Thursday, October 29, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 29

I do some of my best thinking on a rainy day. I know people who find rainy days to be a terrible burden to endure, but I find them a blessing. I always have. Rainy days, such as the one we are having in Cranberry today, remind me of my time in Nepal. As you know that was a life changing trip. The service team members and I were up so high that instead of the fog rolling in each morning, we were in the actual clouds and the rain seemed to come from all around us. It rained so much, and that rain was so cold, that it chilled us to the bone. But in our ‘chilled’ state, we still found the glory of God with us. So that is one thing that happens in my mind when I find a rainy day outside my window. . . 

The other thing that I tend to do on a rainy days is that I spend time thinking. 

This feels therapeutic. . . I find peace of mind watching the rain slowly fall on our yard. It limits what I can do outside and that can be a focusing act also. As I watched the rain this morning, and based on a conversation that I just finished, I began to wonder about something. This question that I have been pondering since the conversation ended: How do we handle a situation when someone that we care about does something that angers or, at the very least, discourages us?

This question feels necessary in our time of political and social unrest. But not enough people think about it. . . How do we even begin to access this disagreement without projecting our individual responses or feelings onto it, or onto the other person?   

The eighth class in my Doctoral Studies was one that I felt should be earlier in the schedule. It was the class on conflict in the church and community. Dr. Leanna Fuller gave us several challenging texts to read and consider. We read books like When Christ’s Body is Broken and Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict. These are good texts to read on the subject. The material they presented to us as the reader was challenging. Every student in my cohort came to class with their books marked up; post-it notes sticking out indicating issues that they wanted to talk. We were ready to discuss and resolve conflict. We were ready to “fix” what was broken. But then Dr. Fuller walked in. . . 

With a warm smile she sat down at the head table and said “good morning." She only had a few notes with her, and I wondered about the direction our time would take. We were almost done with the class schedule for the program and so each of us were getting excited in our own way as we finished the class work. She introduced herself and we introduced ourselves. Then she offered us a practice. . . She said, “I begin every course I teach here in the same way.” She continued. “We are going to spend 5 minutes in silence. Not in prayer. Not reading anything. Not reflecting on any scriptures. Just 5 minutes of silence. Let’s begin.” She didn’t even give us time to ask questions! 

Now a room full of pastors does not like to sit quietly and not do anything. We like to talk and we like to do things. I fidgeted. My friend Brian sighed in resignation. Becky leaned back warily. 5 minutes of silence began. . . Was I paying for silence, I wondered, with my tuition? By the end of the week, I craved those 5 minutes; I needed them—as I know everyone else did. 

What if I don’t have to do anything when someone that I care about does something makes me angry or, at the very least, discourages me. What if the point of Dr. Fuller’s exercise, when thinking about conflict and disagreement, was that we don’t have to "over talk” or “over work” the issue or the person. Maybe we don’t have to brow beat them and demand a change in behavior or response. What would it look like to just sit there, even on a rainy day, for 5 solid minutes, and dwell when something discourages or possibly angers you? 

5 good minutes might just provide a different perspective to the problem. I know that it won’t always work, there are big issues out there that need our attention. But maybe it could take some of that anxiety off your plate and give you space and perspective to address the more serious issues. . .  

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 28

Today I want to share the words of Political Science professor Thomas L. Dumm. I believe that his words can be helpful to the church as we consider our culture and how we remember, and stay in contact with, others. 

He wrote: 

"We are marked by loneliness when we register the death of others to us, when we cease to be connected to the things that surround us, and when we notice that we somehow have become something that we no longer recognize as ourselves. Loneliness is akin to the experience of skepticism. Its intellectual affect suggests a gesture toward doubting the very possibility that the world we inhabit actually exists. . . Loneliness is not death. Yet me might as well be dead when our only possibility is to be alone, because the worst aspect of loneliness is that it ends the possibility of meaningful experience by translating the inner dialogue of solitude into a monologue of desolation."

A monologue of desolation” I think that we know what this looks like personally. I suspect that you know exactly how that feels, and how it is registered in the face of someone that you love and care for. 

Much of what I witness on the news, or read on social media, or hear while shopping, or listen to on the radio, reflects Dumm’s idea back onto me. Desolation. . . Isolation. . .  Loneliness. . . Not only does the physical death of those that I care about bruise my soul, but so much of what we as the church can witness, feels isolating. We can lose hope and retreat back into ourselves. The way a coworker speaks about an issue when we are not around, the look that another driver gave you as they cut you off, the way a clerk is short with you, the individual who berates you because you are wearing a mask and they don’t see the need, all of that puts us on an island where we might be skeptical that God is at work around us.

But behind Dumm’s words, I think, is the opportunity for affirmation. If we are so lonely. If we feel so set apart, then we do have an option. We have something to hope in. We can take deliberate steps to reconnect with another person. We can make that phone call. We can send that text. We are affirm someone in public when no one else is doing anything except muttering that this pandemic, and the government’s response, is unfair. We have the choice to deliberately ‘be with’ those who we agree and disagree with. We can build community when no one else around us wants to engage that work. We can be present when the pacing of the world makes this hard—if not impossible.  

I hope today that you will take some time to consider Dumm’s words. And if you are feeling like he describes, then make the choice to engage someone. Talk to them. Connect with them. Listen to them. As you do so, you participate in the redemptive work that God calls each of us to do.

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 27

Today I am working from my home office. From time to time this practice becomes necessary. While my “church" office contains most of my library and pastoral resources, my home office has a different feeling. This is a more ‘informal’ space and I enjoy working from it when I need to. 

