Thursday, November 12, 2020

Pastoral Thought--November 12

Have you ever noticed what happens as a Christian when you think creatively about a problem that everyone is facing?

Today’s issue revolved around the Christmas story that I read with the CNS children every year. Some of the staff and I wondered what that story time will look like while covid-19 is with us? I wear a mask whenever I am at the church during the week. The children and staff also wear their masks faithfully and diligently when they are together. But as you know, our masks can make it harder to hear other people talk to us. These masks often muffle our voices. So how are we going to communicate the joyful message of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ passionately, boldly, and creatively, when it will hard for the children to hear? It is an important question to consider. The pandemic has taken so much away from all of us, we did not want the life-changing message of the gospel to be another loss. 

So we started talking this afternoon. . . 

The first 2 words that I heard from CNS were, “I wonder. . .” I knew immediately that this conversation was going to be creative and passionate. I was going to get excited about what was to follow. I knew just by the way that the conversation started that I was joining a creatively-laced conversation—a conversation where we would bounce ideas off each other with passion. God would show up all over the place! I knew that when we were done, our product, our creation would be exciting! 

We would take what the other person said, think about it for a second, and push the idea onward. Nothing was going to stifle God’s work. . . Clarifying questions would be asked, that’s natural, but those questions would not limit the God-centric work that we were doing for the children of CNS. Again, so much has been lost, we were not going to let covid-19 keep the miracle and passion for Jesus away from the children if we could help it.

I left the conversation to write down what we talked about in the hallway. A short, little 10-minute program sparked 2 full pages of notes and thoughts. God was certainly at work! This led me to wonder about you and the conversations that you are having each day. 

CNS is not the only place where covid's effect reach. . . The virus is active in our work environments, at the store, or during appointments. Covid rears its head often by keeping us from being able to passionately engage each other. But when we come together, when we start off with ideas like, “I wonder. . .” rather than thinking in a deficit manner, we grant God space to show up and create a miracle.  

Much of our social engagement carries a tenor of fear to it—and covid can heighten that fear in us. But again, there is another possibility that God gives us. Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky address that fear with this short, simple sentence: 

“You come to embody hope rather than fear.” 

Fear tells us that we cannot do anything different when we are confronted by a problem or someone who disagrees with us. Fear tells us that we have lost too much; we are suffering too greatly to consider something different. Fear says that, when I speak with CNS about a new idea to help support the living gospel in them, that it won’t work because it can’t work. 

But our hope in God stands in opposition to fear. Our hope tells us that if we start ‘wondering’ about what can happen, then we are finding space to let God exceed our expectations. I wonder if today, you will living into that hope and embody it!

Rev. Derek  

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Pastoral Thought--November 11

As I was walking to the church today, I took a quiet moment while the rain fell on me to think of those whose sacrifice and work ensured my freedoms. . . 

I thought of my maternal grandfather, Len, and his wife Carol. I remembered Carols’ first husband, Bud, who died serving our country and is buried in Europe with his brothers from the service. I remembered my Uncle Gregg who served faithfully in the Air Force and his son, Kris, who also serves our country now. The longer I reflected, I remembered another cousin, Kurt, who if memory serves, was in the Army. I thanked God for the service of Tovah and her husband Phillip, pilots in the Air Force. They are the daughter and son-in-law of my Aunt Elaine.  

The more I thought of them, and their service, the more I could feel a tug on my heart. . . it was a mixture of pride and love.

I smiled when I thought of my paternal grandfather, Frank, and his brothers who were so outraged at the Nazi’s that they felt ‘compelled’ as immigrants to serve in the military. How dare anyone threaten the US! That was the sentiment of these Italian immigrants and they would not stand by without joining the service. I remembered Frank’s daughter Linda who enlisted in the Navy, and I was grateful for each of them. 

Whether I am close with these family members, whether I have met them or not, I am truly grateful for what they did for our country. Wartime. Peacetime it does matter to me. They were willing and I am grateful.  

By this point, I arrived at my desk. . . I looked at the picture on my desk of my children and I thought of my own son, JonMark, who studies to become a nurse in the Army. My eyes filled with tears knowing that serving our country has always been his dream. Since he was a little boy, JonMark never wanted to be a football player, or a astronaut, or even president. No, JonMark always, and defiantly, said, “I’m going to be an Army man.” And as he prepares to move onto campus for the spring semester at Edinboro, and join up with his ROTC family to continue that dream, I know that he will excel. Jennifer and I are both immensely proud of him.

