Road Construction

If you enjoy the privilege of driving and you are able to drive, then you are undoubtedly familiar with road construction. It seems to me that there are two basic kinds of road construction; that which is building something new and that which is repairing something already existing. Both kinds of construction cause me the same amount of lost time, both force me to slow down from my frantic pace to go nowhere in a hurry. Yet, somehow when I discover that the construction that is slowing me down is something new it doesn’t bother me like the repair work does. I see it as progress. On the other hand the repair work usually aggravates me – “Why can’t they find a better time to do this?” I know, I know, what would be a better, less inconvenient time for me is not necessarily better timing for you. Isn’t it odd that we can look at something like road construction and have such vastly different reactions to it? Why is it that something that is essential to our smooth journey and our forward progress can be the cause of vastly different emotions?

These past few weeks our nation has undergone some heavy duty road work. The apparently racially motivated murders in Charleston, South Carolina should slow us down so we can do some repair work. The road of public spirit, of honoring others as also being a part of God’s family, the road of civility are all in need of essential repair. These murders have been the catalyst for debates about gun control, the questionable public flying of the Confederate flag, and the fact that years after the celebrated Civil Rights movement, there is still a great deal of work to be done to eradicate the deep issues of race and ethnicity in our world. The Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality has sparked an unconscionable divide among some who presume to speak for all followers of Christ regarding this decision (both those in favor and those opposed). I cannot for the life of me figure out why a church that preaches love, reconciliation, prayer and justice wastes so much time arguing about who is and who isn’t a Christian depending on whether or not they hold similar political views. I fail to see how giving someone else a title I enjoy (married) and its attending perks, like tax breaks and other powers of decision take something away from me. The ruling on Healthcare or “Obamacare” has sparked yet more criticism of a President who has demonstrated time and again that at heart he is a compassionate man who wants the best for the people of this nation.

Construction on the road ahead. Whether or not we agree or disagree with any of these Supreme Court rulings, or who should be able to own what kinds of weapons or who should help fund health care or public education or feeding the hungry, I hope we can agree that these issues are important enough that we should find a way to have public conversations about such matters and their underlying issues without demonizing those disagree with us. To suggest that someone on the other side of the question of marriage equality is not a Christian is an abomination to the faith. To suggest that someone who believes that one race is superior to others or ought to be more privileged is an abomination to the founding values of our nation and the Church. To suggest that those who need help with affording health care or an education or food or a place to live are unworthy of such help is a basic selfishness of turning our back on all God’s children. This is road construction. Some of it may be construction that builds new roads to new futures and some of it may be repair work, but in the end all of it will make our way better and might even make us better people.

Each and every one of us has a right to our own opinions, our own beliefs, and our own core values. From my perspective, you can still be a person of the Christian faith, as am I and still disagree with me. I will never suggest that just because you believe something opposite of me, that you are not a Christian. Frankly, when we declare that someone is not a Christian because he or she takes a public stand that is opposite ours, we are the ones standing outside the faith and we are the ones acting contrary to our deepest defining beliefs. Nothing saddens me more than Christians attacking each other in this manner. Yes all of these issues of road construction have national importance and some of them will impact our lives to a greater or lesser degree. Loving each other in spite of our differences, treating all people with the grace of Christ, with mercy, humility and compassion has have eternal importance.

To my way of thinking the church has an opportunity at times like these to show our nation and the world the way. We have the opportunity to demonstrate love for those we disagree with. We have the opportunity to encourage each other to the greater good. We have the opportunity to give each other dignity and respect by listening, by sharing what we believe, by trying to understand those who differ from us and by engaging in conversation and action that builds people up. If you are going to criticize me, it is likely I will become defensive and not listen to good points you might make because I will be looking for the faults in your argument. If you actually try to understand where I am coming from you run the risk of changing your mind, but you also have the opportunity to change mine when I listen to you with the same respect that you have shown me.