Working from home became a necessity today as Jennifer and I are waiting on a pair of packages to be delivered that both require a signature (or at least that is what UPS and FedEx state on their website). So, with JonMark busy at college, and Emma at school, here I am waiting for the packages while I work from home. I settled down to begin my day. I have research to do for the sermon. Worship to work on. And a book to read. But first, I decide to check my email. That was a mistake. . . By checking email, I could learn the estimated delivery time for both of these items. Having that information in hand might just be helpful in order to keep the dogs quiet and make me more productive. 
So as my email opened, I found myself being derailed! 

UPS offered my a satellite view of the driver’s route and stated the my package would here soon. On screen I saw a little brown star (my home) and compared it with the little brown truck (self-explanatory I suspect). I smiled. . . The driver was on Peter’s Road which is less than 1 mile from my desk here in the guest room. 'Won’t be long now,’ I thought. . . that was at 9am. . . It's noon. . . The truck is still cutting back and forth across Rowan and Peters Road. He is still 1 mile away. The website labels his location as “Near your home.” But that does not help my mind relax.

Waiting for FedEx hasn’t been any easier either. At 11:30am I heard a FedEx truck back up in our neighbor’s driveway. I thought, ‘Well here we go!’ as I trotted down the steps. I watch him pull out of the Lee’s driveway, turn toward my home, and drive into the church parking lot right past me. (cue the eye roll). I know the driver, and so why is he trying to deliver at the church, he knows that I live over here!? So I stand in the driveway and watch him. 

CNS is not in session by this point as today is the school's Halloween parties. He looked in the dark window. . . No one is there. He tries to squeeze the package in the mail slot next to the door. Then I yell, “I’ll take it over here!” He waves and jogs back to the truck and drives to me. As he hands me the package I notice that is is from Staples. . . and it is not what I am waiting for either. 

“Out for delivery,” yeah right! 

At this point my frustration level is high, bordering on neurotic. . . Why can’t my items get here! I want them now! I am ready to use them now! Jennifer ordered both of them a week and a half ago, and I have patiently waited without obsessing for them. I mean seriously, I only checked email for status updates twice a day since the order was placed—even on Sunday. I’ve been patient. . . Or have I been? 

As I walk back into the house, with the Staples order in hand, that I realize that the anticipation of what is to come is robbing me of being present in the moment. God wants to be active and at work in my life. But I suspect that my obsession with these deliveries has put up a wall between God and myself. And I wonder if you have the same experience in your own life? 

The book that I wanted to read today, the one given to me by a friend, I have barely been able to open it despite the fact that it relates directly to my D.Min. work. I read the introduction yesterday and my creativity told me that it could be helpful at church in many ways. . . I can’t read it now. I’m too distracted. The devotional that I am writing hasn’t been worked on yet, even though I do my best work in small writing blocks. Instead, I have focused my entire morning on checking for status updates on a delivery. 

How is God being served by my behavior? 

I am still going to check for status updates even after I realize that I am living with a distracted mind. . . But what if I found a healthy way to handle those moments that attempt to distract me from the work of God in my life? What if I realize that the symbolic UPS or FedEx will deliver when they do and that nothing I do, nothing that I obsess over, can stop that. Maybe, that revelation will help us in some way today?

Rev. Derek

Monday, October 26, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 26

As you know, this weekend we will celebrate worship from a different perspective—one of memory. 

Here at Plains, our worship service is often a time of joy that we engage in. When we hear stories about how God is at work with us, or in us, we notice that this practice brings joy to our hearts. Much of our worship, and much of our story-sharing time, re-orients us in a joyful direction. 

Even when express sadness or grief in a time of loss or suffering, those moments often flow from a perspective of thanksgiving or joy because we remember that Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us. We notice how God is, joyfully, at work and that helps us address the daily struggles we engage in. 

This understanding does not overwhelm or diminish the grief and pain we feel; those wounds still hurt. But this practice, and how we remember, reminds us of God’s closeness when we need God to be close. To that end, I have been thinking today about memory. More specifically, I have wondered how we ‘remember’ as Christians? With the All Saints Day memorial coming this weekend, I want us to think about how we remember those whom we have lost over the past year. 

Charles Kuralt’s words seem helpful to me as I think about this idea and practice. He wrote:

The good memories are all of stopping and saying awhile. I realize I’ve always driven too fast through life, carrying in my baggage too much impatiences and apprehension, missing too many chances, passing too many good people in the dust.” 

As we get ready to remember the lives of our loved ones, as we remember how they blessed us, and how much their loss hurts, I wonder if Kuralt’s words could be a helpful starting point for our memories. Maybe God wants us to remember slowly. . . deliberately. . . carefully. Perhaps as we get ready for worship, even on Monday afternoon, we can begin to make space in our daily practices to remember graciously and slowly. 

I wonder, if dwelling longer in that place what that could mean for our faith and how we share that faith with another person? 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 22

After a month and a half of working on a project for the Presbytery, today was the day that my work was finished. I was presenting what I learned in my doctoral program to the Encouraging Churches to Flourish Skill Building Event. And if you have followed along with my “Pastoral Thoughts” this week, then you probably guessed that I was anxious about the whole thing. I know my material well. It took me 5 years to accumulate and finalize it. My conclusions are my own, and I am proud of what I learned. 

During the time when I wrote my final paper, I cried out to God often for help, for determination, and for endurance. On more than one occasion, I wondered what would happen if I stopped; if I gave up. But I didn’t and I am very thankful for the results—as I am thankful to the people who helped support me in the work at home, and in the church. I know without them, I would not be writing this today.  

So back to this morning and my thoughts for today. . . 

I spent almost 2 hours with a group of my colleagues talking through my research and my findings. I explained my Doctoral process and how I implemented it here at Plains. It was wonderful to watch my friends and colleagues scribble little thoughts down on the handout that I gave them and ask questions. I felt a sense of joy, of validation, that what I was presenting was landing in their minds in a similar was as it did to mine. 

