Pastors Blog - March 2021
There is no greater satisfaction in life than helping another human being. That's true.
John Hersey, in his book HIROSHIMA, describes the aftermath of the atomic bomb that exploded in that never-to-be-forgotten city. At the center of the explosion area was total incineration. On the fringes, houses collapsed. People were trapped under rafters. Unable to extricate themselves they faced the horror of spreading fires. Survivors fled in every direction. The streets were crowded with frantic people. Most of them ignored the agonized cries of imprisoned people pinned down in these collapsed houses calling out for help.
In the midst of the chaos, however, there were some fleeing refugees who would hear a cry, would drop out of the crowd, and would pick their way into a collapsed building, to give a hand to releasing a trapped person.
In many ways, you and I are in a society where folks are trapped in the rubble of life. Some of their woes are self-inflicted, to be sure. But that doesn't mean their suffering isn't just as real. Who will reach out a helping hand? Who will show real love and concern?
I have some good news for you. There is nothing you can do for yourself that will enrich your life more than demonstrating that kind of compassion.
Want proof? AMERICAN HEALTH magazine reported the findings of a study by the University of Michigan's Research Center. This study says that more than any other activity doing regular volunteer work dramatically increases life expectancy. It's more important than jogging or aerobics or even oat bran.
Help somebody else and you will live longer. You will have more vitality, more energy, more zest for life.
During the bombing of London, it was found that people suffering from nervous disorders found unexpected health by forgetting their own troubles and ministering to the terrible needs of victims of the air raids.
The reason many of us have no energy, no vitality, no joy, is that we are living only for ourselves. There is an ancient story called "The Servant of the Kingdom." It is about a man who's a servant. One day he meets a genie. The genie gives him one wish but warns him to be careful for what he wishes. The man wishes to be waited on, for others to serve him hand and foot. Things go great for awhile. But soon the luster wears off. He tires of people catering to his every whim. He grows bored. Finally, he goes looking for the genie. He says "I can't stand it. I want to go back to serving people. I'd rather be in hell than live like this." The genie replies, "Where do you think you've been the last 90 days?"
And there is truth to that little story. We were not created to be served but to serve. Jesus says: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
The happiest people in this world are people who out of their own choice serve others. It’s true. When you help others, you help yourself.
Pastors Blog - February 2021
God Deeply Loves Dust
Ash Wednesday isn’t part of everyone’s faith tradition. I was a student in seminary when I was first introduced to the sacred ritual of having ashes imposed on my forehead on the Wednesday that marks the beginning of Lent. I have grown to appreciate the symbolism of a liturgical church, and the ashes are rich with meaning. Ashes are equivalent to dust, and the Genesis record says God made human flesh from the dust of the earth and infused the body with the breath of life. When a human corpse decomposes, it returns to dust or ash.
Historically, when a priest or minister uses a smudge of ash to draw a cross on the worshiper's forehead on Ash Wednesday, he speaks something similar to these words: "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return."
Ashes are an image of both death and repentance, and during the forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays, which make the time frame 46 days), Christians worldwide grieve for their sins and the necessity of Christ's sacrifice for them through his death on the cross. Many people choose to identify in a small way with that sacrifice by giving up something during the period of Lent. In our culture that "sacrifice" usually involves something small like a certain food, alcohol, some form of entertainment, or some other personal enjoyment. Whenever you desire the surrendered item, you're encouraged to remember Jesus's time of temptation in the
wilderness and his sacrifice on the cross.
The first time I received the imposition of the ashes upon my forehead, I was both drawn to and repelled by the message of Ash Wednesday--drawn to the solemn symbolism and tormented by the visible reminder of how terrible I was. As a humble and sorrowful person, I began my Lenten journey with my own heart harshly condemning me, which was reinforced by a lifetime of messages about a judgmental God who exacted excellent performance I couldn't consistently achieve.
Spreading the Good News
"Dust to dust"? Not exactly an uplifting experience.
Lent, then, and specifically Ash Wednesday had never been one of my favorite holidays on the church calendar, but my reluctance to be reminded of my shortcomings shifted when I came across a marvelous reading. Positioned in a black text box was a picture of a woman's forehead marked with ashes, and white bolded text slashed across the dark block, "Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?"
The words are from the poem "Blessing the Dust: For Ash Wednesday" by Jan Richardson. A portion of the poem continues,
"So let us be marked
not for sorrow And let us be marked / not for shame
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less than
we are /but for claiming
what God can do
within the dirt, within the stuff
of which the world is made...."
