Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Wonderings--April 27

Not very long ago I was talking to a colleague and friend of mine who is working hard to serve the Lord in the pulpit and church. Tom is a good friend and we catch up every-so-often and share how God is at work in our lives and how we see God at work in the church. 

But during our last Zoom call I learned that Tom's church is beginning to enter into a difficult time in their ministry. 

After exhausting every option that they could uncover, and after strategic plans and meeting were setup, and even after taking all their struggles to God in a deliberate time of prayer and discernment, it was time to end a cherished family program. The administrative board and the pastor did not take this decision lightly--in fact they were greatly grieved by the choice. Some, he said, even wept as they voted to close down this program. 

Together they had done everything as a church to support the program. For decades this tiny church offered their community a meaningful family program that now was unable to be staffed and supported by the community. 

I listened intently to Tom's story. At the end of his time of sharing, I pressed in gently to see how my friend was doing? Smiling, he asked me if I remembered a particular professor of our at Pittsburgh Seminary: Dr. Andrew Purves. 

I smiled back. . . Andrew is an important theological voice in my life, I told him. His books and teaching helped me form a lot of the paradigms of ministry that I still use today here at Bethesda. So, naturally I replied that I knew Andrew and his work. Tom then proceeded to remind me that, as Andrew would say, 'we preach Christ at all times.' 

When we don't know what to say: we preach Christ.

When ministry and faith become harder than we imagined: we preach Christ.

When a cherished program, ministry, or relationship breaks down: we preach Christ.

As our conversation ended I thought about one of my doctoral advisers, the Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, who wrote these words to support Andrew's teaching. How do we preach Christ one might ask??

"We do so by constantly and consistency saying to people. "Look, there's Christ in your midst, and there, and there, and there!" We do it by showing people that even if they are in darkness, they can find Christ's light shining through the love of a family member, the kindness of a friend, a phrase in a book, or the inspiration from a song. We can also preach Christ by reminding people that Christ is in Scripture, in the sacraments, and in all of worship. We preach Christ's presence by pointing to the incarnation of Christ in everything: our sufferings, our joys, our relationships, and our hearts."

Not all of us face these moments as my friend Tom did of ending a ministry and program, but we all know something about transition, and about the pain of change that comes with it. We may not be called by God today to move in a different direction, but we know what it feels like to wonder if God heard a single word we said in our hour of need. 

If you are in that place today, then I wonder how are you preaching Christ in thought, word, and deed? How are you looking at the struggles of this day and responding not in defeat but in love and in faith? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Wonderings--April 26

I have a story to share with you today, but before I do let me offer a word of clarification regarding what you are about to read. . . I was careful; I was deliberate. I did not, and would not, overdo it. Please don't worry. . . Now that I have offered you some clarification, and likely peaked your curiosity, let's begin my story. 

This morning I finished getting prepared for my day a few minutes early. As I filled my cup and double checked my backpack I thought, "Well you know, if you are careful you could make this happen finally."I sighed and said to Nala, "Don't worry I will be careful. You mom and Jennifer will be very upset with me if I hurt myself." She didn't respond so I took her silence to be agreement with what I was thinking. So off their crates the dogs went. 

Standing alone in the living room I looked at the chair my children purchased for me a couple years ago as a Father's Day gift. Now I like the chair that currently sits in my office. It rocks back and forth and is great. But this chair, with its matching footstool is better. It is more comfortable and easier to read and work from. So I decided to switch chairs (which Jennifer supported). . . The blue one from the church would leave my office and the chevron one would arrive. 

(Yes, you probably guessed how this story ends. . .) 

I carefully took the chair out of the house, placed it on the porch, closed the door behind me, checked the lock, and began the trip to carry the chair to the church. . . while still recovering from a full knee replacement and knowing that I have to be careful. 

Since surgery I knew better than to walk quickly or 'muscle' the chair around. Slowly, deliberately, with a full awareness of where my feet landed with each step, I walked with the chair down the driveway. I stopped about every 10 feet and put it down. I readjust my grip each time and check-in with my knee--there was no pain. 

This is not a heavy chair; the kids bought it from IKEA because it was sold, easy to move, and lightweight. Step by step and stop by stop I worked the chair to the church. The whole trip took quite a while, but I was patient and aware of what I was doing. 

As I arrived at the church I had some help holding the door open and walking in from a parent who dropped of their child. Now the chair sits to my right and I am happy to have it here. But as I think about it, and as I have already read God's word for the morning, I wonder if my choice, the way I addressed moving my new chair to its home, is something that we in the church are called to practice? 