I closed in prayer, signed out of Zoom, and leaned back in my chair and rocked. My eyes tracked toward heaven (as if heaven is above me) and I *sighed.* 45 days of practicing, preparing, reading, and editing my presentation were complete. The work was done. I felt immensely blessed by being able to have this conversation with them. 

As I stood to open my door, I was reminded of something that I read in an Anne Lamott book a while ago. In her book, Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers, she writes the following about the prayer that I was trying to articulate as I finished speaking to the presbytery group: 

Wow is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight. . . of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder. . . “Wow” is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous."

Now that my presentation is finished I can say that I know what it feels like to say ‘Wow’ to God. To have nothing more to say to the Lord on High, because of the many blessings that I feel in the moment, besides “Wow.” This was the moment when the anxiety and worry of the past few days was overshadowed by the grace of God that was with me. This was the presence that I felt, and as I walked to lunch, all I could say on this beautiful day was, ‘Wow.” 

There is a lot that you have been confronted with today that is NOT the cause of ‘Wow’ in life. But I wonder if you can find room today to say ‘Wow’ to Jesus? I wonder what would happen if you turned to Jesus and found something small to be ‘Wowed’ about? I bet it might just change the entire day. . . It did for me! 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 21

Since I was a little boy, I regularly have been attacked by bouts of worrying. Worry, and the anxiety it produces, are both constant companions in my life—even to this day. Self-talk, affirmative actions, deep breathing, recalling events where I was successful, and other self-help practices are only so effective. I still face and address worrying often. Now though it is not as debilitating as it was when I was younger. 

Now I have Jesus to help, and a family to re-affirm me, when I worry too much.

However, when I was a boy, I often got so worried on the school bus that I would get sick and have to come home early from school. In those days my worrying was over trivial things that I could never control but they ate at me and consumed me. Would it be sunny today? What if I was still hungry after lunch? What if I missed the bus and was stranded at school? What if I was late to go anywhere (this one is still with me and I adopted the policy in college that serves me well to combat it—"on time or not at all"). 

My struggles with worrying were hard to deal with, but I managed. I grew and I developed healthy habits to combat these moments. Now they are less frequent—but they are still alive deep in my mind and spirit. And so, even when I find myself worrying, or on the cusp of worrying, I return to my healthy habits, and to God, and I thrive.  

As an adult I find different things to worry about that are less debilitating but still serious. The election. The state of the economy. My children’s future. The coronavirus. . . and a presentation that I am making tomorrow to the presbytery. In their own way, each of these is worth the worry. But each of them can also be something more if I am willing to look for it. 

I want to offer you a couple things when you find yourself about to fall victim to worrying and anxiety. 

First, the words of Nicole Calhoun. She once wrote, " When we worry, the tendency to first seek God’s direction goes out the window. In my bouts of personal worry, I try to find a little space for God to dwell with and in me. My worries can place me on an island where God is far from me--but they don't have to be as isolating. 

The second thing I want to offer you is an exert from Paul’s words to the church of the Philippians. In Philippians 4:6-9 we read: 

“Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.”

Neither of these two statements will completely remove the tendency to worry or be anxious that we deal with. But what they can do, is remind us of God’s place in our lives when we feel that the worries of the day are too much for us to address. When I feel myself falling into my own self-created moment of worrying, I remember what Paul says. I remember what Calhoun wrote, and I find myself able to address the worries a bit more appropriately. 

I cannot fix them all. I cannot resolve the issue totally—even if I want to. However, I can create room in my day for God to break through and care for me.

I wonder if you could do the same?

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 20

Have you ever had one of those days. . .Don’t roll your eyes now. It's a fair question to consider. Have you ever had one of those days?

I thought that I was having one right now (or more specifically five minutes ago). But then God broke in. Let me explain. . .

Today Jennifer and I had a number of doctor's appointments that we needed to go to. We have been booking these appointments today for a few weeks. Our plan was to maximize her day off (today, Tuesday) and accomplish all that needed to be done. And so our day began with that sense of positivity! Then alarm went off early, and I rolled over. . . Or more likely, I tried to roll over. Turns out some "little angel of a dog" decided that sleeping by our feet was not adequate last night. My pillow looked far more appealing and comfortable. So Bianca made her way up to my pillow and camped herself out on it. I was relegated to the mattress and no pillow. Ah well. . . what am I to do? She’s just too adorable to be angry at. 

We both were quite groggy but we weren’t late. In fact we were not late to one single doctor's appointment all day. I just felt half-a-step behind. It was one of those days.

I tried to write my “Pastoral Thought” in the waiting room this morning. Didn’t work. I couldn’t concentrate, and when I achieved the correct balance of creativity and concentration, it was time to move on to the next office. I shrugged. . .

We ate lunch as a family and I tried to write again. But it was not happening. JonMark needed my attention to confirm his plans for college tonight. Emma wanted to text me about having to go to gym class outside—she was annoyed. Laundry. Dishes. Coffee! It all seemed to add up to a day when this note wasn’t going to happen. And I was fine with that. It is just, say it with me, one of those days.

Now I am in my third chair and want to write. Again it’s not going well. Bianca is standing on the footstool inches from my laptop barking at me. Her eyes bulging with each bark. She will not be ignored! She’s been at it for a minute straight now and I am beginning to wonder what her issue is. She’s eaten and she’s gone out. What am I missing. Then it happened. Her tiny little paw reaches out and gingerly steps onto my thigh. . . Then back off. . . Back onto my thigh. . . Then back off. She wants love. 