Now that changes everything. For there is always hope when we realize what God can do within us and through us, all for His great glory!
Pastors Blog - January 2021
The Longest Year
During this pandemic year of 2020, devastation and loss has been the new normal. The nights have felt so long for so many (including sometimes for me) that it’s been hard to believe a hidden blessing awaits us in the morning. The promise of Christmas, that a light will shine into the darkness, seemed nearly impossible this year. I wondered how to ignite the hope that we all share, that there is a promised light that has come into our darkness, dispelling the darkness that threatens to overwhelm and swallow us. Then I came upon this poem by Jan Richardson, written for the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, which in 2020 fell on December 21st.
Blessing for the Longest Night
All throughout these months
as the shadows
this blessing has been
It has practiced
walking in the dark,
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.
So believe me
when I tell you
will reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.
You will know
the moment of its
by your release
of the breath
you have held
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
in the company
of a friend.
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.
This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you will be walking
toward the dawn.
Immediately, I recognized these words as truth for this longest year of 2020 as well as the longest night. Even during this dark year, I have been graced by the “unexpected release of breath and unclenching of hands.” St. Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.... We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.... For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.... All this is for your benefit, so that the grace... may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.... Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed every day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
I pray you will find this blessing not only during the longest night but during the longest year which is stretching even now into the new year of 2021. Let the light, which is Christ in you, continue to shine in the darkness and give you hope throughout the new year!
Pastors Blog - December 2020
Have you ever thought about the meaning of time? Philosophers refer to chronological time. That is time as measured by the ticking of a clock. It is calendar time. It is time as measured by the earth rotating on its axis, time as measured by the earth's journey around the sun. But what if the earth were destroyed. What if the sun were no more? Would time cease to exist?
Philosophers also talk about subjective time. To a child waiting for Christmas, time moves so slowly. To his parents, Christmas may come all too quickly. To his grandparents, Christmas, 1949, may seem like just yesterday. Subjective time is relative.
As one scientist put it, if you sit on a hot stove, a minute seems like an hour. If a pretty girl sits on your lap, an hour seems like a minute.
Chronological time--subjective time. The Bible introduces another kind of time which it refers to as "Kairos"--God's time.
St. Thomas Aquinas tried to explain God's time like this: In the beginning when God first created heaven and earth, God also created time. Because God created time, he stands outside of time. He is timeless. He is eternal. Artists sometimes portray God as an old man. How false that portrait is. God is ageless. God has no clock to which he must conform. There is no yesterday or tomorrow in eternity. There is only now. Because God stands outside of time according to Aquinas, He can see all of time at one glance. The past is there before Him--"I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob..." But, also the future. We ask, Can God know the future?
Aquinas would answer, "Most certainly. The future stands before God in exactly the same way as does the past."
That is more than most of us can comprehend. And yet it is important for us to see that the celebration of Christmas--indeed, the celebration of the entire Christ event--is the celebration of Kairos--God's time. When John the Baptist proclaimed out in the wilderness that the Kingdom of God is at hand, he was saying something about the timelessness of God. Time is important. Time is in short supply. Yet the most important things in life are timeless. Love is timeless. Hope is timeless. Joy is timeless.
What are we to say to all of this? The conclusion we must draw is this: This moment is God's moment.
This time is God's time. We are living right now in Kairos. All of creation groans in expectation of what is yet to be. The victory is already ours--if we will but accept it.
The story is told about a fellow who loved to read mystery stories but he didn't like to be kept in suspense. He would read the last chapter first. That way he could read the book in the assurance that in the end good would triumph over evil. To the villain he would silently announce, "Don't get too sure of yourself. I already know the ending of the story. You'll get yours later."
The Christmas story allows us to see the last chapter first. The babe in the manger is God's announcement to our universe that he is at work reconciling the world unto himself. The angels could sing about "Peace on earth, good will to men" not because it had been realized in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago or even in our city today. In the mind of God, however, it is this moment already a present reality. The future belongs to Him. This moment is God's moment. He is alive. He is here now. Time is important. Time is in short supply. Yet his love and His nurture are timeless.
Have you wasted most of the precious time he has given you? This is a perfect time of the year to evaluate your life--to see if you have invested it in that which will crumble and decay with time or if you have invested it in that which is eternal. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Is it a present reality in your life? It can be. That is God's moment. This is the Kairos--His time. Why not let him give you a gift this Christmas
that transcends time--the gift of His love.
