Thursday, December 30, 2021

Wonderings--December 30

I wonder if you are familiar with "The Savior of Zvenigorod?" Unless you have some experience in Eastern Orthodox Church iconography, then you may not be familiar with this work. Let me share a little about it. . . 

In the 15th century Andrei Rublev was commissioned to create an icon (a visual representation of a sacred personage or event) for a Christian church in the Russian town of Zvenigorod. His three-panel design would feature the archangel Micheal, the apostle Paul, the Savior Jesus Christ. This is one of the oldest surviving icons in history. Found in a barn in the 1920s, the icon has been preserved by the church. 

Now while we might not fully understand the necessity or value of icons in our Western Protestant Church, they occupied a sacred space for a population who could not read and did not have access to the holy scriptures. For a more Western equivalent think of DiVinci's Last Supper and you can begin to see the symbolism that icons contain. They point to something else in the church--in the case Christ Himself.

(At this point I encourage you to go search for the icon. A simple google search of "The Savior of Zvenigorod" will produce a lot of copies of the image for your consideration). 

Years ago I was given a book by a colleague who was preparing to retire. He wanted to 'seed me' (his words) a library as I was a new minister needing to build my personal library. If you come to the church you can see how those seeds have produced a lot of fruit. 

On the cover I saw the icon. By the time that I finished the book I learned how the author was touched by the image. So I gazed at it for a little bit and decided to make it a children's message on the following Sunday. I asked all 10 children who was the Savior looking at? What did they see? 

They all agreed that he was looking at them. This as the desired outcome as I wanted the young people of the church to know that Jesus keeps his eye consistently upon them. But then a final young lady spoke up; her perspective was different. 

She said, " I don't think he's looking at me." 

Intrigued I asked, 'Well who is he looking at then?" 

She paused. Looked at the image again for a long moment and said, "He's looking over my shoulder at someone behind me. Like someone's back there keeping their eye on me."

I pressed further, "Who would that be?" I had no idea where this was going. . . 

Again she looked at it. She cocked her head to the side and then back to the center. The church was silent waiting for her response. "I think," she began, "That the Holy Spirit is behind me and Jesus is making sure that I know he's back there."

I was stunned. . . The church was stunned. A young 5th grade girl just said, in her own way, that Jesus sent the Spirit to guide her, and affirmed that the Spirit was doing that." 

There are times that we think that we know where the story or the image is taking us. But if we linger, if we are patient, we may just learn something deeper, something that stays with us, something that others need to hear also. 


Rev. Derek

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Wonderings--December 29

 I wonder what creates common, relational, ground? 

For experience tells me that once a common relational ground has been found between individuals, God steps in and does something unexpected. . . something extraordinary in both their lives. 

Although we are theological descendants of Luther and the Reformation, and that history comes with some baggage, today I was reading Johann Arndt when God walked into the room. You see, Arndt was a German Lutheran. He was schooled in Luther-based dogma and teaching. But even as the lessons of 'rational functionalism' and 'reformed dogma' was taught to Johann, he could see that God offered something extra to the church. 

In his book True Christianity, Arndt gives us these surprising words:

"True Christianity consist, not in words or in external show, but in living faith, from which arises righteous fruits, and all manner of Christian virtues, as from Christ himself. Since Faith is hidden from human eyes and is invisible, it must be manifested by its fruits inasmuch as faith creates from Christ all that is good, righteous, and holy. . ."

With apologies to my Lutheran colleagues, these words do not sound very "Lutheran." They sound more like word written by a 21st century missional church leader. All the way back in the 1580s Arndt was learning what we have come to learn today: common ground can be found relationally, as we practice our faith. 

For too often we fall back on the foundational dogma/doctrine that gives our church its core beliefs, but in doing so we risk forgetting, or neglecting, that which creates deep meaningful bonds from individual to individual. 

For instance, I just returned from a doctor's appointment. I have a series of these scheduled as I prepare to have my knee fully replaced. Its standard stuff and has gone smoothly. But today, I had the chance to live out my faith with someone. 

After exchanging niceties and going over my medical history, the nurse at the doctors office where I was and I began to talk about other things. . . As we talked she learned that I am a pastor who serves a church in York. That was helpful for her I think, but where our conversation became personal was as we talked about how we both suffer from migraines. 

We shared stories, medical struggles, and medication results. We found common ground not in the fact that I faithfully serve Jesus to the best of my ability, but we found common ground in something we both suffer with--albeit only once every few months. 

It is astonishing to me how we build relationships based on these small, seemingly insignificant moments, but as I think back to Johann's words, I think this is part of how we practice our faith. We listen. We share. And we don't have to teach or expound on doctrine. 

