Thursday, January 28, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 28

Today while I was attempting to finish a book entitled Face to Face: Meeting Christ in Friend and Stranger, I read a story that I wanted to share with you. 

This is the story of a young, unnamed boy. When he was in his early teens the pent up rage from a demanding father and difficulties at school reached their boiling points. His father was a former military man who demanded near perfection from his son, and whether we agree with that choice or not, it had a profound impact on the boy. He and his best friend, who we will call Paul, frequency snuck out of their homes at night or skipped school in an attempt to find both community, and solace, from the challenges of life that they dealt with daily. 

One night, the boys cycled their bikes to the new church that was being built in the area. As the boy describes it, he became overwhelmed as they walked into the sanctuary. The rage bubbled up in a way it never did before and he began to destroy the church property. The two boys did a lot of damage that night. In a letter that he wrote years later, the boy who is now a man, says that he cannot recall how bad it was. The only thing he remembers from the incident is that the church was closed for a month for repairs. The two swore each other to secrecy, but the following day the police came and took the boys away for the night. 

The boy returns his home expecting his father to enact some form of punishment on his wayward son as he has done before. Instead he finds his father with red puffy eyes from crying all night and the news clippings of the event scattered on the table before him. They will have to pay for half of the damage. The father pays 25% the boy works to fulfill his 25%.  

The two go to the local church to speak with the pastor as part of the deal. The pastor does not ask for anything from the boy, no apology or explanation. He only asks one, unique, thing. He wants the boy and his father to come to church next week. The boy will learn a passage of the Bible and then stand before the church and say it. That’s it . . . The boy spends the entire week learning and practicing for the moment that he would stand before the people of the church he damaged and recite the Bible to them. When the time comes he goes to worship, he stands on the platform, and he recites the famous words in total: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . “ He continues all the way to the end of the psalm and returns to his seat. 

This unmanned boy, wrote his story in letter form to the author of the book many years later. He ends the letter with these words:

"I believe the Lord did lead me like a shepherd [that night]. He opened the door of his house to me when he knew I was in pain. As I look back now it’s so painfully clear. I realize that I could never have done damage to his church. His church is made entirely out of love."

This letter isn’t saying, “Hey I’ve made my mistakes in life but I learned from them and I’ve gone on to be a fine upstanding citizen. . . “ It’s saying [instead], “I was a stranger to God and my father was my enemy. And through what seemed to be my disastrous loss of control, I met God and for the first time found a relationship with Him. I’ve discovered the most wonderful thing of all: a new future that’s made out of the healing of the past.”

As I finished the story and chapter, I put the book down next to my favorite reading chair and wondered: 

Is this not resurrection? 

That which seemed dead, dying, or alienated was made alive because God loves us and God can, even when it seems impossible, break through everything to be with us? I wonder if there is a place, or a relationship, that God might be trying to break through with you? If there is, or if you know someone who suffers in this way, I wonder how you might encourage and help them? 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 27

My friends, 

This morning began with a phone call. . . Well actually it began by waking up, getting ready for my day, and heading to the church on a cold morning. But the highlight of the morning, what made the morning special, was the phone call. When I was able to return the phone message that my friend left me, we engaged in a nearly 1-hour conversation on a number of important topics. I paced gently, as I often do when I’m on the phone, back and forth around my office listening and responding to questions. Again, this conversation addressed many topics in ministry and life. I answered all of my friend’s questions as clearly as I could and he answered mine with the same clarity and gentleness. In great personal detail we discussed some of the important topics of the day and the church universal’s ministry. Honestly, I have conversations like this often either on my iPhone or through Zoom throughout the week. I enjoy the interactions and the conversations. They bless me.   

But then, as our conversation was winding down, my friend wondered about how I was handling the transition of moving JonMark into college??? 

I sighed and chuckled as the question was asked. I did not expect this to come up, but maybe I should have. . . My friend is a good friend. I know that friendship means taking the time to nurture relationships and it often involves asking questions like, “How are you and Jennifer handling JonMark moving into college?” You and I both know that friendship means listening—deep listening. It means an investment in the life of the other person simply because you care and also because you do not want anything out of the relationship except to listen in that moment. 

But he didn’t have to ask. . . and that’s the point today. 

He didn’t have to ask me about my son. I neither anticipated talking about JonMark nor excepted it. If our conversation ended without the topic of college transition coming up, I would not have thought any different about the whole encounter. It was still a good, productive, friendship-affirming conversation. And yet, more happened in those 50ish minutes, and it turned out that I needed ‘more’ from my friend. I shared the narrative with him about leaving JonMark at Edinboro and how it still stings a bit. I thought about how we brought JonMark a tote filled with things that he did not anticipate needing over this past weekend, and the joy of having dinner with him. I spoke about how Emma is handing the transition (and the bigger bedroom). I even talked about JonMark’s relationship with my father who has been gone since we came to Plains. 

