Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 24

Who do you talk to, or who do you approach, when there is a tremendous pain in your life? 

This is both a theological and sociological question to consider. Likewise, it is also a hard question to answer concisely because there is no formula that we can rely upon in those moments fully. Sometimes the person (or persons) who we trust the most are unable to be present with us in a meaningful way in our time of need. It is not that they do not love us or support us, but somehow we feel that they do not understand—or worse—that they cannot understand us. 

So we remain silent. . . distant. . . alone. . . and we suffer. . . And yet what I believe we need the most in those moments is community and not isolation.

When we consider that question, I wonder if God intended it to be this way? I wonder if when God placed humanity in the Garden of Eden that we were intended to be alone when we suffer? Of course I am being a bit sarcastic. But do we not practice this posture often? We think that "No one understands my tremendous pain.” Therefore that pain is not shared and we remain isolated. The pain has nowhere to go but deeper into our hearts and poisoning our souls all the more. We isolate. We retreat from community. And again, this is not how God created us to live and work together. 

I once read the following story that I want to share with you: 

There was once a local church where God was active and at work. The church prospered. Membership grew and the leaders felt blessed by the scope of ministry. As the cliche goes, all was well from 10,000 feet, but something was wrong in the church that no one knew. 

Each week the person responsible for counting the money at the church was skimming off the top. They pocketed $20 here and $10 there because their family was struggling financially. One of the members of the family lost their job so providing food was becoming harder and harder each month. In desperation this individual turned to the church and saw an opportunity. Who would ever notice a few dollars each week missing when there were thousands in each week’s collection plate? . . . (Now I am not condoning this behavior, stay with the story). 

The individual responsible kept a close record of their actions and planned to repay the church when they got back on their feet. One day a job would come and they could repay the money they took a little faster than when they took it. But that day did not come. . . weeks became months. . . months turned into years. The book where this person kept their records grew and grew and so did their anxiety. 

Finally in a moment of desperation they took a little more money. Crossing state lines they went to a casino. The plan was to parlay the money they took into a series of "fast win.” They could pay the money back quicker if they won thousands of dollars playing cards and the slot machines. But casinos are successful for a reason—you don’t often win large sums of money there. 

This person lost more money. . . a lot more money. 

Week after week they took more money from their church and week after week they lost all of it. Of course there were 'little wins’ here and there. But not enough to fix the problem or stem the tide. Week after week the hole became bigger. Hundred of dollars that they were skimmed became thousands. . . then it became tens of thousands. . . ultimately it turned into hundreds of thousands. This was a problem of desperation and the story does not have a happy ending.  

But let’s suspend judgment for a moment about this person. I don’t want to comment on them personally. Instead their question makes we wonder: What would have happened if this person went to their local community, to their friends, their church they day that times became too hard and they were honest? What would have happened if they just asked for help and trusted the people who they love to help them? 

I have been desperate before as I know that you have as well. We have all been there. What keeps us from turning to each other, being honest, and caring? 

Who do we turn to in our time of tremendous pain? It could be the Body of Christ. . . 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 23

Is God silent? That is a question that many have pondered. . . 

In Lent it can feel like a question whose answer is a combination of affirmation and resignation. We can hear the response to this question in this way: “Yes God is silent at times,” and those words can cause us to bow our heads in resignation. Our self-awareness as Christians provides the perspective that God is not a magical genie who comes when called every time but we wish that we could feel God with us at every moment of life. When we don’t the temptation is to wonder if we have failed as Christians. 

For when we wonder about God’s silence or stillness in our time of need, we are considering more deeply whether God values us enough to listen? We ask questions like: do we possess enough value to merit God’s movement in our lives? Are we worth God speaking to us? 

Are our issues, our struggles, our inability to pray, our inability to commune with God, our struggles to grow in our faith walk, a direct representation that God is far off from us? . . . God is not listening to us . . . Not answering us . . . Not caring for our hearts.

Now of course we do not agree with that sentiment, publicly. I am sure that as you read those words in your heart you affirmed that God hears you when you pray. You might have even remembered a passage of scripture that says that God listens to His children when we cry out. Likely you also affirmed, just as vehemently, that God loves you enough to not only send Jesus to die for your sins, but God loves you enough to hear your silent cries. God’s love abounds. . . at least in our minds.  

And yet, each of us knows a time when God appeared silent when we needed His guidance. We needed God’s hand to lead us onward; God’s finger to point us in the right path. Yet that guidance seemed far off and missing.  