It’s time to stop encouraging polarization and division and instead begin to invite everybody to the party of mutual education and understanding. It’s time to stop always proving we are right, or that we have the moral high ground, or moral superiority and instead realize that we are all human beings with dreams, hopes, goals and plans with different ways to try to make them a reality. The road ahead will always be under construction. Will we ever learn to share the journey in a way that honors all people?

Your Vocation

vo·ca·tion: a noun

A particular occupation, business, or profession; calling. A strong impulse or inclination to follow a particular activity or career. A divine call to God’s service or to the Christian life. A function or station in life to which one is called by God.    (

I believe we all have a vocation, so I lean more toward definition number two above. My profession is often cited when the word vocation is used and while I do believe that I am called by God to be a pastor, and that that God has given me certain gifts, talents and skills with which to live out that vocation. I also believe that you are called to a particular activity, career or kind of life. I believe God has given you particular gifts, talents and skills with which to enrich our world. One of the challenges of vocation is that we don’t really talk about it enough. Career choices often are reduced to where can I get a job and how much can I make doing that? Vocation, on the other hand asks the question what is it that God has gifted me to do and how can I honor God’s will for me in the living of my life? Figuring out our vocation takes some effort. Following it takes even more effort. Sometimes as we are living out our vocation we go through times of transition, times when we begin to get the feeling that God is nudging us in a different direction or toward a different place.

My journey of following my vocation has required that I be open to the leading of the Spirit. I have done my best to do that. I now find myself at a point where a new door has opened. I have had the privilege of serving as the pastor of two congregations so far in my life; the first for eight years and the present one for twenty-two years (to the day in fact). In August, I will begin serving a new congregation. This new open door appeared only after several closed doors. That is how vocation has seemed to work for me; an exploration of the hints, the “what ifs” and the “how about that’s” over time. In the past several years there have been other congregations that invited me to consider ministry with them and there have been other congregations that I invited to consider ministry with me. None of those doors ever opened; in fact I got pretty good at dealing with closed doors. I have come to believe that the closed doors, however disappointing they are at the time, help us to see and truly appreciate a new open door. It is one thing to say, “All in God’s good time,” it is quite another to live it. For we who are impatient, God’s good time can seem way too long, but ignoring the leading of the Spirit can come with disastrous consequences. I am so filled with gratitude and overwhelmed by God’s grace as this new door opens precisely because I believe that this was the direction in which God has been nudging me all along. I did trust in the leading of the Spirit.

I believe this can be true for all of us, not just pastors. If we all have a vocation, a gift of God and we are practicing that vocation in the world, surely God will continue to lead us. It is really difficult to look forward and be able to see what God is up to, it is much easier in retrospect to see the steps and hints along the way. While those closed doors are disappointing, and those valleys we walk through can be dark at the time, I can now see that God has been leading the whole way. That is the continuing part of vocation that requires trust, patience and a willingness to let things happen in God’s time. So today I urge us to consider anew what it means to trust in God. I urge us to give thanks for the gifts and the vocations God has given us.

If you are wondering what your vocation is pray about it. If you are unsure about your gifts, ask someone who knows you – you might be surprised with what they come up with. Remember this, sometimes, maybe even often, closed doors are there for a reason and the open ones will be that much sweeter to walk through.

Monuments, Memorials And Doing Better

I just spent four incredible days with my wife in Washington, D.C. which is, as shocking as it may be to some, a place I have never visited before. One of the things that struck me as I reflected on my experience is that Washington is a place of memorials and monuments. There are impressive memorials and monuments to be sure, and well deserved. (I know there is far more to the city than the touristy spots, but since that is the part of Washington I visited this time, it’s what I’m talking about.) Everywhere I looked I saw towers of marble and slabs of granite honoring the contributions of the dead to get us where we are today. This was reinforced as we visited Arlington National Cemetery, the Pentagon Memorial and the Peterson House (where President Lincoln died.) We saw museums filled with important documents that tell us who we are and what we value. We saw so many reminders of the giants of American History. More than once I wondered how they would react if they could come back today. We saw much to that tells the story of how we got to where we are, but precious little to tell us where we are going next.

