Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 30

So, let’s talk about something personal. Something that is a bit embarrassing to admit. . . Something that Jennifer deals with on a regular basis that makes her smirk and shake her head. I misplace a lot of things. And I mean that. . . a lot of things. I forget where my wallet is often. I lose track of my keys even though we have a basket in the living room for them. I have even forgotten where my glasses are—and I can’t see without them. It happens a lot, and Jennifer and the kids, just shake their head at me—not in chastisement, but in humor. I can almost hear them saying, “well here we go again, Dad lost something. I wonder where he put it."

Today it was my shoes. 

Just before 9am, as I readied to head to the church, I paced around silently looking for my favorite shoes. My gray and orange Nike running shoes are very comfortable and I wanted them. But they were nowhere to be found. 
I went to the closet. . . nope. ‘Well,' I thought, 'they are probably next to my chair in the living room'. . . Hmmmm, not there. Okay, I shuffled through the kitchen and past the dogs eating breakfast. The shoes are not next to the back door that leads onto the deck. By the Christmas tree. . . Still I couldn’t find them. I was beginning to get irritated. I went back into the bedroom and looked again. They were not by my side of the bed and again they were not in the closet. I don’t know why I looked in the closet a second time, but that is what I do. Keep looking around until whatever I am missing turns up even if I have checked them a number of times. Still I could not find them. 

I thought back to the previous evening and retraced my steps. Still my shoes were missing. Finally, after about 10 minutes of looking, I went back into the living room. I looked down toward the door where Luna was now laying, and there were my shoes. Right next to the door. ‘Ah, that’s right’ I said to no one in particular, ‘I took them off when I brought Emma home from work last night.’ I then remembered that I planned to leave them by the door so (yup you guessed it) that I wouldn't forget them in the morning. But I did. I fetched them and continued my morning routine.  

As I laced up my shoes, and prepared my final cup of coffee, I was listening to a new podcast that interviews servicemen and women who have ’never quit.’ These are the stories of those who have pressed on in the face of struggle and succeeded in unexpected ways. JonMark turned me on to it and now I listen every Wednesday to the show. 

In this episode Lt. Colonel Dan Rooney was talking about a scholarship program (Folds of Honor) that he started for the children and families of servicemen and women who have paid the ultimate price. To date the have awarded over 2000 scholarships to families. His story begins this way: He was flying to Grand Rapids late one night. As the plane landed the captain came over the speakers and asked everyone on board to remain in their seats as they were carrying home the remains of a young corporal named Brock who died serving our country. Brock’s twin brother sat in a first class seat accompanying his brother home. 

Dan watches the ceremony on the tarmac from his window seat until its completion. As he turned to leave the plane, he found that almost everyone on board stood up and are now waiting in the isle to leave the plane as fast as possible. But the doors aren’t open to leave. Where do they think they are going? They did not follow the captain’s request. Leaving aside what we might feel about this choice that these people made in face of the sacrifice this young corporal made, Dan began to think about the choices that we make each day that necessitate speed and a lack of attention to the moment? He wondered about how he could care for people whose lives are so overcrowded that they couldn’t even sit for 5 minutes in respect for a fallen hero. This is a very serious thing to consider. 

Now let’s go back to my dilemma this morning while considering the meaning of Dan’s story. . . .

My shoes were where they were supposed to be. I placed them by the front door so that they would be easy to find as I hurried through my morning. No one touched them. No kicked them under the bench that we can sit on at home to put our shoes on. Again, they were right in plain sight. But I wonder if I was too preoccupied with my calendar says is going to be a busy day? Was I, and are we, too focused on getting everything done as quickly as we can that we miss the opportunity to be present when something sacred is happening right in front of our eyes? If I slowed down, if I was more attentive to the moment, I would likely have noticed my shoes right where I left them. 

When you are at the grocery, I wonder how many people rush past you because they are in such a hurry huffing and puffing because you are in their way? How many people cut you off while driving only to be stuck one car in front of you at the next red light? Are you that person who hurries too much? Certainly we can’t solve those issues by reading this post. But I once again wonder, what would happen if we were more aware of what is happening around us? What if we are more patient, more deliberate in what we do? I suspect that we might be invited to notice the sacred moments of life, if we practiced this posture a little more often.

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 29

Recently I have been engaged in a series of conversations with someone who is working through a dark time in their life. The pain is great and it stings them. I have listened over the phone to tearful confessions and stories that they share with me. They have wrestled with their feelings and struggled with their choices. Initially they reported to me that they tried to just ‘stuff the feelings down,’ put on a smile, but that did not work for long. It seldom works long term. Pain always has a way of working itself up to the surface. It cannot be ignored forever even if we would like think that this policy would work.

They made a choice to address the issue, which seemed right in the moment, but now today, it was the wrong choice. The choice only brought more pain and suffering to them.  