And so, love she gets. I close my laptop and put it aside, she hops up triumphantly onto my lap and walks very close to my face and sits down. As I scratch her neck, Bianca closes her eyes and leans into the scratch. It’s the highlight of her day, and it is becoming mine. In this act, I am reminded of the Catholic poet Denise Levertov who wrote a poem that I treasure an re-read often: 

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

My favorite lines in the poem is: "So that I would learn to attain free fall, and float into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace.”

Sometimes it just feels like one of those days when everything is not going to work out in the way that you planned. It feels like Monday all over again, and despite our best intention, we cannot seem to shake that idea. But what if God is offering us a chance to dwell close to someone who loves us? What if, when one of those days or moments begins, we take it as an opportunity to “float into God’s deep embrace?” I wonder how that could change your day and your mood? 

Rev. Derek

Monday, October 19, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 19

As a parent sometimes there are moments when, despite our best intentions, there is just nothing that we can do in the moment to fix the situation. Certainly pain is present in what we witness, but that pain is unreachable at times. So, our only choice could be to dwell in the silence of the moment with the other person. I had that experience this weekend. Let me explain. . . .

I arrived a few minutes before 9pm to pick up Emma from work on Saturday. I always arrive around this time, even though it is unlikely that Emma will be out of work promptly. I have my audiobook to enjoy and that suffices in the moment. Every night when I come to get her, I recline the seat a ’notch’ and wait. Sometimes she is out around 9:10pm and sometimes its 9:45pm. I never know when she will be done and so I must arrive early and wait. 

This evening Emma came out around 9:15pm. I could tell by the way that she walked that something was wrong. Shoulders pitched a little forward she walked quickly toward my truck taking small, fast, steps. She made no eye contact with anyone as she came to me. 

My ‘hackles’ were up instantly. How dare anyone hurt my baby girl! That is always my first response. . . I can’t help it. . . She climbed into the truck and would not make eye contact with me. 

“Emma, what’s wrong,” I asked secretly deciding whether a co-worker or customer was at fault and then deciding how I would resolve the issue. She did not respond to my question with anything except, “I’m fine. Let’s go.” So we went. . .  

The drive home was very dark and very silent. She cried and sniffled all the way. About half of the way home I stopped asking her what was wrong. Instead, I made sure that she had enough tissues to clean her face as she wept. By this point, I was no longer seeing ‘red.’ I was sad. I knew she suffered in such a way that her words would not express her pain adequately. And so, I silently wept with her as she told me her story. I wanted to fix it; its my self-appointed job as her dad. I wanted to correct the behavior of someone else; set them straight. But that was not possible. 

We drove in silence together. Emma sniffling and dabbing her eyes lightly every few feet. 

As I drove I thought of the words of Chet Raymo. He wrote: 

"There is a tendency for us to flee from the wild silence
And the wild dark, 
To pack up our gods
And hunker down behind city walls, 
To turn gods into idols, 
To kowtow before them and
Approach their precincts only in the official robes of office.
And when we are in the temples, 
Then who will hear the voice crying in the wilderness? 
Who will hear the reed shaken by the wind?”

I wonder if perhaps the proper response to the suffering and conflict of our day is not to decide who is wrong and therefore who needs to suffer (as I was doing early in my encounter with Emma). What if I don’t need to offer any judgment. Instead, what would it look like to dwell in “the wild dark” with that other person in their moment? For when we dwell with them in that way, are we not more attentive to what is happening around us—or who is around us? 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 15

When it comes to reaching out as an evangelist, few individuals have had a greater impact on missionary work that James Hudson Taylor. Born in England in 1832, Taylor founded the China Inland Mission—it would later be changed to OMF International. As we know reaching out to people we are unfamiliar with can be challenging—to say nothing about reaching out to people we encounter every single day. But Taylor would not stop working for God and neither should we. Historian Ruth Tucker said of his work: 

"No other missionary in the nineteen centuries since the Apostle Paul has had a wider vision and has carried out a more systematic plan of evangelizing a broad geographical area than Hudson Taylor." 

Certainly, that is a strong statement. But like so many things in life, even in the most joyful work anxiety can dwell. It can fester like a septic wound damaging your entire spirit and psyche. It can grow and grow with us in such a way that every aspect of our Christian lives is suffering because of it. 

What started out as a joyful expression of God with us, a proper response to our calling as Christians, because of anxiety, can be racked with mental suffering that is hard to shake. Anxiety makes us feel alone; it distracts us as it undermines the passion and faith that we affirm when we are together in worship.

This is an idea that Taylor confronted each day in China as he spread the gospel to a people who were not always accepting of God’s message. Every day Taylor tried to be faithful to his calling from God in the face of his situation. It was not always easy for him; God never says that it will be easy for us. But Taylor offers us a Christian response to anxiety. His famous response to anxiety spoke to me today and I want to share it with you because maybe like me, you may find anxiety is an easy friend to locate when faith is what you are called to practice and share. 

He wrote:

"Are you in a hurry, flurried, distressed? Look up! See the Man in the glory! Let the face of Jesus shine upon you—the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. Is he worried, troubled, distressed? There is no wrinkle on His brow, no least shade of anxiety. Yet the affairs are His as much as yours.”

I hope that when anxiety pays you a visit that you will remember these words. Then as you remember them, you will turn the daily stress and worry of the day back over to Jesus. . . 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 14

Today I was reminded of writing of Scottish Theologian H.R. Mackintosh. In a little, pocket-size book that he wrote, entitled The Divine Initiative, are these words: 

"Leave the Christian mind to itself and don’t sophisticate it, and it breaks out in praise; it is conscious of owning its very existence to the interposition of the Father."