We also saw incredible buildings where our government and public servants currently work; mostly behind heavily barricaded roads and guarded doors (because of national security). In other words, most of our governing is not open to public view. At the end of the day, watching the news, we would hear all about what was lacking, or what was wrong with the government and our current leaders (the same ones who will doubtless someday be honored with a building or a monument named after them). If these stories are the stories of our future, we are going nowhere fast in a hurry because there is precious little that we can agree on.

I find myself wondering what a huge impact we could have on our world if we reversed things. What if we acknowledged the things that were wrong at the end of a newscast filled with all that was right and good and noteworthy? What if our national dialog and news was filled with stories of inspiration and events that promoted the common good? What if we named buildings in honor of living children and adults who inspire us to care for others with their world changing ideas? What if we spent time building up the successes instead of tearing down the failures? What if we concentrated our considerable national energy on doing good locally, nationally and globally? I am currently rereading a book by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras entitled Build To Last; Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, in which they debunk the myth that the most successful companies exist first and foremost to maximize profits. According to their research they discovered that visionary companies are equally guided by a core ideology – core values and a sense of purpose beyond just making money. (p.8) Visionary companies have endured because they have stayed true to their ideals, have pursued the best of the visions that brought them into existence and have been willing to change everything else to stay true to those values. I think this is how we honor our nation and how we focus on being a Visionary nation and not just a might nation to be feared. I think we can make an even larger global impact if we are able to keep our focus on building on the positive and honoring the best ideas among us regardless of which side of the “aisle” they from which they come. I think we need to spend less time on tearing people down, or exposing their weakness, or yelling about the things about which we disagree and more time shouting about the good news.

Our trip left me feeling grateful for all who have given their lives, be it in battle or in public service, to the ideals that we hold dear. I am grateful for those who so doggedly serve the public even when the public is less than complimentary. As I reflect on the contributions of our American Heroes, I am left with a sense we can do better, what is required is a change of focus from the negative to the positive.

Not All Parks Are The Same . . .

Life can be like “a walk in the park” . . . except not all parks are the same. A couple of days ago most of our family went for a hike at Ricketts Glen State Park in Pennsylvania. It is a lovely park, filled with many waterfalls, lots of rocks and multiple opportunities to climb uphill and down. We laughed, we rested, we took goofy pictures and we had a great time appreciating the beauty of the world. We went out to dinner to celebrate a birthday and we laughed some more. It was prom night in the town we were in and we sat next to two tables of young couples in their prom finery, celebrating their “night to remember.” No – we weren’t at The Golden Arches!

When I arrived home, there was a message on my answering machine that one of our Mom’s best friend’s children had a heart attack and died while cutting the grass that afternoon. I also learned later that our church Secretary had also died. While I was hiking hills and valleys for fun, these two families were hiking in the valley of the shadow of death and let me tell you, that is no easy hike. The trail to the end of this life is not always easy to walk down with a loved one or a friend.

So I was vividly reminded this week that life is a journey that is filled with incredible joy and incredible sorrow and often times, like this past Saturday, the two experiences are intertwined; around one corner is incredible beauty and then a little further up the trail is one of the hardest climbs I had to face all day. Sometimes the path is so covered with thick trees overhead, it is dark and a little foreboding. Other times the sun is shining so brightly that I need sunglasses to be able to see in the midst of so much light. How do we survive the hiking? Where does the strength come from with which to endure all that the “walk” throws at us? You probably know where I am headed so I hope you are headed in that direction as well. Our strength comes in the name of the Lord, it also comes in the form of the people God has given to us to accompany us on the way. If you know someone who is grieving today perhaps you are the one God is sending their way, perhaps you are a “Comforter,” sent to ease the burden.

Thank you Paula, for sharing parts of your journey with me and with our church family. May you know God’s joy!