A conversation about secular topics moved into a time of impromptu pastoral care. . . And I was grateful. It was what I needed. I don’t know if my friend knew it, but God did. And God sent him to me today so that I could talk and someone else could listen. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t cry during the call, and I don’t feel any additional sadness. At the time of writing this, my heart is uplifted and I feel God’s presence at my desk. Instead, I smiled as I told my story to my friend in great detail. And yet just an unexpected someone taking the time in an already busy morning to listen to me share. . . that’s ministry. That’s sharing a story. That’s God at work, and I am thankful that my friend called. 

I wonder who is God bringing to your mind today that might need a phone call just like the one that I had this morning? Who could you spend just a little more time listening to today, and what would that mean for them? 

Rev. Derek

Monday, January 25, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 25

Today has been a busy, blessed, morning for me. Between meetings, and reading the story of Jonah to the 3-year-olds, I have scarcely found time to sit and think. I am sure my Apple Watch will show me how many steps around the church I have taken—and again, I feel blessed. . . 

As I entered my office for the morning, I picked up the book that I have been reading this week to see what “Thought” God would share with me in our devotions. But I knew that I did not have a lot of time to dedicate to my devotions. Nonetheless, I sat and I read for a few brief moments. The words came from Meister Eckhart, in what he titles, “Sermon VI” touched my heart today. His words blessed me, but like I said, I did not have time to sit with them and contemplate their meaning. 

Again, let me say that I have had a great day, a day of blessing! I hurried off to the sanctuary to turn on the lights and get ready to read to the children of CNS. This is a new task that this school of me, and I am happy to share God’s word with them. This month we were reading about Jonah. . . As the VeggieTales will remind us, “Jonah was a prophet, but he never really got it!” (Sad by true. . ) It’s a great story. As I read each page of the story of Jonah off my iPad, little Mia’s attention as captured! 

The story of Jonah is, and let’s honest here, a little absurd if you think about it. A giant storm coming onto a board because of disobedience? Throwing the prophet of God over-board to solve the problem and stop the storm? . . . And seriously, a fish swallows Jonah and does not digest him! It's a crazy story—and Mia knew it. But Mia, with her bright eyes, and energy, was enthralled by the story and the pictures of it. She could barely sit on the front pew and listen because of God’s word. At pivotal each moment in the story she would look at me and say, “Seriously! Oh my goodness!” It was awesome. The story of God was touching her life, but the end she was super serious; God was there. 

As I read to the children, Eckhart’s words kept coming back to my mind because even in Jonah we hear, if we are listening, words of care and love. God loved Jonah even when he did not listen to a divine mandate/call. God responded to Jonah’s prayer deep in the belly of the fish. God forgave an entire city of Gentiles when their behavior did not mandate such an action. This morning, God was touching Mia’s heart with a story about listening to God and doing what God says. As she left, Mia waved back at me, I wonder what she and God will talk about later. . .  

I hope that this passage from Meister Eckhart blesses you. . . I hope it touches your heart as it did mine. Read it slowly. . . Read it again, and as you do consider what the love of the “Absolute” might be saying to you today! What might God be saying in your life? 

God is love” first because love comes to all, excluding no one. . . 
God is all the best that can be thought or desired by each and every person—and more so!. . . 
Every creature is something finite, limited, distinct, and proper, and those it is already not love. God with his total self is a common love. . . . 
God is love because He loves totally. 
On God’s love toward us note first how much He loves us totally with His whole being; second, how He loves us with the very same love by which He loves and cherishes Himself, his coeternal Son and the Holy Spirit. . . 
It follows that He loves us with the same glory in mind by which He loves Himself. . . 
He loves us “as if He had forgotten everything else,” or almost everything else. . . 
God’s nature, existence, and life consist in sharing Himself and giving Himself totally. 
He is absolutely the Absolute."

Rev. Derek

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 21

As you may have seen on Facebook, Jennifer and I moved JonMark into his college dorm yesterday. There was, and is, a lot to say about the day’s events. My arms are still tired from carrying his stuff up to his room on the 4th floor. I will save those thoughts for a later date—maybe. Perhaps they are things that only God and I will talk about. 

When I sat down to write today, I was reminded of the words of Meister Eckhart as I thought about yesterday. He once said: 

"Truly, it is in the darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us."

As Jennifer and I walked away from our firstborn, and back to my salt-covered truck, tears were in our eyes and a lump in our throats. Words were hard to get out. We told him we loved him and he told us that he loved us. I wanted tell him so much still and yet I also realized that I no longer needed to. He is ready. We have done our job to the best of our ability. He will excel as a college student, as a man, and a nurse. His faith in Christ Jesus is strong and his faith will continue to grow. Jennifer and I made an attempt to talk a little on the ride home, but it was hard. Naturally our minds gravitated back to JonMark and our desire to bring him home—which we know will happen sooner than we think. 

And yet, in the midst of that slight darkness, light crept through. . . 

We were sad to leave Edinboro, and yet, our pride swelled. I didn’t have to pray about my sadness, or ask God for help comfort me or protect JonMark at school. I had no words to offer anyways. . . save the pride in my son and my trust in God to be with him. I wanted more from God to help me and Jennifer, but I also felt strangely that “more" was not needed as we drove home in relative silence. The only noise was the occasional *sniffle* as we dared to talk about him. [Yes, we know that we will see him soon, but we miss him anyway. Even though he reminds me that ’no one loves me.']