Pastors Blog - November 2020
Climbing a Mountain
Many people have a "bucket list" of significant things they want to do before they die, but I've never made one or even given it much thought.
At the same time, I'm intrigued by others' bucket-list adventures. A few years ago one man mentioned he was planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, which sounded so magnificently exotic. I searched online and was quickly hooked by the imposing mountain in northeast Africa. Kilimanjaro looks softer somehow and more inviting than the others that make up the Seven Summits, which are the seven highest
mountains in each of the seven continents.
"Kili" as it's often called, doesn't require advanced mountaineering skills or special climbing equipment. Some
websites term it a "very long and often challenging upward hike," but that description doesn't do justice to the rigors required to reach the summit. The 19,341-feet altitude, considered extreme in mountaineering, stymies many before they get to the top, and sheer exhaustion from the 12-14-hour summit attempt keeps others from making the last push to reach Uhuru Peak.
My online search led me to videos that showed breathtaking scenery, especially of the sunrise on the summit.
They also spoke frankly about the difficulties of the climb and what is required to reach the top successfully.
The more I heard, read and watched, the more I realized that the lessons of Kilimanjaro applied to my own life.
I've never climbed a high physical mountain like Kilimanjaro, and at this stage in life, I doubt I ever will. But I've
climbed my share of emotional, relational, and spiritual ones, and I expect many of the same strategies apply.
Kili climbers are told they must be prepared to hike long hours with a backpack over demanding terrain for
multiple days in a row. That level of fitness takes intentional cultivation to increase cardiovascular capacity and
physical stamina. Strength training, especially for the legs and core, is also important. If you have the luxury of
knowing a mountain is in your future, train in advance.
Here's a big hint for life: Trust me, a mountain always rises in your future; you just may not know it's ahead.
Prepare in times of strength for times of weakness. Consistently practice rigorous self-care. Cultivate physical and emotional grit to get you through the exhausting times when it feels like you can't go on.
Even for the physically fit, high altitude climbing is tricky. No matter how well you've trained or how prepared you are, anyone can still succumb to altitude sickness. Sometimes the "tough" ones are more susceptible, because they push too fast and don't allow enough time to acclimatize to the altitude. If you get sick from lack of oxygen, the only cure is to go back down to where the air is...better.
No one is immune from tough life challenges, and many of those involve variables no one can control. There is no shame in taking backward steps until you can breathe again. If the mountain's airless height is too much for now, it's wise to find a lower spot where you can regroup. Be gentle with yourself. You'll start back upward when
Climbing Kilimanjaro, as well as most kinds of extreme adventures, depends on adjunct supporters. A guide
and a porter accompany Kili trekkers. Meals are prepared and camp is ready at the end of each long day. It takes
help to succeed at hard things. No one successfully navigates life alone. You need your community.
The material about Kilimanjaro consistently emphasizes that a slow pace is key to reaching the summit.
Guides regularly urge, "Polé, polé!" which means "Slowly!" in Swahili. Conserving energy and oxygen is crucial. At higher altitudes, trekkers take one or two steps and stop for air. The trick for the steep ascents is to keep your momentum moving forward, even if it's at a snail's pace. The advice is to lean into the mountain, not fight it, and to stay upright.
Some prefer to rush over the mountains of life. They push to conquer the challenges quickly and are impatient with slow progress. A slow, steady "Polé, polé!" isn't their typical mindset. They are a fighter at heart, which makes it harder to surrender to life's process. And finally after reaching the mountain's summit, many trekkers discover that coming down is just as hard as going up, maybe harder. It's easy to get over-confident and
not pay enough attention to the potential pitfalls on the way down.
I don't know what our friend learned on Mount Kilimanjaro, but the mountains I climb are always faithful to teach me something if I'm willing to learn. God is with me on the mountain in a way I don't experience in other places of life. And God invites me to "Polé, polé!" and enjoy the view along the way.
Pastors Blog - October 2020
I saw a story recently on Facebook about a young woman from Arkansas, age 23, whose dad died four years ago. Every day since his passing, Chastity Patterson has texted his number to share about her day. She said it made her feel closer to him and she hoped somehow he was receiving her messages. She related the ups and downs of her life, including overcoming cancer, finishing college, and her heartbreak when a significant relationship ended.
