Thursday, December 30, 2021
Wednesday, December 29, 2021
I wonder what creates common, relational, ground?
For experience tells me that once a common relational ground has been found between individuals, God steps in and does something unexpected. . . something extraordinary in both their lives.
Although we are theological descendants of Luther and the Reformation, and that history comes with some baggage, today I was reading Johann Arndt when God walked into the room. You see, Arndt was a German Lutheran. He was schooled in Luther-based dogma and teaching. But even as the lessons of 'rational functionalism' and 'reformed dogma' was taught to Johann, he could see that God offered something extra to the church.
In his book True Christianity, Arndt gives us these surprising words:
"True Christianity consist, not in words or in external show, but in living faith, from which arises righteous fruits, and all manner of Christian virtues, as from Christ himself. Since Faith is hidden from human eyes and is invisible, it must be manifested by its fruits inasmuch as faith creates from Christ all that is good, righteous, and holy. . ."
With apologies to my Lutheran colleagues, these words do not sound very "Lutheran." They sound more like word written by a 21st century missional church leader. All the way back in the 1580s Arndt was learning what we have come to learn today: common ground can be found relationally, as we practice our faith.
For too often we fall back on the foundational dogma/doctrine that gives our church its core beliefs, but in doing so we risk forgetting, or neglecting, that which creates deep meaningful bonds from individual to individual.
For instance, I just returned from a doctor's appointment. I have a series of these scheduled as I prepare to have my knee fully replaced. Its standard stuff and has gone smoothly. But today, I had the chance to live out my faith with someone.
After exchanging niceties and going over my medical history, the nurse at the doctors office where I was and I began to talk about other things. . . As we talked she learned that I am a pastor who serves a church in York. That was helpful for her I think, but where our conversation became personal was as we talked about how we both suffer from migraines.
We shared stories, medical struggles, and medication results. We found common ground not in the fact that I faithfully serve Jesus to the best of my ability, but we found common ground in something we both suffer with--albeit only once every few months.
It is astonishing to me how we build relationships based on these small, seemingly insignificant moments, but as I think back to Johann's words, I think this is part of how we practice our faith. We listen. We share. And we don't have to teach or expound on doctrine.
You have no doubt had the chance this week to find some common ground with another person. I wonder if it was based on theology or on commonality? I wonder how that choice depended your relationship?
Tuesday, December 28, 2021
Walking with Luna today I had an interesting experience that I want to share with you.
Jennifer and I got ready quicker than normal this morning. Our morning flew by and as we finished our coffee, packed lunch, and filled our water bottles, I silently decided to take Luna for another walk. I haven't been doing that a lot recently instead preferring to walk alone and enjoy my audiobook in private. But toady, with a 54 degree morning in front of me, I wanted to take Lu out there.
So out we went.
As Jennifer drove down the driveway and out onto McConnells Highway, Luna excited ran after her then circled back to me. Round and around she went. It was going to be a fun walk for us both, I thought.
Turning and heading into the Bethesda Cemetery, I switched on some classical music and enjoyed my morning. First I enjoyed the London Philharmonic then Puccini sing "nessun dorma!" The walk was going well. But as I allowed the music to carry my pace along, I noticed how foggy/cloudy it was. This fact didn't bother me, I was just noticing it.
Then 'Anya' by Hamlisch began. . . and I could feel my spirit lighten.
My pace quickened. My breathing changed also. As the minutes ticked by on 'Anya,' I once again looked up. As Luna and I turned for another lap I could see something changing in the sky. it was become just a little more blue.
Was the sun burning off the fog? Did the breeze push the clouds apart for a moment? Was God looking down with a smile and opening heavens just a little for me?
Truthfully I don't have the full answer to what was happening. But it mattered. . .
Soon the next piece began to play and Luna and I kept walking. The expected 'parting of the fog' was gone. Replaced by clouds again. But for the briefest of moments, I saw blue and I felt thankful. I felt warmth in my soul.
There are a lot of reasons why you may identify with my morning. The clouds of life have pressed in again. You go through your routine and feel the heaviness of clouds just beyond your sight line and don't know if they will 'push off.' If this is the case then I hope that my story reminds you that God breaks through just when we need Him the most.
My blue-sky didn't last that long today. But for the remainder of the walk, and the beginning of my morning here in the church office, I can still close my eyes and remember how it felt to notice just a little blue pressing through the gray.
I wonder if you too can find some space today to notice that God breaks through? I wonder how that feeling will stay with you for the remainder of this year?
Monday, December 27, 2021
Yesterday I was blessed to lead a Sunday school class as a fill-in. The regular teacher, Jim, asked me on Christmas Eve if I would like a chance to lead the group. Without saying it, this was Jim's Christmas present to me--in a manner of speaking.
As worship concluded and we headed home, my mind fluttered around with many ideas and thoughts. I tried to stay grounded on one topic and let it sit in the back of my mind throughout the rest of Christmas Eve and into Christmas morning.
But to be honest, as the festivities came to their end, the lesson wasn't totally in place in my mind. Sitting back in my recliner, I began to read my book. Next to me Jennifer put her book down and leaned back herself. . . A meal of Christmas ham, roasted potatoes, Mac n cheese, rolls, and ample Christmas cookies can make anyone tired.
Around the house the 'food coma' was setting in. . . Jennifer gently began to slow her breathing and drift off. Mom was across the room on the couch--she too was asleep. Emma was missing (likely napping or painting), and the dogs curled up on the couch next to mom and began to sleep. I kept on reading.
The book that I read was not terribly interesting so I switched to another one that I downloaded on my iPad. I haven't opened this second book recently, but knew that whatever I read would be good. Seriously, I was reading Hannah Whitall Smith. There is always something good in her text.
Finishing up another chapter I found something that stopped me in my mental tracks. What Hannah spoke about would become the subject of my Sunday School lesson on the following morning. I scrapped what I was working on and settled into the application of Hannah's point.
Drawing from Matthew 6, and Jesus' discussion about the grass of the fields and how God cares for the sparrows, I re-discovered a Christmas message for the church--and especially for myself. She wrote these words for us as the church:
"Your part is simply to rest, His part is to sustain you, and He cannot fail."
These are simple words, but yet so profound for the church to hear after Christmas. For, as we discussed yesterday in class, Christmas can be hectic. For many it was hectic. It was a time of expectations and pressure. We know that we are held in the hand of Christ Jesus, and that His birth saves us, but hearing Hannah's words over and over I couldn't help but feel at peace.
I am a little sad that the decorations are coming down this week. I am sad to see the wreaths go away and the lights come down. But yet today I find myself wanting to simply rest. . . Rest in the provision of God in my life. Rest in the gift that has been given. Rest in knowing that my church family cares and supports each other deeply and passionately. I rest knowing that the work of salvation has been done and I give God thanks for it again today.
I hope that you will find that same space of peace today, and when you do, I wonder what might happen when you share that peace with another person?
Thursday, December 23, 2021
As Christmas comes again this weekend, and as we put the finishing touches on our Christmas Eve plans, I want to share with you a poem from John Milton that is meaningful in my life.
Milton is most famous for his epic work: Paradise Lost. In seminary I enrolled in a class where John Milton was the primary text as we learned about Puritan Theology and how it shaped the Reformed Church. John Milton was one of the most well-known, and most often read, Puritan writers in history.
But reading John Milton is very challenging. His use of language and sentence structure are complex and can be hard to understand. Sometimes a reader has to re-read the same section over and over again to fully grasp what the poet is saying.