As I began to prepare dinner, I grabbed the bowl of eggs from the refrigerator and sat them down on the counter next to me to work. I smiled, JonMark loves to fry an egg. He eats a lot of eggs when he is home. We always said that if there was a nuclear war, he would be set so long as there were eggs to eat. He would never starve. As I cooked dinner, I thought about how pungent the kitchen would smell if JonMark was frying eggs—the spices, the sauces, and the bread that he uses are a bit overwhelming to my nose. I can’t imagine that the eggs taste at all like eggs after he’s doing preparing them. . . but he likes his spices so I don’t mind.

Suddenly, I was less sad and more content. The light had broken through. I would be sad later when Luna ran around the house looking for him and couldn’t find him. She is still confused this afternoon that he is not home. I would be sad when I heard a country singer’s voice echo the song Jennifer sang to him, “You are my sunshine.” And I still miss him now. Yet the light has broken through the darkness—even if my darkness isn’t that dark at all. God always finds a way to come and support us whether we suffer greatly or only a little.  

I wonder, where are the places in your day, in your heart, that feel dark? Large or small it does not matter. . . And I further wonder if God is finding a way to break in and show you how close He actually is? 

Rev. Derek 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 19

In this time of transition in our country, I was re-reading a book that I used as part of my doctoral research that spoke to me this afternoon. My doctoral advisor recommended this book because it helped shape a lot of the thinking that he did as a pastor of a thriving church in our area. And while the book is not theological in nature, or written for the church generally, the work of Gillian Tett can be instrumental in helping society, and in our case the church, live faithfully, and care faithfully, in a culture that is in transition and polarized. 

In her book ,The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers, she writes these words: 

Silos are fundamentally a cultural phenomenon. They arise because social groups and organizations have particular conventions about how to classify the world.” 

After defining what a silo is, in her mind, she continues in her book by saying: 

 “The key point is this: with or without a formal training in anthropology, we all do need to think about the cultural patterns and classification systems that we use. If we do, we can master our silos. If we do not, they will master us.” 

Another way that we can consider a ’silo-mindset’ is to think about the 'echo chamber’ that exists around us—an idea some in our culture look for and collate accordingly. Together these ideas relate to how we as people tend to look for, and belong to, groups that only support our mindset or affirm our beliefs. We then exclude any other opportunities to think and learn. While there is a value in being with like-minded Christians that I do support, the danger of a ’silo-mindset’ is that we stop analyzing and considering what we witness before us each day. We create a loop that only affirms us, and while that silo affirms us, it also devalues the other person drastically. It devalues their belief, their feelings, their experience. 

Silo-thinking leads to social isolation because we no longer engage in healthy discussions or considerations on a topic. We only look for people who think like us, act like us, and reason like us.

That makes it quite hard to be faithful to the calling God places upon us as the church. 

I am happy to say that the ’silo-mindset’ is being addressed in our Sunday school discussions group. We come together and affirm that we do not have the answer. We listen to differing opinions and lines of thinking. There is an unspoken ’togetherness’ that is being grown here because each of us, regardless of the stressors or our day, are able to put aside things that could divide us and we look for creative things that we can do to live faithfully. 

We know that we cannot fix everything that is wrong in our culture, and so rather than pontificate on these issues, or make judgements, we lean into God and let God handle it. We listen. We think. And by doing so we discover new and creative things. 

So I wonder what silos are at work in your life? 

I have them in my life. My wife and children do as well. Instead of losing hope because they are there, I wonder what small, incremental step you can take to address the things that separate us from one another? Because when we work to end silos in our lives, we open ourselves up to new possibilities that God will reveal. 

Rev. Derek

Monday, January 18, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 18

I was thinking today about the meaningful conversations that we have had during our Sunday school class. As you might remember, the class and I are reading the book Better Together: Discover the Power of Community. With the events at the capital, and the polarizing community from which we live and work, the conversations have been rich. In the first two weeks of our class we have addressed some hard topics, and I am happy say, we have not solved anything. Instead we have chosen to be comfortable without having to formulate the 'correct’ response to these moments of instances. That is not to say that we have denied them, or chosen to associate them with ’those people.’ 

As I listen to the members of our class, I can tell that they are engaging the topic at a deep level while still understanding that some issues are too big for a Sunday school class to fix. It has been a blessing to participate and lead these discussions. 

With the discussion from this past Sunday still fresh in my mind, I read the words of Dr. King today and they affirmed to me that we are on the right path here at Plains. He said: 

"Rarely do we find men [and women] who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think."

When I read the news, or consider what I see in the world around me, I begin to agree all the more with Dr. King. We do seek, ‘half-baked solutions’ to many issues. Many people want a quick fix to problems that years of neglect created. Solid thinking has taken the place of ‘click bait,’ and I find myself being swallowed up more and more into the mire of it. I can scarcely read or watch anything related to current events without it spiraling into a game of assigning blame. Certainly, blame is part of repentance—we do confess our sins each week as we examine our lives. But seldom, in my experience, do we engage the long, hard work of solid, introspective thinking. 