So many of us rush from text to text and through prayer while not stopping to look around and see what might be there. It is as if the completion of the task is more important than the communion which happens in the moment. Perhaps a slow, calm, deliberate approach of God might be the best way to approach Him and grow in faith. . .

Rev. Derek 

Monday, April 25, 2022

Wonderings--April 25

Heading to the office today to begin a new week with the Lord, I felt good. Sipping my coffee from the cup my family bought me as a gift at my installation here at Bethesda, I noticed that my stride was smooth, fluid, and relaxed. I still felt the click in my knee but there was not much discomfort at all. Slipping my bag from my shoulder in the office, I set it down on my chair, smiled, and thought, 'maybe a short one. I've got time.'

It has been a while, but I went for s short walk down to the cemetery gate and back to the office. . . .step after step I walked down to McConnells Highway. Turning around I walked back toward my office, but at the last moment, decided to walk home. This would extend my walk by a little bit and I still felt no pain. Touching my truck, I turned again, and walked back to the church still without pain. 

The entire walk was not much. I didn't walk fast and I was careful as I went. I made sure to keep one eye where I was going, one eye on the ground in front of me to make sure I did not trip or stumble, and one eye watching for parents bringing their kids to the day care. I really did not want to get hit by a car. (Yes, it was a little tricky to be that attentive, but I was). 

As I sat down in my chair, I sipped some more coffee, and then I wondered about miracles and how we define and quantify them as coming from God? 

In her book, The Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor speaks a length about manna. She, like the Israelites in the Sinai Desert, wondered why God sent it and what it's purpose was (besides being food). She offers us today the following thoughts on the topic: 

"Does manna have to come out of nowhere to qualify a a miracle? Or is the miracle that God heard the complaining of hungry people and fed them. . . Or to put it another way, what makes something bread from heaven? . . . 

If, you are willing to look at everything that comes to you (and I add parenthetically like walking around the parking lot) as coming to you from God, then there will be no end to the manna in your life. . .  Because it is not what it is that counts but who sent it, and the miracle is that God is always sending something to eat."

A short walk. . . a little time in prayer. . . a chance to listen to someone. . . a chance to be vulnerable to someone . . . a song in your heart. These are little miracles, little chances to notice what it is that God is giving you each day. The question that you have to ask yourself today is: will you see them as a gift from God, like manna, or are they just things that happen that mean nothing? 

I believe they are something special. . .  Do you? 

Rev. Derek

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Wonderings--April 21

I would like to share with you a story from the Christian Church's history. . . 

In 1555 Johann Arndt was born. As the son of German Lutheran pastor, Johann watched first hand as the Reformation took shape around him and his family. He watched as it changed the church and the leadership of the church. After studying in a number of local schools, Johann entered into pastoral ministry in 1583. Combining a strong Lutheran doctrinal background with the mysticism and contemplation of Bernard of Clairvaux and John Tauler, he offered the church something it was missing--something that would shape us. 

Arndt stressed that right doctrine (right orthodoxy), while necessary and important, was alone insufficient to help a Christian grow and mature in their faith. For Johann, true Christianity was union with Christ through individual and corporate spiritual transformation and repentance. As we purify ourselves, and spend time with Jesus in devotional settings, Christ helps us grow and deepen what we believe and how we live our beliefs out. 

His seminal work was a manual for pastors and priests entering the ministry. Perhaps today as you read this you might notice how Arndt's words are applicable to you and I in our missional context today. He wrote: 

"True Christianity consists, 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. . ."

In other words, right doctrine, while necessary and important, is not the primary way to grow toward faithfulness. Right practice, what we might call ortho-praxy, is of equal importance as we live as the church. We have a lot of opportunities to 'be the church' which is nothing more than 'living as the church' for others. 

I wonder if today you might find a chance to live 'rightly' in your community. I wonder who it might impact and how it might shape you?

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Wonderings--April 20

I wonder if we choose to praise God enough? 

This morning I finally returned to Palmetto Rehab for another dose of therapy on my right knee. For 45 minutes my therapist had me bend, stretch, extend, lift, and work the muscles in my knee in an attempt to strengthen them and increase my range of motion. 

As normally happens, the appointment went well. I worked hard and am a bit sore as I sit and write to you. . . It was a good experience and I was thankful for it. I know that I have some distance still to travel as I heal. But throughout the entire appointment my mind went back to the 'check-in' process. I would like to share it with you this morning.  

As I told the woman working the front desk that I was here, she asked how my Easter was. (She knows I am a pastor). I told her things at Bethesda went so well. I was so thankful for how God was with us and how full the church was with love and family throughout the day. But I said, "I am still a bit tired from the weekend."