I also think of the families of those who supported the Veterans of this family. They were willing to be separated from each other. They were willing to risk losing each other. They were willing to go wherever our country sent them in the name of Freedom. Together they grant me the right and privilege to sit in my office and write to you about how I feel as I remember. Today is the day that we must pause and be thankful for their service. Each of us should find some time in a world of polarizing opinions and outrage to thank those who served our country. Whether they are in our family, in our church (and I know that Plains has many veterans who served our country), or in our neighborhoods, find the space today to thank them because you are free. 

I want to end with the words of General Omar N. Bradley. He said:

Freedom—no word was ever spoken that has held out greater hope, demanded greater sacrifice, needed to be nurtured, blessed more the giver. . . or came closer to being God’s will on earth." 

I wonder if today, you can find a moment to thank those who have served our country? Thank someone whose willingness allows you the freedom to gather in worship, to share God’s love, and minister in God’s name.

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Pastoral Thought--November 10

I once heard on my favorite soccer podcast, author John Green encourage the audience to find a way to live in a state of constant learning. I have tried to adopt his advice through many practices of my life—some have been more helpful than others. But sometimes the learning happens in a situation that does not seem to teach anything of substance in the moment. . . Such was today’s lesson for me that I want to share with you. 

The teacher of my lesson was our loving, little Shih Tzu, Bianca. To say that Bianca is a bit “chunky” and/or lazy would be akin to affirming that the sky is blue or that water is wet. These are truths that we cannot get around. They are just facts. Bianca does not like walks; she does not like exercise in any form. She would prefer to run to her bowl, empty it, then empty another dog’s bowl, and then return to laying on her back in the sunlight so that you can pet her. She’s a simple little dog. . . and a dog that we love so much. So here’s the lesson. . . 

Part of the fun (or struggle) of Bianca happens at night. She sleeps at the foot of our bed in a ring of blankets. Every night she ’sighs’ and then starts snoring. But somewhere throughout the night, Bianca gets down and wanders around the house. I wonder if she’s thirsty or if she is just making sure things are good. Then she barks to get back on the bed. But there is a problem with that—we sleep in a very dark bedroom. So she cannot easily see to jump back up, so I must raise my iPhone so that it can light her way back to bed. She returns to bed. . . sighs. . . starts snoring. It happens every night (and I mean every night). 

But last night it happened three times (I guess she was overly restless). We don’t get angry with her; this is just part of Bianca’s personality and quirks.  

As we awakened today, Bianca seizes upon the moment to strike—that moment being, when I go to make coffee. She hopes onto my pillow. . .sighs. . . and yes. . . begins to snore. I have been evicted from my side of the bed. But she is part of our family so I don’t move her, I just continue my morning ritual. With one eye open she looks so happy as I return with coffee. She loves laying on my pillow. I could get angry because I did not sleep through the night. I could be irritated that I cannot lay back down. After Jennifer goes to work, I could get even more irritated when she begins to bark at me that its 30 minutes past feeding time. But again, I don’t do any of that. We are family. . . a family with dogs and there is a simple joy to Bianca and being part of her world. She accepts us and identifies with us.   

In the book The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life, Parker Palmer, while reflecting on the work of Thomas Merton, writes: 

The gaps and divides of our outer world are so often projections of divisions within ourselves; as our inner world is healed by spiritual discipline and experience, our public world will be healed in some measure as well. In prayer and contemplation we begin to understand that our identity is not to be found in our differences from others—in our superiorities and inferiorities—but in our common humanity. In contemplation and prayer we can cease the anxious, competitive, and ultimately violent struggle to claim a name over and above others, and relax into the good news that God names us all as brothers and sisters. . . The major outcome of such an insight [is] —joy, pure and simple joy, the joy of no longer having to struggle for a sense of separate selfhood, but of being able to proclaim, ’Thank God, thank God the I am like other people, that I am only a person among others!’ “ 

We as the church are part of a family. . . the family of God. It may not look always look the same family, and it may have quirks and things that frustrated us. But it is a family. Like my experience this morning, the struggle can be lessened when we pray and contemplate what we are experiencing and notice the uniqueness of the family. Again, I could have become quite irritated because I was tired and annoyed at Bicana. She mad me get up three times last night. But, then when I stop and think about it, all she wanted was to to be close to us again. She wanted to be loved by us. I wonder where today is God offering you the chance to affirm that you are part of a larger family and how will you respond?