Before our class tackled Paradise Lost, John Milton's poetic work addressing the fall of Mankind as Adam and Eve are tempted by Satan, the six members of my class read On the Morning of Christ's Nativity. It'a wonderful work that touched my heart the very first time I found it.
So every year as I get ready for Christmas worship, I pull my copy of John Milton off the shelf and find the poem near the front of the book. Sitting in my chair I read it out loud letting the words act as a form of prayer. I hope that these words will touch your heart also.The final three lines that I am sharing today are powerful and I hope that they touched your heart also--just as they touch mine.
Jesus willingly laid aside the beauty and perfect of heaven for us. He willingly came to earth for us knowing where his choice would lead him. He left behind the majesty, the perpetual worship that occurs in heaven so that he could reunify the creation with God in heaven.
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
Although Jennifer, Emma, and I celebrated Christmas with JonMark and Autumn last week, we still have the Christmas spirit in our hearts. We have already exchanged most of our gifts because as a family we were whole again this past week and it was wonderful and a blessing.
But still under the tree a couple little packages sit patiently waiting for Christmas morning.
Last night we ventured out to put the finishing touches on our Christmas gifts and fill some stockings. We strolled through a couple stores dodging hurried shoppers who themselves aren't quite done yet. By the time that we made it to Target for a few final 'sweet' purchases, Jennifer and I were done both emotionally and physically.
The pain in my right knee was making it hard to walk again and I felt like I was plodding my leg forward. Leaning on the cart no longer helped. Jennifer was worn out from a hard day of working and her head was beginning to hurt.
Then there was the emotional feeling/pain in the back of our minds as we thought about how Bella wouldn't be getting 'in the way' on Christmas morning as she trotted from lap to lap for some attention. (Luna will be playing with a toy on her own and Bianca would be snoring on the couch. . . oh the difficulty of their lives). Christmas felt a little smaller for us.
As we returned home and made a cup of my favorite Twinnings tea I read the words of Kathleen Norris that I want to share with you as you too become tired, sore, and fatigued this Christmas week:
"It is precisely because we are weary, and poor in spirit, that God can touch us with hope. This is not an easy truth. It means that we do accept our common lot, and take up our share of the cross. It means that we do not gloss over the evils we confront every day, both within ourselves and without. Our sacrifices may be great. But as the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, once said, it is only the poor and hungry, those who know they need someone to come on their behalf, who can celebrate Christmas. (Emphasis added).
[At Christmas] we are asked to acknowledge that the world we have made is in darkness. We are asked to be attentive, and keep vigil for the light of Christ. . . . We, and our world, are broken. Even our homes have become places of physical and psychological violence. It is only God, through Jesus Christ, who can make us whole again."
These words can help remind you today of the gift that is coming this week for you. I know that the preparations of Christmas can be great, they can be exhausting. Your home and family may be a bit smaller than you remember or want. You might just think that there is little to celebrate this year because of covid-based suffering, or economic hardship, or relational separation. You may even have a bit of suffering that you haven't shared with anyone. Yet that should not deter you. . .
He is born for you.
We celebrate because with God in Christ because we are broken, and in His grace, God has made a way to heal us possible.
I wonder if you too feel the same way as I did last night? Worn out emotionally. . . in physical pain? If so, remember the Christmas manger, remember the love that filled it, and find someone today who might need to hear Norris' words and offer them as a balm to re-create hope.
Tuesday, December 21, 2021
Sitting behind my desk listening soft Christmas music playing on my MacBook, and with the anticipation of Christmas Eve in my mind, I wonder how do we move the needle from 'hopeless' to 'hopeful?'
Now I know what you might be thinking. Like me, you might confess that this is God's task and God's purpose. . . I mean seriously, how are we going to completely move the needle from one extreme to another by ourselves for all of creation?!?
Leaving behind cliches and platitudes this task can seem far too difficult for us to even attempt to address.
But I wonder if the solution is more accessible then we first imagined. . .
Emma is still very sad from losing Bella, our cherished Maltese. Bella was her companion and her support during some hard, dark, times. Years ago before we came to Bethesda, Jennifer took Bella in her arms, kissed her head, and handed her to Emma for the night. As the exchange occurred, and to Emma's utter surprise, Jennifer said, 'Now take care of Emma, Bella.' Emma smiled and sauntered down the hall. She was still quite young and needed someone to help her through the dark night that was to come.
From that point on the two were inseparable. Bella would hear Emma cough at night and come to investigate. Never mind that she was standing on Emma's face, Bella did her job well. She would ride on Emma's lap in the car and curl herself up like a baby in Emma's arms. But now she is with Jesus in heaven.
So I ask my question again: how do I move the needle for Emma from 'hopeless' to 'hopeful' without turning it into a cliche-ridden conversation? How do I, or how would you, begin to address that need? For this is not only something that Emma is dealing with right now, but I suspect that you know individuals personally who are in their own hopeless-Christmas moment.
In her book, Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home, Barbara Brown Taylor tells her own story of moving the needle from hopeless to hopeful. The story is about a local country sheriff who was shot trying to talk one of his deputies down from their dark place. But he was too late. The officer killed his wife and shot the sheriff in the back.
Yet this sheriff would not be deterred. Shortly after the incident, which rocked the community to its core, much as Emma is rocked to her core today, the wounded sheriff showed up for a local version of Dancing with the Stars. They raised nearly $65,000 for a rescue shelter for those suffering from domestic abuse. She concludes his story this way:
"Will it [the evening] stop domestic violence? No it won't--but it kept people from feeling paralyzed, if just for a little while. It moved the needle from 'hopeless' to 'hopeful,' for just one night. That's the good news."
A small, personal, deliberate choice to be present mattered for that community, and it would matter for Emma as she grieves, and I believe it will matter for that one person who you know right now whose Christmas is not the most joy-filled.
I walked another glass of green tea back to Emma in her room. Lowered my booming, always happy, voice a notch, I tipped my head forward so she could see my eyes over my glasses and said, 'need anything...hug?'
"No," she replied.
"A cookies?" I pressed.
"I'm good," she said through tear-filled eyes.
"Well actually, honey, I'm good. 'Cause you know, I'm a doctor. . . You're just cute." I replied trying to smile through my own tears at seeing her heart broken.
She rolled her eyes and a little tear came out. But for that moment as she laughed and in that moment hopelessness became hopefulness. Presence matters when we are in those places. I wonder what choices you might make to move the needle of a friend just that little bit?
Monday, December 20, 2021
Its Christmas Week and I am a mixture of emotions.
Certainly there is great joy and excitement to lead worship at Bethesda for the first time on Christmas Eve. I am excited to experience the passion of "Silent Night" under the stars--weather permitting. Anticipation is all around me as I think about celebrating the sacrament for the first time here with a warm, welcoming family. Their welcome and care for us has been so amazing. But. . .
There is a great sadness in our home too.
Saying good-bye to Bella, our Maltese, has been very hard for us. Emma and Jennifer are struggling so much with this. Bella was Jennifer's dream girl. So faithful. So loving. So ever-present. Dogs have been blessed with a special gift from God. They occupy a place in us that is so unique and so vital. Unconditional love and joy when we come home. Bella filled in that space completely. I can close my eyes and hear the pitter-padder of her feet trotting down the hall.
And yet, it is Christmas Week. . . Jesus is coming again into creation. His birth signals how God is moving to welcome us back home. He is choosing to be with us when he could choose otherwise.