If you have wondered if God is silent as we walk through Lent together, then I offer you the words of Charles Spurgeon. In his morning devotional, Morning by Morning, he wrote these words for us: 

"No promise is of private interpretation. Whatever God has said to any one saint, he has said to all. When he opens a well for one, it is that all may drink. When he openeth a granary-door to give out food, there may be some one starving man who is the occasion of its being opened, but all hungry saints may come and feed too. Whether he gave the word to Abraham or to Moses, matters not, O believer; he has given it to thee as one of the covenanted seed. There is not a high blessing too lofty for thee, nor a wide mercy too extensive for thee. Lift up now thine eyes to the north and to the south, to the east and to the west, for all this is thine. Climb to Pisgah’s top, and view the utmost limit of the divine promise, for the land is all thine own. There is not a brook of living water of which thou mayst not drink. If the land floweth with milk and honey, eat the honey and drink the milk, for both are thine."

The immenseness of God. The provision of God. The voice of God. They are active and working for you. Yes it can feel like God is silent when we need His presence the most. But when those times come, and we know that they will, can Sprugeon’s words remind us that heavenly provision is all around us? Can we remember that no matter how cold the winter gets, or how cold and dry our hearts feel, or how separate we might be from each other physically, God’s blessings are numerous and abundant?

Is God silent? I suspect that depends on your frame of reference. . .

Rev. Derek

Monday, February 22, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 22

As I said in worship recently, the time-length of Lent provides us an opportunity to not only reflect on our sinful choices, but we also find time in Lent to begin practicing our faith differently. 

For some that practice might include ‘giving something up for Lent.” Others will take time in this season to be mindful of their sins and resolve to live differently—as best as they can. Still other Christians that I know will just silently walk through Lent thinking about how much God loves us. They reflect on the suffering Messiah and quietly give thanks to God. All of these responses and choices are right and appropriate. 

We do not practice a faith that is “one-size” fits all. God did not create the relationship with humanity to be mirrored exactly in the in each individual. Our faith is personal. Our walk with God is as unique as it is personal and intimate. Simply because I as a pastor choose to walk through Lent in one way does not mean that you as the congregation must walk in the same way. These 40 days provide us ample time and space to practice and live our faith accordingly. 

But regardless of how you personally live in Lent, there is a beginning, there is a middle, to our faith walk. You cannot shortcut the work of growing your faith because you and God are on a well-worn path together. . .

In his book, The Road Less Travelled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck observes: 

"There are many people I know who possess a vision of [personal] evolution yet seem to lack the will for it. They want, and believe it is possible, to skip over the discipline, to find an easy shortcut to sainthood. Often they attempt to attain it by simply imitating the superficialities of saints, retiring to the desert or taking up carpentry. Some even believe that by such imitation they have really become saints and prophets, and are unable to acknowledge that they are still children and face the painful fact that they must start at the beginning and go through the middle."

The timing of Lent provides us the opportunity to follow Peck’s words and advice. We do not have to rush through the season as we might in Advent. Instead, we can walk slower. . . more deliberately. . . with God. In this way we do not further our agenda only, but as we walk with God, we grow and we learn. 

I wonder if this week you can find some space, or locate a practice, or adopt a mindset, that you and God make uniquely yours? 

We are in a relationship that is personal, intimate, and special with God. That relationship is referenced about on the pages of the scriptures. When we take time to "be with" God in this way, we can find that we are no longer living alone in Lent, but we join together with the saints of the church to observe a holy Lent. 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 18

We are exactly one day into our Lenten journey. Lent is a long season. While Advent is four glorious weeks of carols, candles, and the expectation of a the Newborn King, Lent is different. . . Lent is longer. . . It is six weeks instead of the quicker four of Advent. There are no Christmas trees or lights to brighten our hearts today. This is Lent, and Lent begins in the winter. The season will end as spring arrives. We will move from darker colder days to ones filled with more sunshine; more warm breezes that chase away the cold.  

Another difference between Lent and Advent is the spiritual practice that we are invited into during each season. 

Advent is the season of Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope. We light candles symbolic of each theme. . . But Lent is introspective. It is reflection-based. In Lent we are invited to confess our sins before God. A holy Lent involves recognizing all of our sins—the hidden and the public. We leave none of them out when we approach God during Lent. For each sin is another reason why Jesus went to the cross for us. Lent asks us to confess those sins openly to God in response. While we will receive grace in the act of confession, Lent reminds us often that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” 

But as I think about the difference between the seasons I wonder about the difference and how we asked by God to live differently?