You have no doubt had the chance this week to find some common ground with another person. I wonder if it was based on theology or on commonality? I wonder how that choice depended your relationship? 


Rev. Derek

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Wonderings--December 28

Walking with Luna today I had an interesting experience that I want to share with you. 

Jennifer and I got ready quicker than normal this morning. Our morning flew by and as we finished our coffee, packed lunch, and filled our water bottles, I silently decided to take Luna for another walk. I haven't been doing that a lot recently instead preferring to walk alone and enjoy my audiobook in private. But toady, with a 54 degree morning in front of me, I wanted to take Lu out there.

So out we went. 

As Jennifer drove down the driveway and out onto McConnells Highway, Luna excited ran after her then circled back to me. Round and around she went. It was going to be a fun walk for us both, I thought. 

Turning and heading into the Bethesda Cemetery, I switched on some classical music and enjoyed my morning. First I enjoyed the London Philharmonic then Puccini sing "nessun dorma!" The walk was going well. But as I allowed the music to carry my pace along, I noticed how foggy/cloudy it was. This fact didn't bother me, I was just noticing it. 

Then 'Anya' by Hamlisch began. . . and I could feel my spirit lighten. 

My pace quickened. My breathing changed also. As the minutes ticked by on 'Anya,' I once again looked up. As Luna and I turned for another lap I could see something changing in the sky. it was become just a little more blue. 

Was the sun burning off the fog? Did the breeze push the clouds apart for a moment? Was God looking down with a smile and opening heavens just a little for me? 

Truthfully I don't have the full answer to what was happening. But it mattered. . . 

Soon the next piece began to play and Luna and I kept walking. The expected 'parting of the fog' was gone. Replaced by clouds again. But for the briefest of moments, I saw blue and I felt thankful. I felt warmth in my soul. 

There are a lot of reasons why you may identify with my morning. The clouds of life have pressed in again. You go through your routine and feel the heaviness of clouds just beyond your sight line and don't know if they will 'push off.' If this is the case then I hope that my story reminds you that God breaks through just when we need Him the most. 

My blue-sky didn't last that long today. But for the remainder of the walk, and the beginning of my morning here in the church office, I can still close my eyes and remember how it felt to notice just a little blue pressing through the gray. 

I wonder if you too can find some space today to notice that God breaks through? I wonder how that feeling will stay with you for the remainder of this year? 



Monday, December 27, 2021

Wonderings--December 27

 Yesterday I was blessed to lead a Sunday school class as a fill-in. The regular teacher, Jim, asked me on Christmas Eve if I would like a chance to lead the group. Without saying it, this was Jim's Christmas present to me--in a manner of speaking. 

As worship concluded and we headed home, my mind fluttered around with many ideas and thoughts. I tried to stay grounded on one topic and let it sit in the back of my mind throughout the rest of Christmas Eve and into Christmas morning. 

But to be honest, as the festivities came to their end, the lesson wasn't totally in place in my mind. Sitting back in my recliner, I began to read my book. Next to me Jennifer put her book down and leaned back herself. . . A meal of Christmas ham, roasted potatoes, Mac n cheese, rolls, and ample Christmas cookies can make anyone tired. 

Around the house the 'food coma' was setting in. . . Jennifer gently began to slow her breathing and drift off. Mom was across the room on the couch--she too was asleep. Emma was missing (likely napping or painting), and the dogs curled up on the couch next to mom and began to sleep. I kept on reading. 

The book that I read was not terribly interesting so I switched to another one that I downloaded on my iPad. I haven't opened this second book recently, but knew that whatever I read would be good. Seriously, I was reading Hannah Whitall Smith. There is always something good in her text. 

Finishing up another chapter I found something that stopped me in my mental tracks. What Hannah spoke about would become the subject of my Sunday School lesson on the following morning. I scrapped what I was working on and settled into the application of Hannah's point. 

Drawing from Matthew 6, and Jesus' discussion about the grass of the fields and how God cares for the sparrows, I re-discovered a Christmas message for the church--and especially for myself. She wrote these words for us as the church: 

"Your part is simply to rest, His part is to sustain you, and He cannot fail."

These are simple words, but yet so profound for the church to hear after Christmas. For, as we discussed yesterday in class, Christmas can be hectic. For many it was hectic. It was a time of expectations and pressure. We know that we are held in the hand of Christ Jesus, and that His birth saves us, but hearing Hannah's words over and over I couldn't help but feel at peace. 

I am a little sad that the decorations are coming down this week. I am sad to see the wreaths go away and the lights come down. But yet today I find myself wanting to simply rest. . . Rest in the provision of God in my life. Rest in the gift that has been given. Rest in knowing that my church family cares and supports each other deeply and passionately. I rest knowing that the work of salvation has been done and I give God thanks for it again today. 