This takes me back to our discussion group on the book Better Together. From the very beginning of our time together, then temptation existed to ’solve’ the problem or assign blame. While we may have started down that path, it did not take long of the class to, on its own, seek solutions that are creative and adaptive to what we see outside our windows and watch on TV. We did not create a large-scale solution that everyone should just believe it. Neither did we cast blame directly. We talked about sin and we talked about righteous living and faithful expressions that God calls from us. That conversation ended with a desire to find a project in the church that was service oriented. 

We knew that we were not going to fix anything, and so rather than try to fix the world, we wondered what would it look like if we found something small, something personally applicable, that we could do together? Like building an outdoor chapel. . . 

The class ended without a solution, but the solid thinking led us down a new path that I had not imagined when I sat down. And so I wonder, where is that place of sold, hard thinking happening in your life? What would it look like to find that place and then determine a personal way to implement what you and God learned together? 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 14

One thing that I have noticed, that is growing in our culture, is not that we do not listen to each other. We might say that we listen; we might have convinced ourselves that we do listen well. But stop and think with me for a moment. . . Be honest. When was the last time you really listened to the other person? Deeply listened? Listened without forming a counter argument or response? Listened because it was what God asked you to do in that moment? 

In her book, Sanctuary, Heidi B. Neumark spends time reflecting on a number of encounters that she has as a local Lutheran Pastor. In one section, while quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer she writes this: 

"In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote words that long ago convicted me: ’So often Christians. . . think that their only service is always to have to ‘offer’ something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service. . . Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either.’ His words helped shape my own path forward. I needed to show up and listen to stories offered as a sacred trust by brave storytellers whose names I will never forget." 

It is too easy to say that if we just listened to one another that things would work out in our culture or that the wounds would heal. I wish that were true, but I suspect it is not. Sadly, not everything can be fixed by having a ‘cup of coffee’ with another person and then returning to our normal lives. There are times when a deep change, a new way of learning, and thinking, is necessary for everyone. No longer can we just affirm words like, ‘can’t we all just get along’ and think that this is enough. Too much has happened, and too much has changed, for that be possible. 

A change is called forth by God in us, and referenced by Neumark. 

When we listen to other people we build a sacred trust with them that is strong and grounded in God’s presence. Brick by listening-brick our presence, our willingness to show up, helps the wounded, the marginalized, the forgotten, the hurting, the confused know that someone cares for them. They are valuable to us, and so we listen. In this listening act, the other person learns that someone has taken a chunk of time out of their already full and day to listen. . . really listen. . . deeply listen to what has wounded the other person. In that moment, we stop making people a commodity to gain and we build a relationship together that is based on our willingness to listen. For when we listen, without offering answers or solutions, we are practicing our faith and living as God asks us to live.

And so I wonder, who is God bringing before you that you could listen to? I suspect that the person whom you are called to listen to is not being listened to by others consistently. They might want to be heard, and you might think that they are. But if you look, if you pause and look, you will see that few people listen in that moment.  

Perhaps in a normal day you might not think that this act of listening to them accomplishes anything. But if listening is called forth by God, and I believe that it is, and if listening is our Christian act of service, then you are serving and caring for the other person just because you listen. So find someone to listen to and see what you learn. . .   

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 13

I wondered today, why do we do the right thing? 

Forgetting what that right thing looks like, or how we define it, or any other self created criteria that could define and support our understanding of the right thing, I wonder about the right thing and its occurrence in our lives… In our current relative, pluralistic, and yet intensely personal culture, being able to determine what the ‘right thing’ is, I suspect can be challenging at times. Whether we agree or not, the people who invaded the US Capital building felt they were doing the right thing. But were they? 

Let’s stop and think about this idea for a few moments. There are a lot of questions that come to mind at this point: 

First, once we make a decision about what the ‘right thing’ is, do we practice, or implement, that the right thing so that someone will notice? Someone close to us. . . someone at work. . . The person, or family, next door. . . Does my choice of behavior and/or action take shape so that I will receive the praise and glory because of some level of personal holiness or piety? As I stop looking only at myself, I wonder about my faith walk with God as I try to live faithfully. As I consider my faith walk, I wonder, is right living done so that God will take notice of me? Or the church will see my right living choices? Is this my attempt to stand out among all of creation before God? Again that can be a self-elevating practice or stance. Do I want a blessing because I choose to live a certain way? Do I do the ‘right things’ in my life, or make the right choice, for selfish gain only? Or is that choice made so that I will feel better when I find myself mired in sin and choices that I should not have made? 

So there’re any number of internal reasons that I might choose to live rightly and few of them take me first to concepts of faithfulness. 

I was sitting in my car this morning waiting for an early appointment to take place. While I waited, I was listening to the podcast: Mind of the Warrior. The title of the episode that I was listening to was: “Welcome to 2021! Or maybe its 2020 2.0.” The host of the show is a special forces veteran and emergency room physician who lives in Texas with his family. About every couple weeks, Dr. Mike releases a show where he talks for about 45-minutes about what’s on his mind and what’s happening in the world around us. 

On today’s show, the focus was on not making New Year’s Resolutions. Dr. Mike hates them. 