What do we do when the challenges of Lent strips away the joy of our faith? How do we find room in our hearts for joy and service when the overwhelming sentiment in Lent is a combination between wishing winter was over and being downcast because of our sin? How does joy spring up within our souls when our hearts feel as cold and brittle as the snow that gently falls outside of my office window this afternoon? 

The struggle is real—but so is the offer from God in response. 

Sam Storms once said, “Joy is not necessarily the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God.”  

While that is indeed a simple sentence that we can remember and consider, it is also profound. For neither Lent or Advent are more or less ‘joyful.” No, they both present us with the opportunity to gather ourselves around God and grow. As we gather around God, as we abide with Him, joy springs up from within. Our souls almost leap because we feel God with us. 

Even as we meditate upon our sins and our short-comings, we find that God is welcoming us home. God invites us to take what we think is a season of separation and joy-stripping and turn it into an opportunity grow closer to the God who will sacrifice so much for us in six short weeks. 

I don’t know specifically if you are feeling that practicing joy is becoming harder as Lent begins. But if it is, I wonder how Sam’s quote from above might help re-oreint our minds and lives? I wonder if joy is indeed a Lenten practice?

Rev. Derek 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 17

Today is Ash Wednesday; the beginning of Lent. Christians from around the globe will pause in their day and they will remember their sins. For some, ashes will be administered to the forehead as a mark of our ‘baptism into death.’ Others will witness this action and it will be meaningful for them also. 

Although we are aware of how the story ends on Easter morning, tonight we are contrite, humble, and introspective. We do not rush too quickly toward the miracle of the Empty Tomb, tonight. We abide in this moment. It might feel like we are walking through a dark, thick, wilderness that has no obvious escape—but that is not true. God is with us as we begin this season. That knowledge, and that presence, changes us as we journey.

N.T. Wright in an article entitled, The Way and the Wilderness, reminds us to that part of our Christian walk occurs in the wilderness. He writes: 

"You are never far from the wilderness when you’re in the Promised Land. Just a few miles to the south, or south-east, or to the north-east across the Jordan, and you’re out in the desert. . . When you’re in Jerusalem, the wilderness is just over the next hill. . . . Christian writers of all sorts, throughout the centuries, have insisted that at some stage, perhaps at several stages, we shall be called to travel through the wilderness [with God]: 

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not."

The wilderness comes in many shapes and sizes—some predictable and some personal. Some of these manifestation are easy to recognize and some are veiled from our hearts because we are not ready for them. But each step and moment in the wilderness invite us to walk with God and learn from God. In those lessons we leave aside what we value, or what we elevate, and we allow the Savior space to teach us the mysteries that we cannot understand—or mysteries that we are not yet able to understand. They can be mysteries that are too complex and yet grounded in God’s love.

All of this comes together on Ash Wednesday. 

I hope today that you will find some space to dwell closely with God and learn from God. I wonder what lessons God will teach you as you walk through the wilderness of Lent? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 16

As I was preparing the sanctuary for Ash Wednesday’s worship service, I was reminded of the words of Mary Oliver. As Lent begins tomorrow, the poet reminds us about the power of presence and the power of the moment. Her words can provide a transition point for us as our journey to Calvary begins again as the Body of Christ. . . 

In her poem entitled “The Poet Dreams of the Mountains,” she wrote: 

Sometimes I grow weary of the days, with all their fits and starts.
I want to climb some old gray mountain, slowly, taking
the rest of my lifetime to do it, resting often, sleeping
under the pines or, above them, on the unclothed rocks.
I want to see how many stars are still in the sky
that we have smothered for years now, a century at least.
I want to look back at everything, forgiving it all,
and peaceful, knowing the last thing there is to know.
All that urgency! Not what the earth is about!
How silent the trees, their poetry being of themselves only.
I want to take slow steps, and think appropriate thoughts.
In ten thousand years, maybe, a piece of the mountain will fall.

This morning it was so still in the sanctuary that it felt like a practice of ‘resting often.’ The heater purred along as I walked around the worship space carrying the paraments to the communion table and gathering the unused bulletins to recycle. Each item that I moved carried its own sound. . . candles bumping on the pulpit, the smooth slide of fabric on the communion table, the sound that a ladder makes when extended and then stood upon. Even the sound the smooth purple silk made on the large wooden cross as the drape was hung, it was moment of worship that transcended the task itself. 

It was a moment of peace.

