“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans for the day.” For most of us, we are not very adept at change. Over time, we have settled into our set ways and we like things the way we like them. No surprises! Maybe life is a bit boring, but boring is not all bad, is it? Maybe there are times we wish we could spice it up a bit, but I question if anyone would want to go the route we have been going over this past week or so.
A global pandemic has changed lives forever as over 15,000 people, young and old, have lost their lives thus far and the number rising every day. Entire countries have shut down in an attempt to “flatten the curve” and reduce the chances of spreading. We have learned new words such as “social distancing” and are left wondering when we can let down our guard and life return to a new normal. This pandemic has forced the Church to be Church differently. Honestly, the Church is no better at adapting to change than we are individually.
I want to know who put this pandemic on the calendar for this time of year. It is the season of Lent. This is the season where we move from the season of Emmanuel (God-with-us) to that season where we grasp just how much God is with us. We were only half-way through our “Soup & Substance” series and The Passion Play study. We had plans for New Member Sunday and new members stepping forward. We also had a Baked Potato luncheon scheduled at the end of the month. “The best laid plans of mice and men…”
But there is HOPE! If the season of Lent, whether this year or previous years, has taught us anything is that even though this journey includes suffering and addressing those things within ourselves that we tend to ignore or repress, from death there comes resurrection! For us, as Christians, this is not some false hope to placate us, but it is the very rock upon which we stand.
I have heard a number of my colleagues express that we were made for such a time as this. As I read their words, I cannot help but think to myself, “But we weren’t really planning on being tested.” But here we are and we will get through this, thanks to the help of one another and by the gracious hand of the Almighty God who has promised to be with us every step of the journey, leading us!
See you Sunday on-line,
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Drawing from the last line of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” Episcopal priest Michael Marsh began his Ash Wednesday’s sermon with Oliver’s question, believing it to be the perfect question we need to answer as we navigate through Lent. Marsh remarks that “sometimes it feels like Lent gets overly focused on our past, the things we’ve done and left undone, the life we have already lived. But what if Lent is really about the life yet to be lived? What if he gave as much or more attention to where we are going as we do to where we have been or come from?”
Not having grown up observing the season of Lent, I must confess that the years of observance since then have centered mostly on the past rather than the future. It just seems to fit the season, if you know what I mean. But I don’t want to dismiss Marsh’s venture into addressing Oliver’s question. He goes on to say that “I’ve begun to think that maybe our greatest sins are ones in which we tame and impoverish our own lives and the lives of others…we let fear, self-doubt, guilt, regrets, disappointments, or wounds tame our life. Every time we try to control life, guarantee outcomes, or live within the boundaries of what is safe and predictable we tame our life. And when our lives are tamed, regardless of how that happens, we live less than who we truly are and want to be. Something is broken. Something is lost.”
I doubt Marsh was listening to the rock band Steppenwolf and their song, “Born to Be Wild” in the background as he was writing his sermon, but he could have. In talking about living a wild life, he is not talking about doing “crazy stuff, or being disobedient, or living an unruly life. I am talking about being open, unbounded, and free – not so much to do whatever you want but to receive whatever comes to you, to stay open to what you can neither control nor foresee. I am talking about not letting the past define or domesticate you, and not letting the present moment close in on, capture, and cage you.”
I could easily point to others I know who have adopted this posture of taming their lives. In some or in many ways, we all have held back for whatever reason. But if we were to use these 40 days of the season of Lent to choose a wild life over a broke life, what would we need to do or reclaim such a life? A life – wild with love, wild with compassion, wild with mercy, wild with forgiveness, wild with kindness…you get the idea.
But not only a wild life, a precious life as well. Life is short and uncertain, with no guarantees outside of no one is getting out of here alive. But that doesn’t make life meaningless! Instead of negating the value and beauty of life, such reality only intensifies them, making life even more precious. Marsh begins to wrap up his Ash Wednesday sermon with these words: “The preciousness of life means that we are of infinite value. Do you see and believe that about yourself? Or are you devaluing yourself or another? We are the treasure chests that hold God’s heart. So maybe this Lent you divest yourself of everything that diminishes your preciousness. How would your life be different if your lived from a place of preciousness? If you saw others as precious?”
See you Sunday,
From the Executive Director of Week of Compassion, Rev. Vy T. Nguyen:
There is something sacred about investing in the future. Working toward a better future is an act of faith in and of itself. Whether we invest time, energy, or resources, we give a part of ourselves to a future time that we can’t yet see, trusting that God will bring about good things in a new and unknown season. Even more sacred is an investment in the future of our children . Across time and space, and across the many cultures and places that I am privileged to visit in my work with Week of Compassion, people share this in common. Everywhere I go, families and communities are thinking about what is best for their children and what investments of time, talent, and treasure right now will build the best world for them tomorrow.