Rev. Derek

Monday, November 9, 2020

Pastoral Thought--November 9

A friend of mine once told me a story about how a seminary administrator, that he knew, dealt with frustrated students when they came to his office upset. These students often came to complain, to argue, or to tell this administrator why the school was wrong in their policies or decisions. At the same time they also came to explain why their individual perspective was the only correct one to consider.  

As the story goes, Mark (not his real name) would listen intently to the disgruntled student. He would refrain from asking them any questions or responding to what he was hearing—at first. He only sat in his office and listened. Then, after the student finished the speech that they carefully crafted, Mark would lean across the desk, smile, and say, “help me understand. . . ” The following question that Mark asked would likely poke a large, gaping, hole in the students carefully crafted, and personally-oriented, argument. He was asking them to look at the larger picture. It was an effective way to address the disgruntled students. 

“Help me understand...” 

Like you, I encounter people almost every day where Mark’s question is on my mind. In a world that has little time or tolerance to listen, or to dwell with people who they do not agree with, I think a different process can be helpful. I suspect that a process grounded in listening might help us live into who God is calling us to be and become as the church. Mark might be onto something if we stop and think about it.  

In the book The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World, Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk support Mark’s question with their own thoughts about how to gain understanding. They write:

"The process for gaining understanding requires a good deal of active listening for dialogue participants to hear the underlying questions and issues that people bring up in their attempt to get vital information. As questions emerge people need to dialogue with one another, go deeper into the issues, and explore the meaning of what they are learning through face-to-face interaction . . . Understanding is not about developing solutions, although it is a great temptation to think so."

Mark was practicing this same method of active listening that Roxburgh and Romanuk wrote about in their book. Mark’s posture was not intended to dismiss the student or downplay their feelings or struggles. Instead through his process, Mark was caring for the students at the seminary in a way that is helpful even as he maintained the exact policies that the person came to complain about. He did not apologize for the seminary’s policies or choices, but he wanted to learn and listen to the other person. Then if a way forward was possible, the two of them, could find it.  

I wonder if this practice might be helpful for us as the church in our context and with our work?  I wonder if instead of firing off an angry email, or a scathing social media post, or even walking away because the message from the other person is so negative, can find a way to create space to actively listen as a part of gaining understanding? Certainly we are not blindly accepting the other person's feelings or words as the only answer to our societal’s issues. Instead, when we work to gain understanding together, when we actively listen, we are living and working together as God intended. As such we are becoming the church that God ordained and created us to be. . . . So, “Help me understand.” It might be a helpful tool this week for you. . . 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Pastoral Thought--November 5

While some of the results from Tuesday’s election are still unclear, one thing that I think is clear, relates to how we process information that we may not agree with. How do we address the issues and how do we be with other people when things feel so topsy-turvy. 

One solution that I know about involves creating an entire belief system, or worldview, that supports and uplifts our individual feelings. We don’t have to agree with anyone and so we do not dwell with them either. Using the election as an example, it is interesting how quickly our minds begin to justify and rationalize our unique beliefs with the information that we hear, read, or see. They must be wrong—not us. They don’t have all the facts—we do. We knew what was going to happen—they are late to the party. But notice also how isolating and separating that feels. Do we not need community in times like this and not division?  

In a book that I was given recently, Rusty George writes these words that I think are helpful in times like this. When we begin to create either elaborate, or simply, constructs to justify our singular perspective, Rusty’s words provide a bit of honesty that helps us reflect, and hopefully change as we grow. He wrote:

It’s amazing how much sense our nonsense can make when we’re all alone in the courtroom of our mind."

Now while you might believe that I am speaking sarcastically, because I started off with a nod to the election, I am not. The chapter where this quotation comes from addresses how anxiety, in this author’s mind, is best combatted together. When we are alone many of us build systems to support our opinions, By doing so we become paranoid. Our service stops. Our thoughts that are directed toward the other person become less frequent. We exist on an island that we created and that we rule. 