Mary’s poem reminds me about the urgency of "the now” that we confront as the church. The frantic pace of the news, of politics and policies, spins like a tornado and that can make it hard to focus on what is foundational, what is unmovable. It can be hard to practice peace when the world from which we come is so hectic. It is hard to find a transcendent moment when tasks pile up and commitments abound. It is hard to notice the beauty of God’s creation when our eyes cannot focus on the gifts that God presents us each day. 

Up on the mountain the reality of the world is still in view for us. But on that mountain there is also the possibility that we can commune with our Creator in a personal way. Up on this mountain we and God can commune together and I can begin Lent differently. 

I wonder, what Mary Oliver’s word say to you? I wonder where are the places, or the moments, where you can find space to ‘rest often’ and be with God? 

Rev. Derek  

Monday, February 15, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 15

On Friday afternoon I heard a story retold to me and I wonder if you have heard it before. . . 

The story is about the golden buddha. 

In Thailand there was once a small village that was home to the golden buddha. It was a famous statue. People came from all around to marvel at it. They came to pray before it an. The local residents were proud of it and felt blessed by the visitors who came to their small village. But, as happens sometimes, invaders from another land threatened the country. They were coming. War was inevitable and the villagers were anxious. 

They were anxious because they worried that the invaders would destroy and carry off the buddha which was made of gold. The treasurer would be lost.  

So a local citizen came up with an idea: let’s hide it! They agreed to pack mud and stones on the golden buddha. They would hide it in plain sight from the invaders. The whole community gathered together and worked to pack mud and rocks onto the buddha until it looked like every other buddha in the country. Satisfied they returned to their homes to wait. . . The invasion continued. The village was overrun. 

When the army walked past the buddha they noticed it. They noticed its size and its location in the center of the town. But other than that, it was not special—in their eyes. So they left and moved on. Years past and the buddha stayed hidden safely under the mud and rocks. It stayed that way until everyone forgot that they had a golden buddha sitting before them.  .  . no one remembered that which was special. 

One day a monk sat down next to the ‘ordinary’ buddha to pray. As he stood to leave his hand slipped and chipped off some of the mud revealing the gold that was underneath! He ran around the village shouting that the buddha was made of gold. The townspeople gathered around the buddha shocked at what he was saying. When the villagers gathered around the buddha, they saw a little bit of yellowish-gold shinning and they wondered what lived beneath the veil of mud and clay? So, they got to work, scraping and cleaning the buddha until they gold was unmasked. 

What was beautiful sat right before their eyes. . . if they had the vision to see it. 

This story made me wonder about the light of Christ that shines inside of us? We know that each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, but can we see that light in each other? The more that I thought the more I wondered where are the places, or the times, that we cover the wonderful light of Jesus that lives in us with our own mud and clay? We may have hidden the light of God because it was necessary. . . We were wounded and needed time to rest. But in the act of covering the light that lives in us, did we forget how special, how beautiful, how fearfully and wonderfully we were made? 

I hope that as Lent begins again this week, you will remember the beauty of God that lives in you. It is a beauty and a light that caused Jesus to willingly suffer for you. It is a light that shines in the darkness. . . 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 11

This morning as I was walking over to the church, I was struggling. This was not an emotional struggle, but one born of the winter and its coldness. . . I gingerly walked across the driveway and out into the parking lot. The ground under my feet was slippery—very slippery. Each step required careful examination and thought. Sure a fresh powder of snow fell last night, and that helped me walk a bit because it provided something to ‘crunch,’ but it was not enough. It was slippery, and I worried that I would fall if I was not alert to where I put my steps. I tried to follow the tracks other cars have made, but that was not very helpful either. . . 

To compound my footing-problem, my breath was fogging up my glasses and making it hard to see. Each new breath coated my glasses a bit more until the world outside was a white haze of shapes and blobs of color. To compensate for the ‘fogged up’ glasses, and while still trying not to fall, I looked over the frame of my glasses at the church. I thought that if I changed my point of reference that I would make it; that it would help. But that did not help much either. The sunshine on a bright morning was reflecting off the snow and blinding me all the more. 

I was struggling with the elements of winter. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I was not getting angry at all. I knew that this is how winter progresses. This is normal for February. And regardless of what the groundhog thinks, spring is coming. It will be here soon. The snow will melt and the path to the church will be clear for me. The beauty of a snowy white yard will be a distant memory. It will be gone until later in 2021 when we think about how great it would be to have a white Christmas again. 

