Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Perspective

 It’s time for us to reset our sense of perspective.  Perspective, literally, is when nearby objects seem larger to us than those that are far away.  I demonstrated perspective to my granddaughter recently by holding up my thumb and asking her to compare its size with some cars in the distance.  We both knew, of course, that the cars were bigger than my thumb, even though from our point of view my thumb seemed larger.  One of great advances of the Renaissance was the use of perspective in art.  Before then, artists portrayed everything as the same size, regardless of how far away they were.

 

Many things in our lives appear to be bigger and more consequential than they really are, simply because they happen to be what’s right in front of us.  An everyday household chore may seem to be more important than our relationship with a distant friend, because we see the sink full of dirty dishes but the friend is only somewhere in the back of our mind.  It is good, of course, to have a tidy kitchen.  But friends are more important than plates and bowls.  We know that, but somehow we struggle to find the time to make the phone call or send the email.

 

As we travel through this month of October, the upcoming election is going to loom bigger and bigger in our lives.  As rancorous and divisive as the political battlefield has become, it’s hard to imagine how things could get worse, but that very well may happen.  Already, political disagreements have caused tensions in families and have strained once-close relationships.  Angry interactions can no longer even be considered to be debates, because no one listens to anyone who doesn’t already agree with them.  All we seem interested in doing is yelling at people from “the other side.”

 

Perspective.  Cars are bigger than thumbs.  Friendships are more important than dirty dishes.  And people are more important than politics.  This is not just my opinion: this is what our Lord Jesus himself demonstrated in his atoning death.  Christ died for people.  In doing so, he not only revealed the incalculable preciousness of each person, but he increased our value by raising us up to be the children of God.  Psalm 49:7-8 tells us “No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them – the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough.”  What had not yet been revealed to the psalmist is that there is only one payment that is ever enough for a person’s life; 1 Peter 1:18-19 proclaims “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ.”  Nothing on the face of the earth in the minds of people could ever compare to that.

 

Christ died for people.  He did not die for institutions or ideologies, for politics or positions of power, for countries or constitutions.  As important as each of these may seem to us, they cannot compare to the value of each person’s soul.  Your life, and the life of that person whom God wants you to touch with his grace and love, matters more than all the kingdoms of the earth or all the wealth of Wall Street.  I encourage you to keep this perspective in mind as we draw closer to November 3.

Monday, September 21, 2020

The God of Disruption

 

I love it when things go well and everyone gets along.  I’ll take smooth sailing over choppy seas any day.  But if you’re like me, I wonder if this prevents us from experiencing the fullness of God’s plans for us.

We Presbyterians are often accused of considering 1 Corinthians 14:40 to be the most important verse in the Bible: “All things should be done decently and in order.”  We prefer to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s.  At times we may focus more on the way things are done and pay less attention to what needs to be done.

The God who inspired the words of 1 Corinthians 14:40 is the same God who overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple.  That was hardly something done decently and in order!  Scripture is full of times when God used times of disruption and chaos in order to transform people and nations.  He uprooted Abraham and Sarah from their comfortable home in Haran to establish a new nation.  He used Moses to lead the Israelites for forty years in a desert wasteland.  He inspired prophets to speak jarring and sometimes offensive words to the nation’s leaders and people.  He tossed Mary’s world upside-down by turning her into an unmarried pregnant teenager.  He knocked Paul to the ground and struck him blind.  The list goes on and on.  Jesus himself did not accomplish our salvation by making sure not to make waves or offend anyone.

It’s no coincidence that our nation’s awareness of racial injustice and calls for action have arisen during the unprecedented disruption we continue to experience because of COVID-19.  This may be yet one more example of God’s transforming activity happening during disturbing times.

I learned a similar lesson a few years ago when I earned a certificate in executive leadership.  According to the experts, change only happens in an institution (such as the church) when there’s an optimal amount of discomfort.  If everyone feels happy and comfortable, no one is motivated to do anything different.  And if tensions are high and everyone is on edge, you can’t find the common ground you need to work together.  But if we find that happy middle ground of just enough disruption and tension, we’ll want to act and we’ll be able to work together as we do so.

At our denomination’s recent national General Assembly, some people wanted to propose some positive and significant actions.  But what they were proposing, and the way that they proposed it, didn’t align with the procedures in place to make the meeting run smoothly.  So they were silenced, and we’ll never know if God wanted to use them to lead our denomination in a new direction.  I wonder how many times and in what ways I, and we as a congregation, fail to follow God in bold and unsettling directions because we “just want everyone to be happy.”

Are you ready for God to shake up your life?