Joy and Sadness coming together on Christmas week. In that painful place, I believe we can find Christ, the Baby being born for us. There is presence that overcomes and overwhelms and support us when the joy and the suffering come together.
"I don't know what this is, what this means, how deep this goes, how damaging this may be; it could all be over tomorrow, it may last a lifetime; it may keep getting worse, it may go in phases, it may be bad at the start and then alleviate. I have no idea. But I'm here whichever course it takes, and my companionship doesn't depend on which course it takes. In the unknown and dismay and distress of this sickness, some things can be relied upon. If you need to, you can start budding from there."
This is the gift of presence and the gift that God makes possible for us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to us, quietly, without fanfare, and he abides. His birth creates the room for us to dwell together in places of joy (like when we sing carols together), and when we suffering (or say good-bye to someone we love so dearly).
Perhaps that's the true miracle of Christmas--presence created for us all. No mater where we are at emotionally or relationally. . .
I wonder, who could you share the presence of Christ with today? I wonder what might happen if you offered them the same level of presence?
Thursday, December 16, 2021
The Christmas season, especially the week leading up to it, can be a difficult and challenging time. Sure, we struggle with getting the right present that fully expresses our love, affection, and appreciation for the individual, but there is more to the struggle that we cannot escape.
In this struggle I wonder what a different response might look like?
This morning I received another email that no parents wants to read in their inbox. It was from JonMark and Emma's old school system--Seneca Valley. As you might remember the community was once again rocked by tragedy as a young student took his own life last week. The understanding at that time was that his untimely and unfortunate death was the result of bullying issues that were building in his life for years. In his hopelessness this young man decided there was no other choice but to end his life.
Now that's a horrible story to hear. But the horribleness of the story is compounded when you know that this is not the first time a student there has been the victim of hatred. Students all over the area are pushed beyond the point of no return. It seems that if you don't look, act, or think as the majority tells you to, then you are ostracized, ridiculed, and threatened.
Another email was sent to us today that was equally as painful to read that spoke about the school's commitment to child safety and protection. Parents are stoking the fires of hate and blame is being cast around.
My heart sank as I re-read the note and wondered: how did we get here? And how do we get back, or even, can we get back to a place of communal-wholeness?
At this point several options are possible that we could take to reconcile these issues:
1- We could chalk up these events to an isolated incident (or two). Those involved will be dealt with and the community moves on. "Nothing to see here". . . But like it said this isn't the first time that the community has been rocked with suffering and so that solution doesn't seem viable to me. It has happened before and it will likely happen again.
2- We could judge. We could demand that those families, or individuals, or groups who raise and supported children in hateful, vengeful ways are help accountable. But I wonder what stops us from acting like the very people we are condemning?
Then I re-read the words of Marcia A. Owens today and found another choice presented to us:
3- We could 'be with.'
Let's hear Marcia, and her co-author Samuel Wells, on this issue and notice how the entire framing of the relationship changes if we choose their approach:
"But what is really required is simply 'being with'--staying still, listening, being silent, not having the answers, sharing the struggle, praying together, singing songs and hymns, taking time over meals, recalling stories, remembering messages [from God] to pass on. What is needed is not therapy--its company."
Whenever I read a story of evil coming into a community my temptation is to work to solve or fix the issue. I am tempted to try as hard as I can to achieve my desired result permanently. I/we are tempted to paint with broad brush strokes in an attempt to cover over the degradation and sinfulness that is at work around us.
Yet in all that we are trying to do are we not forgetting God?
Perhaps by adopting Marcia's suggested posture we might find not just a way to heal but a way to be whole again?
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Well today as I got ready to come into the office I wonder: how often do we make the time? How often do we sacrifice the expectation for the needed reality?
Last evening we took Autumn, JonMark, and Emma out for dinner. It was Autumn's 20th birthday and we wanted to celebrate with her. We enjoyed "Christmas" on Monday night, now it was time for a second party! About half way through dinner JonMark and I begin talking:
"Dad when do you have to go to work tomorrow?' he begins.
"I usually try and be at my desk by 8," I respond and take another bite. "Why?" While I didn't know where this was going I knew that he wanted something and it would be interesting to see how that came up.
"Well, you know I only have a hotplate in my apartment and my toaster oven isn't big enough to make biscuits," he says. I know where this is going and so I smile.
"Would you like me to make you biscuits and gravy like I always did when you were at home?' I smile as I look over my glasses. He might be almost 20 but he's still my baby boy. He still needs his dad's help. All he has to do is ask and I will always help.
"I mean, if you don't mind," he says. "I was hoping to have them around 8:30 but if you can't then it's okay." He looks down and keeps eating.
I lean back, "Well I will see you and the birthday-girl at 8:30 sharp for breakfast."
He smiles gratefully and Autumn squeezes his arm subtly. He will get what he wants and it will remind him of home and of being a family.
Yes, I had things to do today. And yes, God being full of grace and mercy wouldn't mind if I came in a little later than planned so that I could eat with my boy. Yes, I was late but I was late and I was blessed. I walked through the office door to see Pat and Donna smiling at me--they knew why I was late. Ernice was on the phone and asked how I was enjoying my son--she knew too and was happy to listen to me. I was really enjoying him I told her.
I could have hurried through my morning, and he wouldn't have judged me, or I could slow down. I could put on some traditional Christmas music in the kitchen and cook for him. I could make coffee and leave cups on the peninsula for them to enjoy and put a bowl out for him when the rest of us wanted plates.
Sometimes in the name of productivity we miss the chance to dwell with the other person. I wonder today who that other person might be for you? I wonder what might happen if you lingered a little and had that extra cup of coffee. . .
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
When I was in college I had the opportunity to participate in a men's retreat called the Walk to Emmaus (perhaps you have heard about it). The weekend is based around the convergence of sound biblical teaching and times of deliberate silence.
Each day we would listen to a teaching or lecture from a minister or lay individual, talk about that teaching in small groups, create a conclusion related to how we could adopt the lesson in our discipleship, and then retreat to silence and speak with God about it.
Overall the weekend was very powerful and helpful in my theological development and growth--so much so that I sponsored a number of friends to attend. I believed that they too would be touched the Holy Spirit, or to use the words of Emmaus "Did not our hearts burn as he taught us on the road..."
One of my friends that I sent on the retreat was named Alex.
Alex is a witty guy who brings a musical/theatrical gift to every situation that he enters. He is always the life of the party. I met him as an in-coming freshman and we were friends until I graduated 3 years later.
As the retreat drew towards its closing, I received word that the weekend was not going as planned for him. Sure, he was enjoying the time away from college, but the deep encounter that I had with the Holy Spirit was not 'happening' for Alex. He was still smiling and seemed relaxed but something was amiss.
The retreated ended Sunday night and Alex told me that he really enjoyed the time away, but that it took him a long time to 'get it' (whatever it was). Listening to him tell me about the program I mentally checked off every box that I remember when I walked to Emmaus. . . teaching. listening. silence. communion. He attended them all and enjoyed them all.
In what would become a hint of my future doctoral work, I asked Alex about his expectations of the weekend? What did you think was going to happen?
His answers were a jumbled mess of hope, aspiration, and just wanting it to happen. . . In his excitement, he brought too much baggage into the retreat and almost missed God's movement.
Recently I read about an Anglican priest who had the same experience with one of his young students. When addressing how the young person, like Alex, was trying or working too hard he said this:
"Your first duty as a priest is to save your own soul."