I hope that you will find that same space of peace today, and when you do, I wonder what might happen when you share that peace with another person? 


Rev. Derek

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Wonderings--December 23

As Christmas comes again this weekend, and as we put the finishing touches on our Christmas Eve plans, I want to share with you a poem from John Milton that is meaningful in my life. 

Milton is most famous for his epic work: Paradise Lost. In seminary I enrolled in a class where John Milton was the primary text as we learned about Puritan Theology and how it shaped the Reformed Church. John Milton was one of the most well-known, and most often read, Puritan writers in history. 

But reading John Milton is very challenging. His use of language and sentence structure are complex and can be hard to understand. Sometimes a reader has to re-read the same section over and over again to fully grasp what the poet is saying.  

Before our class tackled Paradise Lost, John Milton's poetic work addressing the fall of Mankind as Adam and Eve are tempted by Satan, the six members of my class read On the Morning of Christ's Nativity. It'a wonderful work that touched my heart the very first time I found it. 

So every year as I get ready for Christmas worship, I pull my copy of John Milton off the shelf and find the poem near the front of the book. Sitting in my chair I read it out loud letting the words act as a form of prayer. I hope that these words will touch your heart also.

"This is the month, and this the happy morn, 
      Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King, 
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born, 
      Our great redemption from above did bring; 
      For so the holy sages once did sing, 
            That he our deadly forfeit should release, 
            And with his Father work us a perpetual peace. 

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable, 
      And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty, 
Wherewith he wont at Heav'n's high council-table, 
      To sit the midst of Trinal Unity, 
      He laid aside, and here with us to be, 
            Forsook the courts of everlasting day, 
            And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay."

The final three lines that I am sharing today are powerful and I hope that they touched your heart also--just as they touch mine.

Jesus willingly laid aside the beauty and perfect of heaven for us. He willingly came to earth for us knowing where his choice would lead him. He left behind the majesty, the perpetual worship that occurs in heaven so that he could reunify the creation with God in heaven. 

As Christmas comes we might be tempted to reduce the impact of Jesus' incarnation--but don't. As you gather around your Christmas trees sharing presents and joy, I hope you will remember the choice that Jesus made for you. . . 


Rev. Derek 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Wonderings--December 22

 Although Jennifer, Emma, and I celebrated Christmas with JonMark and Autumn last week, we still have the Christmas spirit in our hearts. We have already exchanged most of our gifts because as a family we were whole again this past week and it was wonderful and a blessing. 

But still under the tree a couple little packages sit patiently waiting for Christmas morning. 

Last night we ventured out to put the finishing touches on our Christmas gifts and fill some stockings. We strolled through a couple stores dodging hurried shoppers who themselves aren't quite done yet. By the time that we made it to Target for a few final 'sweet' purchases, Jennifer and I were done both emotionally and physically. 

The pain in my right knee was making it hard to walk again and I felt like I was plodding my leg forward. Leaning on the cart no longer helped. Jennifer was worn out from a hard day of working and her head was beginning to hurt. 

Then there was the emotional feeling/pain in the back of our minds as we thought about how Bella wouldn't be getting 'in the way' on Christmas morning as she trotted from lap to lap for some attention. (Luna will be playing with a toy on her own and Bianca would be snoring on the couch. . . oh the difficulty of their lives). Christmas felt a little smaller for us.  

As we returned home and made a cup of my favorite Twinnings tea I read the words of Kathleen Norris that I want to share with you as you too become tired, sore, and fatigued this Christmas week: 

"It is precisely because we are weary, and poor in spirit, that God can touch us with hope. This is not an easy truth. It means that we do accept our common lot, and take up our share of the cross. It means that we do not gloss over the evils we confront every day, both within ourselves and without. Our sacrifices may be great. But as the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, once said, it is only the poor and hungry, those who know they need someone to come on their behalf, who can celebrate Christmas. (Emphasis added). 

[At Christmas] we are asked to acknowledge that the world we have made is in darkness. We are asked to be attentive, and keep vigil for the light of Christ. . . . We, and our world, are broken. Even our homes have become places of physical and psychological violence. It is only God, through Jesus Christ, who can make us whole again."

These words can help remind you today of the gift that is coming this week for you. I know that the preparations of Christmas can be great, they can be exhausting. Your home and family may be a bit smaller than you remember or want. You might just think that there is little to celebrate this year because of covid-based suffering, or economic hardship, or relational separation. You may even have a bit of suffering that you haven't shared with anyone. Yet that should not deter you. . . 

He is born for you. 