As an avid practicer of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for many years, Dr. Mike says that he gets very frustrated by people cluttering up his local gym when he is trying to work safely during the pandemic. They make it hard for him to remain safe and practice the type of living the the feels called to. He says, “I know that I won’t see these people after mid-February because they are not committed to changing their lives. And it just frustrates me.” 

Listening to the show, I began to wonder about why do we do what we perceive as the right thing for only a short amount of time? For the people Mike is referring to in his show, they are doing the right thing because it is ‘what we are supposed to do each year.’ But that is not a commitment, or the beginning of a commitment, it's actually going along with the crowd. It is doing the right thing because everyone around me says that is what we do or what we are supposed to do. But where is the long-lasting, life-changing, faith-grounding moment or experience? 

And I wonder again about you, how do you define the right thing in light of trying to live faithfully as a Christian? Do you go along with the crowd because that is what the church does? Do you practice your faith so that you can learn more from God and about God? I wonder if we lived this way, if our commitments were first and foremost to God, how that might change how we engage the ‘right thing?’

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 12

Its 1:30 and I finally found some space in my day to reflect, and what I learned was necessary. Let me explain: 

Today my attention has been held on two projects; two large projects. The first is the normal Sunday preparation that I work with each week as a pastor. As I have mentioned before, I am a creature of habit. So on Tuesday morning I have several ‘habits’ that I engage in that help my mind consider what is God saying in the Word for us. These habits help continue moving my thoughts onward as I prepare for Sunday. The second item that I was focused upon this morning is a presentation that I am writing about fatherhood. This talk will be recorded soon and presented to ICN for their fatherhood conference in Liberia. With a hard deadline approaching for both projects, my mind was a cluttered, jumbled, hectic mess. . . And I loved it! 

Deliberately I set out researching and reading, gathering and collating material for either of my two projects. Books began to pile up around my desk and writing nook. My favorite Disney World background music playing quietly next to me, I worked hard and felt blessed. The morning flew by. I was invigorated by the work I was doing. My creativity was a blaze of ideas and thoughts. It was hard to keep everything focused in one direction. With each passing cup of tea, my fingers pressed down on this keyboard quickly and wrote. . . and wrote. . . and wrote. 

As I said, I was happy and felt enlivened by today!  

By noon, I felt content with my progress, and so, I went to find my lunch. I walked home listening to some Christian music while comforted by my productivity. I was getting things done which needed to be done and that was a good thing. I sighed as I got home and slipped off my shoes. I was going to enjoy my lunch—I earned a good meal! It was only then that something felt off—something I wonder if you deal with in your life as well.  

Lunch went fine. Nothing out of the ordinary. I spoke with Jennifer about her day, and we talked about various topics that came up about my day. JonMark asked me to email a couple people for him, and I did. All was well. But was it? 

I briskly walked back to my desk after lunch, made a fresh cup of lemongrass tea, and opened the file that I was working on. Smiling I re-read my work and tried to add to it. . . nothing. I picked up my notes for Sunday read them again. . . nothing to add. I sipped my tea and tried to “do” what needed to be done again. Nope. Nothing happened. No words came. No passion. No energetic words starting filling may pages. I was deadlocked. Gazing out my window into what was supposed to be a sunny Pittsburgh day, the words of Clare of Assisi came to mind. 

She once said: 

Our labor here is brief, 
But the reward is eternal. 
Do not be disturbed by the clamor of the world,
Which passes like a shadow.
Do not let false delights 
Of a deceptive world
Deceive you

Whenever I read, or consider, Clare’s words I a reminded about perspective and about how I order my day with God.

Our laboring here is brief indeed. It feels like yesterday that I watched my children be born and now JonMark prepares to leave for college next week. The false delights of this deceptive world are with me. In this case that deception says that productivity is more important than time with God. There are indeed only so many hours in any of our days, but do we take the time to consider the eternal reward that happens because we and God are in union together? Did I stop this morning, this fleeting morning, this busy morning, this full morning, and spend time noticing how God is at work in my life, and in the life of the people whom I love and am in relationship with?

The answer today was “No.” I was so focused on what I needed to do that I did not stop and nurture my relationship with God—which is of primary importance to me. And so I am going to end this post, pick up my book that God and I reading, and spend a little time with it. I wonder, what would happen if you, when you are in the same place, tried the same thing? 

Rev. Derek

Monday, January 11, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 11

After the events of this past weekend at the US Capital, the common refrain that I am hearing is one that affirms the necessity of ‘healing.’ But what does that mean, I wonder? 

Some people say healing will only come through time. These people affirm the saying that “time heals all wounds.” Some of them say that healing comes through retribution. Our healing comes because we have claimed our ‘pound of flesh.’ In this case, the wound is so deep that the only plausible response comes through some form of ‘capital punishment.' Others believe healing comes from righteous indignation and the call to action. In this case healing is only possible if we do something; often that ‘something’ is dramatic or symbolic or both. Healing in both of these previous two places is only accomplished because of action. Sadly, other people believe healing comes from apathy. . . Those people say things like, ‘I can’t fix it so who cares.’ 