Like Alex we bing a lot into our days with us. We are so excited for what God can do in someone's life that we can almost miss the gentle, subtle nudge of the Holy Spirit. I wonder how often you have lived your faith as Alex did that weekend? Trying so hard to get it right that you forget to 'save your own soul?"
Monday, December 13, 2021
As my Scottish theological professor was fond of saying: "There is no entry for the word 'joy' in the theological dictionary of the Reformed Faith." And that is not a typo. . . There is no entry in the theological dictionary of the Reformed Faith for the idea/concept of joy.
For those who are unfamiliar with that dictionary, it lists all of the concepts and ideas that surface in the life of reformed church--the Presbyterian Church. Look in that book under 'stewardship' and you will find something meaningful. Look in the text for Jesus Christ and you will find a concise teaching that reflects 'proper reformed thinking.'
Yet 'Joy' seems to be missing. . . Isn't that both interesting. . . and sad.
Andrew, the professor in question, would continue in his lecture by telling a group of young, idealistic, future preachers and church leaders that this was because we, as the larger church, don't know how to handle or express joy adequately in the Reformed Church. And as with most things, when we cannot understand something, or speak about in a way that feel authentic, we leave it aside. (This happens outside of the church as well). We let someone else talk about it--and that makes me feel very sad.
If you were in worship with us here at Bethesda yesterday then you heard the Sounds of Grace sing with gusto and great joy that "Christmas must be Tonight." They did a great job. I had been waiting for a month and three days to hear them sing and was so appreciative for their presence in worship. They brought something powerful and dynamic into that worship space.
But my joy became all-consuming as I watched Emma not only play the violin wit them, but I noticed that she was singing as part of the group. Seeing her sing brought a tear to my eye and made me want to jump up and join the band. I sang that song all evening and into this morning as I thought about worship. I thank the band members for welcoming and encouraging her so much.
My baby girl has been through so much in her young life already. Her joy has been snuffed out before. Her soul has been bruised by others. She struggled before she came here with a lot of things. But she is so happy now. Her joy is complete. Here, at Bethesda, she feels like she is at home and as such she can sing, play her instruments, and express joy!
But with that memory before me, I return to Andrew's words:
"Joy can be such an explosion of glorious human emotion. . . Joy is the expression of a profound inner disposition of gratitude to God that may be expressed in shouts of joy, crashing cymbals, loud shouts of 'hallelujah.'
If this is all true, then I wonder why do we let our joy gets snuffed out? I wonder why we don't share it more often?
Thursday, December 9, 2021
Last night we enjoyed another great evening of fellowship and food. I look forward to each Wednesday to see what the delicious dinner the kitchen will offer us. This week we had fried fish, coleslaw, and hush puppies. As I would say after each meal, everything that we ate was delicious. And I was thankful for the hands that worked hard to cook and prepare everything.
As a church we laughed together and as the evening concluded we enjoyed listening to the band practice. They are playing on Sunday during worship as well as during the Christmas program so they played a few songs together and it sounded great. Listening to Emma 'fiddle' away as part of the band touched my heart so much.
It was a full evening. . . and of course a loud, excited one.
As I enjoyed a third piece of fish, I wondered about the role of the community that I was witnessing and enjoying?
Karl Barth says it this way:
"The community does not speak with words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; by its characteristic attitude to the world's problems; and, moreover and especially, by its service to all the. . . weak and needy in the world. It speaks, finally, by the simple fact that it prays for the world. It does all this because this is the purpose of it summoned by the word of God."
Last evening we didn't solve any of the world's greatest problems. Instead by just being together, by spending time breaking bread and sharing, we echoed what I believe Barth is speaking about in this passage.
We don't have to evangelize physically to every person that we come into contact with. By our choice to be just care, to cook, to listen, to serve, we are doing what God invites us to do. We are living out our calling as illuminated in the scriptures. It is that easy and it can be that transformational.
This weekend we will have another opportunity to be the church. I wonder if just by being with, by showing up, how that might help those around us?
Tuesday, December 7, 2021
The hustle and bustle of the Christmas season is upon us and that can be a source of frustration and spite. I have walked through lines this past week at Target, Publix, and Lowes and found the crowds growing and faces expression frustration.
The promise of fiscal savings has brought the crowds out of their homes as has the need for the 'perfect' Christmas gift--a need that I too support and recognize. While covid has kept us still a little bit apart, the stores are filling up and the people are being less kind and gentle. The parking lots are filling up. The roads are bumper to bumper with traffic. I hear horns more now than I did last week, and I wonder if I am able do something about it in a small, little, Christ-like way?
And so as I think about the Christmas season that is coming upon us, I remember the words that illustrate my attempted Christ-like response: Be Gentle.
Samuel Wells whose work has influenced much of my D.Min research wrote it this way:
"How often have you looked upon what another person said or did with horror, fury, or scorn only to find yourself, ten years (or ten minutes) later saying or doing much the same? Be sparing with your horror, fury, and scorn, lest they rebound on you and make you lamentable in your own sight. People tend to do the best they can with what they have and what they know. A little generosity of heart inclines us to look to our fellow creatures with gentleness rather than bitterness, compassion rather than anger, understanding rather than condemnation."
The chapter where this section comes is titled: Be Gentle. I have read it before and felt it draw me closer to God as I sit and reflect. Every time that I read it again, I end the section with the same thought: "You should do a better job at this, Derek."
And yet, I too get frustrated when I am in the store, or driving, or encountering someone at the store who is working slower that I would like or prefer.
Perhaps gentleness can unlock the door this Christmas season for us. I wonder if taking Wells' words into my heart and trying to adopt them might offer me a way to be more Christ-like? I wonder when was the last time you were filled with horror, fury, and scorn?
Monday, December 6, 2021
This morning I finally found some time for a cherished activity. . . something that I enjoyed with Luna for months and months. . . taking a walk.
By design just going for a short walk is not transformational. It's just a stroll or chance for some fresh air. Today, I didn't even walk fast enough to get out of breath. I just walked. . . and it felt good. I had been wanting to walk through the Bethesda cemetery for a while now, but I just couldn't, or perhaps wouldn't, make the necessary time in my morning for the walk.
Today that changed.
Today I made the time.
I dropped my backpack and coffee off on the desk gently. Looked around my office for my AirPods and then headed out to enjoy my planned-walk. Zipping my sweater up a bit higher, I made my way toward McConnells and into the cemetery. My audiobook playing in my ears, I enjoyed the cool morning.
Traffic on the main road was light as I made my way into the cemetery, and so it was quiet. The silence blessed me and I remembered a section of the book that I am reading as part of my morning devotional time with the Lord.
Katherine May wrote:
"I flinch away. . . from the carefully noncommittal language that I find online--the internet-spiritual, celebrating the moments in which we're blessed and grateful, but reluctant to pin down by whom we-re blessed or to whom we-re grateful."
Today as I walked I thought about Katherine's words--"being reluctant to pin down" the source of our blessing. And I wondered: Why do we do this?
Why do we neglect the chance to affirm and confess that God has indeed blessed us? Why do we take something as simple as a light walk and forget that God walks with us? God walks beside us . . . God longs to enjoy the relationship that He has with us.
I returned to my office after my walk and felt good. Switching on the desk lamp I said down and spend a quiet moment thanking him for the day.
I wonder if my walk, and the fact that I noticed God while I was walking, made the difference?
