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.

I wish I Had A Nickel . . .

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone suggested to me that we need to run the church “like a business.” Come to think of it, I usually hear that comment when folks are trying to figure out more ways for the church to receive more nickels and spend fewer nickels – but that’s a topic for another day. Before I go further, I just want it known that I am committed to using best practices for the church in all that I do as a pastor which includes best business practices as they apply to the church. In my opinion the church still has a thing or two to learn from business notably in the areas of advertising and evaluating its ministry in light of core values, purpose and setting what Jim Collins and Jerry Porrass in Built to Last;  Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business Essentials) have called, Big Hairy, Audacious goals. (Also something to explore another day) Granting that up front, allow your imagination to roam a little bit.

If the primary goal of business is to make a profit for the business owners or stake holders, what does that mean for the church?

If the church is a business what product or service does the church sell?

Who produces the product?

Who distributes the product?

Is there a sales force, who in the church is responsible for sales?

Who are the customers or what is the church’s target market? Are members the market, or to put it another way are the products of the church designed primarily for the members to consume?

These kinds of questions lead me to wonder about our understanding of the nature of the church. If we are going to insist that the church is a business then it seems to me that we are assuming that the church is primarily a place where people come to buy/purchase/acquire religious goods and services. If that is the case then we need to make sure we understand the answers to all the above questions – if we want to stay in business.

An alternative model of church is that it is a community of the faithful, led by a vision of the love of God as expressed in Jesus Christ that is engaged in building and extending God’s beloved community in the world. Members of the church in this model are not the target market or consumers of religious goods and services, rather they live with the understanding that we covenant (promise) to live in love, empowering as many people as we can to be the best they can be. Members of the church understand that discipleship is strengthened and practiced in the community of the church so that the church can build the community outside of the church. This is driven by a vision that God’s love and peace are offered to all and our discipleship is the way we extend it to our worlds. It means that we live out and stand for justice, integrity and respect for all people. It means that we encourage each other to practice our faith 24/7. It means that your spiritual growth is just as crucial to me as is my own. It means we are a community of prayer that seeks to be led by God to make a difference for God’s sake in the world. This is the business of the church.

I am not so naive as to think that there is only one way to understand the church, but I do think it worth more than a nickel to pause a moment in our frantic busyness and consider who God is calling us to be and how God is shaping us to build community. The business of the church is not busyness for the sake of saying we are doing something for God. The business of the church is to build God’s beloved community right here in our midst – right now. All of the members of the church are responsible for sharing in the life of this community where God’s love is practiced and lived out in our everyday lives in every corner of our worlds.

Snake Bites

4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” 6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.                                     Numbers 21:4–9 (NIV)

So let me see if I have this correct: God leads the people out of slavery in Egypt, away from a miserable life and feeds them manna in the wilderness when they can find no food. They get tired of travelling and tired of eating the same thing every day so they begin to blame God and blame Moses for leading them out of slavery in the first place. The people turn their backs on God. The Lord sent snakes (sounds like the infamous Garden of Eden story all over again where snakes get a bad rap as if they are really the problem). The snakes (let’s call them evil in general) bite the people. Evil kills some of the people. The people are now scared and come running back to Moses and ask him to pray to God to take away their sin and the result of their sin so they don’t have to deal with the evil any more. God tells Moses to sculpt a snake, put it on a pole where the people can see it and when they are bit by a snake, as long as they look at the snake on the pole, they will not die.

There’s more to chew on here than I can fit in one post, but one of the first things that captures my imagination about the story is that even today the snakes are still around, evil is still around; the temptation to sin (to turn our backs on God) is still around. God does not take the snakes out of the world, or remove the possibility of being bit or tripped up by evil from us, but sends us a way to defeat the evil, to avoid death. We don’t look at a sculpture on a stick, we look to another who God sent to show us the way, Jesus. Being a person of faith does not mean we don’t have to deal with evil in our world; it does not mean we don’t have temptations or trials. Being a person of faith means understanding that we have been given an amazing resource to help us as we confront the evil in our world, as we confront the sin in our lives.

So the next time I am tempted to complain, I want to remember this story because I think it will help me get my bearings and set my priorities in the right place. Oh yeah, and it might just remind me to look where I am going and where I want to head.

Wondering in the Wilderness

The word “wilderness” appears 166 times in the bible and it is usually translated as a desert, a wasteland, or a barren pasture. The wilderness is often described as a dangerous place, a place where wild beasts and the enemies of God dwell. I am thinking about the wilderness because at the beginning of his ministry, immediately following his baptism, Jesus found himself sent or driven to the wilderness to struggle with the power of evil. Now, to be honest, you and I would not normally find ourselves in this kind of wilderness, but I got to thinking about the kinds of wildernesses we find ourselves in. What does the wilderness look like in our lives?

Not too long ago a friend of mine lost her job. She saw it coming, but the blow was still heavy and heard to bear none the less. She was the family provider of health care and benefits, she was the provider stability and with a few months to prepare, she found herself in the unemployment wilderness. This  is a wilderness that is often filled with the hard edges and sharp stones of depression, grief and loss. It is a wilderness of self-questioning. It is a wilderness that often includes the process of having to formulate a new sense of self and new goals in life. It is a wilderness that sometimes drives us to make new priorities in life. It is a wilderness that often involves struggle and a sense of the absence of God’s leading in our lives.