So, I cannot say for certain where healing comes based on any of those perspectives, or how it comes to be manifested, but I know through whom healing alone is possible. When I read that someone, or something, or some group “needs to heal,” my mind gravitates toward one direction. I know of no other way, or individual, or program, or process through whom healing is possible then God.

Normally at this point in these posts I offer you a quotation from a treasured church leader or teacher about the subject. I try to share each day with you some piece of learning that might help you. But with the events in our world so fresh in our mind, I wonder if the correct offering today is different. I wonder if the words from Hebrews can be a pathway, or a balm, that helps move the conversation forward. For God is never that far away from us. 

The author of the book of Hebrews wrote:

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

I know that you recognize this verse. I do not need to cite it or tell you where to locate the verse. It is that poignant. It is that applicable. I do not have to ’see’ the place where healing is going to come, and neither do I have to be able to fully grasp it. Complete clarity on something as painful as what we witnessed this weekend is not necessary. Instead, rather than lash out, rather than demand any response, or tell the world and God how healing will come, I fall back upon God. “The substance of things hoped for. . .” 

Nothing touches my hope. But that does not mean I cannot be wounded or suffer. I may still hurt, and I know that I still will. I may be angry and I am may not fully know how to move forward as a Christian in my world. But this verse reminds me that I do not have to see, or witness, a thing for God’s healing presence to be accessible to me. I can condemn evil and evil practices right alongside of being able to ‘hope’ for God’s will be done in my world, while still knowing that I cannot see a way forward. For only God has that universal perspective, and so God, is the basis of my hope and that which I ground my faith upon. 

Rev. Derek 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 7

As much as I would like to spend the next few minutes reflecting with you on your spiritual practices, and how you are practicing them as a means to grow closer to God, I cannot. For there is only one thing on my mind today—the events at the US Capital yesterday. 

Regardless of which side of the aisle that you sit on politically, and regardless of how you feel about our current, or future, administration, the events of yesterday should have shaken you a bit. Images of people scaling the walls outside of the US Capital, or throwing items through windows, or damaging property in those cambers, are shocking to witness. While we were angry, or concerned, this summer when men and women took to the streets to protest the racial unjust practices that they witnessed firsthand, those actions did not rise to the level of yesterday for many of us.  

My Democrat friends said things like, “See we told you that this would happen.” While my Republican friends echoed those words saying, “See we told you that this would happen.” I read posts on social media that happily claimed that a second Civil War is happening. That post reminded us that we don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. "But what side is right?” I wondered. I also read cynical posts and news articles that cast blame “out there” to “those people,” but that is only a divisive choice to me. 
How then should we respond? 

It appears to me that we have a few choices: 

1- Apathy. This is a popular option for many people. When we practice apathy we do nothing. We say nothing. We choose not to dwell on the issue or instance because it is the problems of Washington, or someone else, and therefore it is not our problem. An apathetic response would sound something like: “Well when was the last time that Washington listened to me? They don’t care about me. So why should I care about what happens there or to them?” There are many issues with this response that I am sure that you can think of. . . 

2- Placation. The short fix. This response takes the form of “pray a lot” because that is what we are supposed to do-but don’t dwell on it too long. Often when we practice this response, we don’t care too much about the issue that we are placating. It is just what we know, as the church, that we should do. In this case we pray for a day and then move one. In that moment, we bow our heads and say, “Come Lord Jesus” but little more than that because we don’t know what to say, so we say nothing. . . or very little. The church is called by Jesus to pray for the leaders and government that we live with it—and so we do. For a day or two, and but again we move on. 

3- Be Vocal. This can be a bit of a dangerous choice to make. When we are vocal about an issue we actively speak out for, or against, the issue or instance. The son of my former Boy Scot scoutmaster, who works for the government as a pollster, is doing this right now. He is directly speaking out about what is witnessing first-hand. Those responses often tend to divide. I have seen quite a bit of this on Facebook as well. Current and former ministers that I worked with have come out with short bursts of posts bemoaning what’s happening. But I wonder how long that will keep up? How long can one lob "verbal grenades" at someone before that too becomes tiresome?  

4- Stay Engaged or Stay Aware. This is the option that I think the church is called to practice. We remember what has happened and we live accordingly. The response here is not a short-term feeling or action, but a long-term, deliberate, present, committed choice to abide. We when we remember, we continue to do so for a long time—and not so we can condemn anyone or anything thing. By staying aware, we can continually commit ourselves to the practices of our faith. We pray, not just once, but regularly for our country, for our leaders, for places and pockets where injustice lives. We remain engaged in living out our Christian life not just when times are challenging, but we stay engaged, we practice presence, we are aware of the suffering in our world and actively we pray, we serve, we consider, we evangelize so that God’s word is faithfully proclaimed. 

For instance, when word came out that a gathering in Charlottesville might turn violent, a group of local minsters acted. They put aside any political allegiances that they might claim and gathered. They walked outside of the host church, with their black robes ones, and stood there. They said nothing. They did not publicly pray out loud (although I know that they did pray silently in their hearts). They held no signs and did not respond in any way—besides standing on the corner between the groups. One of the participants said, “Our purpose was only to remind the gathering people that God is also gathering with them.” That long-term presence and response still speaks long after the violence has ceased. 