I then told her that it was a long weekend because Jennifer and I went to a Christian concert in Charlotte on Saturday. She asked who we saw. . . I said, For King and Country. Frankly, I didn't expect any responses besides a polite one from the receptionist. I am happy to say that I was wrong on this one. 

For the next 10 minutes we talked about Christian music and how it shaped her walk with God. She asked if I knew about certain bands and I did. She asked about others... I knew them too. Those 10 minutes became a time where she could, and did, talk about how, through music, God ministered to her heart at the passing of her father. I listened as she narrated her story through grief and toward healing with God by her side. 

Not surprisingly, the door to the PT gym did not open at all as we talked. I believe that God wanted this woman and I to talk about how the music of TobyMac, Red, and P.O.D. helped shape her life and how she knew that God was with her. 

I smiled as eventually my therapist came and got me, but for those 10 minutes God showed up. 

Looking back, the conversation didn't feel especially holy. Instead, as we talked in the lobby I knew that it was just a chat. But this 'chat' brought a smile to my face--which returns me to my initial question: how often do we choose to praise God? 

Again nothing transformational happened as we talked, but now as I sit here at my desk, I can say that God showed up. And I know that He has a habit of walking into the room when we least expect it. Maybe those unexpected moments are a needed chance to offer Him a word of thanks and praise? Maybe today was just a little blessing that warmed my heart a bit? 

Walking into the gym it was business as usual--sorta. As I warmed up on the stationary bike, I smiled as I remembered the songs we talked about in the lobby. The encounter stayed with me as I left and started the truck and headed to the office. I even put on one of the bands we talked about. 

I wonder if we could choose to praise God more often? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Wonderings--April 19

One of the hardest things to consider and contemplate upon is the church following Resurrection Sunday. After Easter we begin to wonder: now what?  

For six weeks we have been preparing, praying, and anticipating the joyful worship services that we will participate in on Resurrection Sunday. Breakfasts are planned. Music rehearsed and fine-tuned. Flowers purchased and arranged in the worship space and out front of the church. Worship Committees, in union with their pastors, have planned and prayed through worship practices for Holy Week. We have hoped that everything we planned is done so in accordance with God's will. 

Everything is as ready as possible. . . . 

At Bethesda, we gathered in the gray fog to begin worshipping the resurrected Messiah at 7am on Easter morning. As families placed their flowers on the cross in front of the church, we could feel the spiritual anticipation building. There was a murmur in the congregation as we gathered. 

Then as quickly as the service began, and breakfast was served, we fell back into the realm of 'now what.' . . . 

After Easter, we are left thinking about the war in Ukraine that seems to tell us more and more horrible, tragic stories each day.  I sigh each time I open an article on-line about the war knowing that what I will read is tragic and painful and it feels unnecessary and downright evil. I know I will pray about it, but yet I still feel hopeless, and I look for God around me. 

After Easter, we are left thinking about rising gas prices and an increase in inflation. While we are ready for covid to finally become a distant memory, and mask to be put away. Yet that has not happened yet either. . . and I wonder if it ever will. I read about the midterm elections and we can feel the 'fight' growing around us by both parties as they grasp at power to further their agendas in Washington DC.  

After Easter, I wonder how are we going to re-engage the God who came from the Tomb for us? I wonder if we feel it is even possible to dwell with Him? 

With this in mind, I read the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as part of my morning devotions. At the conclusion of what I reading I found the following prayer that I now share with you. I imagine that after Easter you have felt the same pain, confusion, and questions rising in your heart. If so, perhaps this prayer can be something that you pray to our Lord: 

"Dear Child of God, it is often difficult for us to recognize the presence of God in our lives and in our world. In the clamor of the tragedy that fills the headlines we forget about the majesty that is present all around us. We feel vulnerable and often helpless. . . . But we are not helpless and with God’s love we are ultimately invincible. Our God does not forget those who are suffering and oppressed."

Archbishop Tutu's words are true and they should ring in our ear for I know each of us deals with these same concerns and fears. Yet we have God's love to lean back up. We have God's love to help us serve and live faithfully. Today I wonder if you could take some time and read and re-read that prayer. Maybe God will use it to help you as you consider what happens next after Easter. . .  

Rev. Derek

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Wonderings--April 14

Today is an important day in the life of Jesus' church. While we are happy to join together this evening for worship, there is in the air a sense of sadness present. We greet another in love and friendship at the door as we come into the worship space, yet we will leave with our heads down and our hearts heavy. Silence will replace normal conversation. Darkness instead of light. 