We celebrate because with God in Christ because we are broken, and in His grace, God has made a way to heal us possible.

I wonder if you too feel the same way as I did last night? Worn out emotionally. . . in physical pain? If so, remember the Christmas manger, remember the love that filled it, and find someone today who might need to hear Norris' words and offer them as a balm to re-create hope. 


Rev. Derek

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Wonderings--December 21

Sitting behind my desk listening soft Christmas music playing on my MacBook, and with the anticipation of Christmas Eve in my mind, I wonder how do we move the needle from 'hopeless' to 'hopeful?'

Now I know what you might be thinking. Like me, you might confess that this is God's task and God's purpose. . . I mean seriously, how are we going to completely move the needle from one extreme to another by ourselves for all of creation?!? 

Leaving behind cliches and platitudes this task can seem far too difficult for us to even attempt to address. 

But I wonder if the solution is more accessible then we first imagined. . . 

Emma is still very sad from losing Bella, our cherished Maltese. Bella was her companion and her support during some hard, dark, times. Years ago before we came to Bethesda, Jennifer took Bella in her arms, kissed her head, and handed her to Emma for the night. As the exchange occurred, and to Emma's utter surprise, Jennifer said, 'Now take care of Emma, Bella.' Emma smiled and sauntered down the hall. She was still quite young and needed someone to help her through the dark night that was to come.  

From that point on the two were inseparable. Bella would hear Emma cough at night and come to investigate. Never mind that she was standing on Emma's face, Bella did her job well. She would ride on Emma's lap in the car and curl herself up like a baby in Emma's arms. But now she is with Jesus in heaven. 

So I ask my question again: how do I move the needle for Emma from 'hopeless' to 'hopeful' without turning it into a cliche-ridden conversation? How do I, or how would you, begin to address that need? For this is not only something that Emma is dealing with right now, but I suspect that you know individuals personally who are in their own hopeless-Christmas moment. 

In her book, Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home, Barbara Brown Taylor tells her own story of moving the needle from hopeless to hopeful. The story is about a local country sheriff who was shot trying to talk one of his deputies down from their dark place. But he was too late. The officer killed his wife and shot the sheriff in the back. 

Yet this sheriff would not be deterred. Shortly after the incident, which rocked the community to its core, much as Emma is rocked to her core today, the wounded sheriff showed up for a local version of Dancing with the Stars. They raised nearly $65,000 for a rescue shelter for those suffering from domestic abuse. She concludes his story this way: 

"Will it [the evening] stop domestic violence? No it won't--but it kept people from feeling paralyzed, if just for a little while. It moved the needle from 'hopeless' to 'hopeful,' for just one night. That's the good news."

A small, personal, deliberate choice to be present mattered for that community, and it would matter for Emma as she grieves, and I believe it will matter for that one person who you know right now whose Christmas is not the most joy-filled. 

I walked another glass of green tea back to Emma in her room. Lowered my booming, always happy, voice a notch, I tipped my head forward so she could see my eyes over my glasses and said, 'need anything...hug?' 

"No," she replied. 

"A cookies?" I pressed. 

"I'm good," she said through tear-filled eyes.  

"Well actually, honey, I'm good. 'Cause you know, I'm a doctor. . . You're just cute." I replied trying to smile through my own tears at seeing her heart broken. 

She rolled her eyes and a little tear came out. But for that moment as she laughed and in that moment hopelessness became hopefulness. Presence matters when we are in those places. I wonder what choices you might make to move the needle of a friend just that little bit? 


Rev. Derek

Monday, December 20, 2021

Wonderings--December 20

 Its Christmas Week and I am a mixture of emotions. 

Certainly there is great joy and excitement to lead worship at Bethesda for the first time on Christmas Eve. I am excited to experience the passion of "Silent Night" under the stars--weather permitting. Anticipation is all around me as I think about celebrating the sacrament for the first time here with a warm, welcoming family. Their welcome and care for us has been so amazing. But. . . 

There is a great sadness in our home too. 

Saying good-bye to Bella, our Maltese, has been very hard for us. Emma and Jennifer are struggling so much with this. Bella was Jennifer's dream girl. So faithful. So loving. So ever-present. Dogs have been blessed with a special gift from God. They occupy a place in us that is so unique and so vital. Unconditional love and joy when we come home. Bella filled in that space completely. I can close my eyes and hear the pitter-padder of her feet trotting down the hall.

And yet, it is Christmas Week. . . Jesus is coming again into creation. His birth signals how God is moving to welcome us back home. He is choosing to be with us when he could choose otherwise.  

Joy and Sadness coming together on Christmas week. In that painful place, I believe we can find Christ, the Baby being born for us. There is presence that overcomes and overwhelms and support us when the joy and the suffering come together. 