My day has been filled with moments where I can affirm Mackintosh’s words to be applicable. As I stood outside this morning before the sun came up I could smell the coolness in the air—and I was a thankful. The gentle breeze in Cranberry was blowing some of the fallen leaves around our yard, and yet it was so quiet. I closed my eyes and listened to the silence. I looked up at a crystal clear dark blue sky to see the white crescent moon shining before me (and I know, it was the brightness of the sun reflecting off the moon that I saw). 

Over and over again this morning, and into the early afternoon, I have found examples to praise God—even in the mundane. 

I have not completed as many tasks as I would like to today, but every one that I have finished has brought with it a sense of blessing. I am ‘praiseful’ for how my day has been going. And I know, that this attitude stands in direct opposition to the attitude of our current world. It is at that point where Mackintosh’s words are helpful. 

I needed to get gas over lunch, and so I headed off to take care of that with Jennifer. I pumped the gas while humming a hymn and headed into pay and get a drink. That is where my praiseful, un-sophisticated day, met with my neighbors and community. 

The people at the gas station did not share my attitude or my feeling. Grumbling was all around me. The person behind me was not wearing her mask. She told someone else, I didn’t look to see, that they didn’t see the point. Frustration was the attitude expressed by many people in that place. This encounter with my local community did not resembling a place where God was praised for God’s goodness and grace. 

As I walked out, I wondered about your day. I asked myself, what a praise-filled stance and choice could mean in a world that is angry and upset? Certainly we are not going to resolve all the issues we see out our windows. But God does not ask us to do so. Instead, God wants us to be aware of the very presence of God with us today, and give God praise for that. 

Rev. Derek 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 13

Let me tell you a brief story. . . last night Jennifer and I were sitting together watching a show on Netflix. JonMark was down in his room struggling with some chemistry homework that seemed far to advanced for me to understand. Occasionally he would “pop" back upstairs to get a drink or a snack. The strain on his face regarding the material that he was reading was obvious to us. We knew that he was working hard—it was a regular evening for us. 

The wind was whipping in through our cracked front window. The smell of autumn was with us. 

Then, in hindsight, we heard a crash. At the time neither Jennifer nor I registered that something happened; but it did. We would both say after this story, that we thought that we heard something but we didn’t think to say something at the time. So the evening continued at the same pace. . . It was almost time to pick up Emma from work. 

A little while later, just after 8pm, the dogs needed to go out. As I turned to head toward the front door, I saw a car “parked” in the middle of Plains Church Road. “That’s odd,” I though. The car's light were shining onto something that I couldn’t see clearly. And so I walked toward the window to investigate. 

“We have a problem,” I said to Jennifer as I switched on the flood light in the front yard. Sure enough we did. A tree branch came off a tree across the road from us and was laying across most of Plains Church Road. Its yellow leaves were brightly shining because of the car’s lights. The people in the car were attempting to move the massive limb just enough so that they could get through. 

But they weren’t being successful. As I walked toward them, with my eyes focusing more and more on the now quite large tree branch, they began to retreat to their car to speed away. It appeared that they worried that if they stayed until I got there 1 of 2 things would happen: 

1- I would assume the were at fault for a 20 ft tree limb falling and make them clean it up while I watched with my arms crossed threatening to call the police if they didn't do it. 


2- I would ask them to help because it was such a large tree branch. 

Neither seemed like their preferred option (and let me say I don’t know what was happening in their lives. So I offer no specific judgement about them not staying to help). They did not stay and as I said ‘have a good night,’ they accelerated quickly away from the scene. I sighed, and yelled to Jennifer who was on the porch now to get the truck. JonMark was already walking my way pulling his chainsaw into life. I thought, “seriously Lord, more tree work!”  

But it was time and so it had to be done.

Jennifer pointed the truck toward the tree for light and switched on the high beams. She then took her place in the road to direct traffic away from us while JonMark and I got to work cutting and carrying the branches away. Then an Acura pulled up and switched on his high beams. We continued to work. We saw him, but didn’t think anything more than, ‘let’s just get this done.' 

He talked with Jennifer for a few moments. Before emerging from the suv to help us. He never said a word as he came close. He just smiled and helped us carry and pull the branches off the road. When we were done we thanked him, he smiled in affirmation, and we all went back to our lives. The whole thing took less than 5 minutes to do.

As I walked back into the house, I wondered, which person in this story am I normally? 

The busy-body who could not stay to help (I preached about that mindset this past weekend)? Am I worker who does the work because it must be done, but sighs while I do it? Or am I the person who comes alongside of another person who seems to be struggling with the task, and quietly helps because God helped me once?

You may not have to remove a tree branch today such as we did last night, but you do have the opportunity to help, to be present, to work with, someone else who needs you. I wonder how you might respond when this moment comes into your life? 

Rev. Derek  

Monday, October 12, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 12

I want to share with you a poem by Nigerian Poet, Ben Okri that I read this morning. The poem’s themes and structure necessitate a re-reading for many people. So I invite you to consider these words, and then perhaps, consider them again. We have the time today to do this—if we will make it. For although Ben does not reference God, or God’s mission directly, it is easy to find in this passage. For we know that we live in a world full of people drifting from one task to another, from one project to another, without stopping to consider God. 

As I spoke about yesterday, the anxieties of our days keeps our minds busy and full. Like you, my days fill up quickly. My calendar is full. But we have to make the room to consider how our days are oriented. Sadly, with full minds we have little room to consider the ministry of God that we are called to follow and share. And so, since we are not thinking about God and God’s work, we get busier and busier until we are over-burdened, or until we are so anxious that we feel alone and forsaken. To combat this tendency, I would like you to spend some time with Okri’s poem today. For it may just have the words you need to hear. 

He writes: 

What will we choose?
Will we allow ourselves to descend 
Into universal chaos and darkness? 
A world without hope, without wholeness
Without moorings, without light
Without possibilities for mental fight, 
A world breeding mass murderers
Energy vampires, serial killers. . . as normality? 