The Power of Reading

Living in our sound bite world where profound events, thoughts and ideas are often reduced to sensational tidbits, I find that my reflection on said events, thoughts and ideas are just as fleeting. If I dare to stop and reflect on something I have just heard, I have missed the next three or five or ten things that supposedly I need to know. Reading is different, especially reading where there is no background noise to distract me. I find it amazing that my kids need background noise in order to fall asleep! When there is background noise I find it more and more difficult to concentrate on reading. When I read in a quiet place, I find my mind and my imagination engage much more fully because the words are what is grabbing my attention.
This is prelude to something that I have always known, but is becoming more and more obvious. When I take time to read, deeply read and reflect on what someone else as deemed important enough to sit and write about, my own creativity soars. When I do not read I am much less creative and tend to think in usual and sometimes unimaginative ways.
Picture a well that is fed by an underground stream as opposed to one that is fed by rain water run-off. The well that depends on occasional rain to replenish its fresh water supply can become stagnant or even run dry in periods of drought. The well fed by the underground stream always has to readjust itself to make room for new water, it doesn’t get the chance to stagnate.
Reading is my underground stream; it stirs up what is already there and makes the ideas and thoughts in my mind readjust to a new reality. Reading stirs up what is there, it forces its way into set ideas and asks, “what if.” Reading helps me to remain curious about our world and to explore what God is up to with fresh eyes.
So I guess all this is to encourage us all to take some time to read more, to read in such a way as to fully engage the text. Even better, have a conversation about what you are reading and see if others react to it the same way you do.

Seeing, Really Seeing Should Lead To Something

These reflections are prompted by 1 John 3:16-24.

Has there been a time recently when you looked at something you see every day and noticed something you have never noticed before? Two summers ago I took a two day senior driving class because I learned in Pennsylvania that once you are over 55 and you complete this class, you qualify for a discount on your auto insurance. Our homework assignment at the end of the first day of the class was to look at every sign on our way home, especially those within one mile of our homes. I was amazed at sheer number of signs I see, but don’t usually see! How many times in life we look at something, but fail to see it?  The harder question to face is how many times do we choose not to see people in the world around us? Have you ever changed lanes just before a stop light because you noticed a man standing next to the road holding a hand lettered sign that reads, “Will Work for Food?” Ever justify your reaction to not wanting to see this by thinking something like, he doesn’t really want to work, he wants money for God only knows what? Have you ever noticed the kid in your class or your co-worker who always wears the same shirt? It’s clean, but faded and frayed around the edges. Did you ever stop and wonder why? Did you ever find a way to learn more about that person’s life? How many times do we walk right past the elderly gentleman in the park with the garbage bags around him on the ground and fail to ask if he needs any help? How many times do we fail to notice the people in need around us, or if we do notice them, how many times do we think, “If you would only stop being lazy and get a job, you could have what you want?” How many times do we see stories about human tragedies in other parts of the world and take comfort in the fact that we do not live there, that it is someone else’s problem? How many times to we just not see things because we are focused with laser-like tunnel vision on our own lives? Harder yet is to e honest with ourselves and ask how many times do we choose not to see, because we know that if we do see and fail to act on what we see, we will feel guilty?

How do we know love? We know love when we look to Jesus and what Jesus did for us. Love involves sacrifice, it involves giving up something precious to us; perhaps not our lives, but something truly precious to us. The Elder wants more than for us to just know what love is, the Elder wants us to practice that love, in practical and world changing ways. It is one thing to say we love Jesus, that we love the world, that we love each other, but it is quite something else to live that love out. It is not the only example, but it is a powerful one when the Elder points out that if we have what we need and even more than what we need and see a brother or sister in need and do not share it, or act as if we do not care, than how can the love of God remain in us? Love is not just something we think, it is not just some emotion we feel, love is something we do. Genuine faith results in genuine love for the world we see. Perhaps this letter of encouragement and challenge to the disciples might move us to see our world, the one that has always existed in a new way. We just might be encouraged to see our church as it really is, to see our mission, to see the places and the people among whom God wants us to share God’s love.