As I sat down and began my day the words of David Steindl-Rast came to mind as I chuckled about the struggle of walking to the church in the snow. David's work on gratefulness reminded me of the joy I felt in autumn when the first snow fall happened. Even as I was unable to see this morning as I walked to the church, I wondered where could I practice my faith differently; gratefully? 

David wrote: 

We have thousands of opportunities every day to be grateful: for having good weather, to have slept well last night, to be able to get up, to be healthy, to have enough to eat. . . There’s opportunity upon opportunity to be grateful; that’s what life is.”

 It is easy to focus on that which presents us with daily challenges and to become angry because of this challenges. It is easy, and also understandable, to get bogged down in moments like I just described where walking (or completing a basic task) is challenging and irritating. I did not want to walk this way, and I don’t think that you would either. But I was in that moment. And, as David reminded me, I slept well last night. My breakfast hit the spot. The sun shone gorgeously on the white church yard.  

The doctor’s appointment that I went for my aching knee revealed no damage to the structure of the joints or tissue. All that my doctor found was some arthritis that is related to the surgery from 2018 that I had. A cortisone injection helped me with the discomfort, and I walked normally out the Health and Wellness Pavilion pain free. I walked normally to the church also this morning—and I am grateful. I wonder how much harder it might have been to walk to church this morning if I was still in pain? I had the opportunity to be grateful for the substance of my week when I could also choose to be frustrated or see the events of the day only through a negative perspective.

I wonder, where could you practice David’s gratefulness posture? And when you practice it, what might God remind you about?

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 10

Sometimes even the most basic lessons of the Christian faith can be re-discovered or re-learned. In those cases, it is not that we have forgotten, or neglected, what God’s word says to us, or how much it inspired us to grow and change. Rather, the lessons are so familiar to our hearts that in their familiarity we stop remembering them so passionately. We stop sharing them. We can stop relying on them. We attempt to move on to deeper, or harder, teachings of God’s word. But in that transition, we can forget the basic lessons that we learned which helped to shape us into the Christians that we are today. 

So, I want to share with you a passage of a book that I have read a number of times that continues to speak to my heart. I was first introduced to this text while studying at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I was working on my M.Div when I signed up for a class on Reformed Dogmatics by two of my favorite professors (Dr. Partee and Dr. Purves). They are likely the two most astute, most caring, professor that I had during those years. At that time, I did not know how this class would shape my theological worldview. Truth be told, I didn’t fully know what to expect in the class, but the word "Reformed" caught my eye so I took the class to help sharpen my theological understanding of our reformed tradition. The class was a blessing. I use the material from that class often in my devotional life and in my pastoral work. 

On the first day of class we were handed a large yellow book. It was a copy of a text that is now out of print. The publisher, Kessinger Publishing, painstakingly scanned, and printed, each page of the text into a pdf format and then bound the work in a large 8/5x11 format. . . This publisher often finds historical texts that are out of print and binds them in this format so the world will continue to have these books to read and enjoy.

In the book, which is entitled “The Christian Experience of Forgiveness,” Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh wrote the following words for us:

"To the saint it is a daily discovery that God does not cast him out. Christian as he is, he remains a sinner; saved, doubtless, in response that he is now in communion with the Father, yet not translated magically into a sphere where temptation is unknown, but set to develop moral freedom through struggle and discipline, under the leadership of God and in His enjoyed love. Recurring faults are met by a mercy which he would not dare to claim in right and which excludes the notion that ’salvation,’ given freely at the start, could be sustained in being by meritorious performance. In the family of God all are in this sense ‘unprofitable servants’ to the end, costing more than the worth of any service."

Throughout the remainder of this book, Mackintosh goes to great length to remind the church that we do nothing to deserve God’s love—for we are in fact sinners at our core. Yet, Mackintosh cannot ignore, and does not forget, that we are loved beyond belief by the God who could judge us! We are welcomed into God’s presence because of the grace that we receive through Jesus Christ’s death in spite of the sin that we will regularly embrace and choose. 

Like I said. . . it’s a basic lesson of the Christian faith. A lesson we have taught our children and families for years.

However, sometimes we need to be reminded of even the most basic learning—and not because we have completely fallen short. Rather we need to be reminded of these basic lessons because, I believe, that in the hustle of life, in the midst of pressure that we place upon ourselves, in the midst of a culture that pushes back upon us, God still loves us and calls us to be together as the church and in communion with God in heaven. I wonder today what this basic lesson of forgiveness and grace will mean in your day? I wonder who is God asking you to share these words with, and what will happen in their life when you do?