Sometimes it is hard for families to dream of a hopeful future. In many of the places where we serve, families have been hurt, separated, or displaced. Their community or government might not have the infrastructure or resources to help them recover, or they might not have the possibility of education for their children. They might not have access to safe water, adequate food, or medical care. With so many challenges, it takes everything just to survive the day, much less dream of a future.
So we dream about the future – for our own children, and for theirs. We dream of a future where all are empowered to thrive; where every child has what they need to grow and reach their potential. We dream of a world where everyone can be safe and healthy, sharing the gifts God has given them. More than twenty years ago, a group of young men were living in a refugee camp in southern Mexico. Their families were preparing to return to their home village in Guatemala, and these buys had the opportunity to go to school in Guatemala City. With support from WOC, they completed high school, and then university.
From the beginning, these young men made a commitment to give back, using their education not only to make a living but also to improve conditions for others. Now, more than twenty years later, some work as human right attorneys; some provide agronomy services; and some are teachers. They serve in leadership roles in their village of Santa Maria Tzeja, where one of them is even in local government. Recently, a group from Central Christian Church in Indianapolis traveled to Guatemala for a visit. Pastor Linda McCrae says, “I wish all Disciples could see the impact that these scholarships have made. One of the men, Emiliano, is the oldest of five children. When he finished his studies and began to work, he paid for the education of the next oldest brother. They continued that practice until all five had completed college. In addition to supporting their siblings, this group of former students has contributed about $5000 to educate eight other young people in the community who are not related to them.”
Through your support to Week of Compassion, 50 members of this community are now going to college – more than two decades later. As one of the men told the recent visiting Disciples: “We are the fruit of the sacrifices that you have made.” We plant, and we water. But God gives the growth…Giving to this ministry and planting seeds of a blessed future is a sacred act; and the land that we water together is holy ground. Thank you for participating in this year’s special offering. Your partnership, throughout the year, makes a big difference throughout the world. On behalf of Week of Compassion’s board and staff, thank you for your compassion and care for the least of these. With much gratitude, Vy.
See you Sunday,
This past Sunday I shared an illustration in my sermon, noting the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim. It was a hopeful analogy as I move toward the completion of a Certificate of Spiritual Formation from Columbia Theological Seminary which requires a pilgrimage as part of the experience. They offer pilgrimages to Scotland, to the Holy Land, or to the southwest in the United States rather than tours. I share this information as a lead-in to this wonderful story called “Can I See God?”
One day a young boy came up and asked his busy father, “Can I see God?” “NO!” the testy father replied in a harsh, emphatic way as he went about his many tasks. The boy walked away quietly into his room where, full of sadness at the way he had been treated, cried himself to sleep.
The next day, as his summer vacation began, the little boy went into the woods to ponder his question – can I see God? No luck. But he returned, day after day, to gaze at the trees swaying in the wind, the birds building their nests, and the shadows dappling the ground, but still he had no answer.
Then one day he met an old fisherman. He was rugged and simple – and friendly. He invited the boy to go fishing with him, and they became fishing pals.
On the way out the door one day, the boy’s father stopped him and asked: “Son, how are you spending your time these days?” The boy replied, “I have found a good friend in an old fisherman, and we fish together every day on the river.”
“What kind of man is he?” the father asked. The boy thought a moment…“Father, he doesn’t talk much, so I don’t know for sure, but last evening, right before dark, we were sitting in the boat together. The sun was setting – brilliant oranges and reds and purples filling the sky. It was awesome! The old man just sat there gazing at the sunset, and his eyes filled with tears. This was my opportunity, I thought, so I reached out and touched his shoulder, and said, ‘I wouldn’t ask anybody else this question but…Can anyone see God?’ There was no answer. The old man sat there gazing at the sunset. ‘C….c…can you see God.’ I asked again. Then the old turned around at me. His face had a strange light in it, and tears rolled down his cheeks. He said to me softly, tenderly: “Boy, it is getting so I can see nothing but God.” And I had my answer.
On Wednesday during Bible study, I offered a medieval proverb of pilgrims walking to holy places that makes even greater sense in light of this story. I offer it to you again in hopes that one day you will be able to voice what the old fisherman voiced. “If you do not travel with him whom you seek, you will not find him at the end of your journey.”