But by living and thinking in this way, by making our work world where we dwell alone, we neglect the call of God to gather together and “be” the church. Part of “being” the church means gathering for worship, practicing listening to each other, and praying for what we we hear and what God reveals to us. It means neither isolating ourselves or isolating the community because we do not agree or are discouraged by what we witness. In fact, the more we do not agree, the more touch-points we can find for ministry. 

I hope today, and throughout the rest of your week, you will find some space to be together with people. . . Be with the people you agree with and the people who stretch you. Dwell with them. Pray with them after you listen to them. By doing so you are participating in the work of God that is needed and necessary in time.

Rev. Derek  

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Pastoral Thought--November 4

A few days ago, I decided to go for a “recovery run.” My legs were tired from the previous few days of working out, and I felt that a short, easy run would be helpful. So off I went. . . 

It was nice, sunny morning for a run—not too cool and not too breezy. As I was taught to do, I run facing traffic. This way, I can get a good look at who is planning to run me over. But again, this was a recovery run. It was easy and the pace was gentle. I was relaxed and at peace. The music that I was listening to was a combination of The Beach Boys and Hawaiian music. The instructor talked about gently walking and running on the Hawaiian beach. . . 

I selected a time of day to run when I felt that not a lot of people would be on the road (early in the morning). I was pleasantly surprised that my usual running/walking company of plumbers, electricians, and builders who are heading to work in the new development near Plains were absent. It was going to be a quiet morning. But then I had an interesting experience that I want to share with you. An older gentleman can down the road toward me in his car, and then, about 15 yards in front of me, he veered across the road away from me violently. He corrected his driving and continued on. . . I was not upset at all. I did think, ‘well that seemed a bit excessive.' 

Then a woman in a white SUV did the same thing. . . get close. . . veer away. 

It happened again with a burgundy truck. They got close. . . then steered violently away from me. 

This would happen a total of 6 times while I ran. At no point was there any traffic coming from the opposite direction that made this action necessary (I looked). Also at no time on the run was I out the line of sight for on-coming traffic. I could see each vehicle from a great distance away, and they presumably, could see me. The angle of the sun was not in their eyes where I was running. I found the rhythm of the drive getting too close, veering away, and then steering back interesting to me, and it made me ask a question: 

Why do we wait until the very last moment to make a choice? And then, when we make that choice, it’s a quick, violent, action rather than a smooth, gentle transition. . .

Today is the morning after the election. As of now a winner has not been declared—although both sides are claiming victory as they are also threatening to go to court. I wonder what are response as the church might look like now in this world? We know that as the church we have an interesting opportunity to care for the anxious community in which we live and work. We know that the results of today would be in dispute. People would become angry. They would need someone to talk to; someone who would listen without judgment or justification to their fears and concerns. Were we not prepared to be the church in a world that needs us? 

I think of Jesus’ words in the gospel of John when I think more about this. In John 14, Christ said:

"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. 
I do not give to you as the world gives. 
Do not let your hearts be troubled, 
and do not let them be afraid.” 

Regardless of the news network that I watch and read, there is little, if any, peace offered. Everybody is upset. And that, is the place here we can live as Jesus lived with us. I wonder if as the church, we are called to speak to that, to live into it? I wonder, if when we see the people veering and living erratically, as I saw during my run, if we are called to love. . to listen. . . and to be present with them just as Jesus was present for us? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Pastoral Thought--November 3

By now I hope that you had a chance to read my pastoral thought about the election. This is an important time in our country. It is a time when we not only don’t agree but some are happy to state this conclusion. I have cast my vote already and I hope that you are safely casting yours. I also hope that you spent time in prayer asking God to be with us. I hope you pray for both Biden and Trump. 

To follow up that idea, I want to offer you the words of a friend of mine, Rev. Dr. Graham Standish. I find Graham’s work to be transformational for me the more time I spend with God’s word. In his book, Ministry Proverbs: Lessons Learned from Leading Congregations, he wrote these helpful words: 

"People eventually become how we treat them to be. If we treat them as failures, they will fail. If we treat them as beloved, they will love. Churches are no different. When leaders treat them as failures, they fail. But when leaders love them, they become loving.” 