Or will we allow ourselves merely to drift
Into an era of more of the same
An era drained of significance, without shame,
Without wonder or excitement, 
An era boring and predictable. . . 

In which we drift along
Too bored and too passive to care
About what strange realties rear 
Their heads in our days and nights, 
Till we awake too late . . . Too late to do anything. . .
Mildly indifferent to storm and sunlight? 

We rise or fall by the choice we make
It all depends on the road we take
And the choice and the road each depend
On the light that we have . . . 

I think that you will agree with me that Okri’s words are strong. I hope that as you begin another week that you will choose a counter-cultural path. You will choose a path that places you in front of God’s people and calls you attend to God’s mission and ministry. 

Rev. Derek

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Sunday sermon—October 11

As Paul finishes the letter to the Philippians, we begin to sense a level of finality in his words—as if he knows this will be all that he can say on the topic. After completing this letter, Paul will only have personal letters, like the ones that he writes to Timothy, left to pen. 

The ministry that God began in Paul’s life on the Road to Damascus is coming to its end. Therefore, Paul’s tone sounds different as he concludes the letter. 

Gone are the strong rhetorical devices that he uses to teach and admonish the people to follow God. Gone is the systematic theology that Paul is perhaps best know for penning—a theology we refer to often in the church today. 

Now he has something different to say. 

Now Paul reminds us as the listener that “The Lord is near” which is a clear and strong statement because Paul knows that we are often anxious in our lives and in the ministries we participate in. 

Today I am focussing on verse 5 of this chapter because those words address our anxieties as the church and offer us a solution to those same struggles.

Move 1- anxiety

Let’s start by reflecting on pacing and productivity of our lives. . . 

During the day we have the narcotic of busyness to satisfy our hearts and minds. We can, and many of us do, become so busy that we no longer notice the things which will later nag at our hearts; the issues, or persons, or events that refuse to be removed from our minds. During the day, they don’t matter as much because we are so busy. 

As the cliche say, ‘time flies when you’re having fun,’ we might want to amend that by saying, ‘time flies and so we don’t notice.’ That busyness serves not just a distraction, but it is simultaneously the first-line of defense against our anxiety. 

But as the day comes to its end. . . things change. 


At night, when we are not busy, when we cannot sleep because of a racing, frenetic mind, we are undefended. . . and those same anxieties, which we did not address because we were so busy, grow and grow. They germinate in our minds because they are unchecked—nothing keeps them at bay when we are trying to sleep.

There aren’t just monsters that live under the bed for our children, but some of those same symbolic monsters reside in the minds of mature Christian men and women. 

You see, you can’t argue yourself out of being anxious or being afraid about what is going to happen next. It is a cycle that feeds upon itself. The more anxious I become, the greater the feeling of anxiety becomes in direct relation. Then as the feelings live unchecked, we begin to wonder if our lives are completely out of control.

This is because anxiety is not rational so I can’t rationalize the fear away. The more anxious I become, the more I find myself powerless to address it, then the more it grows in my heart.

For instance, what parent stands at the door when their child is afraid of the monster in the closet, or the rumbling under the bed, and says dismissively, ‘We’ve talked about this, it isn’t real. So let’s go to sleep. . .” and then walks off??  

No, that’s not how it works! . . . We rush to the child’s bedside. Taking their hand we reassure them that there is no monster waiting to get as soon as we leave the room. Their fear is an irrational fear they are dealing with, and so we have to respond differently.  

Paul knows this to be true also as he writes his final parts of the letter to the church, and that is why he says, “the Lord is near.” That is a deliberate phrase for Paul. As we read it, we can feel something changing in our hearts because of those words. 

When he says, “the Lord is near,” Paul is inviting his readers to remember their Hebrew heritage whenever their anxiety grows. And as they remember that heritage, and the God who heard their prayers in the Egypt, they remember their Hebrew worship practices which reminded them of the God who is present. 

Their minds gravitate back to the words of the Psalms where the promises of God’s presence abide in written form. Paul is echoing for his listeners the idea that David and others spoke about, that God hears the prayers of the broken, God is present with those feel isolated and anxious.   

“I am not going to rationalize it for you. I want to comfort you with these words,” Paul is saying. For Paul there is no greater ideal to fall back upon when fear could be the response to the issues of the day besides the aspirational words that comforted us as we read them: The Lord is near. 

Move 2- Gentleness

From “The Lord is near,’ we are lead to Paul’s next concept from verser 5—the idea that we translate as ‘gentleness,’ or also, as the translation I read stated: ‘magnanimity.’ 

Let me say at this point, that we are not talking about gentleness as you could define it as one of a fruit of the spirit from Galatians. Once again, Paul is going deeper for us as he ends the letter to the Philippians. 

Instead, this words refers to:

A person of compassionate nature who is willing to be living above and beyond what is strictly fair. It amounts to showing concern and respect for the integrity of others and giving them the benefit of the doubt. In other words, it is the sort of quality necessary if there is to be unity among a diverse group of people.

Again, not the fruit of the spirit. This gentleness brings us together as God’s people. It offers grace and kindness to the other person—especially if we do not agree with them.

For Paul, as we practice this ‘gentleness,’ this ‘magnanimity,’ we become aware of the fragility of the other person and their spirit, and rather than tread them down because we are too busy to dwell with them, we take the time, we make the time, to “be with” them. To listen to them. To let them teach us as we teach them—does iron not sharpen iron??

Patience is applied, then, in these relationships when we might want to apply judgment and cynicism because we are too busy, too quick to judge the other person, rather than take the time to listen and be. . . gentle. 