Thursday, December 2, 2021
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
We all have days when we are a bit more introspective. Reflective. And thoughtful. December 1st is always one of those days for me.
Today is first of all a day of joy for me. I have completed another lap around the sun for the 46th time (and I expect many, many more trips).
Jennifer was the first person to wish me a happy birthday. But then the day took a surprising turn--a joyful one at that. Shortly after 7 as I was enjoying some coffee while getting ready my iPhone rang. I was getting a text. My niece Indyca texted to wish me a happy birthday. I didn't expect her to send something so quickly. They usually call me in the evening. Then I got a message from Autumn, JonMark's girlfriend. . . on and on it went.
Walking to the church I felt blessed today.
Part of my introspection and reflection leads me back to some familiar voices and teachers that help frame my life. Their words shape and direct my spiritual life and walk. Today it was Thomas Merton. For years I have appreciated his well-written and challenging teaching.
While spending time in solitude Merton offered the following prayer that I thought about today:
Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Have you ever given thought to the question: What does God really want from us?
Now, I know that there are a lot of answers to that question. The answers as varied as the people who deeply ask it of themselves and their church. Depending on your worldview and training you might answer it any number of ways. . .
You could consider what does God really want from us through a theological lens. I am schooled in theological language and tradition. The answers that come to my mind are expected and I can hear many of my theological professors referring to historical authors and teachings that they believe in--and they would be correct. Those are valid answers.
The answer to "What does God really want from us" can take an evangelistic approach. God wants us to share the gospel. To teach people. God wants us to help other come to find him and learn to trust and rely upon him--that that answer would be complete too.
On and on I went answering the question (just as you might) through lenses that I have been given or read about or believe in. But let me offer you one final direction or answer that I read about from Lillian Daniel.
In her book, When Spiritual but Not Religious is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, she tells a story that perhaps we have experienced.
In her story the church that she is serving has a new seminary intern who was assisting in worship. When the time came for the Pastoral Prayer, this student was called forward to lead it. He listened intently making sure to write down every prayer request as clearly as he could. Then he bowed his head and began the prayer.
But there was a pitfall that he would have to deal with in this prayer. The church had a member whose family was from Poland. The name sounded nothing like it was spelled and was nearly impossible for him to remember. He fumbled over the name trying to recall it. Saying it over and over again, wrongly each time, the church winched with each mistake in pronunciation. Lillian continues:
"Finally he let out an exasperated sigh. . . Continuing with the prayer, he looked up to the heavens and said, "Oh God, you know what the woman's name is.' It was an honest prayer. And the honestly was not just in his frustrated comment, but in his sigh to the heavens as well. He was being honest in his emotions in the middle of a prayer, and trusting that God could take care of the details."
You see, what this story teaches me is that: "What God truly desires of us" is an honest word or expression that comes straight from the heart. We don't need the pomp and circumstances of perfectly perfected prayers and theologically acute responses. What God wants from each of us in an honest word or thought that comes straight from the heart that speaks about faith and our lives.
We meet people every day that offer the properly crafted Christian response to every event, and while that is a blessing at times, at other it is not. When we are in the ditch, when we hurt, we someone that we love or care for is suffering, the honest response to God speaks loudly and fully about our faith and our relationship with the Living God.
I wonder today if you could find someone in your path who might benefit from this type of faith and response? Perhaps you might be instrumental in their grow and faith....
Monday, November 29, 2021
Finally Advent is here! For the next 26 days we will gather together as families and friends and live into the anticipation of what is coming--the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (and of course Santa)! And I wonder about the practices you will elevate during this season. . .
As I sit here this morning, my MacBook is softly playing Christmas music for me. This morning's playlist is a combination of hymns and popular Christmas carols set in a loop for me. As each one begins softly my ear attempts to identify it.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing. . .
Angels We have Heard on High. . .
Sleigh Ride. . .
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. . .
On and on the songs go. My ear hears them. Identifies them. And then catalogues each song in my mind as I smile. This final step helps me to remember the stories of my life that are associated with each song--the good and the sad.
Invariably my stories of Christmas end up in one of two places: the church or my Grandma and Grandpa Koptish's home (These are my mother's parents).
For instance, I can feel the hymnal resting in my hands as I do not need it to proclaim these songs in the context of worship. Eyes closed I sing each with love and joy. Candles on the advent wreath burning. Wearing my Christmas ties that my father bought me (I have 6 of them. . . the perfect number if you think about it).
I remember Grandma and Grandpa's. The record player in grandpa's desk playing each song. Bing Crosby. The Carpenters. I can hear them all in their front room. Their tree usually sat across the room to the right of the room. It was a full tree, but short and squat one. I have never seen lights like their lights on a tree. They were so different. Memories so rich that I had to lean back and smile today. . . I have fond memories of their home and Christmas with them.
Then with each memory I thought about the idea of new memories that will be formed here at Bethesda. The joy, the anticipation of worshiping the newborn king in our sanctuary for the first time. The Christmas Eve memorial time. Knowing that I/we will make some wonderful memories as we sing our Christmas carols together.
One of my Doctoral instructors suggested a book to me years ago that came to mind today as I heard the Christmas music today and as I thought about my memories. In his book, You Are what You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K.A. Smith wrote:
"In this way the gospel isn't just information stored in the intellect; it is a way of seeing the world that is the very wallpaper of our imagination. Stories that sink into our homes are the stories that reach us at the level of our imagination. Our imaginations are captured poetically. . . We're hooked by stories, not bullet points."
As The Little Drummer Boy plays, I have a fresh group of memories flood my mind. As Advent begins, and we make new memories together, I wonder what stories come to your mind of Christmas and what places are you being called to share them?
Wednesday, November 24, 2021
Have you ever been tempted to give up?
This morning that temptation came home to me. Let me explain. . .
Like most people, every now and then I sleep in a bad position. My alignment is off and I wake up with a horrible headache. This happened today for both Jennifer and myself. At about 5:45am I rolled over and could feel the beginnings of a headache taking root in the back of my head. As this happens at different times in my life, I have a series of remedies that I can fall back upon that often help remedy the situation for me.
First, I went to get some Advil from the hall closet. After taking a pair of them, I will often get an icepack for the back of my head to help alleviate the tension that is causing the headache to grow and keep me awake. Unfortunately neither remedy worked. . . So I proceeded to the next steps.
Yoga. Knowing that I slept wrong and knowing that my muscles are bound up in a bad position, I will practice some yoga to loosen the muscles gently and effective. I only made it through nine minutes of the practice before I needed to stop. My head was killing me now. This wasn't helping either and I was getting frustrated.
Well not to worry, I then headed for a very hot shower--or as I say it to Jennifer, "a screaming hot shower." I soaked my head, neck, and back and found some relief for the tension. But the relief was short lived. So there is one more thing to do: coffee!
My migraine doctor has suggested a hot cup of coffee at times to help beat back the headache. But like I said already, that didn't help.
Now let's go back to my first question: have you every been tempted to give up?
This morning I have felt that temptation whispering in my ear. . .
I arrived in my office a little before 8am. I knew that I had a lot of writing to today (including this post) and so I decided to just push through it. Sometimes that is how we confront issues that arise in our day--just push on.
But then I sat down. More specifically I sat down in my favorite IKEA chair in my study here at Bethesda. I rocked back and forth and could feel myself shifting my perspective. I could feel the gentleness of God coming close to my heart.
I read my morning devotion and again leaned my head back onto the top of the chair and closed my eyes to pray.