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 9

It is very quiet here. . . very. . . very quiet. Outside the window of my office I see large snow flakes trickling down into the yard. It is beautiful to see (not so safe to drive in, but pretty to look at).  I can no longer see my footprints in the snow as I walked to the church this morning while sipping coffee. If the lights in the building were not on, no on would even know that I was here. School is not in session because of the snow and ice that it feel upon. Across the hall there are no children learning their letters, shapes, and lessons. They are not singing songs are talking about what day of the week it is. 

It is just me here today. 

The quiet hum of fluorescent lights in my office, and the gentle sound of the heater keeping the cold at bay, are my only companions today. I find myself breathing quieter when no one is in the church but me in fear that I will be too loud. It’s a silly thing to think of, but that is how today is going. Like I said, it is so quiet here today. 

The quietness that I am experiencing amidst a snowy day makes me think about the power of rest and what it can do in our lives as the church. Rest is something that I believe the church needs to embrace more fully, and at the same time, rest is also a practice that can make us feel guilty to engage in. Do we not say, “there is no rest for the weary?” We are conditioned to be productive as Christians, to be active in society and at work. Therefore living in the opposite direction, by fully embracing a posture of rest, does not carry much appeal to us. But it should. We should look for time to rest in our Christian walks much more often than we do.

In an article that I read recently, Denominational executive and pastor, Eliza Cortes Bast writes these words about rest that do carry with them some the truth about how we feel about rest. She writes, 

"Rest produces guilt. Every minute I spend away, every minute I spend with my guard down, is an invitation to return to more work and more worry. My absence risks the people [that] I serve, the core of who I am. What if something happens to them while I am gone?"

As this article continues, Eliza by remind the church that scripture calls us to find time and space to rest—not step back to reload or recalibrate our list of tasks—rest. It is not a shameful act to step back, or to slow down, so that we can find a moment to rest in our day. Jesus did it repeatedly in the gospel, and he also taught the practice to his disciples. Rest was how Christ encountered His Father in heaven. It was vital to him and it should be for us.

On a quiet snowy morning such as this, perhaps God is offering you a chance to put aside what you are doing for the moment and rest. I wonder how that rest will shape the remainder of your day and your week?

Rev. Derek

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 4

Today I am having a hard time focusing. . . This happens periodically. The reasons are multifaceted; some are deeply personal—personal in that they are part of my personhood that I cannot escape. My mind, at times, runs faster than the rest of my body. I have even had my mind running so fast that my words cannot keep up with what’s happening in my head. The whole thing is frenetic when I wish that it could be still. But that is not how I was made. This is partly what I pace so much when I talk on the phone—my mind is moving a million miles an hour so my body tries to keep up. 

Today my focus-issues are more personal in nature. 

Across the hall I hear the 3-year-olds of our nursery school talking about the letter “D” and a pesky groundhog who lives in Punxsutawney and seems to like saying that spring will never come! Plus, Jennifer and I are excited to welcome home a certain 18-year-old from college for the weekend. It feels like he has been gone forever even though it has only been two weeks. We are excited to have him home and to have him come to church with us this weekend (I suspect that he is excited to see his dog and sleep in his bed—the Edinboro bed is very uncomfortable for him).

With that frenetic pace at work in me, I remembered the woods of Gordon Hempton from the podcast On Being. In the interview Grodon talks a lot about being present to listen, which for him, involves slowing down and paying closer attention to what is happening around him. His words spoke to my heart and my placement today as I am thinking frenetically. . . He says: 

"I grew up thinking that I was a listener, except on my way to graduate school one time, I simply pulled over making the long drive from Seattle, Washington, to Madison, Wisconsin, pulled over in a field to get some rest and a thunderstorm rolled over me. While I lay there, and the thunder echoed through the valley, and I could hear the crickets, I just simply took it all in. And it’s then I realized that I had a whole wrong impression of what it meant to actually listen. I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was important even before I had heard it and screening out everything that was unimportant even before I had heard it. 

In other words, I had been paying a lot of attention to people, but I really hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to what is all around me. It was on that day that I really discovered what it means to be alive as another animal in a natural place. That changed my life. I had one question, and that was, how could I be 27 years old and have never truly listened before? I knew, for me, I was living life incredibly wrong, so I abandoned all my plans, I dropped out of graduate school, I moved to Seattle, took my day job as a bike messenger and only had one goal, and that was to become a better listener.

