The chances are that by the time you return to church, the subdivision adjacent to us will be almost built out. The sounds of hammering, loud machinery, and even louder radios have filled the air for the past three weeks, making it hard to concentrate. Granted, having the normality of one’s life upended has not helped with concentration. Auto-pilot has been disconnected as the calendar is less uncertain every day about what will demand my attention.
The downtime has allowed me to tackle some projects that have been put “on hold,” and invest hours researching the type of equipment we need to bring in as live streaming our worship services will now be a permanent fixture for our days ahead. I see it as more than just “busy work” to fill the hours of the day. This whole idea of re-imagining church doesn’t come easy!
The one image that keeps popping up in my mind almost on a daily basis is the story from the gospels when the Master leaves the home, entrusting its care into the hands of his servants. When will the Master return? Who knows? The real question is how we, the servants, tended to the home while he was gone. Wanting to be found faithful, I push through my thoughts of frustration and confusion, trusting that God will lead me on the right path for this time of ministry. I must confess that there are some days when such thoughts seem to have the upper hand.
I guess what I am saying is that the work is hard! Moving through uncharted waters, having to develop a new normal, wondering how to do this better, and working through scenarios to ensure that we are on top of things and are not left surprised. I know I am not alone. I am pretty sure that many of you are facing similar thoughts and feelings, maybe not as it relates to church work but your life in general. It has been upended and put on hold, restricting travel and time with family and friends.
This week Linda and I were supposed to be spending anniversary vacation time in Banner Elk, North Carolina and closing out the week, celebrating with our granddaughter’s college graduation. Instead, we had a short 3-day staycation. Disappointing, yes, but you make adjustments and move on, right? What else is there to do?
That recurring image from the gospels reminds me that you try your best to remain faithful. That is what you do! When the Master returns, I want him to know that he was right to entrust his home to me and others. I am so glad that I get to share this home with you!
See you Sunday on-line,
For the past five weeks, I have opened our Sunday worship live stream with a welcome to Week #_ of “this season of being together while we are apart.” When I first came across that description of this time we are in, it stuck with me, and so I set it aside to use it. The description is attributed to the Rev. Catherine Foote of University Congregational Church UCC in Seattle, Washington. Seattle, as you remember, was the first and hardest-hit American city at the start of the coronavirus.
Faced with a decision of offering worship online or just waiting until the congregation could gather again, Catherine and church leaders chose to go “live,” only the service was held outdoors, on Catherine’s farm. Throughout the walking tour, elements of worship were offered: reflections, prayers, and songs – especially familiar ones. She had two associates wielding cameras, one for Facebook and another recording for YouTube. This began on March 15 and online services continue today.
Since the church already had a YouTube channel and live streamed their services before the pandemic struck, their learning curve has not been as difficult as other congregations, ourselves included, in trying to get up to speed and learning to dance in the midst of a storm. But they could have opted not to move forward in “being together while we are apart.” I had little idea when I first started introducing viewers that we would still be doing this going into Week #6 with the possibility it could be an additional four more weeks before we re-open the church for public worship.
Another thing Rev. Foote shared in that first outdoor service that struck me was to remind her congregation that “What we know by heart matters.” And then she continued, “And we also have to open our hearts to what new things are coming.” In this day and time, we need to have sure footing in our faith when the ground underneath us seems to be so unstable. Now is the time to claim what we believe as true! I would invite you to read through the Psalms during this time of uncertainty or the Gospel of John. Stay in the Word until the Word stays in you.
And her second statement – new things are coming. I know not all of us like surprises or changes. New things does not necessarily mean “bad,” only different than what we may be accustomed to or even comfortable with. It may also challenge us to stretch our faith and re-discover our first love, the God who is our Creator, Redeemer, and our Sustainer!
See you Sunday on-line,
The question still lingers from the Palm Sunday reading: “Who is this?” as Jesus makes His entry into the Holy City of David. His followers offered an answer but it fell short of who we now know Jesus is. Yes, a prophet, but more than a prophet! And later when some Greeks who had gone up to worship at the festival approached Philip about “seeing” Jesus, instead of leading them to meet face-to-face with Jesus, Philip instead went and found Andrew and the two of them went and told Jesus, leaving the Greeks in the dark. It was almost as if Philip and Andrew were either embarrassed, unsure, or shy to point the way to Jesus with any clarity and eloquence. Without doubt, the coming days would certainly unsettle all of Jesus’ disciples for whom they had gauged Him to be as Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified.
This identity question wasn’t limited to Jesus’ followers and His disciples. In an article that explored the various texts for the upcoming Lenten season, Elizabeth McGregor Simmons, now pastor emerita at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, in Davidson, North Carolina, writes about Jesus’ own doubts and fears, even as He works through them. In John’s gospel, a gospel where Jesus is more omniscient than He is in the other gospels, He owns up to having a troubled soul. And yet, He goes forward to the hour of His own death. Stepping towards the cross, Jesus adds a gracious word for all who doubt, for all who are afraid, for all who find it difficult to believe: “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all peoples to myself.”
Simmons’ article was written on the heels of the 2008 recession. It was a troubled time, a time littered with doubts and fears, much like what we are living through today with this global pandemic. She then went on to share a tragic story that happened not long after a colleague, Joanna Adams, began a new ministry. A long-time member and elder of the church, sixty-five years old, first killed his thirty-one year old son and then turned the gun on himself. The son had been diagnosed eight years earlier with schizophrenia, had ceased taking his medication, and had become more and more violent. The father had become deeply concerned that his son would hurt someone else.
At the Memorial service for both the father and the son, Adams quoted from theologian Karl Barth who once said that “people come to church on the Sabbath with only one question in their minds: Is it true?…” She then added: “When we come to church on a Monday afternoon for a memorial service for two people who died untimely deaths, the question is even more compelling. Is it true? Can God be trusted on a day like today?”
Lifting up all the painful questions which such tragedy births, Adams then concluded her message with these words: “We are not dealing today with a God who comes around only when things are rosy and the birds are singing. There is a cross up there! The God we know in Jesus Christ knows about suffering. The God we know in Jesus Christ gets to the valley of death, gets to loss, to doubt, before we get there, so that He is ready to catch us when we stumble blindly in, so that He can guide us through the dark….It is true that God can be trusted.”
It may be Friday….but Sunday’s coming! Christ is drawing all to Himself. Thanks be to God!
See you Sunday on-line,
“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,