I suspect that we all know someone who is living and struggling in this way. I bet that you can think of someone right now as you read these words who has made a choice that only brought them more pain and more isolation. . . That memory might just cause you to drop you head for a moment in a mix of reflection and sadness. 

While this is not a ‘warm-fuzzy’ expression of Christmas joy, it is a faithful representation of what is truly going on in the life of many people that we encounter in our daily lives. They are hurting. They feel alone, or at the very least, forgotten. Unloved. Uncared for. Not listened to. . . They made a poor choice which is only compounded by the inability to find a solution that brings healing and peace to them. Again, this is not exactly what we want to think about during they Days of Christmas, but it is part of our world. 

Today as I was reading, and thinking about these conversations, and I found these words from Samuel Wells. Having informed much of my doctoral work, Wells’ language helps my soul reflect on my choices and my walk with God in a way that I think is helpful when I encounter people who are hurting. He writes: 

And when someone is looking straight at the truth, about themselves or about the universe and everything, the best thing you can do is to stay still and hold their gaze and not look away."

Wells offers no more practical advice than what you just read. Be there. Stand there. Do not look away. Do not speak over them or rationalize their pain away by criticizing their choice(s). I wonder, if when that individual crosses your path, when you are given the chance to listen to them, what would it look like to put Wells’ words into practice? Not saying anything. Not fix anything. Not condemn anything that is taking place out there. . . Just ’stay still and hold their gaze and not look away”? 

Rev. Derek

Monday, December 28, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 28

About a week ago, Emma came out to the living room and asked us two related questions. . . One, what did we think about her learning to make her own clothes? [Emma was looking for a new hobby to occupy some of her free time]. Second, she wondered if Jennifer could teach her how to do this? 

Jennifer told her that it was a fine idea to learn to sew. They have sewed together before and made blankets for others. But Jennifer also said that she wasn’t sure how much help she would be as she sews quilts and blankets primarily—she hasn’t followed many patterns in doing so. But still we were encouraging toward Emma. Emma was not put off by this slight challenge to her vision; her determination was strong. She responded by asking if my mother, who was coming for Christmas, would teach her? I shrugged and said, ‘You will have to ask her. I cannot speak for Nonna. But I bet she would, but again that’s up to Nonna.’ She nodded and went off to message my mother to see if she could do this. . . 

Now, my mom learned to make her own clothes when she was Emma’s age so this was not going to be a problem. She has the skills and they are teachable. Both were looking forward to the project taking shape over the Christmas weekend. Emma just had to pick something to make and then decide what color/fabric that she wanted to use. Emma spend the days leading up to mom’s arrival thinking about her choice and talking with us about it at length.

So, just after lunch of Christmas Eve, as the snow was just beginning to fall, Emma and mom headed out to Joann Fabrics to buy the pattern, the fabric, and extra supplies that the project would require. They were gone much longer than I assumed. But when they returned, Emma’s face beamed with excitement. They had fabric. They had a pattern. It was going to be time to get working! Emma showed us everything that they bought and put the supplies by the Christmas tree. 

And so, a day later, Emma was on the floor in the living room, surrounded by presents, wrapping paper scraps, and her dog. She was cutting fabric and pinning everything together with a look of focus on her face. She started with the shorts which she made quick work of. They are a red and blue flannel. Emma completed them shorts in the time it took us to watch The Sound of Music on ABC (also a family tradition that we enjoy). 
It was then time for the dress! 

This was going to be harder and would require more skill, more attention to detail, and more measuring. But again, Emma worked hard on it. She asked questions when she was not sure and listened intently to each lesson. 

Last evening, Emma completed the dress with only minimal issues (She did manage to 'sew’ her finger to the dress which was quite painful). She came out of her room with her newly designed, and created, dress on, arms outstretched in pride, and a smile on her face. Her chin held high. This project required many steps and a lot of attention to detail. Emma chose to modify different parts of the dress to suit her own comfort level—longer sleeves, higher waist line, and a nicer hem. It was again her project and she was happy to complete it. She was proud.  

This got me thinking about our personal practices of the faith. . . As I watched Emma from my favorite chair, I witnessed someone who did not cut any corner in her task. She was faithful to the vision and committed to the work. Even when she did ’sew’ her finger (which meant putting the needle right through her entire index finger), Emma maintained the same pacing and commitment to the vision. Watching I considered the moments of my faith walk, of my growth as a Christian, where I demonstrated the same commitment to the task, the same unswerving passion. It is always easier to skip devotions today, to pray a little less, to allow someone, or something, to strip away the joy of our Christian walk. But we don’t have to let that happen. 

We will face setbacks. . . We might just sew through our finger. But I wonder if we can find the internal strength to continue working when the pain is present and frustration grows? I wonder how we will feel if we just keep working on living a Christian life in a world that is harsh and judgmental? I bet we might just find a blessing if we keep pressing on. . . 

Rev. Derek 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 23

C.S. Lewis once wrote: 

God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. Christ alone can bring lasting peace—peace with God—peace among men and nations—and peace within our hearts."