Now, I am not saying that my devotions cleared up a headache. Point of fact it did not. I still have the headache as I write now, but there are times when we are tempted to give up on our faithful work because the presenting issues of the day make life feel too challenging. My presenting issue is certainly a harassment to my plans--but in actually nothing more.
Instead this is becoming a day where I can lean back onto God more and more. I can trust in Him more and more. I can affirm, vocally, that I cannot do this without His help. And in my confession and prayer I know that God will come and God will help.
I know that you too have been tempted to give up, to pack it in, but I wonder what might happen if you brought God into the discussion and the pain? Perhaps the two of you might discover something. . .
Tuesday, November 23, 2021
Some times we are just too tired. . . Too tired to make that last phone call. Too worn out by the world or our work to answer another email. We are too exhausted to spend another few moments in God's word. We close our eyes to pray and can feel sleepiness edging its way across our minds beckoning us to just let it happen. . . For me, last evening, I was too tired--too tired to cook.
You see, shortly before 5pm Emma left for work. Jennifer and I would have a quiet evening to finish some projects around the house as we excitedly get ready to welcome our family to South Carolina on Wednesday evening. But we were hungry. I walked into the kitchen and looked at the chicken that Jennifer defrosted for me to use in my dinner preparations. Shoulders drooping I couldn't do it. I didn't want to do it. So I went to my normal 'well' of tools.
"What kind of chicken do you want?" I asked Jennifer across the house. The question was intended to learn how Jennifer wanted the chicken cooked and help me plan. On the grill out back? Diced in something? Pan fried? Baked? At least if she answered me I would have a direction, I thought.
She shrugged. "Whatever you feel like," she replied. (This was not going well).
After another moment looking around my cupboards I said, "I'm too tired. Want to order something?"
We then discussed it and joyfully settled upon pizza. We hadn't enjoyed much pizza since we arrived in York.
Looking around we selected a chain-restaurant. With excitement I announced to Jennifer that they would even deliver! Things were looking up! The evening was saved! So we ordered dinner. But I made a more mistake. I didn't look at the expected deliver time. To my shock and dismay I looked at Jennifer and told her the expected time until dinner:
Well I wouldn't starve I confessed so we went back to work settling into our house as we waited for the pizza delivery guy to show up.
About an hour later I looked at the tracking app that I have for our pizza order. In red the words said: "Driver delayed." I groaned out loud. Luna cocked her head at me in confusion. A few minutes later I stood on the front porch because I was notified that the driver was in my area.
I was out on the porch because I didn't want the dogs to go nuts when the guy arrived on my porch unannounced. German Shepherds don't like strangers and a pane of glass between them can be a bit unnerving for an unsuspecting guest.
For 15 more minutes I returned to the porch regularly expecting to have my pizza delivered. Finally, I had the pizza in hand and we enjoyed our dinner. But that whole experience got me thinking:
My expectations, and my projected response to the events of my evening, was so great that it dictated how I lived my life for nearly an hour and a half. My every thought was consumed with thoughts like:
"Will he find the house?"
"What does contact-less delivery look like for dinner?"
"What if he doesn't show up or gives up?"
"When will he be here?"
On and on my expectations fluttered into, and out of, my mind Again, it was only pizza. But I couldn't help but consider how that attitude permeates into my Christian life and faith walk? How often do my expectations fall out of line with what I expect or desire in my day? How often do we become so worked up with the events of our day that we lose the necessary perspective that helps us live faithfully into who God calls us to be?
I wonder what steps you can take today that will help keep your expectations in life? And I also wonder, what it might look like to bring God into that moment? Perhaps He has something to teach you that will help you continue to live faithfully?
Monday, November 22, 2021
This morning I awoke to the sound of light rain mixed with the hum of the fish tank that now sits on my dresser. As I blinked my eyes open, my ears began to notice other sounds in the room around me that greeted me. . .
Bianca's gentle snoring at the foot of the bed.
The rattle of the heater coming on and going off that chased away the cool morning.
And then there was the sound of the rain outside my window.
After having sipped some freshly ground coffee, I sat down to read my new book--Wintering.
I have wanted to read this book for years. I first heard about the book on a podcast (On Being) where the author gave an interview that still sticks with me. As I heard Katherine May speak about the subject of her book, and how she felt called to write it, and how it shaped her life, I knew that it would be a helpful text to have in my library. For I too have been through my own Wintering season (as I suspect you have as well).
Finally over the weekend I purchased the book with an orange dust jacket. In the prologue Katherine wrote these words for us:
"There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world and sometimes they open up and, you fall through them into somewhere else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somewhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world. Somewhere Else exists at a delay, so that you can't quite keep pace. Perhaps I was already teetering on the bring of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust shifting between the floorboards."
As I finished that paragraph, I leaned back and I sighed. . . Those words are why I bought this book in the first place. For how many of us have felt ourselves fall into Somewhere Else? We fall and have to trust that in the falling God will be there to catch us. But even in that confession, and the resoluteness of it, times do arise when confessing that God is coming for me can be hard.
But as I think about this, that place, that spot where we feel that we are falling into Somewhere Else, is an invitation into ministry and mission.
You and I are not the only people who have fallen into this state. Many people in our community, in our offices, or in our homes, fall into Somewhere Else and they need our help--the need God's help! I wonder if today God might be bringing someone to mind who you can partner with, sit with, or listen to. Perhaps together you both might find God?
Thursday, November 18, 2021
We live in a busy world... I know, that is not terrible shocking or helpful. That sentence might have just triggered a slight eye roll from you.
At every corner of our days we find things cramming up against us, pushing us toward productivity, toward functionalism. We find ourselves being asked to cultivate ways to live and exist that make less waste and achieve better results. The schedule is so cramped, or can become so cramped, that finding space for prayer and reflection can be quite challenging for most of us.
You see, even though we are called to prayer, and even though Jesus taught us how to pray, we neglect it because the day is so full that time cannot be allocated to practice the spiritual. And so, because our days are so full, and because we are tempted to add one more thing to the ever-growing list, the temptation becomes so great to push aside our spiritual lives.
But as we push aside who and what God calls us to be, we can become less welcoming.
As a sophomore in college I encountered an Eastern Orthodox Monk named Father Michael. He was old. His beard gray and it hung down past his collar bone. Father Michael's toothy smile encouraged me as I discerned much of what God was calling me to become. He was helpful in my growth spiritually and I learned many lessons from the authors that he placed in my hands.
In one of the first classes that he taught he offered us these words:
"You may put the door to your home anywhere, however, when someone finds it, they must find it open."
His words were simple. They are clear. But if you stopped to consider them there is a lot happening below the surface of that sentence that leads us back to our ever-filling days.
For I know many people who "put the door to their home" in a place where no one can find it. They have been so beaten up by the world, so pushed by their employment and supervisors, so pressed down upon by what they read and watch on the news, that they retreat in order to spiritually breath. . . And while that choice is valid at times, some of these same folks do not re-enter the ministry of the church because they have adopted some bad spiritual habits.
I have equally busy days. We are trying to support Jennifer as she settles us into our home. I am working to help move Emma into a new school. I am learning names and faces and feeling the rhythm of ministry here at Bethesda. But in all of that, I too feel the temptation to be less hospitable to God, less spiritual because the functional needs of my life are great.
It is then that Father Michael reminds me: "They must find it open."