She never expected a reply, of course. She knew the texts were for her, yet she sent them anyway, day after day, year after year. Then on October 25, the day before the four-year anniversary of her father's death, she got a huge surprise: a response to her text.
A man who identified himself as Brad answered, "Hi sweetheart, I am not your father, but I have been getting all your messages for the past 4 years." Brad said that his own daughter had died in a car accident in 2014, and Chastity's daily messages had "kept me alive."
What a sweet story! I'd love to know the rest of it - whether this daughter who lost her dad and this dad who lost his daughter have connected further now that they've acknowledged their incredible correspondence.
I understand Chastity's practice of texting her deceased father. I've never typed a message and hit “Send” to a person who isn't living, but I have texted people who are important to me, but with whom I'm not in contact for various reasons. They are still living, but we don't communicate regularly. Some of them I just “text” in my mind. We drifted apart as our life situations changed. Others are involved in my life and dear, but texting everyday how much they mean to me and how grateful I am for their presence seems excessive, even creepy.
When I teach about trusting God, I often joke that it would be easier if God would just text me. I chat with God frequently throughout the day, sharing observations, asking questions, or begging for clarity or presence. Often, believe it or not, I'm certain I get a response. No, my phone doesn't chime and I don't see words on the screen, but I receive an answer nonetheless.
Regularly it's something in nature - the exquisite moon in the night sky or a special feeling of presence while on a leisurely walk. Sometimes it's more tangible, like an email from someone who writes to say how much a sermon meant to his or her faith journey. Maybe it's a phone call from a desperate person looking for help, and I get to remember what that felt like and offer experience, strength, and hope. It might be a colleague who's sharing something funny or meaningful.
Occasionally, it's a gift left at the back door or a card in the mail or online, and I know the sacrifice or gratitude that prompted it. Maybe it's a special friend or family member who communicates some minutiae about his or her day that delights me, or an unplanned video chat with one of my grandchildren. Or it's a song or something I read that encourages my heart.
Texting a deceased person? Makes perfect sense to me! And responding to a stranger who had texted his number daily for four years? Sounds right. I just wonder why it took Brad so long to text back. I suspect he was reluctant to jinx the supply of sacred texts by confirming their receipt.
The exchange of these two very connected strangers prompts me to be more attuned to the messages I send and to those I receive. God's voice just might be present in both if I'm paying attention. Is there someone you want to text today?
Pastors Blog - September 2020
Surrounded By Angels
Compassion and courage were all it took to rescue a family caught in a deadly rip current a couple years ago in Panama City Beach, Florida. Nothing else was available, and it turns out, those qualities were more than enough.
Instead of the fun swim they had planned, a family comprised of Roberta, Albert, and their children, ages 8, 11 and 18, plus a nephew and Roberta's mother, became trapped in a powerful riptide. Roberta first realized her young sons were in trouble when she got to shore ahead of them, and they begin screaming they couldn't follow. The mom hurried to help her kids and was quickly followed by other family members. The current snaring the youngsters was inescapably fierce, and soon all were in danger of drowning, while the eight-year-old daughter watched helplessly on the sand.
Another couple enjoying the ocean after an unplanned beachside supper heard the screams and realized what was happening. Jessica Simmons picked up a discarded boogie board and dashed into the water toward the family stranded nearly 100 yards from shore. Her husband Derek marshalled bystanders to grab arms to form a human rope across the waves. One by one, people joined the arms-length chain. Those who couldn't swim stayed near shore while others went to the front of the line in water up to their necks and then deeper. Eventually nearly 80 people were linked in the string of hands.
Derek was at the farthest point of the line, and it was still a few feet short of the drowning swimmers. With the help of the boogie board, Jessica and Derek shuttled the struggling family to the outstretched hands of the human chain. Starting with the young boys, then Roberta's mom who was suffering a heart attack from the ordeal, every person was transported along the chain to safety.
In media interviews since their rescue, Roberta has called the chain-forming beachgoers her "angels," especially the Simmons who spearheaded the effort. Angels, indeed. No lifeguards were on duty at the time, and law enforcement personnel were waiting for rescue boats.
Sometimes life sucks you under and you can't escape. The swirling waters break over your head. There is no foothold and exhaustion whispers you'll never survive. People you might expect to help aren't there or won't venture into the churning deep.
And sometimes, an “angel” stretches out a hand. Perhaps regular people pause when they hear your cry and realize that a hand is what you need most, especially when other assistance is lacking. Maybe they join forces with others - folks probably different from themselves and strangers at that - and together they form an unexpected chain of compassion.