As the church we are called to be present, to be with, to be aware of, the needs of our world. The temptation that we face is to leave behind the images and words that we witnessed yesterday. But instead, I wonder what would happen, if we, as the church, continued to show up in the world? What would our witness look like, what would our ministry become, if we remained “with” in times like this? 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 6

Recently I have spent some time thinking about art work and what that says to us. Before Christmas Emma asked to go to the store and purchase some watercolors and paper so she could learn to paint. This was not going to be a Christmas present. She said that it was something that she wanted to try. That seemed reasonable to us. Our daughter is very creative. She can sew. She can bake without a recipe. She makes bread from scratch easily. Her chili recipe won 2nd prize last year at the church’s chili cook-off. She plays the violin so beautifully that it makes me wonder how she does it. Where does she find the creative juice?? And, to add to her ever-growing list of creative endeavors, she is learning how to paint (and she has done that as well). 

As I examined her latest creation, I wondered, how did the image of a volcanos in the sea come into her mind? I looked at the paper trying see if I could tell where she started and where she ended (my mind is a bit more analytical so I look for a start and an end to things like this). Sadly my eye couldn’t solve that issue—except that I remembered one thing from my first art teacher in grade school. She told us to “use loose lines” to draw. I am not totally certain what that concept meant, but I tired it back then. And I try now when I draw or when I look at Emma’s painting. Loose lines. . . I didn’t see many of those on the paper. 

Instead, I began to notice circles. Clean precise circles. 

Yale Divinity professor Willie Jennings believes that circles represent movement and invites the church to consider the circles of their daily lives. These circles speak of the cycle and circuit of life. Each cycle, or each circuit, builds upon the next one; they move us forward and can create a sense of belonging for, and in, us. They connect us to each other and form belonging as they build our life together. Consider one of his examples from a talk that he gave: 

We rise in the morning. Bath ourselves and we might help our children do the same. We feed ourselves and our children. Get them off to school (or get them logged in for school). Pick them up from school (when we are allowed to meet in-person). After school activities then next item in the cycle is dinner. Then Homework. Then off to bed. Then we go to bed later. Notice that they cycle repeats tomorrow. . . I do it all again. . . and again. . . and again. This cycle is then expanded to include our work lives and it fits into that previous circuits of our lives neatly as well. This is life as I have created it and I will support it.

Those circles then are shared. We become intimate with some people and invite them into the rhythm and movement, the cycle, of our daily lives and the relationships deepen. I no longer just care for myself. Now my circuit includes my wife, my children, and my friends. I gain energy from the circle that I am living in and with. The movement drives me to do the best that I can each day to go onward with those that I care about and who care about me. 

The circle contains that sense of movement for life, and it tells me that this is the way that my life will be from now on. . . 
or at least it is the way that I hope my life will be. 

Herein, we find part, perhaps the greatest part, of the struggle with covid-19 and the unrest that it has caused in us. The normal cycle and circuit, the normal movement of our day, the rhythm by which we affirm that our life is progressing as it should, is interrupted. Frequently. Consistently. My circle cannot be drawn as it was before this. Often, as soon as I soon as I have adapted my circle to the ever-changing landscape of covid-19, and that which this day gives me, someone, or something steps in and stops that movement or forces me to alter its progress. That stimuli stops my process of checking off or completing the cycle that I have started drawing. 

So I am left feeling dispirited. Disoriented. Discouraged. I am frustrated because I have not finished my circle as I normally do. Therefore today has been less that it should be (or that is what I tell myself as the day ends just as yesterday did). Another way of saying this is that my productivity has fallen off its pacing and I can get irritated by this conclusion. This is when the metaphor of circles that I am thinking about, and trying to find in Emma’s artwork, takes on a theological tone. 

If God and I are not drawing the circle together, if we are not completing the circuit together in the way that God intends, then I can fall victim to the mindset of feeling less-than. I can begin to think that God and I are not on the same page together, and so, rather than pull back and search for God, I am tempted to work harder. I want to work faster so that I can get back onto the right pace or track for my day. But that does not work. It never works. I only get myself more exhausted, more discouraged, because the work of my daily life that God wants to do with me, is best done in communion—NOT in a rush. 

I wonder if today you might find some time to stop and consider where are the places where you are pushing too hard, too fast? Is God there with you in that? Perhaps this is an opportunity to draw the circle again, and this time, with God’s help and God’s presence? 

Rev. Derek 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 5

So I am wondering today about how you handle distraction and frustration?

I have been in that place today. . . Distracted. Frustrated. Unable to complete the necessary tasks of my morning as quickly as I would like. This feels discouraging. My mind is in a multiple places; it is processing multiple issues simultaneously. For me when that happens my productivity suffers. I still accomplish tasks, but instead of checking them off quickly as I hope, my pacing slows significantly in these moments. I find myself plodding along, slogging through the day unable to press forward. As this happens, thoughts begin to creep into my mind that I do not appreciate  They take root and remind me that I am not good enough. I am not committed enough. I lack the skills to adapt. I will fail at this (whatever ‘this’ is). It is a message that I am sure you have heard in your own head at times. But then something happened today that changed all of that. 