Slow down. . . and listen. . . become a better listener when the pacing of your life seems to demand that you press on or press-faster. Don’t try to become more than whom God created you to be. Gordon’s words stopped me. I put down my tea. . . Set my book aside. . . I minimized what I was working on. . . And just listened to God. My heartbeat slowed. My mind relaxed. I heard the words of the song: “In this Very Room. . .” If you are not familiar with the words of the song it ends with the line: 

"For Jesus, Lord Jesus ... is in this very room."

I wonder what you might experience with Jesus when you spend time listening as I did this morning? I wonder how helpful a practice such as this might be in your day when you too find things spinning out of control? 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 3

Church family, 

I can’t believe it is February 2021. Perhaps I feel this way for a different reason that you might anticipate. . . What I cannot believe is that it has almost been a year since the covid-lockdown began and we began to use a combination of virtual and in-person worship practices. During that time, we faced irritation together; many of us did not like what we were seeing. We were frustrated together by what we witnessed in our government's response. On multiple occasion we expressed, and lived into, a sense of hope that even though things were not working out as we hoped, believed, or planned, we could find God at work with us. As a church, Plains demonstrated adaptability regularly during this time. And I believe we will live into this practice again in 2021 as covid is still with us— and seems to be something we will work with for a while. But that is not the subject of this post. 

Instead, I have been thinking a lot about something that JonMark’s girlfriend said to me back in April 2020 (truth be told it might had even been in March… I can’t remember that exact date. But her words are seared into my mind). In our conversation, Autumn and I were talking about how the 2020 Senior Class at Seneca Valley was not having a ’normal’ graduation experience. At that time we didn’t even conceive of the fact that the class of 2021 would have a far different year that would, in many ways, feel much worse. I looked at Autumn and said, “I am sorry that you are not having a normal graduation. It feels like you are being robbed of it.” 

She smiled at me, as she often does, and said, “Well, at least we will have a great story to tell our kids one day.” Again, her words have been with me since she said them. I return to them often in my mind as I think about the response the church has practiced to covid and to the many other issues that have risen up over this past year. “We will have a great story to tell…” It has been almost a year, I wonder what story we are telling others about God, about the church, and about the hopeful future that sits before us.

If you pick up a book that Larry Golemon edits that is entitled, Living our Story, you will find these words tucked into a discussion about pastoral leadership. But they are no less applicable to each of us as the body of Christ. These words support what Autumn told me so many months ago. . .  

The emphasis on logic and rationality runs counter to how human brains actually work. [Daniel Pink] says, we are not built for facts. Instead we are hardwired for telling and remembering stories. Telling stories actually helps us assimilate facts and data by integrating the left and the right hemispheres of the brain together. . . .Thus story is essential to human understanding.”

And so, as 2021 has begun, and the issues and struggles of covid are still with us, I wonder are you listening to stories that are shared consistently and faithfully? I wonder what story you will tell when you are confronted in public, or in the worship space, and asked about your response to what you see happening “out there?” We do have a great story to tell and listen to, but will we? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 2

Do you do good enough?

The vast majority of Christians ask themselves this question regularly. I can’t stop it even though I have encounter it throughout the years of pastoral ministry. Is what I do, good enough?

Today, Jennifer asked for a special lunch—Eggs Benedict. It’s a tricky thing to make for some people. Now let me just say that I love to cook. I love to cook for my family. It brings me joy to follow a recipe, or duplicate something from memory, that I have cooked before. The last time that I made the dish it turned out very well. So I was happy to make it again for her. Eggs Benedict is recipe that requires some attention and practice to do well. It is Jennifer’s favorite breakfast item. I learned to make the sauce a few months ago after reading a number of recipes and watching a few videos that demonstrate the process. The first time that I made Eggs Benedict it tasted great. Then, each time since that first offering, I have completed the meal properly and enjoyed making it for the family.

For those not familiar with hollandaise sauce, it can be a bit tricky to make. The primary issue with the sauce comes from beating the egg yokes a lot, while adding melted butter, all the while heating the sauce in a double boiler to cook it gently and slowly. You do kinda a need three hands to do it well, but it can be done. If you heat the yokes too fast then you will scramble the eggs. Cook it too slow and the ingredients won’t combine into that yummy sauce. This is a delicate balance. Once the sauce is made it needs to be removed quickly from the heat but watched carefully. If it cools too far then the hollandaise will either solidify, separate, or both. It is still edible in any of those forms, but it doesn’t look good. And as many people have said over the years, we eat with our eyes first.  

