer and I ‘fell’ into bed, we were so proud of our children. We knew we would be sore in the morning. But gratitude flavored how we remembered the evening.  

And so, as we begin another week, or another grinding time, I wonder where you might find room today to see dependence as a gift and therefore give God praise? 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 17

I want to tell you how my morning began. . . The alarm on my phone went off an hour later than it should have. While that was troublesome, it did not signal the start to a frustratingly-difficult morning. Instead, Jennifer and I attacked the morning as we normally might. . . but just a bit faster. And we made it! After she went off to work, I settled into my normal morning routine. 

Made a cup of coffee. I finished Jennifer’s cup while mine was brewing. Chatted with Emma before she caught the bus about homework. I worked out and then headed for the shower. All the normal things I do on a normal morning. 

As I ’snapped’ my Apple Watch around my wrist, I remembered that I wanted to check and see what new features came with the software download from the previous night on my watch. I looked through the list, and found one that caught my eye. Apple now has a feature on its watches that, in a covid-19 world, notifies you when you have washed your hands for a full 20 seconds. It's a basic countdown feature. As you know the CDC recommends washing your hands in warm water for 20 seconds as a helpful preventative practice in this time. Interestingly enough, Apple uses both the motion of your hands and the microphone on the watch (it actually hears the water and once it hears that, the watch notices that your hands are ‘behaving’ like you are washing them. Then the countdown starts). So I enabled the ‘hand washing’ feature and continued my day. . . 

Things began to get interesting after that. 

As I shaved, my watch heard the water, and noticed how I moved my hands to clean the blade off, and you guessed it, started counting down. Ok, I played along. . ha ha. ha. Hands under the water for 20 seconds. I fixed my hair and rinsed off my hands. . . yep, Apple Watch reminded me to use 20 seconds. I gave it a sideways glance but relented. 20 more seconds under the warm water. Some of the muffin I was eating stuck to my fingers. So a quick ‘dab’ off in the water was needed. . . Nope! 20 more seconds washing my hands. . . I thought, ’this is getting a bit irritating.” 

Tooth brush time! 20 seconds. . . rinse the brush off. . . 20 seconds. . . brush the other side of my teeth. . . 20 seconds. Ok, now I was getting actually annoyed. 

I left the bathroom thinking ‘oh what a story that will be.’ But wait, I wanted more coffee to take to the office. Water on, hands moving to fill the pitcher. . . 20 seconds! ARGH!!! I have things to do and by this point I have ‘washed’ my hands for 2 minutes that didn’t actually need to be spent on that practice. I was perfectly fine and I had better things to do in my morning that look out the window while my watched counted down from 20. 

But then I came across the words of Beverly Nichols, and her phase, ’the tyranny of speed.’ And I wondered if she was speaking directly to me, or to you? 

She writes: 

One of the many reasons why gardens are increasingly precious to us in this day and age is that they help us to escape from the tyranny of speed. Our skies are streaked with jets, our roads have turned to race-tracks, and in the cities the crowds rush to and fro as though the devil were at their heels. But as soon as we open the garden gate, Time seems almost to stand still, slowing down to the gentle ticking of the Clock of the Universe.”  

I wonder, what are the places today that you might be subject, as I was with my watch, to the tyranny of speed? Is God offering you today that chance to allow life to ’slow down to the gentle ticking’ that God created for you? I guess the only way to find out is to give it a try. . . slow down. . . and notice. 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 16

As you know from personal experience, we interpret the Scriptures through our own eyes first. That is part of the universal nature of God’s word. It applies to all of us regardless of where we find ourselves as Christians each day. So to that end, I was reading Luke 7:31-35 today as part of my morning quiet time with God. Remembering that as I read the Bible, my eyes provide the first interpretation of what I am reading.

The passage read: 

"To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like?  They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.’  For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children." 

Last night, I slept at a bad angle. So, early this morning, I woke with a tremendous headache. I could feel my heartbeat in head thumping over and over again. Groggily, I fetched 3 Advil from the bathroom and an ice pack from the freezer. Returning to my bed, wide awake because of the pain, I lay there until the alarm went off. Exhaustion my only friend. . . 