I think that Graham’s conclusion extends outside of the church and into the local context and culture in which we live. In our polarizing world the opportunity presents itself for the church to love and care for all of the local community—not just the people we agree with. As the youth of our church taught us this past weekend, this idea is especially necessary when we do not agree. When we would rather yell or fight instead of sit, listen, and a practice being with, a change needs to be made in order for us to grow. Perhaps, as Graham suggests, the change can begin when we notice how we treat other people. Then after we become aware of how we treat others, we can begin to treat them as God treated us. 

Do we love them? 
Do we care about them? 
Are we interested in being with them?

Each of these questions should draw us into a posture of reflection, and as we reflect, we can notice what our answers say about whether we love the community, and people that we do not agree with, or not. 

I imagine that today’s results are going to take some time to process. I suspect that we will also witness a great deal of ‘hand wringing’ on the news and in commentaries. We will be presented with extreme scenarios and horrible implications of today’s election. And so, when that happens, and we know that it will, I wonder will be loving? Will we treat people with the love of God that God gave to us? Will we label them as Graham suggests, as beloved instead of as failures? I hope so. . . 

Because Jesus is still the Lord over all creation, and He still will be. 

Rev. Derek

Monday, November 2, 2020

Pastoral Thought--November 2

“Thy will be done. . .” or  “My will be done. . .” It can be a struggle to differentiate the two ideas and the implication of them. That struggle is especially true and poignant as tomorrow, November 3rd, America goes to the polls. Certainly many of us have already voted by mail. Concerns over the coronavirus have already led millions (myself included) into voting in though the mail service. We wait for the results to come in as we also wait for the fight that also is probably coming—regardless of who wins and who loses.  This is a tough week for some and I understand why this is so.

Now it is time for me as your pastor to weigh into the discussion and offer you my thoughts about tomorrow’s election. 

I have already received a few phone calls at the church, and in my home, attempting to sway my vote. I have spoken with companies who wish to come to our church on Sunday, be granted 5-10 minutes in the service, and ‘inform us’ (these are their words) about the true message of the election. They want us to know who we ‘should’ vote for. Partisan voting guides have been offered; they will drop off as many as we want. Inserts and articles have been promised—all I have to do is say the word. . . Which I have not. 

This is not because I do not feel strongly about the election or its result. Rather I have strong feeling about what is happening tomorrow. It is also not because I wish to influence anyone’s vote in favor of my preferences. Again, I do not. Instead, I believe the church is a unique place with a mission and calling that is handed down from God to us. As such we are obligated to think and act differently when the world around us does not. I believe that the church is the place where the Word of God, and the Mission of God, intersect with the local community culture. The church is where the gathered community comes, hears the Word of God, and then are sent back into the world to be salt and light. 

So today, I ask only one thing of you as the church as the election cycle comes to its end tomorrow. As you live into your mission and calling from God. I wonder, how will you pray? 

St. Augustine once said, “True, whole prayer is nothing but love.” 

It feels like the love in which Augustine spoke of is in short supply these days. Again you have likely been yelled at either in person, on the phone, over the news, or on social media about this election. You have been told that the “soul of America” is at stake. Then when you did not completely agree with the speaker, you may have been derided for your lack of vision. But what has been left out, is that as the church we need to pray in these times all the more. 

I recently saw something on social media depicting two images. The first was an ‘angry cat’ glowering over a table top with its ears back. It looked angry. The second scene was one of the president speaking before a gathering. The message said something like, “when you hope that the president will jump into a wood chipper.” Now I hope that the creator of that post created it only to be funny, or get ‘clicks,’ and ‘likes.' But I doubt it. There is genuine hatred out there in our world. A hatred that is so present that it wishes suffering on people that we do not agree with. It is a hate the screams over the discussion and seeks to ‘re-educate’ us on the topic at hand. 

In the midst of that cultural void, or gap, the love of God is missing for the populous. It is gone and so the opportunity for us to be the church, to care for the people, to love God’s children, becomes harder.  

“Thy will be done. . .” or “My will be done. . .” Which is it?

And so as your pastor I asked you to pray. . . Pray for our country. Pray for its election and its leaders. Pray for President Trump and Vice President Pence. Pray for Former Vice President Biden and Senator Harris. Do not pray for them because you want one to fail and one to win or you wish one to stop talking and the other to rise. Instead, pray because it is the act of love that we as the church have been called by God to participate in. It is the mission and ministry Jesus ordained when he came to be with us. Pray because we do want God’s "will to be done on earth as it is in heaven."  

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...