It takes compassion to care about someone else's distress and courage to attempt aid. It takes courage to follow a bold example into waters over your head. It maybe takes more courage to call out for help, to grasp the outstretched hand of a stranger, and to allow yourself to be passed along a chain of compassionate “angels.”
Either way, you are not alone. Compassionate and courageous “angels” surround you!
Pastors Blog - August 2020
Ignorance and Silence Equal Complicity
The Christian Church can’t bury its head in the sand and continue doing what we do without comment about the plague of racism, which has harmed and killed millions more than a novel coronavirus. To ignore the obvious brokenness of our country - and, indeed, probably our world - is unthinkable. This issue is so important, insidious, and distressing that it demands an attention-getting emphasis. If the dignity of all human beings isn’t relevant to us Christians, I don't know what is.
How can I not write about recent tragic events and the ensuing protests across the country? I see the protests, some peaceful and some not, with violence perpetrated by protesters, police, and looters alike. The unrest and chaos remind me of the riots in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I was 13 years old, and I admit that at age 65, I barely understand the issues any better now than I did then.
I have no answers for the systemic problems in our country. I'm not sure I even have the right questions. I do have eyes to see what I see, and they are slowly being opened wider every day to the pervasive racism in our land.
I also have reactions and feelings: I'm heart-broken, nauseous, and anxious. I'm sad and angry and afraid and ashamed. I cannot bear to watch the videos of the murder of George Floyd (reminiscent of the similar killing of Eric Garner in 2014) and of Ahmaud Arbery, or to read about the killing of EMT Breonna Taylor in her Louisville home, or, for that matter, to watch the brutal, brain-damaging beating of Rodney King for his misdemeanor in 1991 - and to know that 25 years ago this week, his attackers, three of whom were white, were acquitted of their savagery.
Clearly, I'm part of the problem. My epigenetics inheritance (the influence of environment on genetics) is of white privilege. Flaming white privilege. Other than a black maid, whom my family dearly loved (and pointed to that love as proof we couldn't possibly be racist), I was raised in a completely white, educated culture. My school, church, and every social circle was made up almost exclusively of white folk. I'm embarrassed that I can only name a handful of non-white people with whom I've had some type of personal relationship, and other than that maid, all of those relationships developed in adulthood.
I had no idea of my white privilege and of the unconscious assumptions it prompts until only a few years ago, and I suspect my parents and those before them didn't either. That ignorance of my blindness to racial prejudice, therefore, likely got passed to my children, too.
I and most of my friends and acquaintances, who also are white and part of the privileged culture, simply do not know what we do not know. We have not experienced what we haven't experienced, but we can no longer claim ignorance of the experiences of those Americans who are not white. The news cycles thrust before us show the disparity clearly, horrifically, and I ... "cannot bear to look."
I fear that in my ignorance and privilege I will say something offensive to people of color. (If I do, please point it out so that I'll know my error and not make it again.) That is nothing compared to the systemic weights of trauma, violence, suspicion, poverty, crime, educational disparity, and countless other influences I am too blind to recognize.
Certainly, I have no solutions, either, yet I believe that conversations about the problem are still productive. I and all who are encased in white privilege must shed our advantaged lens, listen absent our favored assumptions, and learn. I must stand in judgment of myself and those like me, rather than automatically blame the oppressed.
The writings of Richard Rohr and others are teaching me about the sin of the systemic reality of hidden oppression, which he describes, in part, as those who hold "positions of authority within systems of power [securing] their own privilege, comfort, and wealth - almost always at the expense of those most on the margins." He goes on to say that "this type of corporate evil is often culturally agreed upon, admired, and deemed necessary."
In contrast, Rohr describes Jesus as living "in close proximity to and in solidarity with the excluded ones in his society," and Rohr identifies Jesus' followers as "the ones on the margins: the lame, poor, blind, prostitutes, drunkards, tax collectors, and foreigners." He challenges that "our position in society determines what we pay attention to and what systems we are willing to 'go along with.'
" I'm saddened to say that without help I would never have thought to think about that.
To paraphrase Rohr, I believe that as Christians, we are invited - no, we are called - to recognize and attend to the larger pain of the world. May God help me and all of us to begin to see that pain, to learn what we're doing that contributes to it, and to become convicted to address it.