So our challenge begins with our vision, what we see. Do we truly see the needs of the homeless, the needs of those living in poverty right in our midst? Do we see the injustices in the way people are treated because they are different? Do we see the plethora of need in our world, the excess of violence, the truck load of terror, the deep pangs of hunger or the self-righteousness judgment of others than we can ever hope to address in our lifetimes. The question about our vision is this: what do we choose to see, to really see? What do we choose to turn a blind eye toward? What do we choose to blame the victim for, or to make the responsibility of someone else?             Seeing, really seeing will lead to loving, truly loving the world. When we can see beyond our front doors; when we can see beyond our immediate sense of personal need and our immediate sense of the need of this congregation to survive, then we are ready to love the world as God really wants us to love it. This vision correction is not for the faint of heart. Discipleship isn’t easy, it is risky and requires an immense amount of trust. Disciples of Jesus don’t wear blinders. Disciples of Jesus don’t look the other way, nor do they avoid eye contact with the world. Disciples are in touch with the love of God for them to such a deep extent that they can do nothing other than share it with the world. You are loved. I am loved. Let’s make sure the world knows it is loved.

Living As God’s Babies

Yesterday we sang the hymn “Grace Alone,” by Scott Wesley Brown and Jeff Nelson. At the end of this post are two different links to watch two different groups perform it on You Tube. Yesterday, I had chills up and down my spine the whole time we were singing it. Our whole service was focused on how, as children of God, we are incredibly loved. That love is because of Grace Alone. I’ll get to that in a moment. My message was based on 1 John 3:1-7 which, in part, reminds us that we are beloved children of God. I got to reflecting on how many people react when they see a baby cradled in his or her parents’ arms, or when we see a toddler taking what are obviously new steps. We smile, we do the baby talk thing, our faces light up and we can’t help but feel good and young. What is it about a baby that does this; that gives us hope and helps us to see wonder in a world that is filled with more than its share of sadness and pain? I think the older we get, the more we cherish the possibilities babies offer us and then we wonder at what great things they will try to do and even accomplish.

John begins by writing that we are indeed children of God in a world that does not know us because it does not know God. You might be wondering how the world could not know God, but there it is. What if it is because we are not doing a very complete job of loving the world? Anyway, the next thing I found myself pondering was: what if we are God’s babies; that is what if you and I are God’s hope for the future of the world? What if God sends us as babies into the world? What if God is pinning God’s hopes for the world on us? What if the children of God are God’s way of helping the world smile at the possibilities of new life? What if God’s children are the avenue for God to show that love indeed triumphs fear and hate and violence? What if our job as Christians is to help the world know Christ – thorough our innocence, our wonder, our wobbly steps and our brilliant smiles when we recognize a face that is looking at us and smiling? What if we understand that we bring a smile to God’s face when we love the world around us?

How can we, how can you and I possibly help the world to know God? I am convinced we can only do this when we realize that we live by Grace alone. When we are understand that we are unconditionally loved, we can love. When we realize that God takes genuine delight in us, we can delight in others. How much different do you think our world would be if we could remember to live each day remembering that it is by God’s grace and through God’s love that we have life at all? I want so much to happen in my life. I want so much to happen in the lives of those I love. I want so much to happen in the life of the congregation I serve and in the Church of Jesus Christ. I want to do whatever I can to make those things happen. I want to be in charge of the transformation of the world, but you know what? I don’t think it really matters how badly I want it. I am not in charge, God is. I am not the one who can control the outcome of everything. What I can do is accept that what I receive today is grace and what I can do is to share the grace I receive. What I can do is pray for the grace to let God be God and for me to be an instrument of God’s love and grace to the world. What I can do is give God thanks for the grace I receive each day.

The chorus to the song:

Grace alone Which God supplies, Strength unknown He will provide
Christ in us, our cornerstone, We will go forth in grace alone.