And so I take a truck load of recycling to the town center and stand there for an extra few minutes listening to the guy who works there share about his day. I stop in at a gas station for a drink and make a point to listen to the worker and try and find a way to be encouraging and welcoming as God is always at work in our lives.
I wonder if today, you too might just be so busy. . . so pressed. . . so tempted to move the door to your spiritual home away from others? Perhaps leaving it accessible to them might provide a chance for you to serve God in a new way?
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
It is interesting to me to notice what defines a place as home. Noticing what little, small, things make home feel. . . well. . . like home. This morning the last member of our family finally made York her home. Let me tell you about it. . .
While sipping my morning coffee, I could once again hear Luna 'sniffing' behind Emma's door. She was ready to face the day. Now last night I could tell that Luna was getting more comfortable and relaxed in our new home because she repeatedly fell asleep with her monkey in her mouth. Every few minutes I would look out from the kitchen where I was unpacking boxes and there she would lay asleep on our living room rug. Breathing gently monkey and Luna were one.
Today was better still for her. . . .
I opened Emma's door a little after 6:30 and invited Luna out into the hallway. She trotted down the hall toward the front door. She had no idea what I had planned as she scurried around the front yard sniffing. Then I said it: "Luna," she looks up while turning her head slightly to the side, "Where is the stick?"
Her eyes lit up and her trotting and sniffing became full on running around the yard in excitement and joy. I began to walk toward the church with her at my heels. Every few steps I would ask her, "Did you find it? Where is the stick?" And that would spark her excitement again.
Finally behind the church, near the disc golf posts, we found a downed pine tree that I knew would be perfect for what I was looking for. As she ran past it I snapped off a fresh piece of pine and held it up. Luna was still running away, so I called her. "Luna where is the stick?"
Back arched and head held high, Luna ran toward me whimpering in happiness. I launched the stick as far as I could and listened to the rustling of leaves as she ran to get it. Dropping it at my feet she cried again in anticipation and sat down--could I possibly throw it again?!?
We made our way home. Me walking; Luna carrying her stick proudly.
At the front door she stopped walking, stick still in her mouth. She looked back at me, and slowly lowered her head and released the vice grip of her jaws on that piece of pine. With a gentle thud the stick hit the ground next to the door and she sat down ready to go get a drink and have her breakfast. Luna was home and her stick proved it.
Home is a funny thing--if you think about it. I think if you take a moment today and consider it, you will notice that home is defined by little, seemingly insignificant things (like where the stick rests). But without those things, home does not feel like home.
Craig Barnes says it this way:
"It doesn't matter what you move, how fast you run, or how many new identities you try on along the way, you can't escape the longing for home. . . "
And so, if we all long for home, I wonder what steps do we take to create and sustain home? And more than just what steps do we take, can we help others find ways to make their transitions easier?
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
This morning, I awoke for the first time in the new manse here at Bethesda. Bianca's gentle snoring welcomed me as I sat up to begin another day of ministry with this community. I switched off the gentle piano music that serves as my iPhone alarm, rubbed my eyes, found my glasses, and smiled. . . It was going to be another great day to serve God!
As I walked into the hall (and stepped over Luna's favorite rope toy and ball), I heard her gentle sniffing at Emma's door. She knew that she was up and wanted to join me. We went outside for her morning trip around the yard and I felt the gentle coolness on my face. Heading back into the house, I was now a man on a mission!!!
Pacing around the living room, dinning room, and den, I searched our piles of boxes for my prize--a coffee cup. Nothing turned up no mater how long I looked and pleaded in my mind for one to magically appear in a box.
I went downstairs to where the vast majority of our boxes still live and began to look them over. Luna followed me down and was sniffing and trotting around--so many smell and so little time. After looking through two rooms I could still not find my prize. Irritation was starting to creep into my mind, but I was pushing it away. I just wanted a cup of coffee.
But I remembered how blessed I felt here as I sat up and resolved not to be too annoyed that I couldn't find a cup. Five or so boxes later I laid my hands on a single mug! Coffee was coming!
The cup in question might have been one of Emma's Little Mermaid mugs, but I didn't care. It would hold coffee and I would use it. My mission was half over. Now I needed to find the coffee maker and then find the coffee. . .
That process took 15 more minutes. I found the items that I needed and moved table closer to wall so I could plug in the little appliance (the kitchen counters are not sealed yet so I don't want to be too active in there).
Coffee in hand, I sat down in the middle of the den to sip my coffee as the sun came through the windows. It felt good, but then I remembered someone else. . . Jennifer. Yesterday, she spent so much time unpacking with Emma's help that she quite literally fell into bed exhausted and sore. She was so pleased to be in the manse last night that she worked hard to make that happen.
My morning coffee, in my dimly-lit den, would not have been possible without her. So I smiled, stood up, and quietly walked my hot cup of coffee back to her bedside. I wasn't going to wake her, but wanted to do some small thing to help her feel blessed and appreciated for all the work she's done on behalf of our family. The coffee was a little thing, but it was the least that I could do. She woke at the smell of it and sipped the coffee as we talked about our individual morning plans.
Marie Francois Therese Martin, better know in the Christian Church as Therese of Lisieux (her childhood home), wrote these words for the church in the early 20th century:
"Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love."
It was only a cup of coffee, but it was my single, small thing that I could do for her. I wonder: what small sacrifice or kindly word could God be asking you to make today? I wonder how that might bless someone else and change both of your days?
Monday, November 15, 2021
When I signed up for Dr. Craig Barnes class on "Pastoral Arts," I did not know what I was expecting or anticipating. I mean seriously, what are "Pastoral Arts?!?"
Well, as I learned on that first day of class, "Pastoral Arts" relate to planning of funerals, baptisms, the Lord's Supper, and other services of the church calendar that new ministers do not always know how to write. This was a lab-like class for preachers. The class was a blessing to me.
Part of Craig's teaching style was to assign a number of theological texts and resource books along with one novel to the class. He felt these novels helped support the material he was offering in the lectures.
When Craig was still teaching at Pittsburgh Seminary, I would check in every year and see what new novel he was reading and then try and read it myself. Most times the novel was, shall we say. . . unremarkable. I still can't make it though The Secret Life of Bees--but I hear it is very good.
But the year that I initially enrolled in Pastoral Arts, the novel that I was given was wonderful. The book was titled, Gilead.
This is the factitious story of Rev. John Ames. He was a Presbyterian pastor who wrote a journal to his son. In the book we learn that John is dying and these are the final words that he offers to his son as a way to help the boy remember his father. There are a lot of passages that speak to my soul, but the one for today that I want to share is this:
"This morning you came to me with a picture you had made that you wanted me admire. I was just at the end of a magazine article, justing finishing the last paragraph, so I didn't look up right away. Your mother said, in the kindest, saddest voice, "Ho doesn't hear you." Not "He didn't" but "He doesn't." "
I don't think that John Ames is the only person who 'doesn't' hear when someone we care about is talking with us.
I wonder what might happen to us if we found ways in our days to move away from "doesn't hear" to toward a gentle posture of listening and presence that John Ames' wife was speaking about in the above quotation?
Jesus always had time for the needy in his community but he also had plenty of time for the folks who pushed his buttons and argued with him. Yet our Savior never became wrathful or impatient. . . He never lashed out against an individual (sure he was upset when he drove the money changers out of the Temple, but he did not lay a finger on them). Instead he made time to listen and be with everyone.
Perhaps today God will put someone in your life that would benefit from a posture of listening and patience?