This morning I found these words to be both applicable and helpful. . . Today I was able to take Luna for a long walk after Jennifer left for work. The roads were finally clear of ice and snow and the sun was just peaking above the horizon. She was sooo excited to go. Carrying her favorite stick (or log if I am being honest), Luna trotted around the parking lot at Plains full of joy and expectation. The crisp breeze was our only companion on this early walk.Traffic on our route was clear. I was able to move back and forth across the road whenever ice threaten our footing. 

It was a good walk. . . a good long walk.

As we made the turn and headed up Plains Church road the final time, I felt a sense of happiness and the peace resting in my heart. The Christmas season is almost over. The preparatory work of the church is complete. We have read the prophesies related to the Messiah and are finishing the gospel accounts of his birth. Our worship for Christmas Eve is planned and ready. And so, peace, God’s shalom, is not only accessible to us, but inviting on December 23rd. 

I hope that today you will find some time to rest in the peace of God that is with you. Lewis is correct, “Christ alone can bring lasting peace.” It does not have to be a temporary occurrence or feeling. This happiness, this peace, can abide with us for a long time if we are willing to embrace it and if we are willing to look for it. 

A half hour after taking Luna home after our walk, I was ready to leave for the morning. She pushed past me to go outside. I assumed there was a reason for this—which there was. She found a new stick that was previously buried in the snow! She shook it around happily and pranced. She presented this new treasure to me by dropping it at my feet. Then Luna took two steps back and sat down expectantly. I smirked and looked at her. . . She grabbed the stick, growled a little, and dropped it again at my feet and sat back down. 

Ok, I relented and threw the stick one time. It was so quiet in my yard. So peaceful. She ran back and dropped it at my feet and looked up. Her joy was palpable. One last throw and then I was done, I told her.

Three throws later, we headed in, and I headed to the office. The peace and happiness was still with me from that walk and from knowing that God was with me in all that I have done this Christmas season. I wonder, how long could that feeling last in us as the church? If Christ is the author and creator of peace and happiness then does the miracle of Christmas have to stop when December 26th arrives? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 22

While I was sitting in the eye doctor’s office with Emma, I began, as most of us do, to run through the list of things that I still need to accomplish today. Emma’s appointment was later in the afternoon so, by this point, this was less of an exercise in planning and more about panicking. 'There is so much still to do today,’ I thought. Then, as I thought more about what remained on my list, as I looked at it on my iPhone, I began to see a pattern forming—a pattern that I wonder if you have as well.

I have noticed that when we create to-do lists they are a mixture of things that need our attention (tasks) and rituals that we adopt. Today I want you to notice the difference. . . Tasks must be completed but rituals are our choice. They are a choice that we can either enhance or put aside. 

What are some of our rituals that take center stage? 

Now I know what you are thinking. . . Didn’t we talk about routines a few months ago? Isn’t that the same thing? 

Well I did reflect on the routines of our days previously, and no, that is not the same things as a ritual. Our rituals are important to us. They help us remember who we are and ‘whose' we are. For example in the church, the Lord’s Supper is a ritual that we participate in regularly. That act reminds us of our redeemed nature and it also reminds us of how deeply God’s love extends into our lives. The Sacrament reminds us that we are all part of God’s larger, loved, family, and as such, we not only have value to God, but we have value to each other. As I will say on Thursday evening, ‘anyone who sees a meaning and purpose in these elements may. They have been prepared for you out of God’s great love.' 

Baptism is another ritual that we engage in as the church. It reminds us of "signed and sealed state.' As the water is applied to our bodies, we bear the mark of Christ upon our very flesh. We are marked as different and, yet in that difference, we become a larger family. Both of the sacraments unite us to God and each other. They are rituals that we embrace.  

But rituals also take place around this time of the year in our homes—and we cannot forget this. . . 

Immediately after worship on Christmas Eve some of our families will gather around the Christmas tree at Plains for their yearly family picture (The Marotta family will do the same). Once that ritual is complete, my family will travel back to our home for the ritual of cookies, cocoa, and hot cider. Everyone will change from their “Christmas best” and into something much more informal and comfortable (pajamas). It is the ritual of our family. This act says something about the value that my family places in being with each other and eating together. Like many others we could retreat to bed or watch television is silence. But we want fellowship. We are Italian and so we are loud too. We want to practice caring for each other by feeding each other snacks and cheese. In fact, we will welcome a new person to our Christmas Eve ritual, and we will be all the better because of it. 

And so these thoughts about rituals make me wonder about you and the rituals that you are going to either embrace or enhance as the Christmas season comes to its end for 2020? Those rituals can become milestones around our neck that limit what we can become, or we can choose to positively embrace what remains on the list as a way to deepen our relationships.  

I wonder which of those rituals have been enhanced so that you ‘be’ family in a deeper more meaningful way? Take some time today and think about them, and as you do, consider how enhancing them could bless you and your family. 