See you Sunday,
I hinted at the idea of such an outreach several times last year and the response was positive. I announced it to the congregation this past Sunday during announcements and again the response was positive. So here is the way this new outreach will work. Each month we are hoping to award someone in our community with a small cash gift of $50.00 in recognition of how they go about life with “a servant’s heart.” This individual could be someone you notice bagging your groceries or checking you out at the store, a server in a restaurant, or someone in you community who goes beyond the expected in caring for and about others. It could also be someone in the church but since we are hoping to reach out into the community through this ministry, we need you to be our eyes.
We need for you to nominate these individuals to the Outreach Ministry. We have prepared Nominating Cards that will be available at each of the tables near an entrance to the sanctuary. You will need to fill out the required information and share why you think this person should be recognized with “a servant’s heart” award. Part of the reason we request this information is so that it may be included in a letter that will be given to the recipient. When you have a Nominating Card filled out, just drop it into the offering plate on Sunday. Once a month, the Outreach Ministry will review the cards and elect one recipient.
You can nominate more than one person a month but only one person will be selected. You may be asked to hand the recipient the letter with the gift enclosed, giving you the opportunity to tell them how much you appreciate their “servant’s heart.” This would give us a much more “hands-on” approach to outreach instead of sticking a stamp on the letter and mailing it to them.
Since this is a self-funded outreach (meaning it is not coming out of the general budget), we are looking for additional sponsors of the $50.00 per month cost. Already, we have the cost of four months sponsored (January, April, July, and October). Since this is over and above giving to the General Fund, gifts need to be received in such a manner. For this to work, we need for you to nominate individuals. In your day-to-day business, you may encounter volunteers at various places, or a receptionist at the doctor’s office, who seem to have this uncanny ability of making peoples’ lives around them better. Their infectious smile or their kind word makes you want to be a better person.
So pick up a Nominating Card Sunday, fill it out, drop it in the plate, and see what happens! This is but one way by which we can lift people up!
See you Sunday,
It almost seems unfair to relegate the season of Advent to four weeks while granting the season of Lent the luxury of forty days. I mean, there is certainly a lot to unpack during the season of Advent. But that would push Christmas into mid-January and while the merchandisers wouldn’t mind having the extra days to remind us that life would be so much better if we just bought what they were offering, we will just have to settle for lesser days.
Every year at this time, Mary comes into the spotlight in a way that she does only one other time, at the foot of the cross. Depending on whether you find her in either Matthew or Luke’s gospel as these are the only two gospel writers who record Jesus’ birth in the traditional way that we think of, Mary is quite the interesting figure. In Matthew’s birth story, Mary never says a word. Even though she is mentioned five times, she is always identified either as the wife of Joseph or the mother of Jesus. It is just not so easy to get to know Mary if we rely only on Matthew’s take. You may assume that Mary was only a submissive and silent wife and a humble mother.
But don’t turn the pages over to Luke’s story if you find some sense of peace in Matthew’s story. Luke isn’t having any of that description. He gives Mary a major role in the birth narrative, naming her name twelve times. While Matthew’s angel comes to Joseph in a dream to announce the birth of the child, Luke’s angel appears directly to Mary in the light of the day. Mary receives and responds to the overwhelming news of her miraculous pregnancy by heading off to the Judean countryside to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary, in Luke’s story, has found her voice, and shares with Elizabeth her thoughts and feelings.
She then breaks out in song. At first, she begins with praise to God. But before long, as eavesdroppers to her music, we realize that this is not some sweet lullaby she is singing in anticipation of the birth of the baby Jesus. This is no quaint confession of a personal relationship with God. This is nothing less than a freedom song, a song that views the world much differently than it appears at the present. She sings a song of freedom for all who, in their poverty and wretchedness, still believe that God will make a way where there is no way. This is a song about who God lifts up and who God brings down.
Some might accuse the song’s lyrics as coming from the starry-eyes naïveté of a young peasant girl, but let us keep in mind what God is already doing in this story of her visit to Elizabeth. Elizabeth is no spring chicken. She is an old, barren woman, scorned for her in ability to bear children. And Mary, she is an unmarried, pregnant teenager living in poverty and facing shame. What in the world is God doing here?
And that is why we need more than four weeks to unpack this story of God preparing to birth a revolution. Mary has already begun singing her song! What will our response be? “Sing it, Mary, sing it out loud until your song becomes our song!” Or would we prefer Mary to be quiet as Matthew tells the story?