So when it was time to get moving for the day, I was shall we say, a bit moody. I was careful not to take the moodiness out on anyone else. They were not at fault for my head and neck being pinched at a poor angle last night. This was something that I was going to have to deal with. I lay on our bed after Jennifer went to work, sulking because I knew that I had a lot to do today, and this headache was going to make that hard—if not impossible. 

“Of all the days,” I grunted at Bianca as she snored next to me on the bed. She had not trouble falling back to sleep (Truthfully she never does. That little dog could sleep at the drop of a hat). But I was suffering.

So I arrive in the office and open my Bible to Luke 7 and read those words from above. . . I sighed. Bent my head down and back to try to help the headache abate. As I re-read the passage, my mind thought was: “Wow those are some cranky people.” That phrase sounded familiar to my mind as I started the day.

In this passage, Jesus describes a people who are unresponsive, cranky, or not in the mood. Like a moody teenage, mopping around the house, bored, and irritated, yet spurning all invitations and suggestions that might help. But that is a space we have all inhabited from time to time—today it was my turn to think in this way. I didn’t feel like celebrating God with me. 

But the more time I spent considering this passage, the more I wondered, in the face of my moodiness, or my crankiness, or in my unresponsiveness as a Christian, what invitation to celebrate and give thanks might the Lord be making to me now? Sure my head hurts a bit, but God is with me. . . God is caring for me. . . God is at work here.

While I cannot control how I sleep, necessarily, I can control how I face each day. I have the choice to make excuses and/or to be moody, as I have the choice to notice how God is at work in my day and give thanks to God for that instance. I wonder what choice you will make this week? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 15

What a beautiful morning God gave us today! The beauty of the blue sky, when combined with the wet grass that Luna ran through as she ran to chase her stick with water spraying behind her, and the crispness of the air combined to make me feel very blessed today. I enjoyed taking an ‘extra’ lap around the church just so that I could enjoy today a little bit more. But as I walked I was in two mental places. . . The first was happiness as Luna ‘huffed’ and ‘grunted’ while chasing her stick. It was not going to get away from her! She was in doggie-heaven as we walked in the yard. 

The second, which is the subject of this post was considering a hidden aspect of our lives that, at times, has worn us out. It is something that we all struggle with—even if we don’t like it or don’t want to admit it to anyone else. I was thinking about decision fatigue and wondering how it impacts the daily life of the church and its ministry? 

Some of us are good at making decisions. It is part of who we are. Present us with a problem, and we pause, we think, and decide. But covid, and the uncertainty that has come along with it, has made those decisions much more multifaceted. Whether we like it or not, the simplest decisions now require a level of thinking and planning ahead before we proceed that is abnormal to our tradition. 

For example, do I take my mask with me today when I come into the office? Ann isn’t in today, so I might be there alone. But CNS is in the building. However, I have little or no interaction with them because of covid; my door stays closed a lot now. But what if a staff member needs to talk or needs something from the church? What if I meet a parent in the parking lot on my way over, shouldn’t I model the expected behavior of this time and have my mask on even though I am alone? 

What is someone stops by to talk? I will need the mask. Do I then ask them to wear theirs? What if they forgot it? What if its a "spur of the moment” choice to come to the church and seek the pastor out? Should I send them away? 

How do I advise JonMark if he needs to come pick something up from me at the office? He is at home. I live at home wit him so there is no need for the mask for him. But again, CNS? What do I do? 

What was simple a few months ago, walking to the church, has become complex and along with the complexity comes an element of decision fatigue. 

(Don't worry my mask is always with me. And if I forget it accidentally, or it breaks, I have a box of them at the church to fall back upon or some stashed in my truck in a bag.)

So what is the Christian response to decision fatigue? 

I think that we need a degree of empathy when we confront the people around us as they too might be as tired as we are with making decisions in a covid-world. That individual, who you might normally want to judge, might be just as tired and worn down by the decisions that they are asked to make each day, as you are. I think that Jess Lair’s definition of empathy helps us see how this practice can be necessary—and even helpful. 

He writes: “Empathy—your pain in my heart.”  