Presence says: 

"I don't know what this is, what this means, how deep this goes, how damaging this may be; it could all be over tomorrow, it may last a lifetime; it may keep getting worse, it may go in phases, it may be bad at the start and then alleviate. I have no idea. But I'm here whichever course it takes, and my companionship doesn't depend on which course it takes. In the unknown and dismay and distress of this sickness, some things can be relied upon. If you need to, you can start budding from there."

This is the gift of presence and the gift that God makes possible for us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to us, quietly, without fanfare, and he abides. His birth creates the room for us to dwell together in places of joy (like when we sing carols together), and when we suffering (or say good-bye to someone we love so dearly).

Perhaps that's the true miracle of Christmas--presence created for us all. No mater where we are at emotionally or relationally. . . 

I wonder, who could you share the presence of Christ with today? I wonder what might happen if you offered them the same level of presence?


Rev. Derek 

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Wonderings--December 16

 The Christmas season, especially the week leading up to it, can be a difficult and challenging time. Sure, we struggle with getting the right present that fully expresses our love, affection, and appreciation for the individual, but there is more to the struggle that we cannot escape. 

In this struggle I wonder what a different response might look like?

This morning I received another email that no parents wants to read in their inbox. It was from JonMark and Emma's old school system--Seneca Valley. As you might remember the community was once again rocked by tragedy as a young student took his own life last week. The understanding at that time was that his untimely and unfortunate death was the result of bullying issues that were building in his life for years. In his hopelessness this young man decided there was no other choice but to end his life.  

Now that's a horrible story to hear. But the horribleness of the story is compounded when you know that this is not the first time a student there has been the victim of hatred. Students all over the area are pushed beyond the point of no return. It seems that if you don't look, act, or think as the majority tells you to, then you are ostracized, ridiculed, and threatened. 

Another email was sent to us today that was equally as painful to read that spoke about the school's commitment to child safety and protection. Parents are stoking the fires of hate and blame is being cast around. 

My heart sank as I re-read the note and wondered: how did we get here? And how do we get back, or even, can we get back to a place of communal-wholeness? 

At this point several options are possible that we could take to reconcile these issues: 

1- We could chalk up these events to an isolated incident (or two). Those involved will be dealt with and the community moves on. "Nothing to see here". . . But like it said this isn't the first time that the community has been rocked with suffering and so that solution doesn't seem viable to me. It has happened before and it will likely happen again. 

2- We could judge. We could demand that those families, or individuals, or groups who raise and supported children in hateful, vengeful ways are help accountable. But I wonder what stops us from acting like the very people we are condemning? 

Then I re-read the words of Marcia A. Owens today and found another choice presented to us:

3- We could 'be with.' 

Let's hear Marcia, and her co-author Samuel Wells, on this issue and notice how the entire framing of the relationship changes if we choose their approach: 

"But what is really required is simply 'being with'--staying still, listening, being silent, not having the answers, sharing the struggle, praying together, singing songs and hymns, taking time over meals, recalling stories, remembering messages [from God] to pass on. What is needed is not therapy--its company."

Whenever I read a story of evil coming into a community my temptation is to work to solve or fix the issue. I am tempted to try as hard as I can to achieve my desired result permanently. I/we are tempted to paint with broad brush strokes in an attempt to cover over the degradation and sinfulness that is at work around us. 

Yet in all that we are trying to do are we not forgetting God? 

Perhaps by adopting Marcia's suggested posture we might find not just a way to heal but a way to be whole again?  


Rev. Derek

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Wonderings--December 15

Well today as I got ready to come into the office I wonder: how often do we make the time? How often do we sacrifice the expectation for the needed reality? 

Last evening we took Autumn, JonMark, and Emma out for dinner. It was Autumn's 20th birthday and we wanted to celebrate with her. We enjoyed "Christmas" on Monday night, now it was time for a second party! About half way through dinner JonMark and I begin talking: 

"Dad when do you have to go to work tomorrow?' he begins.

"I usually try and be at my desk by 8," I respond and take another bite. "Why?" While I didn't know where this was going I knew that he wanted something and it would be interesting to see how that came up. 

"Well, you know I only have a hotplate in my apartment and my toaster oven isn't big enough to make biscuits," he says. I know where this is going and so I smile. 

"Would you like me to make you biscuits and gravy like I always did when you were at home?' I smile as I look over my glasses. He might be almost 20 but he's still my baby boy. He still needs his dad's help. All he has to do is ask and I will always help. 

"I mean, if you don't mind," he says. "I was hoping to have them around 8:30 but if you can't then it's okay." He looks down and keeps eating.  