Rev. Derek

Monday, December 21, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 21

As we are now at the beginning of Christmas Week, I want to talk with you about worship. I want you to consider looking at worship from a more complete perspective. At Plains we have taken steps to make sure that our Christmas Eve worship is as safe as possible. We have continued to remove aspects of our worship while adding items designed to create social-distance. But does that impact how we worship? Does that weaken or lessen the passion of worship that we as the church are called to live into?

My answer is that it shouldn’t.  

Diana Butler Bass, in her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, wrote the following:

"Christian worship embodies the full range of emotions any person would experience in celebration, from sorrow to mirth. As such, Christian celebration is merriment, as in ’to make merry,’ because it participates in God’s festival of life and Shalom. . . C.S. Lewis referred to this as the ‘great dance,’ wherein justice and mercy clasp hands, and the universe moves in rhythm to God’s intention for creation."

Perhaps like many other people, you have struggled to find, or create room, to worship this season. Maybe you say things like, ‘I couldn't worship the way I wanted to in Lent, now Christmas is being impacted’—and that hurts your soul. Perhaps as this pandemic has pressed in upon you, you have felt the joy and passion of your worship in Christmas-time being limited by the community and world around you. And that can cause struggles in our faith to rise and live unchecked for seasons. If so, then Bass’s words can be helpful to the church. 

On Christmas Eve we gather in a spirit of Joy. . . Watchful joy. . . to worship God. But we worship with fewer songs. We will wear our masks, and we won’t embrace in Christian love, as we usually do. That could be challenging to our faith. But if Bass is right, then regardless of how our worship takes shape, Thursday it is appropriate to gather and be with God. For God is with us. That union, even in the midst of a pandemic is what Emmanuel means for us in 2020. 

It means God choosing to dance with us. 

God choosing to sit with us when we cannot be together. 

God choosing share in the human emotions that we are confronted by. 

It is a holy night and not just because we can sing more carols and light candles. But it becomes holy because God ‘clasps’ our hands into His and we are together. We are moving in rhythm with God; holding fast to God even when this year seems so different. God is unchanged. God’s life. God’s peace. God’s presence is still with us even if we do not sing as many hymns, embrace in Christian love, or celebrate communion as the Body of Christ normally might. 

I hope that I will either get the opportunity to worship with you in-person Thursday, or see you on Facebook Live, or in our Zoom service. Just because I have not been able to either shake your hand, put my arm around your shoulder, or felt the warmth of your presence, God is still with us both. There is joy in worship. There is presence in worship. There is unity in worship. And so we come to the Incarnational moment thankful for who God is and what God does. . . 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 17

Sitting here in my home office, Plains Church Road has finally become visible. The Plows and salt trucks have gone up and down a few times and their work means I can see the dark pavement. Their work has been successful as I watch a SUV go by. Travel is beginning to resume its normal flow outside. I can see Franklin and notice how easily people are coming and going. 

I am fresh from shoveling off the sidewalk at the church. It’s a tiring job, but a necessary one. If the snow is not removed from the sidewalks then it will freeze tonight and that will present a whole new set of problems for us in the morning. Sure salt will work, but not with this much snow. I checked the weather service and found out that we were ‘blessed’ with between 7-12 inches of snow depending on where you live around Cranberry.  

About half of the way through the work of shoveling, I paused to catch my breath (wet snow is heavy). I was huffing and puffing more than I care to admit. In the distance, I thought that I could hear a snowblower performing its task. That sound made me laugh. . . I said out loud to no one in particular, ‘well it would be nice to have one of those.’ But I dug back into the snow for the next patch thankful that I have the strength and stamina to do this. 

But it was still so quite. . . 

Later this afternoon I have to run a quick errand to Target. I am NOT looking forward to that. The store will be packed. The people rude. The isles crowded with impatient people who believe they have more important things to do than be patient with me. I am such a burden sometimes. . . (just ask Emma). 

But sitting here in my office, and reflecting about what is to come, and noting how irritating that snow has been already, I notice the nativity set that sits on the window sill. A friend painted it for us years ago. It is a smaller version of a set that a previous church displays. And I look at it. . . I notice the Magi looking off into the distance. I see shepherds holding their walking sticks surrounded by animals that they watch faithfully. An angel kneels prostrate before the manger with Mary and Joseph looking down and the child. Their hands are open before the baby. . .

I may have a lot to do, and the snow may have slowed everything down today, and that might just be very frustrating. It may have made my day a bit more challenging, but the Incarnation miracle is still coming for me and for us. In the silence of my heart, I wonder how much room have I, have we, created this year for that miracle? How much fills the space in us where God could dwell? 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 16

t's too quiet here! The background joy of young children filling our halls is missing and I don’t like the silence. As I look outside I see snow beginning to coat the walkway and yard around Plains. This only adds to my distress—I have things to do today. The snow is not helping me accomplish that. So to combat that feeling I do what most pastors would do in my position. I brew some coffee in my favorite mug. Find the newest book that I plan to read. Move into my favorite reading chair next to the desk, and try to be intellectual. . . 