Savannah Presbytery has organized a Book Club to help us to begin to see what we don’t see. This informal group meets monthly via zoom to discuss assigned readings. Contact me if you’re interested in the reading list and/or in joining me in these monthly discussions.
Blessings, Pastor Mark
Pastors Blog - July 2020
Doing The Next Right Thing
According to multiple media reports, Americans are experiencing "coronavirus fatigue," which is sometimes called "caution fatigue." People are tired of worrying about an unseen threat, especially those who haven't personally been infected by it. Across the country, people are deeply divided between two viewpoints about the pandemic: that it is still circulating as dangerously as ever, or that continued precautions are unnecessary overkill.
The debate about wearing masks is the flashpoint of this divide. Unfortunately, opinions have been politicized on both sides, and the changing, confusing information from even trusted sources like the CDC or WHO hasn't helped. I admit I find the dispute baffling and ridiculous. I believe the science about the transmission of COVID-19.
I believe equally the experience of other countries that have required their populations to wear masks in public - affirmed (in such cases as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) by sustained and continuing diminution of the virus within their borders. Why in the world would millions of people submit to that requirement if it's useless?
Wearing a protective face covering in public, especially indoors when among a crowd, is such a simple, inexpensive step. How can someone logically believe it doesn't help to cover one's nose and mouth? From coughs to colds to the flu, a routine medical suggestion is to cover your mouth if you're the sufferer and to distance yourself from sick people to avoid becoming ill. When dealing with a deadly virus that is proven to be contagious before symptoms surface, protecting yourself and others is a no-brainer. I truly don't understand how that straightforward precaution is so hard to grasp.
Until I think about the uncomplicated, modest steps associated with healthy Christian living that I sometimes find tiresome. I remember the proven practices of prayer, Bible study, meditation, Christian service, and self-care that are part of our daily discipleship, and I know how often I am too casual about practicing them day in and day out. It's easier, less taxing, less time-consuming, and more fun sometimes to ignore these simple daily practices; unfortunately, that only leads to deleterious consequences. The truth is I need God, now more than ever, to cope with all this change and stress in my life right now.
Christian discipleship is simple; it's just not easy. And it gets tiring. Some days I'm weary and worn out with being a disciple of Jesus, and I want to throw a childish fit about my "rights" to do whatever I want. Facing reality is tough and changing behavior accordingly is tougher. It takes discipline, focus, and persevering about choices that are annoying or inconvenient at best and downright painful at worst. Living the Christian life characterized by healthy practices, attitudes, interactions, and self-sacrifice requires something disciplined of you. And that may include simply wearing a mask in public.
It's tempting to think the rules of life don't apply to me. Whether the challenge is sin, coronavirus, or accepting life-on-life's-terms, the response is usually fairly simple. Do the next right thing
Pastors Blog - June 2020
From Tears to Cheers
The way we do life right now has drastically shifted. And as it continues to change, it can be helpful to acknowledge the grief we are feeling.
Grief is the process of your brain trying to adapt to the loss of a resource that is missing. Sometimes we think of grief as the loss of something or someone from the past. But grief can also go into the future. We can grieve what could have been. We grieve the things that have been lost as well as the things that could have happened but now won’t – at least in the way we had previously hoped.
With so many changes going on in our lives right now, our brains have been working overtime to adjust. However, when we slow down, identify, and acknowledge our losses, this begins the process of helping the mind to adapt and the soul to heal. Sometimes it brings tears.
In grief, we know that God sees each one of our tears. “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 56:8). God promises to be with us in difficult times. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Many of us are grieving the loss of our normal church services and are brokenhearted to not see and touch our church family that we love so dearly. We all long to return to worship as usual. Some are pushing to get back to normal church while most are playing it safe at home, afraid to venture out any more than necessary. Is it time to come back to church? The President has declared church to be an essential business. Hip, Hip, Hooray! Our tears are transitioning to cheers!
Even with prospects of reopening as soon as possible, many churches are choosing to delay so as to protect those with health issues that render them more vulnerable to COVID-19. We all long to return to church, but the decision of when to reopen church services is a big decision. Of course, there are local, state, and federal guidelines for this. The question of how to do it is pretty straight forward, too. There are CDC and State Board of Health guidelines for that. Additionally, we have the history of how these decisions of church leadership impacted society during past pandemics over the past several centuries; this gives us the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
Pastors Blog - May 2020
I know that when faced with a crisis or some big loss or obstacle, I rise to the challenge. I thrive on the adrenaline of the issue, as painful as it may be. I connect best with God from the depths of sorrow. In desperation, I receive the grace to respond, even if it is only by embracing my powerlessness
(not an act to be dismissed as easy).