I lean back, "Well I will see you and the birthday-girl at 8:30 sharp for breakfast." 

He smiles gratefully and Autumn squeezes his arm subtly. He will get what he wants and it will remind him of home and of being a family.  

Yes, I had things to do today. And yes, God being full of grace and mercy wouldn't mind if I came in a little later than planned so that I could eat with my boy. Yes, I was late but I was late and I was blessed. I walked through the office door to see Pat and Donna smiling at me--they knew why I was late. Ernice was on the phone and asked how I was enjoying my son--she knew too and was happy to listen to me. I was really enjoying him I told her. 

I could have hurried through my morning, and he wouldn't have judged me, or I could slow down. I could put on some traditional Christmas music in the kitchen and cook for him. I could make coffee and leave cups on the peninsula for them to enjoy and put a bowl out for him when the rest of us wanted plates. 

Sometimes in the name of productivity we miss the chance to dwell with the other person. I wonder today who that other person might be for you? I wonder what might happen if you lingered a little and had that extra cup of coffee. . . 



Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Wonderings--December 14

 When I was in college I had the opportunity to participate in a men's retreat called the Walk to Emmaus (perhaps you have heard about it). The weekend is based around the convergence of sound biblical teaching and times of deliberate silence. 

Each day we would listen to a teaching or lecture from a minister or lay individual, talk about that teaching in small groups, create a conclusion related to how we could adopt the lesson in our discipleship, and then retreat to silence and speak with God about it. 

Overall the weekend was very powerful and helpful in my theological development and growth--so much so that I sponsored a number of friends to attend. I believed that they too would be touched the Holy Spirit, or to use the words of Emmaus "Did not our hearts burn as he taught us on the road..."

One of my friends that I sent on the retreat was named Alex. 

Alex is a witty guy who brings a musical/theatrical gift to every situation that he enters. He is always the life of the party. I met him as an in-coming freshman and we were friends until I graduated 3 years later. 

As the retreat drew towards its closing, I received word that the weekend was not going as planned for him. Sure, he was enjoying the time away from college, but the deep encounter that I had with the Holy Spirit was not 'happening' for Alex. He was still smiling and seemed relaxed but something was amiss. 

The retreated ended Sunday night and Alex told me that he really enjoyed the time away, but that it took him a long time to 'get it' (whatever it was). Listening to him tell me about the program I mentally checked off every box that I remember when I walked to Emmaus. . . teaching. listening. silence. communion. He attended them all and enjoyed them all.

In what would become a hint of my future doctoral work, I asked Alex about his expectations of the weekend? What did you think was going to happen? 

His answers were a jumbled mess of hope, aspiration, and just wanting it to happen. . . In his excitement, he brought too much baggage into the retreat and almost missed God's movement. 

Recently I read about an Anglican priest who had the same experience with one of his young students. When addressing how the young person, like Alex, was trying or working too hard he said this: 

"Your first duty as a priest is to save your own soul."

Like Alex we bing a lot into our days with us. We are so excited for what God can do in someone's life that we can almost miss the gentle, subtle nudge of the Holy Spirit. I wonder how often you have lived your faith as Alex did that weekend? Trying so hard to get it right that you forget to 'save your own soul?" 



Monday, December 13, 2021

Wonderings--December 13

 As my Scottish theological professor was fond of saying: "There is no entry for the word 'joy' in the theological dictionary of the Reformed Faith." And that is not a typo. . . There is no entry in the theological dictionary of the Reformed Faith for the idea/concept of joy.  

For those who are unfamiliar with that dictionary, it lists all of the concepts and ideas that surface in the life of reformed church--the Presbyterian Church. Look in that book under 'stewardship' and you will find something meaningful. Look in the text for Jesus Christ and you will find a concise teaching that reflects 'proper reformed thinking.' 

Yet 'Joy' seems to be missing. . . Isn't that both interesting. . . and sad. 

Andrew, the professor in question, would continue in his lecture by telling a group of young, idealistic, future preachers and church leaders that this was because we, as the larger church, don't know how to handle or express joy adequately in the Reformed Church. And as with most things, when we cannot understand something, or speak about in a way that feel authentic, we leave it aside. (This happens outside of the church as well). We let someone else talk about it--and that makes me feel very sad. 

If you were in worship with us here at Bethesda yesterday then you heard the Sounds of Grace sing with gusto and great joy that "Christmas must be Tonight." They did a great job. I had been waiting for a month and three days to hear them sing and was so appreciative for their presence in worship. They brought something powerful and dynamic into that worship space. 