I went for a run. . . 

No, the act of running did not help me directly in my time of distraction and frustration. Instead, as I walked up Plains Church Road I stopped and checked the mail. Inside our mailbox was a large white envelope from The International Children’s Network. It was addressed to Derek and Jennifer Marotta AND the Plains Presbyterian Church. . . “Strange” I said to no one in particular. Ordinarily when we receive letters from our sponsored children the letter is just addressed to Derek and Jennifer Marotta—NOT Plains Presbyterian Church. This was different. . . .As I looked over the remainder of the mail, I noticed how “thick” this package from ICN was. . . My curiosity was peaked! 

Ordinarily Jennifer opens the mail during lunch, but I couldn’t wait for her to come home. I popped the seal on the white envelope and looked inside. There were lots and lots of letters in my hands. Each letter was accompanied by a picture that was just barely visible around the folded-letters. I poured them into my hand and looked at the first one it read: 
"Dear Plains Presbyterian Church"

Interesting. . . . I looked at the second one. . . “Dear Plains Presbyterian Church.” I wondered, what is this? What am I looking at?

Over and over again I saw that each letter was written to the church family. At this point, as you can imagine, my joy was both palpable and uncontrollable. My distraction and frustration at the day’s events, and my lack of productivity, was gone. I looked at the first picture that I could find from the group. It was a young Nepali girl holding packages of rice and noodles with a big smile on her face. "Oh my Lord! These are their Christmas gifts.” I bellowed with my jaw hanging open in the living room. A tear came to my eye. . . Children who I met, children whom we love, children who we played with in Ilam as a church, children whose pictures fill my laptop, they are offering us their own Christmas blessing and a word of thanks!  

Maybe when we feel ourselves frustrated or distracted, maybe when we feel that we are falling short of a goal that we have set, maybe God is getting ready to do something in you that will help bring you joy back to the surface? I wonder how you would respond to that event, that moment, that instance?  

Rev. Derek

PS—The letters will be posted on the bulletin board in the church this weekend. I encourage you to come, when you feel it is safe, and read them. 

Monday, January 4, 2021

Pastoral Thought--January 4

This morning, I was re-reading some of the material that helped inform my doctoral studies. Specifically, I found my attention held by the words of John Howard Yoder. He was a Mennonite theologian and writer who taught at The University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Having studied under influential minds like Karl Barth and Harold Bender, Yoder’s theology is a mixture of pastoral care and a strong sense of the power of Jesus to be with us.

In his book, Radical Christian Discipleship, he wrote these words that I lingered upon: 

"We use the word cross in our hymns, in our piety, in our prayers, and in our pastoral language. But we use it too cheaply. We say that a person has to live with some sort of suffering in life: a sickness that cannot be cured, an unresolvable personality conflict within the family, poverty, or some other unexplainable or unchangeable suffering. Then we say, “That person has a cross to bear.” Granted, whatever kind of suffering we have is suffering that we can bear in confidence that God is with us. But the cross that Jesus had to face, because he chose to face it, was not—like sickness—something that strikes you without explanation. It was not some continuing difficulty in his social life. It was not an accident or catastrophe that just happened to hit him when it could have hit somebody else. Jesus’ cross was the price to pay for being the kind of person he was in the kind of world he was in; the cross that he chose was the price of his representing a new way of life in a world that did not want a new way of life. That is what he called his followers to do.” 

When I step outside of my home I am often confronted by people who are suffering from some form of fatigue. This is apparent in their faces. Their faces show that they are tired of the pandemic. They are tired of wearing their mask properly. As they adjust their mask to sit below their nose, I see in their eyes a frustration and fatigue mixture that makes me sad. I spoke with a women at Kohl’s before Christmas who said that she was tired of what she considered to be governmental overstepping. I meet people whose actions seem to indicate that they are tired of not being able to live, or do, what they want. . .

Yes, I know that this is my interpretation of these encounters. However the more I reflect on each event, the more time I spend praying about and re-playing the day, the more it seems my assertion is correct. 

I try as hard as I can to listen to each of these people as I wait my turn in the checkout lines, or pass by them in the store. I try to project empathy and understanding when others are content to ‘bump’ carts to get down the aisle. I know that I am called by God to offer words of hope to those who feel lost or overly fatigued. This is not because I am an ordained minster, but because I am a Christian. It is our joint-calling from God that some people are neglecting. 

In this endeavor I feel that Yoder’s words are helpful to us as we minister in a time unlike any other. Although Yoder worked, and served, the church during a different time period than what we are living in, his words ring true for us during this pandemic. We are, by our evangelism and presence, offering the fatigued world in which we live and serve, a new way forward. We offer them a new way to encounter Jesus. We are offering them a new way to access the salvation that is possible because of God’s action in creation. And so I wonder today if Yoder’s words speak to your heart? I wonder what would happen if the church saw its ministry not as “business as usual,” but instead saw our calling as an invitation to “new way of life?” I wonder how that would address the fatigue that you witness each day? 

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...