I encourage you to extend them, and yourself, a degree of empathy today. We are all worn down by these decisions, and we don’t want to make them anymore. We are tired of covid and what it requires of us. But as part of the body of Christ, we have the answer to this slight momentary affiliation, and it is an answer grounded in presence and empathy. Their pain can touch our hearts. And as it touches our hearts, we can find that we are together in this struggle. 

Rev. Derek

Monday, September 14, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 14

I wonder, have you ever began a day, or a week, wondering what God planned for you in the immediate future? And ask you ask that question, no immediate answer comes to mind; instead a certain blankness seems to occupy that space.

Jennifer and I woke up this morning a little past 5:15am so that she could get ready for work. Our room was still quite dark with only the hum of the humidifier cutting through the silence in the house. Our ‘blackout’ curtains were doing their job well. As I sat up, stretching my shoulders back and ‘wheeling’ them around in a small circle, I headed for the kitchen and what I knew my body wanted—coffee. The grogginess in my mind was so great that I seemed to circle the kitchen island over and over again looking for a spoon, then selecting a coffee mug, and then filling the coffee maker. . . Frankly, I felt a bit lost as I scratched the back of my head and chuckled when I thought, “if anyone walked by they would think I was lost in my own house.” But I wasn’t.  

The morning progressed as it should—Jennifer made it off to work a little after 645am as she normally does, and I had plenty of time to run, or walk Luna, or ride the bike, or do whatever my heart felt like for a workout. I choose to run. . . so out I headed into the cool morning listening to some music that I liked. The sound of my footfalls timed up nicely with the beat of each song as the miles ticked off. . . 1. 2. 1. 2. 1. 2. I spread my fingers out as I rang and shook out my wrists as they felt a little tight. Without Luna to run with (I didn’t feel like waking her this morning) I would have no reason to tighten my shoulders or lean against her aggressive pull. 1. 2. 1. 2. 1. 2. I counted. And I enjoyed being outside on an empty street. 

As I finished my run somewhere on Hope Road, I switched off the music and started a podcast that would accompany me home. All the while, I was thinking, “Well God, what do you have for me today?” I walked on a bit and waved at a runner going the opposite way. The only answer to my question was silence and a nagging pain in my left shin that I knew would need a couple Advil before I had breakfast. 

As I continue walking, and thinking about God’s plan for my day, the words of Samuel Wells came to mind. In a book that I used as part of my doctoral work, Wells’ wrote the following: 

"The key to participation is to focus in a discipline way on the word with. There may be a hundred quicker, more efficient, more satisfying, more exciting ways to pass time, but being with means concentrating on how that time can genuinely be time with."  

I kept walking and enjoyed just being with God on Hope Road and then onto Plains Church. Nothing else was accomplished outside of a good walk that helped me stretch my legs back out as I prepared for the morning. Maybe the answer to that initial question about what God has planned for you is that God wants to just be with you. Maybe that is enough today. Maybe the list of tasks, the to-do list, the stressors at work and home, which are all important, can take a step to the side so that God has room to be with you? 

It does not always feel like the most efficient way to spend time with God, but it is the most effective. . . As you start your new week, find some space to just be with God. Concentrate there, and learn from your Creator.

Rev. Derek

Friday, September 11, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 11

As I was walking Luna this morning I had an interesting conversation that I wanted to share with you (No. . . not with Luna. She may be cute, but I haven’t heard her talk yet). We were a little over 2 miles into our regular Friday walk and it had gone well. Her excited energy, which manifests itself at the beginning of the walk in jumps and runs, was gone. Now she walked just a few steps in front of me, stopping every so often to look back and make sure I was still there. 

She did not bark and lunge at anyone on this walk. . . just a few excited ‘jumps’ at passing cars that were too far away from her to matter at all. This was interesting to me.

It was a good walk.

Then, at that point, just a short distance from the development next to Plains Church, my podcast stopped and my phone began to ring. Caller ID: Philadelphia. “Hmmm. . .” I thought, “I don't know anyone in Phila.” But I answered. (Now before I continue, do not worry, the information that I am going share is incorrect. I would not give this information out to anyone). 