The sanctuary looks different today. Darker. The table will be covered in black tonight and the Word will be carried out of the worship space dramatically. One of my theological professors reminded me that the liturgical color for today is not purple or white (as it has been in throughout Lent). Today we are gray for the church has lost her hope--for now. 

We are a church who mourns because her bride, her hope, her savior and teacher, the one who called her by name, has been taken away, and for now, we do not know what we shall do. We do not know how to be. 

Certainly we know that in a few days we will sing that "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," but today let us not rush to those words. I wonder if you could just sit. . . just be? Think about that for a moment with me. . . just being. . . 

As I wrote those words 2 individuals came into the office here at the church. I needed to speak with both of them so I was glad to see them. We had some final plans to solidify for this weekend. Then my iPhone chirped to remind me to call my doctor for a refill for one of my medications associated with my knee. Next, I forgot to tell Pat about a change to the bulletin so that needed to be reconciled. . . . Just 'be,' huh, not likely. But God wonder if we could. 

From my perspective the most important part of Maundy Thursday is our willingness to witness to what is happening in the life of Jesus Christ. I know the story and you know it. We have taught it to our children and heard it preached many time in the pulpit. But today God wonders if we can just 'be' with the story and witness it? 

I encourage you to find some space, some time, a moment even, and dwell with God. Allow the power of what he is doing on this night to touch your soul, and as it does, ask him what you should do with that touch. . . 

Rev. Derek

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Wonderings--April 13

Like you I have read the Passion narrative many times in my Christian life; I have heard it read to me may more times. I have examined each of the four gospels as they speak about how Jesus died and rose again for us as the church. More than just examining each narrative, or hearing them read, over the years I have preached on each of the gospel's resurrection stories--and they all bless my heart and warm my soul. 

I never get tired of hearing how Jesus defeated death by choosing to be the perfect sin-sacrifice for humanity. Yet in that familiarity a temptation exists to skip portions of the story because we know it so well that we don't think it contains anything that can change us any longer. Like John 3:16, most of us can complete the resurrection story as it is read in worship this Sunday.

 And so I ask: what is left to wonder about on Easter morning? 

If we are so familiar with what Jesus did for us, then why read it each year? Why look for something that changes lives and remakes people when it feels stale and overworked? 

It is in that moment, as I am tempted to become frustrated and overwhelmed on Holy Week, it is at that moment when I remember an important detail-- an important choice that Jesus made. He surrendered to what was coming. . . I wonder what that might look like in your life today? 

Howard Thurman offers the church these words that I share with you today. He invites you and I, as we think on what he is saying, to surrender to God. He wonders with us if as we surrender to the Lord, do we allow what seems familiar the space that it needs to become transformational yet again? As we know this is the greatest story ever told. 

Thurman wrote:  

"I surrender myself to God without any conditions or reservations. I shall not bargain with [God]. I shall not make my surrender piecemeal but I shall lay bare the very center of me, that all of my very being shall be charged with the creative energy of God. Little by little, or vast area by vast area, my life must be transmuted in the life of God. As this happens, I come into the meaning of true freedom and the burdens that I seemed unable to bear are floated in the current of the life and love of God.

The central element in communion with God is the act of self-surrender

Jesus self-surrendered for us. He gave up control for us. He allowed his mission and his purpose to overwhelm his humanity which we know was anxious and fearful. As did so, God the Father welcomed us back into perfect communion with Him forever and ever. All because of the simple act of surrender. 

Certainly something that dramatic isn't going to happen to us today if we surrender to God. But a miracle, a transformation, and renewal, will happen when we practice the self-surrender Howard speaks about. And as we practice this, I wonder, if the narrative will become live again? 

Rev. Derek

Monday, April 11, 2022

Wonderings--April 11

Holy Week invites the church to examine, one last time before Easter as we think about the motives for why we lives and serves as we do. How do we practice our faithfulness? How do we reach out to our community? What is example from our Lord are we following. . .  

My theological teacher once said: "Discipleship begins with one realizes that what one must do is to do what Jesus did." As you can imagine I believe that he is absolutely correct in this assumption. So this morning as I think about what Jesus' did, and how He did it, I wonder if we can find a small little step that we can take as well. I am not talking about His suffering, that reflection comes later, but how did Jesus care and how did He live with other? 

Certainly Jesus did the work of atonement on the cross and that can never be minimized, but again notice how his choices, which were deliberate, helped create a posture of openness and caring when the rest of society did not adopt his choice often in their lives.

As a practical example, consider this story from the same author. . .  