I spent a fair amount of time in another wilderness this past week, the wilderness of the Cardiac Intensive Care waiting room. This is not a physically uncomfortable wilderness, but it is an emotionally draining wilderness in which to find oneself. To be in this wilderness means to wrestle with a combination of love and fear for loved ones who are lying on a bed on the other side of large tan double doors. If one is a patient, it is a wilderness that literally involves a life and death struggle. It is a wilderness where hope battles despair and where the anguished question of “why” is often hurled heavenward. This wilderness is often a place of wondering about God’s presence and whether or not God “has left the building.”

Yet another wilderness some of us find ourselves in is what I want to call the relationship wilderness. It is a place where there is turmoil, strain and stress between ourselves and a loved one, or loved ones. This is a tricky wilderness and a particularly devastating one in which to roam around. Dependent as we are on those we love for contributing to our sense of self, when we are at odds, or when a relationship is broken, we lose a part of ourselves and have to go in search of that piece of us as well as going in search of peace of mind. Sometimes there is reconciliation in the wilderness and sometimes brokenness remains and when it does, we sometimes look to others to help us through the wilderness.

Recently I have found myself part of several conversations that people are finding the events of our world, particularly the atrocities committed by the group commonly referred to as ISIS and the senseless murders in our own Lehigh Valley as contributors to a sense of despair and a serious challenge to their faith. This might be called the wilderness of questions or the wilderness of doubt. That age old question of how a “good God” could allow these atrocities to happen seems ever before us. Is God a God of justice or not, when will the evil enemies of God and humanity get what is coming to them as been asked of me. How can we even talk about a loving God when the world seems devoid of ethics and moral behavior, let alone a place where people care for others? This wilderness is a dark place as it has the power to rock and challenge the very foundations of our faith.

There are more wildernesses that are a part of our daily lives, but hopefully we get the sense that living in the wilderness is no easier for us than it was in the folks who lived in Jesus day. The wilderness is a place of challenge, of despair, of struggle and of searching. So isn’t it just a bit odd that immediately following his baptism, Jesus is sent our or driven out to the wilderness? Wouldn’t you think that God would protect us from the wilderness, from the wastelands, trials and hardships in life? Wouldn’t you think that being a Christian would make the wilderness into an oasis, a place of healing, rejoicing and laughter? Mark, out of all the gospels, suggests that the angels (as well as the wild beasts) were with Jesus the whole time that he was in the wilderness. Now the wild beasts are the symbol, we understand, they are the enemies of God. There are also angels, or messengers. Jesus was not alone!

The first lesson we might want to consider today is that we are not alone; even if the normal life is a life spent in the wilderness, and even if God seems absent, we are not left alone. The reality is that no matter what wilderness we find ourselves in, God sends us messengers, angels, companions to journey with us. Do you often stop to consider who the angels, the messengers in your life are or might be? Do we recognize the great company God surrounds us with, or are we so busy battling our way through the wilderness that we don’t even think to look for or to be ministered to by the messengers, the angels God sends our way? No matter what wilderness we might find ourselves in, a wilderness of under or unemployment, a wilderness of relationships, a wilderness of health challenges, a wilderness of fear, doubt and questions, a wilderness of alienation or a wilderness of incredible temptation to give in to the siren calls of an easier life, I am convinced that not only is God with us, God sends us countless angels. he wilderness is the place where we are the farthest from God and yet even when we are going through the wilderness times, this story reminds us that Jesus has been there before us. Our strength for living these days comes from knowing that no matter where we journey in life, God has already been there before us. No matter what our short comings, God is able to transform them. No matter how hard life gets, Jesus understands what it means and offers us a way through.

There is another side of the story I want us to consider as well; who are the messengers of God, who are the angels? Who are the people who will bring a word of comfort, a cup of water, a word of hope, a touch of healing to those who are trapped in the wilderness? So often we like to view ourselves as consumers of faith and of spiritual resources. Jesus gives me the hope and strength I need to go on. What if we looked at ourselves not merely as consumers, but as those charged with bringing the message to the wilderness? What if we are the messengers that God is sending to the world? What if God is sending us to people who are saying they don’t have enough faith to survive the wilderness, to tell them, that’s all right, I have enough faith for both of us. What if God is transforming the wilderness through us? If this is the case, it strikes me that it isn’t just about going through the wilderness, but recognizing that even though it might feel like it, even though we might believe it, even though we can see no other being around, God is with us all the time. It might just be that we need to walk into the wilderness of our own lives, our families, our work environment, our community and our world and minister to those who are in distress, to those who have lost hope, to those who believe violence is the only answer. What if God is urging us to join a movement, to say no to terror and violence, to shout no to escalating retaliation for wrongs inflicted on the people of the world? What if God wants us to seriously explore ways of peace that address grievances and hurts? What if God wants us to give up the role of judging others and to assume the role of ministering to them? What if we are the angels, the messengers of God? The wilderness might indeed be a place where people experience the absence of God, but our journey into the wilderness as messengers is to be agents of transformation and change. Our job in the wilderness is to bring light, comfort and strength, to be company for those who journey through the wilderness. We are the company and we are in good company.