The book that I selected was by Barbara Brown Taylor. I appreciate the way that she creates simple sentences that contain complex meanings for the church. In her newest book, Always a Guest, she writes the following: 

Jesus’ lifesaving news is that our redemption is embedded in the things that cause us the greatest anxiety.

As I sip my coffee, I read that a second time. . . 

That sentence was part of a sermon that she delivered at the beginning of Advent to an unnamed church. The point of her message was that Advent can be a time of anxiety for the church. As I think and plan for Christmas worship, I nod with her in agreement. Then I remember Dr. Barnes at Pittsburgh Seminary and something that he would add to this reflection. I remember him standing before our class preparing to teach us about how to lead our churches liturgically. On that day, he leaned onto the side podium, sighed deeply as his shoulders slumped, and said, “You know, it is so exhausting preparing for the birth of the Savior of humanity.” The sarcasm and truth mixing together in his words and made us all laugh in ignorance. His point was that this should not be a stressful, anxious, time. But it is. . .  

The falling snow will make it harder for me accomplish my errands today. I will have to dedicate more time to things that I don’t want to spend time with. The pandemic has made it harder to spread Christmas joy in the community. People are more stressed at the store. They brush past me as they try to keep up their torrid pace. Everything that we do seems to take more effort and more planning both at home and in the church. But Taylor is right. . . The lifesaving news is there. If we are willing to look for it when our vision is clouded by outside pressures and forces.

I wonder if can find a quiet moment to notice not just the anxiety that lives in us during Christmas, and instead notice the lifesaving news that also lives here? I wonder what that ‘pause’ might do to your outlook this season? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 15

Today I want to share with you the words of the Rev. Dr. Andrew Purves whose writing and teaching I encountered while studying for my M.Div at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Andrew’s teaching has been instrumental not only in my theological formation, but also in the formation of the PC(USA)—a denomination that he loved and served. In his book, The Resurrection of Ministry, he wrote these words that feel poignant during this week for me. 

He wrote: 

Sometimes, especially when the season is dark, dangerous, wearisome, scary, lonely, despairing or at best limpid, uninspiring and routine, I choose to trust that Jesus is still encountering me, because that in part is what Jesus does. Whether I am aware of him or not, I choose to trust that in the Spirit he continues to show up within and around the edges of my life in order to draw me to himself. I choose to trust. . . . even, and maybe especially, when I don’t feel his presence or see his hand at work.

Although this book was written in 2010, it feels like Andrew is writing to the church living through the struggle of a global pandemic that has taken away much of the church’s joy and passion. But what if the passion is still there? What if we need to just look a little deeper? A little longer? I wonder what we might find? 

This morning I read the Christmas story to the last of the CNS classes. With a mixture of joy and sadness I walked back and forth in front of them sharing MyVery Merry Christmas Prayer and asking God to be with them this Christmas. As the story ended, the kids rose, walked up to the platform and prepared the sing their songs to an empty sanctuary. Bells were handed out; instructions given. They were going to sing Jingle Bells. Their song would be recorded and sent off to the children’s families for them to enjoy. So off they went. . . 

The first time was a bit quiet. The children needed some extra encouragement to sing out and sing loud—which they were given. 

The second time was better. They danced a little and shook those bells while singing Jingle Bells so well.  .  . But the recording didn’t work so a third time was needed. This was going to be good!  

The third time, the children's 3-year-old nature finally came out. They sang loudly. Really Loudly! Almost yelling. The bells shook harder than they had before. I wondered if one of those bells would come flying off. Their knees rocked a bit more as the children danced and jumped to the song. But the six of them each sang to a slightly different tempo so it was a loud cacophony of Jingle-ing Bells and little voices. Small beads of sweat dotted some faces. We laughed and enjoyed their passion, and that got me thinking. . . 

Jesus is still, as Andrew reminds us, encountering us whether we realize it or not. Jesus is still at work in our lives whether we see that work or are struggling to find joy and hope this season. Jesus’ birth provides me the opportunity to trust that God is still at work in me even if I cannot feel it as strongly as I have in previous, non-pandemic, years. And so I wonder, today if this is a word that you need to hear as Christmas draws closer? 

Maybe you are like those kids, living at a pace and tempo that feels different and seems out of step? Maybe it is taking all that you have to live faithfully in this pandemic. But maybe, just maybe, God is still encountering and blessing you. He is still giving you a reason to sing and dance because his Son is about to be born again in your life? I wonder what that song looks like in you?  