This is Paul’s gentle, magnanimity, and it combats the anxiety we feel because it offers grace-filled space, from person to person, to grow and to learn together. It is literally translated, ‘fitting fairness,’ which is a far greater thing than ‘demanded fairness,’ or ‘blind fairness,’ or even, ‘political fairness.’


Paul wants the church to faithfully apply the correct amount of gentleness because we are giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, and because that person is so important to us that we would have it no other way. 

Move 3- 

Paul understands that as we practice this posture, as we become aware of the needs of each other, it helps us address our anxieties, and reach out to God in response to that learning. 

One of the trickiest aspect of anxiety is that it can cause us to think that we are alone; that no one empathizes with us. As we wrongly believe that we are alone, we begin to believe that the church is not present to help us grow and heal. 

But Paul reminds us that as we practice gentleness, as he described it, we are able reach and speak to God. This builds community. And as we speak to God, a letter that we thought was written to the body of Christ only in the 1st century, becomes a word to us personally in this context. 

For we know churches and congregations whose attitude seems anxious today. . . Paul says, be gentle with them, be fair to them, remind them that the Lord is near.

I too know people, as I am sure you do, who do not worship with us at Plains, but they too are unable to sleep at night because of the stress and anxiety that the world puts on them. . . What would it look like to remind them that the Lord is near?


That is the work that Paul is leaving the church in Philippi to attend to as he finishes this letter and it is also what we are left with as this church today. . . “I urge you,” Paul begins as he speaks to just 2 people, to care for all of them, to pray for all of them, to rejoice with them, and listen to them without judgement or cynicism. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 8

Today was a very early morning for Jennifer and I. We had an appointment downtown at the doctors’ office to attend to, and so the alarm clock was set for an usually early time. I groaned in response to the alarm as I sat up. But the morning went smoothly. . . 

Once we arrived at our destination the morning talk show on CBS was on the waiting room television. This usually irritates me because the staff keeps the television on so loudly so that they can hear what is being discussed on the show. But me, sitting in the waiting room, I find it hard to read or think because the television is so loud. But not today. . . Today was different. The CBS Morning Show was going back and forth between our local Pittsburgh CBS news and weather report, and a recap of the previous day’s events. . . yes, they were talking about the Vice Presidential Debate. 

The most glaring comment from the debate the the hosts offered was how civil the back and forth was when compared with the previous debate. According to the host, the debate featured little shouting and arguing but focused itself in a more traditional debate format—admittedly, I did not watch as I had another commitment to take care of last night. 

As I listened, I smiled and went back to my morning devotional reading that I carry with me. With the debate, and the current state of our country in my mind, and remembering how polarized things are for us, Henri Nouwen met me with a few brief words about forgiveness. I shook my head at God thinking, ‘Well you do know how to get my attention, Lord, in a world like this.” 

Henri Nouwen wrote: 

"I have often said, “I forgive you,” but even as I said these words my heart remained angry or resentful. I still wanted to hear the story that I was right after all; I still wanted to hear apologies and excuses; I still wanted the satisfaction of receiving some praise in return—if only the praise for being so forgiving! But God’s forgiveness is unconditional; it comes from a heart that does not demand anything of itself, a heart that is completely empty of self-seeking."

I wonder what would happen in us, in our church, our families, and our community, if we followed Nouwen’s advice and remember all that he is saying. Forgiveness does not mean that need to remain angry or restentful when the substance of the conversation frustrates us. Forgiveness in Christ is unconditional—there are no strings attached to living this way. 

We don’t have to receive affirmation about being correct in the argument because, when we follow Nouwen’s idea of forgiveness, we are more focused on restoration with Jesus than anything else. I wonder what that might look like in you today?  

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 7

This morning, I came across the words of Krista Tippett. She is a well-known radio talk-show host and the host of the podcast "On Being.” That show explores the connection between deep thinking and imagination in an attempt to renews our inner and outer life, as well as our life together. I have followed her work for years and find my mind being renewed because of some of the ideas that she discusses. 

Krista writes the following: 

"[Hope is] something you put into practice. . . We’re learning through neuroscience [that] what you practice you become. And that goes for being more patient, being more hopeful, being more compassionate, just like it goes for any other skills. . . And so I think you can be—you can choose to be hopeful, which is a . . . far more courageous choice than cynicism. I mean, cynicism is really easy. It’s never surprised or disappointed. And it doesn’t lift a finger to change anything. [By practicing hope], we can develop spiritual muscle memory. That the more we do it. . . it can become instinctive.”  

These words spoke strongly to me today as I thought about the work of the church in a community that is conflicted. We encounter so many people in our days whose defining traits are large doses of both cynicism and criticism. Hope is hard to muster for them. These people often carry their cynical ideas around ready to thrust them upon anyone who does not agree with their point of view. There is no longer space available to disagree and converse. 

Personally, I hear very few words offered of hope on the news or radio. I don’t hear hopeful words offered in books that I read often enough. Having a “hot take” has replaced the aspirational-nature that hope offers—a nature God calls us to. As hope has been removed from the conversation, and cynicism takes its place, many people have stopped asking open-ended questions—which we know are the gateway to creative thinking.

It seems that hope will not sell in the marketplace of ideas any longer--so it is forgotten. 

But I wonder what could happen if we practiced hope in moments when it could be easy not to? When the temptation presented itself to join the cultural cacophony of doubt, I wonder what would happen if we resisted that temptation? What would it look like to offer hope to our friends and co-workers when they offered cynicism only?

I hope that you will take time today to practice this posture of hope when the world around you, and the people around you, do not. . . 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 6

At the time of this post, I have read the story of the Jesus feeding the 5000 to five of the seven CNS classes. The Half-pints, nursery, and Pre-K classes are filled with wonderful children who listen so well. This afternoon will be the final two times, for this month, to read to the children. Overall, I am happy to say that it has been a wonderful experience to read and listen to them. Watching them, watch me, read blesses my soul in a way that I find hard to quantify in this email. It is beautiful. Their innocence, in a world that is not innocent often enough, is refreshing. 