See you Sunday,
For most of my years in ministry, I have subscribed to the Christian Century, a biweekly publication of religious news articles, commentary, and book recommendations. Rarely do I find the time to read the entire issue, so I set them aside for later reading. Yet the most recent issue had me laughing at page 3 where the publisher Peter W. Marty offered his thoughts. Peter was sharing of a time when he and his wife were listening to a presentation for park visitors at the Grand Teton National Park Visitor Center.
The presenter, a guy named Rick, was explaining how to deal with grizzlies in case of an encounter while hiking. After the standard advice about hiking together and making plenty of noise, Rick turned to the bear spray clipped to his belt, warning his listeners that they would want to use this with care. “Always make sure to take the wind into account.” Peter wrote how, after hearing this warning, he imagined that if he were face to face with a grizzly, he’d be thinking more about his grave than the wind. “But point well taken: it’s bear spray, not self-spray.”
Continuing his safety talk, Rick said, “You’ll want to spray this toward the bear, but not when the bear is too far away. Wait until she is 30 feet away so that the cloud of mist doesn’t dissipate too soon.” Upon this advice, Peter questioned it by writing, “I carry energy bars when I hike, not a tape measure. And who in their right mind would actually wait for a bear to get sufficiently close?” By now I am right there alongside of Peter in his thought processes. But still Peter listened to Rick because he felt Rick knew more than he did about grizzlies.
“In the event that the spray fails you, you’ll want to lie face down in the ground and play dead. Plant your face in the dirt with hands on your neck, legs spread slightly,” Rick further explained. Peter added his thoughts to this suggestion: “…if you don’t know the definition of vulnerable, this is it.” It was at this point that Peter might have had second thoughts on journeying out into the Grand Tetons, preferring to view the landscape from the safety of his car or view pictures of grizzlies from a magazine. If you want to get close to nature, risk is inevitable.
Peter was struck that the same reality holds true for our relationship with God. As he puts it: “If you want to get close to the Lord, there are risks involved. You become part of a people who don’t look exactly like you and whose company may unsettle you. You throw your money behind causes larger than your next Amazon purchase. You take to heart Jesus’ mandate about feeding kids who don’t ask to be hungry.”
“If you want to avoid the risks associated with getting close to the Lord, keep your distance. You can choose to talk about God, which is what a lot of religions and pledges of allegiance do. If you want to get close to the Lord, prepare for some vulnerability, and be open to letting faith splay you wide open. Risky as loving the One may be, it’s our only way of getting near to the grace and mercy we so desperately need.” We are left to decide whether or not we are willing to take the risk.
See you Sunday,
WANDERING WEST WORD
Growing up playing baseball, like many young boys at that time, I idolized number 7, Mickey Mantle, centerfielder for the New York Yankees. Seven times, he and his team were world champions. Considered by many to be the best home run switch hitter to ever play the game, his praise and accolades didn’t follow outside the baseball diamond.
Mantle’s drinking and womanizing did a number on his family, not to mention his own well-being. He disappeared into the darkness of alcoholism during the 1980’s, losing much of his purpose and meaning in life and describing it to friends as his own internal hell. When he finally entered Baylor Medical Center for a liver transplant in 1995, doctors gave him just days to live if he didn’t have the transplant.
A few weeks after his transplant surgery, Mantle walked into the crowded press conference at the hospital and made what would be his last public statement. Sadness and regret marked his words as he described the life he had squandered: “God gave me a great body and an ability to play baseball,” he said. “God gave me everything, and I just…pffft!…I’d like to say to the kids out there, if you’re looking for a role model, this is a role model: don’t be like me.”
When questioned by a reporter if he had signed a donor card, Mantle replied, “Everything I’ve got is worn out…Although I’ve heard people say they’d like to have my heart, it’s never been used.” He spoke also of his selfishness at the same conference: “I want to start giving back because all I’ve ever done is take.” Four weeks after he had spoken those words, Mantle died.
The liturgy at his funeral included a song he had requested, written and sung by country western star Roy Clark. Titled “Yesterday When I Was Young,” the words epitomize the disappointment Mantle held for himself and his sense of an unholy existence from which he saw no escape:
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game, the way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame. The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned, I always built to last on weak and shifting sand….I ran so fast that time and youth at last ran out; I never stopped to think what life was all about….There are so many songs in me that won’t be sung. I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue. The time has come for me to pay for yesterday, when I was young.
When the day comes when you wake-up that there is more to life than baseball, will there be time to move past the regrets? Are you willing to bet that there will be sufficient time? What will it take to arrive at such a point before it’s too late?