The caller was from the Board of Pensions of the PC(USA) in relation to a grant that JonMark was being given as the child of a Board member. They were calling because some of the numbers on the account where the money is to be deposited were not right. (This is the stuff that I was saying that I wouldn’t share over email. . .which you agree with I am sure). 

“Rev. Marotta,” the man said, “I am calling to confirm JonMark’s account number. Our records indicate its 01234. . .” He went on. 

“No is not right,” I said tying not to be frustrated because I have given them this information several times. “Its 01324. . .” He repeated it, “But I thought that was the routing number. . .” My shoulders rose a little as we talked. 

Back and forth we went for about 2 minutes trying to confirm the numbers. . . “01234 right. “No 01324.” Finally we got it sorted and I hope for the last time. But it got me thinking a little about the power of patience and the necessity of listening. If I talked over him, or tried to interrupt to correct his error too quickly, then I would only add to the chaos of the moment (remember Luna is pulling me a little down the street and I have to watch out for her and keep an eye on my footing). Instead, I needed to remain calm, speak clearly, and relax. 

I had the information on a picture that JonMark gave me so it was just a matter of going slowly over what needed to be shared—even if the photo was on an angle that made it hard to walk, hold Luna, and read the numbers clearly. Again, patience and listening. 

I wonder, as the weekend gets here, if there is a moment today where you might just need to practice the same posture that I did on Hope Rd—patience and listening?? 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 9

This morning, I was thinking about an encounter that I had yesterday afternoon. . . Before CNS welcomed new students into the building on Wednesday, the playground needed some attention. That very playground is something that many of our preschool parents and kids love. I have been told that it has even been the deciding factor in some families choosing to send their child to school here. 

So, as we get ready for the new year, the weeds need that have taken up residence, need to be cleaned up and sprayed. It is not a terribly hard job, but one that requires diligence. So after Rich and I talked about it, I volunteered to spray the playground because I have some extra weed killer in the garage. Rich said that he would put up the sign and we were all set. 

So, I walked over after lunch and began to spray the weeds with my new audiobook playing in my ears. There were many more weeds growing around the area than I expected (I guess I should look before I leap). But I was still happy to do it. I sprayed. . . and I sprayed. . . and I sprayed. . . and I sprayed. It took almost an hour to complete the job. I needed a second bottle of weed killer to make sure that I did the job throughly. Again, I was happy to do it. 

While I was there the lawn care company that mows the church and cemetery came and worked right alongside of me mowing and trimming the area. 

They started their work at least 90 minutes before I did. One of the workers stopped mowing and walked over toward their truck, his arms sore from the vibrations from the machinery. I taped by AirPods and the book stopped because I expected a greeting or a casual word. I was not disappointed. There, in the baking sun of a hot September afternoon, for about 5 minutes, this gentlemen and I had a nice conversation. He has an injury to his left arm that makes this work painful, but he wants to ’see the job through.’ 

Once he finished his bottle of water, and with sweat dripping off my nose and chin, we parted and began to silently work again alongside of each other. The goodness of the encounter is still with me today. 

I thought of the words of Lin Yu-t’ang where he wrote: 

Today we are afraid of simple words like goodness and mercy and kindness. We don’t believe in the good old words because we don’t believe in the good old values anymore.” 

I wonder if today God is going to give you the chance to have a good, normal, conversation with someone? 

Will you engage them? Will you stop what you are doing and be present in their life? 

Because if you do, you might just find that God is offering you a little blessing that might just have gone unnoticed. 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 8

As I wanted Emma walk down the driveway toward our mailbox, I sighed and ’shushed’ the dogs as they pleaded with her to come back. She hasn’t done this since March!! 

The Annual "first day of school” picture was taken in the living room. Emma was beaming with a smile prepared to meet ‘her people’ again. She misses them, and they miss her. Virtual connections are just that—virtual. They can only take us so far or connect us so much. She, like most people that I know, needs the physical presence of humanity. She needs to walk down the hall listening to whatever music is popular with her friends—even though they will be 6 feet apart. 

So there she goes. . . out to wait for the bus. As it lumbers down the road, I think, “my baby is growing too fast.” Another year begins, and I hope it will be a safe year. But I cannot control that any longer and I am a bit anxious. . . 