Rev. Derek

Monday, December 14, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 14

We have 11 days left before Christmas morning. The Advent season always seems to fly right past me, while Lent, and its introspection, drags on. In Lent my mind gravitates to my sin, and the dark of the cold winter, I reflect more because of it; I reflect deeper. But in Advent, with trees lite bright, and warm music playing, time seems to travel too quickly. I don’t want Christmas to come yet.  

My Christmas shopping is done. Gifts purchased and wrapped (thanks Emma for helping me wrap them). The Santas who grace my office shelves and desk are beginning to look like they’ve been standing watch for a long time with me. My favorite Christmas music is still playing, but familiarity breeds contempt. It is not as loud as normal. It doesn’t warm my heart as much as it did on December 1st. I find myself wanting joy, craving family, yearning for carols, but a quick glance at my calendar tells me that I might be too busy for joy, family, or carols today. I know that you feel the same way. . . 

Your schedule is crammed. The expectations that have been placed upon you are great. Maybe there is still work to be done; gifts to buy. Cookies that need baking (and eating!). Decorations that still aren’t completely hung in their place. The pressure is there. . . as is the eye roll that comes when read things like, ’the pressure is there.’ So let me tell you about my morning as a way to offer you some help this Christmas season.

Today at 10, 10:15, and 10:30 I read my newest Christmas story to the children at CNS. This year Jennifer found me a new book to read entitled, A Very Merry Christmas Prayer. Great story. Great message. The story takes the usual elements of Christmas—trees, lights, cookies, family—and crosses them with the nativity story. Here is an exert: 

Thank you, God, for strings of lights,
So twinkling and bright, 
Just like the star that led wise men
On that special night.

Jennifer bought it for me from Target. She knows that I spent a lot of time selecting the right story to share with the kids. Frankly I spend about a month thinking about it. As I read the story today, I felt the Christmas-joy bubbling up in me. Let me tell you more. . . 

I saw Ady, one of our half-pints, beaming a smile over her mask that cannot be ignored. She was ready to listen. Every time I turned the page, and showed her the story, her eyes lit up again. Her shoulders shot forward, chin tucked down, and joy was there. Her little finger pointing out everything that I asked. This happened for every, single page. Even after I prayed, Ady’s face lit up.  

I enjoyed Mara’s reaction. She is one of our 3-year-olds. In her beautiful red-sequin-dress she leaned forward in the church pew to see the story and participate. The Christmas spirit was in her heart even brighter than her dress! As I asked if she was ready for Santa, she nodded and said ‘yes,’ and added, ‘and Jesus too.’ She understands. . . .

Lia, a Pre-K young lady, whose voice was not being heard well in the story, showed Christ with her. The room was filled and the kids were excited to listen—which can drown out a little voice. In the story, I asked about the warm beds the children have at home as we thought about Jesus, and Lia cradled her arms together. She rocked them slowly, carefully, deliberately. She said, ‘Its the place where baby Jesus sleeps.’ I suspect my smile was apparent through my mask. I just sat there, nodding, and said, ‘Yes, dear, it is.’ 

I hope that you find a moment today, to feel and share the joy of Christmas as I did. It didn’t make my day any less busy. The story did not remove things from my desk that need my attention. I have things to plan for and work to do. But for just a moment, for just a beautiful half-hour, I got the chance to offer A Very Merry Christmas Prayer to the children at CNS and it made all the difference in my day. I wonder if that might help you too. . . 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 10

Christmas is a time of joy and cheer. But what happens when an event in Christmas starts out on the wrong foot? How can that help or bring a Christmas blessing to you? 

This story comes from the first Christmas that Jennifer and I had together as husband and wife. We were living in a tiny 2-bedroom rental in Ashland, Ohio. It was a cold house with heat only in a few rooms. But it was our house and we were happy. As a new couple starting out there were a lot of things that we didn’t have. . . like a Christmas tree. So we headed to the local Wal-Mart and purchased the tree that we still use to this day. It stands about 7 feet tall and is still as full as the day I opened the box. 

And so the day after Thanksgiving, we unpacked the box. We made a diagram to replace the paper instructions that we knew that we’d loose one day, and put the tree up. But it didn’t feel like Christmas to me. I thought back to my childhood Christmas’ and how my parents decorated the house. . . 

Christmas cookies—check
Christmas tree—check
The family that I love—check
What was I missing…. Then I remembered. 

We needed music! 

Now for a little backstory to set this up. . . Every time that my family travelled to Cleveland to see my grandparents during Christmas, Grandma and Grandpa would have classic Christmas music playing on their record player in the backroom. Their dog Teddy would greet us at the door wagging his tail. I have fond memories of listening to Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Perry Como sing Christmas songs that you know well. That cemented in me a love of Christmas classics. . . Grandma would be in the kitchen making cookies, Grandpa in his chair and the music playing for hours. The sight of their tree with oversized lightbulbs in the corner is still with me.  