This pandemic is probably the most impactful crisis our globe has experienced, certainly in my lifetime. And in response, many feel . . . anxiety, fear, grief. Many frontline workers are or will experience symptoms of PTSD.
I breathe with an undercurrent of guilt. Personally, I am remarkably unaffected by COVID-19. I can work from home, and I and those I love are healthy and financially secure. I don't even know anyone who has been directly affected, except for one distant relative who tested positive but has recovered as far as I know.
I am adjusting to this New Normal, moving our core church programs online. I’m able to continue our weekly worship and Bible study as well as helping hurting people through prayer. Online giving and donations via the church Post Office Box is providing the income required to keep our church going.
My privileged status generates as much shame as gratitude. It's a weird kind of survivor guilt. Why am I so lucky to be healthy, have a good job, and to enjoy access (albeit remotely) to all that I need? It feels silly and unspeakably selfish to realize that my biggest losses from coronavirus are from touch deprivation
(I miss the hugs and handshakes).
And yet . . . as a pastor, I know that loss is loss and grief is grief. Recently, I read a wonderful article that described the differences in types of crises and humans' responses. The drama of war is terrible, but also energizing. It typically creates a fight or flight response, which pumps adrenaline and cortisol throughout the system. In contrast, this virus enemy is completely insidious, stealthy, invisible. Most of us don't see, feel, touch it, and are untouched by it. Yet it's out there, we know -- chronically, unendingly (it seems) out there. In the face of a chronic, especially largely unseen stressor, many of us tend to freeze.
We can't get our hands around it, only to wash them incessantly. We can barely get our minds around it, at least those of us fortunate enough to be spared personal witness to the war zones of hospitals or nursing homes. It is beyond our control. So we deny, distract, self-medicate, or shut down, because to let in the horror (both human and economic) is too much, especially if there is precious little we can do to abate these consequences.
How then do we cope? I actually picked up my Bible this morning, my real Bible, not the version I have on my phone or computer. It's the one I've had for almost 40 years. Just the weight of it in my hand is comforting, vastly different from reading the same passages on a tiny screen. Here are a few verses of encouragement I read:
“My grace is sufficient for you”, God replied when St. Paul complained of the thorn in his side.
“I will be with you always”, Jesus says, “even to the end of the age”.
“God works all things together for good, for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose” and “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”.
A favorite passage of mine from St. Paul is found in Philippians 4:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into
practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
“Whatever is true, ... noble, ... right, ... pure, ... lovely, ... admirable, ... excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” Most days I'm blessed to find such things to think about, although it's harder than it used to be.
I notice hopeful witnesses in nature. A neighborhood walk yields the delight of birds in the trees and blooming flowers bent by the recent storms, but not broken. I watch videos of the helpers, the pieces about the creative kindness of strangers and friends. I listen to music that soothes. I see the pictures of how our Mother Earth is repairing herself when unmolested by humans' intrusion and marvel at her possibility of healing when given a chance. I watch the signs of spring unfolding and remember that year after year rebirth happens, even in the time of coronavirus.
Pastors Blog - April 2020
Apart, but Still Connected
After you get past the crazy toilet paper hoarding, the coronavirus is perhaps making better people out of most of us. In a mustering of individual and collective unity on a scale that many alive have never seen before, Americans and others across the world are metaphorically joining our washed hands in an amazing communitarian spirit. National and local examples of positive response to the COVID-19 crisis are heartwarming.
Needy out-of-school children are being provided meals, including in some creative ways like delivering them to school bus stops for those who don't have safe transportation to get to the school or are prohibited from going because of stay-at-home mandates. Strangers are getting groceries for the elderly and those with a compromised immune system. In many cases, technology, which too often has inadvertently contributed to a weird sense of isolation, is now providing a lifeline.
More important on a national scale, we are shutting down our normal lives for the majority in order to protect the fragility of those whose health or advanced age makes them especially susceptible to this deadly virus. We are foregoing our normal work and leisure routines in a hopeful effort to avoid further overwhelming a healthcare system already scrambling for needed care-providers' protection and for treatment equipment for patients.