This time, while cooking the turkey bacon, my sauce split. . . badly. It clumped up and the added butter split from the egg yoke totally. The whole thing went from a nice shade of yellow to an off shade of yellow-green. Still edible. Still tasty. All the components of hollandaise sauce were present, but the sauce was wrong. I was. . .  irritated. 

My poached eggs were perfectly cooked. The turkey bacon was nicely browned and crisped the way we like it. Emma’s bagel was toasted and I was ready to plate the meal. . . but again the sauce split. It clumped on the plate rather the nicely spread across the egg. Again, I was irritated. This is not what I set out to offer my hungry family.  

But then my loving wife, who asked for her favorite meal to be made at lunch said, “Honey, it's fine. It tastes great. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” (How is it that wives have the exact phrasing that is necessary in such moments? It does not matter.) What I made was good enough. Emma loved her. Jennifer ate every bite. They were happy. The dogs watched them eat longingly. But I was neither happy or satisfied. 

Do you do, good enough, church? 

In this case, I did good enough, or should I say, I did the best that I could do. Isn’t that all that God asks of us? We do not need to get down on ourselves when things don’t work our perfectly according to our plans. Instead, take a moment today and notice the times that what you did for God was enough. . . It was all that God asked. Is that the true definition of faithfulness??

Monday, February 1, 2021

Pastoral Thought--February 1

For Christmas JonMark gave me a number of books that he thought that I would enjoy. One was a Star Wars book that I am looking forward to reading soon. The other three books were military books. They retold famous stories. I completed the first 2 books quickly. As with most books in this genre, the reading is easy and flows smoothly. I read about famous operations and the life of US Marine general as he served in Iraq. 

The third book, the one that I am reading each evening now, is a bit different. 

Frank Sission, the author, served in World War II in Patton’s Third Army. The book he writes is titled: I marched with Patton. He tells his story of moving from rural Oklahoma, to basic training, and then finally landing in the Army in Europe. While Frank was not present at the D-Day Invasion, his service carried him from the shores of France all the way to Munich, Germany. It is an interesting story to read. 

The most challenging parts to read are when he and his men first walk into Buchenwald. 

They don’t know what they are walking into, or what they will find there. It was shocking for them. I am sure that even as you read the word “Buchenwald” you took a deep breath. You know what happened there. The suffering and pain that lived in that place. But Frank didn’t. . . and neither did a number of people who he served alongside of that day. At that point in the book, Frank’s narration of the story loses a lot of details. It seems that he just cannot write about what we saw—which is understandable. I am not sure that I could either. But the story continues.

Some time later, while traveling toward Munich, after having crossed the Rhine ahead of schedule, these same men come across another set of chain link fences. . . . Fences with razor wire on top of them and large guard towers. There is an odor in the area that is unmistakable. Sadly, Frank and his men found Dachau. What a burden to bear—being present at 2 concentration camps. 

The story in place is worse. It is far worse. What Frank sees he struggles to put into words, but tries. 

At Dachau, Frank sits with survivors of the Nazis making sure that they do not eat too quickly. If they do eat too fast they could die because their bodies cannot handle the calories being rushed back into their systems at that pace. This is slow, gentle, work that he must do. And again, Frank does it well. It is after that experience that Frank’s faith is again expressed in a familiar way: in a Psalm. 

Throughout the war, Frank’s primary job was to string wire so that the Allied heavy artillery has a solid, constant, line of communication with the frontlines. It is risky work for Frank and his men because they are routinely worried about snipers trying to cut the lines and being bombed them from the skies by passing aircraft. He is in a few ’near misses,’ but Frank survived every time. His men survived every time. In the moments after running the wire, and dodging bombs and bullets, Frank often returns to a tiny piece of paper that he tore out of a bible. It is stuffed in his shirt pocket over his heart. He rereads a portion of Psalm 91 each time. Besides his letters from home, this passage of God’s word, supports him. 

That passage of Psalm 91 is held tightly after the events at Dachau. He weeps. He reads the words again and again. God’s word support Frank when he is alone and trying to rest. 

I do not imagine that you or I will be placed in a situation with that much pain and suffering surrounding us. But we will, we absolutely will, find times when the word of God could help us in our daily moments of pain. We will experience times when the promises of scripture will be what we need to remember and hold onto. In that case, I wonder what passage your heart is drawn to? 

For me it is also Psalm 91. I wonder what passage you read?

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...