Fast forward a few years in my life. . . My dad loved music as well. What he loved actually was being able to play music at any volume, in any room, of any house that we lived in. Dad always ran speaker wire around the house making sure to tuck the wire into the carpet. Then when the time came, he could, and he would, flip switches on the stereo to funnel the music wherever he wanted it. Upstairs. Downstairs. The bedroom. Dad could make that happen. So as we decorated the house for Christmas we would listen to the same classics Grandma and Grandpa loved, but dad would add some new favorites to the rotation. He would add James Taylor, Paul McCartney, and a new family favorite Mannheim Steamroller. 

With that music playing, we would decorate the house. . . 

Back to my story with Jennifer. . . We didn’t have the music!!!! So we stopped decorating and I informed Jennifer that what would help put us in the Christmas spirit was the right Christmas music. As we did not own any Christmas music, I went to the store to find some. Specifically I was looking for Mannheim Steamroller, which Jennifer told me, was something she was unfamiliar with. I grabbed the CD from the rack quickly. Ran to the checkout and hurried home to her. I found Jennifer unpacking the decorations, and so, triumphantly I inserted the CD into the player and began the music. . . something was wrong. 

This didn’t sound right. Instead of melodic, electric Christmas music that I expected to present her with, we were hearing heavy metal Christmas music. Same songs. . . different tune. I grabbed the CD case and looked at it. This music was screwing up Christmas! Jennifer looked. . . confused to say the least at my reaction. As I re-read the sweeping cursive letters on the front of the CD I found, to my shock and dismay, that I had indeed bought the wrong CD. Instead of Mannheim Steamroller I bought the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Now I mean no offense to those who appreciate The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but it was not what I wanted. It was wrong. We stopped the CD. I was quite embraced. And together we laughed and put up the decorations in silence. 

But that event still makes me smile today. Whenever we hear the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Jennifer looks at me with that knowing-look that a wife gives her husband. Her eyes telling me, “do you remember our first Christmas?” I smile and often have to say to her, “Don’t say it.” Which makes us both laugh. But that ‘mistake’ has become something brings me joy and happiness in Christmas. 

And so as Christmas in 2020 continues, I wonder what brings you joy and happiness today that, in the moment, felt shocking? It might have been a moment that you never wanted to remember or re-live, but now, I wonder if it is the perfect Christmas gift from God? 

Rev. Derek 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 9

This morning I ventured out onto some familiar ground. . . I walked Luna. I have not been able to walk her for a few weeks as my recovery is progressing. But today, I gave it a try. We didn’t go very far for two reasons. One, I was not sure if my headache would return and I didn’t want to overdo it. Second, it is quite cold today. The temperature when we headed out was 29 degrees. 

But I put on an extra shirt, found my favorite gloves and awesome winter hat, and fetched Luna from JonMark’s room. When she caught sight of her harness and leash in my hand she started ‘yelping’ and ‘whining.’ Finally, we were going for a walk! She was so happy. She lunged toward the door and ran up and down the steps waiting for me. It felt good to begin getting back into my routine. 

We walked around the church once. She ran up and back. Circled me while she jumped. She was full of energy which made me smile. We took a second lap around the church with more of the same happening. Her breath was visible in cold, but it didn’t matter. We were walking!. . . By now my fingers were getting cold as we turned onto Franklin. 

The gloves that I selected are fingerless with a large mitten that can be pulled over them when needed. I unhooked the mittens from the back of my hand and secured them around my pink fingers. The effect was quick. Warmth flowed back into my hands. Luna was still running and dashing around me. But there was an unintended consequence to my choice of gloves. Because my fingers were no longer free to grip the leash handle properly, my grip was now much weaker with the mittens on. The extra knit fabric of the tops of the mittens did not fit through the handhold well. I squeezed harder to regain control should a car come down Plains. . . but it didn’t seem to help. My grip strength was not going to recover if I kept the mittens on—which I needed to because it was so cold

So there I was walking down Plains Church toward Franklin without a strong grip on a rambunctious German Shepherd who has not been walked like this in weeks. What could go wrong! 

My anxiety was real. 

What if she yanked? What if she lunged toward traffic? What if I did not properly anticipate her movements and she ripped herself from my grasp and ran across someone’s yard and toward another dog in the neighborhood? What if . . .  

I wonder if you have felt that way during Advent? Holding on for dear life when it feels like your grip will give way at any moment? The pressure and stress of your day have weakened your ability to hold fast—even to your faith? 

Catholic writer Michael Novak once wrote, “Hope is endurance. Hope is holding on and going on and trusting in the Lord.” 

A great deal of hope is based on our level of trust. In my case, I had to trust Luna to stay with me even as I knew that she longed to run. I had to endure her pulling even as I felt my hands were not strong enough to keep ahold of her. In my faith walk, I have to trust that God has given me the tools in the midst of a pandemic to endure. God provides the strength to endure, to hold on, even when I can feel my grip weakening because of outside pressures that are exerted upon me. 