To top it off, my head is killing me. . . I slept wrong last night. The alignment in my back was off and so, at 5:00am, I needed three Advil, an ice pack, and to breath slowly and gently. By the time that Emma is finishing shuffling through her music on her phone for the bus ride to SV, my mind is mixture of anxiety and hope. 

Whether you have children going off to school or not, I suspect that you know what it feels like taste that mixture of anxiety and hope. To be gripped by it. To be held in a place that you don’t want to be in. If that is something that you are working through right now, let me offer you the words of Anselm GrĂ¼n. He wrote: 

"The demand to always be perfect creates anxiety. It makes me live in constant fear: I can't do it. My project is not good enough. So I create a better and better public image, I have to present myself that way. Anxiety reveals the excessive demands I make on life. My project need not be the best. But many cling to the idea that their project has to be the best. They want to push down their anxiety, either by psychopharmacological means or spiritual suppression. But it doesn't work. I can only transform anxiety if I transform my own attitude: I need not be the best project on earth."

I agree with Anselm, we need to ‘be the best project on earth” and thereby living fully into who God is calling us to be. 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 3

What happens when we feel disappointed?

From my perspective, this is a personal question with personal responses needed after diligent time with God is spent. It can also almost feel like a daily question that we are faced with. But nevertheless it is also a question that I think each one of us can say that we have faced in the not too distant past. Recently, I was confronted by an individual who felt, and experienced, a deep sense of disappointment in someone that they cared for—a close friend, in fact. 

This friend made, if I can offer a brief judgment, a less than optimal choice given the situation they were placed in. And so, when the choice came to light in the relationship of these two people, so too came a sense of disappointment for them, frustration grew in the moment. . . and ultimately a sadness set in over both of them. Not sadness between friends, because they are quite close, but a sadness between what happened, and what could have happened. As far as I know, these two individuals are still friends and will remain so for a long time, but. . . disappointment has entered the relationship and that cannot be denied as if it didn’t happen.

I wonder if you know what that feels like? And if you know what it feels like, can you speak to it? 

Novelist Eliza Tabor wrote about disappointment this way. She says:

"Disappointment to a noble soul is what cold water is burning metal; it strengthens, tempers, intensifies, but never destroys it.” 

As I reflected on that disappointment story that was shared with me, my hope for both of these people was that their relationship with continue progress, continue to grow in a Godly manner. I know that it might be a bit of a challenge in some circumstances for these two, but if Tabor is correct, and I think that she is, then this is an opportunity for each of these two to be strengthened, intensified, and grow together. It is not going to be easy all of the time moving forward, but if they do so in Christ, and in bounds of friendship, then I believe that their disappointment can be resolved in much they same way our disappointment moments can be navigated through.

So I go back to the first question for today: What happens when we feel disappointed? 

I hope that when those moments or feelings come into your life that you will see it as opportunity to come together with that person. To love them. To support them. And to know those feelings don’t have to end the relationship but they can be a way that you, God, and that person move forward.

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 2

Church Family,

As you can tell, this pastoral thought is coming out much later in the day than normal. And that is interesting to note. My morning has gone by smoothly, but also very busily. Let me speak to you briefly about the morning, and then say something about God’s work and discerned desire because of it. . . This is going to read like a shopping list. . . .

This morning, I spoke with Rev. David Oyler at our presbytery office. He had some questions for me about a project that I am working on. We were excited to catch up and left the conversation with the reminder from Paul to “Pray continually.” The call with David lifted my spirits a great deal! 

Then, I needed to speak to my doctor about an MRI that they want to perform on my elbow. I have a small cyst that needs attention on my left elbow by a surgeon. Nothing serious, but yet still important. I have been putting off scheduling the MRI because, honestly, I keep forgetting. 

I spoke with Angela about the plans for the new school year and talked about messages that I received for her from parents looking for spots for their children. 

I responded to a lot of emails about ministry here at Plains. While other churches are still seeking discernment and direction from God as to how to begin accessing the world during this pandemic, we are ‘full steam ahead.’ That is a wonderful blessing to share and participate in!  