But I have noticed something about the Bible story time with CNS, every time it gets easier to do and more fun. 

My first session was with the 3 year-olds on Monday morning. I was so nervous as they walked into the sanctuary. I practiced what I was going to say, and how I was going to read the story several times, but still I wondered if it would ‘work.’ Would I bore them? Was I wasting their time? 

While I should be confident in myself and my reading, my mind was filled with so many ‘what-ifs.’ The whole thing went smoothy, though. . . However, that first reading was the shortest reading to this point. Then each time that I read the story, and each time that I ask them my introductory question, “what would you take with you on a vacation,” I found that I enjoy it more and more. I am having more and more fun. 

The total time that I spent with the first class was just over 5 minutes—which was the target. Now, having finished with group #5, the session timed out at 9 minutes. This makes me wonder if the last two readings this afternoon might just top 10 minutes each? I don’t know, and I don’t have any expectations. Again, I am enjoying ‘being with’ the children of CNS. While I cannot see their smiles under the masks, their eyes tell me that they are having fun and that they are enjoying 'being with' me. There is an obvious correlation to my story, and the thoughts that I have shared with you recently. 

We need to devote the time. 

In a polarizing world, with difficult conversations and responses happening all around us, we as the Body of Christ are called to be different. We are called to linger with others when no one else wants to. As we listen, we are then called to take what we learn by ‘being with’ the people of world, and serve and care for them. This what Jesus did and also what He invited us to do after his Ascension. As Christians we need to devote the time, even when we don’t think that we have any to offer. Because if we do something might just happen, as it did with CNS, that changes the whole interactions 

Tolstoy, ascribed these words in General Kutuzov in his book, War and Peace, the general says: 

By believe me, my dear boy, there is nothing stronger than those two: patience and time, they will do it all.” Tolstoy goes on to say again, “We can only lose by taking the offensive. Patience and time are my warriors, my champions."

I wonder what could happen if patience and time were how we encountered our community? Could you find a way to devote more time to the conversation? What would happen if we stood outside of the hustle and bustle of the day, stood outside the judgment and criticisms that is so often presented, and devoted the necessary amounts of patience and time to ‘be with’ the community?  

Rev. Derek

Monday, October 5, 2020

Pastoral Thought--October 5

So what do we focus our attention upon, and how does that choice impact us throughout our daily lives? 

I have had many occasions recently to consider this question recently. It is a question that is applicable both inside the church, and outside in the culture.

This weekend our attention was likely held by the President’s diagnosis of covid-19. Maybe we are focused on the election in November and both the outcome, and application of those results. Do we wonder about the newest Supreme Court nominee and how her ‘potential’ presence will affect things like row v. wade or the Affordable Care Act? What about climate change? Rioting and Looting and the long-term impact of movements to defund the police? Racial reconciliation? On and on I could go. . . (I am sure by this point I have left something out that catches your attention).

But I wonder, if God is offering us the chance to focus our attention differently?

Let me tell you about the last 24 hours that I have experienced. At Plains we celebrated World Communion Sunday in the outdoor chapel. The service was a mixture of sun and a gentle breeze. Occasionally the tree above me ‘dive bombed’ small acorns onto the platform—thankfully none of them made contact either me, my iPad, or the Communion elements. Celebrating the sacrament in an outdoor setting was awe-inspiring. Hearing the voices of the church echo across the prayer trail and chapel-area was wonderful. But before communion I asked the young people a question whose answer I would use this morning with CNS. 

Today I am about to head into the sanctuary and lead the children of CNS in a short Bible Study. I had my own ideas about what to speak about with the CNS children, but I was curious how our young people at Plains would address the same question; how would they join me in sharing God’s word with others? I asked our youth, and the adults in the service, “If you were going to teach young children a Bible story, and you cannot use Jesus Birth, Death, or Resurrection, which story would you use, and why?” They thought about it and consulted trusted family members. . . After listening to our young people address that question, and their answers were provocative, I scrapped my plans and went another direction entirely. Today I am talking about Sammy’s suggestion which was the feeding of the 5000—a story about how God provides in unexpected ways. 

The longer I thought about the text, and considered how I would share a story of the God who provides in ways we cannot often foresee, my mind was drawn back the question that I started this post with: "What do we focus our attention upon, and how does that choice impact us throughout our daily lives?” 

As you consider the question, I would like to say that this is certainly not an attempt to minimize the seriousness of our days. There are big issues present in our world, and just symbolically ’sitting in a circle and smiling at each other’ isn’t going to fix them. It took a long time to get to this point and I suspect it will take a long time to resolve many of them. We have many meaningful conversations to engage in.  Our future might be a little uncomfortable to start off with, but if we believe that God is with us, then there is a reason to hope. But what I think living in this manner can do, and what I also think that God calls us to practice, is a posture of attention. 

Wells’ writes it this way: 

Attention is eager, intent, sharp, poised, alert—never assuming something is about to happen, but always ready should it be so. This layer makes clear that being with is a vibrant, dynamic, demanding activity, rather than a passive, static one. Attention to the other need not imply, still less require, neglect of the self: but it does assume that the flourishing of the self is not the principle reason for existence or relationship. . . [This] requires the constant attention of each partner to each other’s rhythm, energy, imagination, and direction. This is the language of loving attention,” and it is needed in our day.

I just finished the first Bible time of seven that I will do with CNS this week; it went very well. I felt God’s presence in the sanctuary as I listened to those children. I wonder, where loving attention will be needed next?? 

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...