See you Sunday,
Zig Ziglar tells this interesting story in his book Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World. The Chinese [gardeners] plant the bamboo seed, water and fertilize it, but the first year nothing happens. The second year they water it and fertilize it and still nothing happens. The third year again they water and fertilize [it] and still nothing happens. The fourth year they water and fertilize [it], and yet nothing happens. But in the fifth year, in a period of roughly six weeks, the Chinese bamboo tree grows roughly 90 feet. The question is obvious: Did it grow 90 feet in six weeks or was it 90 feet over five years? A little reflection will make the answer obvious: It was five years, because had there been any year when they did not water and fertilize it, there would have been no Chinese bamboo tree.
As a society, we are not very good about waiting. Slow traffic lights, delayed service at a restaurant, long lines at the department store, and approvals from insurance companies on a procedure the doctor felt necessary ASAP. These are but a few of the things that we endure day in and day out. On Sunday morning, I awakened to the news that a mass shooting had occurred during the night in Dayton, Ohio. Surely the headline wasn’t correct or was an old one posted. After all, less than twenty-four hours earlier we were grappling with the news out of El Paso, Texas of a mass shooting at a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
Somehow the gunman in Dayton didn’t get the memo that you couldn’t have two mass shootings in the same day. And yet, this is becoming too common and there are times that I am afraid that we have simply come to “normalize” such actions. Have we done anything of substance to reduce these violent acts on innocent people? In Florida we now have an armed officer at each school and some counties have given permission for their teachers to also carry guns in school. But when a gunman is able to kill 9 people and injure more than two dozen in twenty-four seconds, what would the response time be for a single armed officer or a teacher?
Some will say that this is the age we are living in, but such mass shootings don’t happen to this degree in any other country in the world. I know that gun violence is not the only issue confronting us and that mass shootings are only a part of the gun violence story. But I am not ready to accept this as something that we will just have to get used to. Jesus didn’t accept the status quo when He set foot on earth. The establishment of a new kingdom was a part of His “to do” list. It didn’t happen overnight but there were hints of it along the way.
So I will set my thoughts on peacemaking and water and fertilize until that day when my efforts and others will bear fruit. Persistence, patience, and the promises of God!
See you Sunday,
It started with a visit to Haines City Health Care last week. A resident, an older gentleman, and his son, were sitting outside near the front door. As they were both sporting a beard, I asked if they had the same barber. We laughed and I thought how special to be able to spend time with your Dad. Yesterday marked the 26th anniversary of my Dad’s passing. I miss him.
Our time together was limited unless I joined him at work, which I often did. I don’t recall us ever throwing a baseball or football together but I knew that he supported me and loved me. I came across a story recently that was shared by a minister who spoke of a fishing trip he and his father took one day. He writes: “We left before daylight on our way to fish the Rio Grande River just north of Embudo, New Mexico. My father has fished in that area for forty years. This would be my first visit. There is a stretch along the river where the water is almost inaccessible. The river lies some seven hundred feet below the canyon rim. The descent is steep and treacherous. They call it, Box Canyon. My father loves to fish there because few folks are willing to expend the effort to get to the fishing. We did not see another soul all day. During the drive I asked, ‘Is there a trail?’ My father replied, ‘It’s a semi-controlled fall going in and a bear of a climb coming out. We will be fishing in about 20 minutes but it will take us an hour and a half to make it back to the vehicle.’ Rock slides and runoff washes point you to the river but there is no discernible trail. The fishing made up for the treachery of our out of control fall into the canyon. When the river is clear the rainbow and the brown trout will hit nearly anything that moves. These are river bred and born fish. They are not stocker fish. My father has pestered several generations of these fish up and down this beautiful river.”
“I stood there, surrounded by jagged, black basalt rock watching my father cast and reel in. The rhythm of his motion was soothing and peaceful. The smell of sage hung heavy in the air. Pale driftwood was jammed into awkward positions, driven to them by the raging water during the Spring runoff. Delicate wildflowers rocked in the breeze. Tiny yellow butterflies danced in the air on the edge of the river. The sky was a brilliant blue. Wispy white clouds set sail across the sky’s blue canvas. The water raged by. Walled in by the canyon, the sound crescendos so that you cannot talk to someone without shouting. What a paradox I thought. The water rages by and yet the butterflies are unaffected. God’s creative genius comforts us in the midst of a raging river.”
Indeed, life can be loud and chaotic. The world around us can be turbulent. But that is never the only storyline. Memories can surface and remind us of the beauty once shared and I can add my voice to those who have sung, “It is Well with My Soul!”
See you Sunday!