In the midst of the anxiety, economic ramifications, and, for some, unfathomable grief at the loss of a loved one to COVID-19, a surprising shift is happening: We're realizing that we're all in this out-of- control situation together, and we desperately need each other. Indeed. Maybe it's taking a global pandemic to remind us of a core truth about humankind - that God made us for relationship.
Three professors of sociology at the University of California in Los Angeles are calling for
an important adjustment to the now-familiar term "social distancing": using physical distancing instead. These sociologists emphasize that the necessary call for "social distancing" is really a plea for increasing the physical distance between people. They worry that the seemingly innocuous term may inadvertently contribute to the isolation, exclusion, and loneliness that can easily accompany forced withdrawal from normal interaction. They write, "When we practice physical distancing, we need social connectivity and social responsibility more than ever." I couldn't agree more.
During this global crisis, we're finding how very much we need social connection, and humans are getting creative about how to manage it in the time of six feet of separation. In Italy and other places in Europe, people are taking to their balconies to sing or dance. Large families who aren't able to gather as normal are spreading out across a front yard to sing Happy Birthday to a loved one standing on the porch. Groups unable to meet in person, including faith communities, are
meeting online. People may not be in physical contact, but they see and hear each other, which by itself boosts oxytocin, an important bonding hormone.
As your Pastor, I'm grateful for the increased emphasis on staying connected while we're staying apart. Along with the important medical updates on COVID-19, television and online reports are full of suggestions about ways to engage with others. It takes a lot more intentionality for sure.
Voice-to-voice and sight-to-sight connection is crucial for humans' wellbeing. Texting or Facebook messaging is convenient, but it's no substitute. If you're one of the millions required to stay at home, make a phone call (yes, gasp, an actual phone call) to someone every day. Better yet, have a video connection. A simple "in person" chat via Facetime, Skype, Zoom, or some similar app (maybe with a shared cup of coffee or glass of wine) can do wonders to provide support and encouragement.
Be especially mindful of the elderly or those who live alone. A laptop, iPad, or smartphone can be their lifeline. It may take some doing to teach them about apps, clicking, and scrolling (just imagine teaching someone who has never used any technology beyond a manual typewriter), but they may love connecting through Facebook, Skype, or Zoom. It's especially helpful now that in many cases outside visitors are limited for their safety.
Finally, I encourage you to be mindful that we are (and will always be) connected by God’s loving Spirit as one Body with Jesus as our Head. God’s Spirit is prayerfully interceding for us with groanings too deep for words. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. And God is working all things together for good,
for those who love him and are called to his purpose (Romans 8).
Pastors Blog - March 2020
Memory is a wonderful thing. Scientists say that the human mind can store as many as 600 memories per second for a lifetime of 75 years without the slightest strain. Experts advise, “Be selective about what’s worth remembering!” There are some things we Christians should remember: the Lord and His blessings (Eccl. 12:1; Ps. 103:2), Christ’s death on the cross for our sins (1 Cor. 11:24), and the eternal truths of God’s Word (2 Peter 1:12).
Most people remember and concentrate on the wrong things. They have been immobilized by regrets and paralyzed by their past. When St. Paul says that he is “forgetting what is behind,” he is saying that he will no longer be influenced by the things in the past. The ability to be selectively forgetful is very important if we are to live healthy, balanced Christian lives!
We must forget our sins – The gospel is good news! God has what we need: complete and total forgiveness. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). Can we believe and accept this good news? God has forgiven us and laid our past to rest. Shouldn’t we?
We must forget ourselves – A leading psychologist states that the four enemies of healthy personality are resentment, anxiety, guilt and self-centeredness. Self-centered people are occupied with themselves and oblivious to the needs of others. Paul reminds us, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
We must forget our shortcomings – Learning to handle failure is a mark of maturity. Defeat is common to all; no one bats a thousand; all of us err. Only God makes no mistakes! It is not a sin to fail, but it is to give up and grovel in self-pity. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).
We must forget our sorrows – Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Both St. James and St. Peter point out that character is developed through adversity. Most of our problems are not a matter of what life has done to us, but what we have done with life. The psychologist Adler said, “One of the wonder-filled characteristics of human beings is their power to turn a minus into a plus.” We turn a minus into a plus by making it into a cross. Whenever we introduce the Lord into life’s experiences, we turn problems into possibilities.
Some of life’s greatest problems can be resolved as we learn to forget our sins, ourselves, our short comings, and our sorrows. Isn’t it about time you started to practice selective forgetfulness?