But my joy became all-consuming as I watched Emma not only play the violin wit them, but I noticed that she was singing as part of the group. Seeing her sing brought a tear to my eye and made me want to jump up and join the band. I sang that song all evening and into this morning as I thought about worship. I thank the band members for welcoming and encouraging her so much.  

My baby girl has been through so much in her young life already. Her joy has been snuffed out before. Her soul has been bruised by others. She struggled before she came here with a lot of things. But she is so happy now. Her joy is complete. Here, at Bethesda, she feels like she is at home and as such she can sing, play her instruments, and express joy! 

But with that memory before me, I return to Andrew's words: 

"Joy can be such an explosion of glorious human emotion. . . Joy is the expression of a profound inner disposition of gratitude to God that may be expressed in shouts of joy, crashing cymbals, loud shouts of 'hallelujah.

If this is all true, then I wonder why do we let our joy gets snuffed out? I wonder why we don't share it more often? 


Rev. Derek

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Wonderings--December 9

 Last night we enjoyed another great evening of fellowship and food. I look forward to each Wednesday to see what the delicious dinner the kitchen will offer us. This week we had fried fish, coleslaw, and hush puppies. As I would say after each meal, everything that we ate was delicious. And I was thankful for the hands that worked hard to cook and prepare everything. 

As a church we laughed together and as the evening concluded we enjoyed listening to the band practice. They are playing on Sunday during worship as well as during the Christmas program so they played a few songs together and it sounded great. Listening to Emma 'fiddle' away as part of the band touched my heart so much. 

It was a full evening. . . and of course a loud, excited one. 

As I enjoyed a third piece of fish, I wondered about the role of the community that I was witnessing and enjoying? 

Karl Barth says it this way: 

"The community does not speak with words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; by its characteristic attitude to the world's problems; and, moreover and especially, by its service to all the. . . weak and needy in the world. It speaks, finally, by the simple fact that it prays for the world. It does all this because this is the purpose of it summoned by the word of God."

Last evening we didn't solve any of the world's greatest problems. Instead by just being together, by spending time breaking bread and sharing, we echoed what I believe Barth is speaking about in this passage. 

We don't have to evangelize physically to every person that we come into contact with. By our choice to be just care, to cook, to listen, to serve, we are doing what God invites us to do. We are living out our calling as illuminated in the scriptures. It is that easy and it can be that transformational. 

This weekend we will have another opportunity to be the church. I wonder if just by being with, by showing up, how that might help those around us? 


Rev. Derek

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Wonderings--December 7

The hustle and bustle of the Christmas season is upon us and that can be a source of frustration and spite. I have walked through lines this past week at Target, Publix, and Lowes and found the crowds growing and faces expression frustration. 

The promise of fiscal savings has brought the crowds out of their homes as has the need for the 'perfect' Christmas gift--a need that I too support and recognize. While covid has kept us still a little bit apart, the stores are filling up and the people are being less kind and gentle. The parking lots are filling up. The roads are bumper to bumper with traffic. I hear horns more now than I did last week, and I wonder if I am able do something about it in a small, little, Christ-like way? 

And so as I think about the Christmas season that is coming upon us, I remember the words that illustrate my attempted Christ-like response: Be Gentle.

Samuel Wells whose work has influenced much of my D.Min research wrote it this way: 

"How often have you looked upon what another person said or did with horror, fury, or scorn only to find yourself, ten years (or ten minutes) later saying or doing much the same? Be sparing with your horror, fury, and scorn, lest they rebound on you and make you lamentable in your own sight. People tend to do the best they can with what they have and what they know. A little generosity of heart inclines us to look to our fellow creatures with gentleness rather than bitterness, compassion rather than anger, understanding rather than condemnation."

The chapter where this section comes is titled: Be Gentle. I have read it before and felt it draw me closer to God as I sit and reflect. Every time that I read it again, I end the section with the same thought: "You should do a better job at this, Derek." 

And yet, I too get frustrated when I am in the store, or driving, or encountering someone at the store who is working slower that I would like or prefer. 

Perhaps gentleness can unlock the door this Christmas season for us. I wonder if taking Wells' words into my heart and trying to adopt them might offer me a way to be more Christ-like? I wonder when was the last time you were filled with horror, fury, and scorn? 


Rev. Derek

Monday, December 6, 2021

Wonderings--December 6

 This morning I finally found some time for a cherished activity. . . something that I enjoyed with Luna for months and months. . . taking a walk. 

By design just going for a short walk is not transformational. It's just a stroll or chance for some fresh air. Today, I didn't even walk fast enough to get out of breath. I just walked. . . and it felt good. I had been wanting to walk through the Bethesda cemetery for a while now, but I just couldn't, or perhaps wouldn't, make the necessary time in my morning for the walk. 