"On one housing estate there was a large empty field, fenced off by the city council. Local residents had often asked to be able to use it for sport and recreation, but there was always civic reasons why this as not possible--most referring to the debris on the park and fears of litigation. One morning two local parents arranged for a group of children to clear the park of cans, bottles, and other litter. They made sure the newspapers were aware. They did not tear down the fences, but they carefully dismantled all [of] the local authority's reasons for keeping the fences up. Soon, soccer matches were being played on the field. The council seemed to be able to find sums of money for equipment after all. It became obvious that attempting to sell the park to a major retail developer would be disastrous. Those two parents began with a bottle clean-up. Within weeks they had a youth movement."

This story speaks to my heart about what is possible when we take a small amount of initiative and apply it to our faith and our service. I sit here this morning, at the start of Holy Week, wondering about the small, little thing that God has invited us to do with those around us. It may not be flashy or dynamic in itself, but if we are faithful, and if we follow Jesus' example, we might find a community transformed and remade.

Rev. Derek 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Wonderings--April 6

As the Body of Christ, I wonder, what do we truly desire? If God were to grant us an audience with the divine in heaven as we read about in the book of Job, what one thing would we as the church as God to grant us? 

Now we can skip all the secular answers, we might joke about them outside of church semi-seriously. Money, prestige, influence, power, fame. . . those are what most people look for in this life and world; they are also what most people would ask of God if God brought them to heaven and gave them their one true wish. 

Those answers and that posture do not interest me today, I am wondering about the deep thing that we would ask God for?

As I pray about it, and look through my Bible as part of my morning devotions, I think that I would ask God to help me tear down the walls of that I have created that separate me from my community. I would ask God to help me to change my heart and change my perspective so that as I work toward faithfulness, I might be able to build community and be present to care for those God places in my path each day. 

Henri Nouwen says it this way: 

"To make compassion the bottom line of life, to be open and vulnerable to others, to make community life the focus, and to let prayer be the breath of your life. . . that requires a willingness to tear down the countless walls that we have erected between ourselves and others in order to maintain our safe isolation. This is a lifelong and arduous spiritual battle because while tearing down walls with one hand, we build new one with the other.

I am as guilty of this idea as anyone--and I suspect that you have some understanding about it as well. While affirming in church that we are the Body of Christ that seeks to "be with" others, does that practice take shape in our lives continually and consistently? 

I wonder if you'd join me in asking God to help you tear down those walls today so that you could serve Him faithfully? 

Rev. Derek

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Wonderings--April 5 . . . My installation at Bethesda

In the fall of 2002, with wife and young son JonMark supporting me, I began the work of pastoral ministry with a small rural church in Savannah, Ohio. Savannah Presbyterian church was a welcoming and aging congregation who welcomed my family and gave me space to learn to be a pastor. They pushed me and simultaneously offered me grace to fail and space to experiment. 

Before this calling I served as a youth pastor and Christian Education director--quite a difference from full pastoral ministry. Now as I began my work in the pulpit, I would be responsible for the spiritual life of a congregation. 

A lot has happened in my family's life since that first Sunday in Savannah as I anxiously preached a sermon about how to be the church. But with every church that I served there was a constant refrain or mantra that followed me into the pulpit. 

Sometimes these were words that were spoken by members of the church to each other. Other times they hid in the shadows of church work and life. At some points in ministry I have needed to remind God's children about the validity of them. . . I have always tried to share them as often as I can (albeit it in many different formulations through the year).

We are better together. . . 

They are simple words but carry a profound meaning and implication for the church of Jesus Christ. 

Interestingly this is also the primary lesson that covid-19 taught the church if we have the courage to listen and learn. If we were willing to move outside of our "holy huddles" and spend time listening to God's word, we found words of community building right before our eyes. They were, and they are, inescapable as we work to be faithful to our joint calling as Christians.

Now some churches today, some 2 years later, are still held back by their lived-experienced with covid. Anxiety and frustration still are primary driving factors for those church. They want to be faithful to God, they love the Lord, but yet are unable to take that final step toward faithfulness and affirm that we are "better together" rather than apart. 

But as I was installed this weekend at Bethesda I am happy to report that a sense of "better together," or as I would say, "being with" is prevalent and at work in this church family.  As I listened to the message which was tailored around the Philippians 2, I couldn't help but sense God's Spirit asking us the question: "Will be continue to be better together? Will we 'be with' our community?"

Stepping behind the communion table for the second time Sunday, with a knee that was shaky and weak, I heard the words of Institution reminding us of all that God, through Christ, did to "be with us." And so, I leave you with this 'wondering,' . . . I wonder if we are truly better together? And I wonder what it would look like to find space to 'be with' our community? 

Blessings (and enjoy the video of the installation if you choose),
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...