Thursday, November 11, 2021
Early this morning, my day began. . . really early. Shortly after 3:45am Bianca began to stir at the end of the bed. She gurgled and rolled around before finally sitting up and shaking her head violently side to side. (And now I'm awake, I thought). I felt her walk across the edge of the bed toward me.
Stopping at my knees she began a low growl. . . (cue the eye roll). I tried to ignore her. I hoped she'd go back to sleep--I know that I wanted to.
She moved closer to me hip and continued the low growl. I opened my eyes just a fraction of the way to see her fully awake staring at me. Ears up and tail wagging. She needed to go out. In resignation I climbed out of bed and found my slippers. I sighed as I picked her up because I knew the worst was yet to come. . .
As we walked together into the living room, Luna stood up in her crate and began to whimper. She wanted to come to, and being 2-years-old meant that she was up for the morning.
After letting the ladies out, I closed the house up to find Luna laying next to Jen with her ears up and her tail wagging at me. What's that hold saying, 'move your feet, lose your seat???" I was beaten by a dog back to bed. Smiling I grabbed a blanket and headed for the couch. Some battles aren't worth the effort at 3:45am.
Stretching out on the couch I decided that I would spend some early morning time in prayer as I thought about what as to come later today. I recalled my mental list of things to do and began to work my way down the list while I listened to Bianca snore from the next room over.
My ethics professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary wrote these words in a journal that I am reading right now. He wrote:
"Prayer is conversation. John Calvin speaks of it as a conversation with God. or as Jurgen Moltmann says, 'God listens to his friends.' Then he adds: 'Friendship with God finds its preeminent expression in prayer.' And just as too much thinking stops a conversation with friends, too much theologizing stops our conversations with God."
Ron is right about that. . . At 3:45am my prayer with God was less formal that expected. It is less structured and more spontaneous. It was like talking to a friend, close friend. That prayer was a grouping of thoughts and a few sentence fragments as I worked my way back to sleep. But let's not pretend that my prayer this early morning was not transformational!
My entire day as had a different pacing to it because of those prayers. I forgot my laptop when I came to the church, but instead of being frustrated and going home to get it, I shrugged and retreated for the device.
Some crazy things can happen when we make prayer less formal with God and more intimate. I wonder what might happen for you when you and God converse next time?
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
What a wonderfully busy day!
Shortly after 8am, I unlocked the door to the church office for the first time here at Bethesda Presbyterian Church and walked in. My calling has brought me to this place and I anticipate it being a tremendous blessing.
The cool crisp air of York ushered me into the building as I flipped on the light for the first time. Sipping some coffee, I then walked across the office toward my door. I could feel my anticipation growing in me.
I opened the door to my new office and saw the totes of books lined up neatly behind my desk by Donna. I found my other six totes in the next room over. . . Again, I forced a smile as I took my bag off my shoulder and looked around to decide where to begin. It was time to "settle in" to my/our new home.
For about 45 minutes I placed books on the shelf while trying to calculate the necessary space needed for what was still lying in those totes yet to be unearthed. This can be hard to not have to redo over and over again. I hummed a song that JonMark shared with me as I opened the first box:
"I'm no longer a slave to fear, oh I am a child of God."
Shortly after 9am Pat, my new secretary, came in for the morning. We talked a little, but I knew that time was ticking on my morning. . . I had to be close to finishing up by 10am when LaRyne, my gifted musician, would be coming in to talk about Advent plans and music.
Some time after we were done another guest stopped in, Cheryl. (I don't really know what time it was because the day was going to fast). She brought the family lunch of chicken salad, fruit, and Oreos.
I met Mark as he hung Pat's new coat rack and saw the beautiful job he did on a little task that his wife gave him. I could tell that he is a gifted craftsman.
Trudy came in and let me know that she was taking Emma shopping--I couldn't thank her enough. Intuitively, she realized that Emma was getting overwhelmed watching the movers bring our stuff into the house and set up. Her presence helped Emma relax and made Emma feel special.
Donna was in again, third time of the morning, and I couldn't stop smiling. The church has so much life and activity at every corner of it.
Today reminded me of something that heard from Amos Yong. He is a professor at Fuller Theological in Pasadena, California. Amos' work on hospitality has been at topic that I have checked in on from time to time. He defines hospitality as:
"Inviting the other into our space."
I like that definition at lot. It's simple and easy to apply.
In this case, my family is the "other," and Bethesda is the "our space." Today we feel--to a person--very "invited."
You see hospitality is the framework for relationship building and community access. Hospitality is not just what we as the church do in response to God's presence, it is what we become deliberately and by choice. We become hospitable because we choose to be. As the church, we notice who the other person is and we take steps to invite them into the sacredness of our space.
Tonight I have a fellowship dinner to attend with my family. It will be another chance to feel and experience the hospitality of the Bethesda community. I can't wait to have some spaghetti with them and eat as church family.
I wonder when was the last time that you felt the inviting pull of hospitality come into your life? I bet that it made a difference in your life, I know it did today for me. . .
Thursday, October 28, 2021
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Today I wonder about memory. . . let me explain.
This afternoon I took Emma's car as I went out to visit some of my shut-ins for the final time before I leave Plains this weekend.
Doing such visits have been a little difficult during covid-19. I have found the doors closed to visit my church family members by a number of institutions because of health concerns. I understand the necessity and reasoning behind such decisions, but like I said, those choices make visiting and bringing God's word to the church family a little harder.
As I backed Emma's car out of the driveway I received four notifications on the screen. These notifications were why Emma asked me to take the car in the first place. All four of her tires were low on air and she was concerned and didn't know exactly what to do.
As a loving dad I didn't chide her about how to put air into the tires. Instead I smiled and drove to GetGo for some air before my first visit of the afternoon.
Placing the nozzle onto her tire the machine churned into life. Air steamed into her driver's front side tire. . . beeping when it was done. I stood and moved to the back tire. At that time, a gentle drizzle turned into a sprinkle.
The rain wasn't going to stop me. She needed air and I had the time. I knew that it was going to take a minute or two, but didn't care. I just did what needed to be done. Yet, it was raining harder now, as I moved to the passenger's side.
I flipped the hood of my Mickey sweatshirt up and continued to wait for the front tire to fill with air and then beep. About that time, the memory kicked in. . . I remembered the rain.
I remembered how I used to dislike rain in the Boy Scouts until I learned that if I couldn't feel it hitting my skin then I was of no concern. Other boys would complain, but not me. I was focused on my jobs. Then my memory turned back to Nepal and the rainiest day of my life.
I have talked about cutting bamboo, on a steep hillside, in a torrential, monsoon-like, rain before. We laughed and cut bamboo all morning together as a church family. Then we carried each stalk together as a team up a very, very steep hill, across a green tea field and deposited it down in the pile. All the while laughing while we did it and working hard.
Sure we were chilled to the bone not long after we were done. But the day was transformational and I remembered it.
Yet would I have thought about Nepal, and remembered the church camaraderie, and prayed for my friends in Nepal, without the rain today? If I hadn't needed to fill Emma's tires would I have slowed down enough in my hectic day to notice a memory that God was offering to my heart?
I bet you know that answer. . . It might just be the same answer that you are offering up today when that moment comes in your life?
I wonder what memory God might bring to your heart today if you gave God the chance?
I got back in Emma's car and continued on to my next stop, but my heart was changed and I was blessed. Memory has the power. I hope you will find some time today to remember. . .
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