Today that changed. 

Today I made the time. 

I dropped my backpack and coffee off on the desk gently. Looked around my office for my AirPods and then headed out to enjoy my planned-walk. Zipping my sweater up a bit higher, I made my way toward McConnells and into the cemetery. My audiobook playing in my ears, I enjoyed the cool morning. 

Traffic on the main road was light as I made my way into the cemetery, and so it was quiet. The silence blessed me and I remembered a section of the book that I am reading as part of my morning devotional time with the Lord. 

Katherine May wrote: 

"I flinch away. . . from the carefully noncommittal language that I find online--the internet-spiritual, celebrating the moments in which we're blessed and grateful, but reluctant to pin down by whom we-re blessed or to whom we-re grateful."

Today as I walked I thought about Katherine's words--"being reluctant to pin down" the source of our blessing. And I wondered:  Why do we do this?

Why do we neglect the chance to affirm and confess that God has indeed blessed us? Why do we take something as simple as a light walk and forget that God walks with us? God walks beside us . . . God longs to enjoy the relationship that He has with us. 

I returned to my office after my walk and felt good. Switching on the desk lamp I said down and spend a quiet moment thanking him for the day. 

I wonder if my walk, and the fact that I noticed God while I was walking, made the difference? 


Rev. Derek

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Wonderings--December 2

A number of years ago, while searching through Barnes & Noble for a new book, I stumbled upon Donald Miller. . . Truth be told a couple colleagues of mine highly recommended his book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thought on Christian Spirituality to me, but in honestly, I get a lot of those suggestions. Ministers love books. We love offering a new book to a friend or inviting someone to learn cherished wisdom from someone who has meant a lot to our development. 

Some of those suggests I follow up on, and some go on my lengthy list of future purchases. There is no arbitrary formula for the decision-making process; it just happens.

In the in-between time, Donald Miller just sat there in my mind waiting to either be welcomed into my library or passed off to 'the list' and the uncertainty of it. 

So in Barnes & Noble that day I saw the blue book that was recommended to me and decided that it was God's providence that led me this moment (Was that true, I don't know. I bought the book). Since then I have read and re-read and re-read sections of that book over and over for nearly 12 years. Its wisdom, its humor, and its honesty are a breath of fresh air some times that I need to breath in.

Today, I am having a really good morning so I slid Blue Like Jazz from the shelf and began it again. Donald never fails to bless my soul with his words.  

Not too far into my skimming and note-reading I found these words at the end of a section: 

"Here's the truth about telling stories with your life. It's going to sound like a great idea, and you're going to get excited about it, and then when it comes time to do the work, you're not going to want to do it. It's like that with writing books, and it's like that with life. People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. But joy costs pain." (Emphasis added).

As I read, "joy causes pain" I rocked back in my chair and thought a little. I thought about challenges that I have faced, fears I pressed into, anxieties that I confronted and I remembered how God was also close to my heart in those moments. I may not have noticed God immediately shouting forth some wisdom or scripture to help me through. But upon reflection, when the moment was over, I could clearly see God present and active. 

The joy that came to me was there because I contorted the challenge and worked through the pain. . . 

I wonder how "joy costs pain" resounds in your day? I wonder what story comes to mind as you read these words? And I wonder if God might be offering you a chance to reach out to someone and share your struggle, by doing so you might be a helpful tool that God is using. . . 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Wonderings--December 1

 We all have days when we are a bit more introspective. Reflective. And thoughtful. December 1st is always one of those days for me. 

Today is first of all a day of joy for me. I have completed another lap around the sun for the 46th time (and I expect many, many more trips). 

Jennifer was the first person to wish me a happy birthday. But then the day took a surprising turn--a joyful one at that. Shortly after 7 as I was enjoying some coffee while getting ready my iPhone rang. I was getting a text. My niece Indyca texted to wish me a happy birthday. I didn't expect her to send something so quickly. They usually call me in the evening. Then I got a message from Autumn, JonMark's girlfriend. . . on and on it went. 

Walking to the church I felt blessed today. 

Part of my introspection and reflection leads me back to some familiar voices and teachers that help frame my life. Their words shape and direct my spiritual life and walk. Today it was Thomas Merton. For years I have appreciated his well-written and challenging teaching.  

While spending time in solitude Merton offered the following prayer that I thought about today: 

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.

As I continue through my morning and visit with some church members and later enjoy a fellowship dinner, those words will be in my heart. We may not know exactly where we are going but God does. We may not know the motivation of our choices fully, but God certainly does. 

I wonder if Merton's words speak to your life today? Perhaps this prayer offers you a choice that is unexpected. . . I wonder what God might be asking you today?


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...