My truck is going in for some work and I phoned the dealership to confirm the details and learn about the process. It was exactly what I expected, so I breathed a sigh of relief. 

A few years ago, I officiated over at Plains for a community members. That family reached out to me today asking about the sacrament of baptism for the wife and their new ‘bundle of joy.’ 

Ann and I talked about plans for the remainder of September and handled a few office housekeeping issues that were coming up. All the while I was messaging Emma and JonMark about getting lunch together for Jennifer and I. Both kids are home, and in class, so they were willing to help make lunch and do some basic housework for us. 

I have been so active today that my iced coffee still sits inches away from this keyboard untouched—I will remedy that in a few minutes!!! 

So the purpose of this list is not to demonstrate how busy I am, or to prove my worth, but to say something about how even while we are busy and working hard, there is space to be thankful. Space is present to practice gratitude if we are willing; if we will try. Sy Safransky wrote: 

"Let me start with gratitude: The world is broken in ten thousand places. Can I be thankful for the brokenness? How else can I learn to love the broken world?"

I know that you agree with me that our world feels broken more often than it does healed. I know that you also lament the change and we wonder together where is God at work in the ever-changing landscape of this country and this community? The divide seems too great to bridge. . . And I know that you have busy days, fully days, overwhelming days, all of the time. Days when it feels like there is no room, and no time, to reach out to God even in the brokenness as a means to love the world around you. 

Today, I wonder, as you identify the brokenness in our world, as you live with it, work with it, as it live next door to it, or even down the hallway, can you find a way to love that broken world? And by loving that world, be thankful to God that God entrusted you with the care and ministry in it?

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Pastoral Thought--September 1

This morning I am tired—and not for the reason you might think. . . I have slept well over the past several nights. As the season has shifted every so slightly, my body is enjoying the cool evening air as I drift off to sleep. My diet has been healthier than I might have expected. We are trying new recipes and flavors and the result is wonderful! 

My exercise regiment has become more diversified and creative. I run more so my stride looks better. My meditation time with God has deepened and takes place more frequently. I can cycle longer at a higher intervals of leg speed and resistance which helps keep my heart and lungs functioning at a nice level. Everything looks good in my physical life. 

Spiritually, I spend more time with God’s word, and I have found myself completing some books that I longed to finished but couldn’t make the necessary time to complete. They have sparked some creative ideas that occupy my mind like fireflies on a summer night. As I no longer have doctoral requirements to complete, my mind is free to think clearer and longer on church issues at a microlevel and then envision ways to transition them to a macro one. I am even presenting my doctoral research to some colleagues later in September, and I am very excited about it (here’s hoping I can keep it to less that 2 hours!) spiritually you might think I look good too. . . .but 

I am tired. 

My point is this: everything looks good in my life. All of the metrics that determine physical and mental health point upward. . . and yet. . . I feel tired today. Maybe you feel tired today as well. Maybe you know someone whose life looks tired to your eyes. You can see their heart is heavy and their shoulders are slumped?? And while things on the outside look good, there is a nagging sense that something is off and you wonder how can I be present in their life? 

When that happens, I think we need to consider the simple question:  

So where do we go to mend ourselves? 

It is a pretty simple and straightforward question. But one that is deeply personal, and from my perspective, deeply neglected when we too feel worn and fatigued. Self-care in this manner is about renewal of our minds and our souls with God that creates space for us to mend ourselves—with God’s help and God’s hands. So many of us frantically move from task to task, or place to place, or expectation to expectation, that we do not stop and find time, or perhaps make the time, for the practice of mending ourselves with God’s help. 

We know that Jesus took regular breaks to be away from people so that his soul could interact with God in heaven. I wonder if those were times that, regardless of how they looked to our eyes if we happened upon Jesus in on that day, were times of soul-mending? Golda Poretsky once wrote, “Do something every day that is loving toward your body and gives you the opportunity to enjoy the sensations of your body.” 

As I am sitting here, I still feel tired even after considering Golda’s words. But I wonder what practice could I adopt today that would help me do something that mends me and gives me the chance to be joyful???

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...