We finished our walk down Plains and around the church again. Then back into the warm house. Hope and trust saw me through. . . I wonder if the same came be said for you today? I wonder where are the places today that you are gripping for all your worth? Can you and God, together, endure? Can you hold on? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 8

This morning, I found myself considering the wisdom of Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk. In The Missional Leader they write: 

Maturity means a life formed over the long journey by the narrative-shaping God. It is about the character of those who have allowed God to confront their shadows. Leaders [and Christians] who have not plumbed the depths of their own self-awareness have neither the resources nor security to cultivate an environment of awareness within the congregation [and world]. Personal maturity involves leaders in a narrative that gives their lives a center and direction.

In four sentences Roxburgh and Romanuk offer us a helpful lesson as we continue through advent. 

I regularly find myself addressing issues that in a normal year I would not have faced. And some of those issues make me feel I feel ill equipped to address them positively; like many others I want to pile on when I look outside. I want to attack practices that I feel are unhealthy or dangerous. Culturally we are bombarded with negativity. Social media posts that are negative in orientation garner more attention than those with a positive message. I find myself ignoring, or ‘turning off’ more posts than I do affirming other people. The nightly news is filled with rage-filled faces as they report to us the events of our day. As I walk through the nursery school I cannot even be sure that the children that I see, the ones who wave at me at times, even have a smile on their faces as they go through their days. There is such a distance created around us, and many of us fill that space, with criticism, negativity, and frustration.  

I wonder if the best way to address these issues and challenges that confront us in the pandemic, is to apply what Roxburgh and Romanuk speak about: a practice of narrative-sharing and self-awareness. 

Consider this example: this morning I arrived at CNS a few minutes early. While my computer booted up, I walked across the hall to greet the teachers and speak to them about their Christmas plans for the children (I read a Christmas story to the kids each year so I wanted to know when that was taking place). I did not take long before I realized that what was needed in that conversation was a dose of personal maturity on my part. 

And so I listened. . . I listen intently to the struggles of the day as our children address issues of sadness and loss because of school lived-out in quarantine. I listened for the place where God was at work—even if that place took some time to locate. By listening I found room to notice in myself where my anxieties and negativity was overwhelming my faith. I heard in their stories the struggles that I am dealing with and that gave me fuel to take back to God. As I took that new learning back to God, I recognized that these were things that God and I could work on.

All of this was possible because I allowed God to “confront my shadows” and negative moments. And so I wonder, how this practice might take shape in your life? Who can you listen to? Who can you sit with? Who can teach you something because you were willing to listen first? 

Rev. Derek

Monday, December 7, 2020

Pastoral Thought--December 7

Over the past couple weeks I had the opportunity to learn, maybe re-learn, a powerful lesson that I want to share with you.

Since Sunday, November 15th, I have been dealing with the after-affects of a concussion. As you might already know, on that Sunday afternoon the lid of my recycling can was blown by 70 mph winds so hard that it struck me in the right side of the head as I tried to stand it back up. Fortunately I did not lose consciousness. However, the resulting blow caused me to face some significant issues. Happily, I can report that CT scan that they did showed no brain injury or skull damage. 

I was going to have to take my time over the next few weeks as I healed. I would lean on Jennifer, JonMark, and Emma—a lot.

Headaches, double vision, nauseous moments, lightheadedness, they all came and went. I felt shaky at times and stumbled a bit. . . (okay maybe I stumbled around a lot). I almost cried a bit as well for no reason. But I am healing and God is with me as I reflect with you. Your prayers, and your support, as my church family has been a constant companion as I laid in a dark room for days on end wishing that I could go back to the way things were. 

It was a helpless feeling to lay in dark for such a great amount of time. My constant companions of Luna and Bianca kept a close watch on me, but dogs can only do so much besides snore. I listened to an audiobook when I felt strong enough to do so. And my favorite podcast as well. But more often than not, for hours on end, it was just me. . . in the dark. . . hoping to heal . . . and not knowing when that would happen.

Now to the lesson that I learned, or maybe re-learned. My favorite author wrote these words that I remembered as I was living in the dark. He said: 

Ministry is staying with people as they face the hardest things in their lives and not walking away when there’s nothing to say.”

It is the last part of that sentence that spoke to me. “Not walking away when there’s nothing to say.” Part of my calling, and part of our calling as the church, is to ’say something’ when the hard stuff of life comes. But there I was, in the dark, and there was nothing to say. No way to frame what I was living through. No aspirational offerings. I knew the words of our faith. I have a deep relationship with the One who heals all things in His way. But all I felt I could do, for over two weeks, was just ‘be.’ I could not phrase prayers that were anything more than ’shopping lists of needs.’ So 'being there’ was the best that I could muster. 

So I wonder, as we are halfway through Advent, who do you know that is living through something hard, something challenging, something painful? I wonder if you walk away from those moments, or do you dwell with them? Do you say nothing but instead choose to abide? I can make all the difference if you stay in that moment with that person. . . believe me I know. 

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...