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Men from Mars

For roughly two decades, beginning in 1958, Old Union Presbyterian Church was home to a men’s gospel quartet known as The Men from Mars.  The group was very well-known in our region, and even today most people from that generation continue to speak of the group with fondness.  The Men from Mars performed on the radio and recorded two full-length albums and a 45 (for those of you under the age of 40, a 45 was a small record that only had a couple of songs on it).  The group received national attention and had the potential to become a professional group if its members had wanted to.  Speak with me if you would like a CD or mp3 recordings of their music.

As you listen to their music, it’s easy to pick out the high notes sung by first tenor Ross Karnes, who had been the church’s pastor when the group began.  You can also appreciate the deep bass voice of George “Jiggs” Fiel.  And of course you’ll enjoy the fine voice of lead singer and soloist, Lester Knox.  Otto Kalmeyer provides the piano or organ accompaniment to their songs.

One voice that is very hard (at least for me) to recognize in their rich harmonies is the one surviving member of the group who is still part of Old Union: baritone Ray “Zeke” Knox.  There are a couple of songs in which his voice comes out for a line or two, but otherwise he blends in with everyone else’s voices so well that I can’t pick him out.

One might be tempted to think “Well, if we can’t hear Ray in the songs, he must not have mattered much.  The group could have done without him and been a trio instead.”  Were you to think along these lines, you’d be gravely mistaken.  As I told Ray at his brother Lester’s funeral earlier this year, he had the most important part of all to play in the quartet.  Without Ray, nothing would have held together the voices of the other three members of the quartet.  He provided the glue or the backbone that held all the singers together in a way that enabled them to create such beautiful music.  Lester and Ross and Jiggs may have gotten praise for their individual voices, but that’s all they would have been without Ray.

Life in our church can be similar to the Men from Mars music.  There are certain prominent, easily-recognized roles that some people play: pastor, committee chairs, musicians, session members, deacons, and so on.  We are the “Lesters” of the church who get the attention and the notoriety.  But the most important roles in our church are the ones like Ray’s part in the quartet: rarely noticed or recognized, but critical for the group to keep together.  Like him, they are the glue or the backbone that allows all of us to be able to work together as a church family.  Without the contributions and presence of those who blend us all together into a marvelous harmony, the life of our church would be empty and fractured.

When you see Ray next, thank him for his gift of music, and for the model he provides for unnoticed but powerful ministry.


How Does God Guide You?

How does God guide you?  I suspect that we often don’t even seek his guidance.  We may not admit it, even to ourselves, but we function from what one author has called “functional atheism.”  In spite of our professed belief in God, we forget about him completely when it comes to the practical, ordinary events of life.  Instead, we trust our own intuition or ability to think through a situation.  Or, we may turn to a trusted expert (let’s check the forecast before scheduling the family picnic).  Other times, we’ll rely on superstition (wear those lucky socks for the Steeler game!) or blind chance.  Our first challenge, therefore, is to become more aware of God’s active presence in even the most minor aspects of our lives, so we can seek his guidance and instruction more fully.

But even when we have resolved to seek God’s guidance, we run into a second challenge.  How can we discern the Lord’s guidance so that we can follow faithfully?  Scripture, of course, is the “witness without parallel,” as the Presbyterian Confession of 1967 puts it.  The Bible, above all else, provides God’s authoritative instruction for life and faith.  Unfortunately, however, the Bible frequently does not include clear guidance for specific decisions you may be making.  It’s clear, for example, that you shouldn’t punch your neighbor in the nose when you’re angry with her.  But the Bible won’t help you decide how to manage the family budget or if you should trade in your car this year.

We are also able to discover God’s will for us through prayer.  And unlike Scripture, prayer is a means for God to provide us with tailor-made instructions.  Problem solved, right?  “Take it to the Lord in prayer,” as the old hymn puts it.  Well, not so fast.  God’s instructions through prayer may be specific, but our ability to recognize his instruction leaves a lot to be desired.  We easily confuse the Lord’s voice with what we think the answer “should” be, or with what we want the answer to be.  We often fail to recognize his voice in the midst of all the others that vie for our attention.  To complicate matters even more, God often guides in startling ways, challenging us to view our situation completely differently.  If we’re not prepared to be surprised, we may dismiss what God has to say.

In addition to the authoritative but general guidance of Scripture, and the specific but easy to miss guidance of prayer, God blesses us with a third means of guidance: the wisdom of other believers.  Even though we are all imperfect followers of the Lord, he often uses others to point us in the right direction.  Last winter I had two conversations that illustrated this point for me.  The first was with a member of our congregation who wished she could attend church, but is unable to because of her health.  As she put it, “I need the church to correct errors in my thinking.”  An hour or two later I spoke with another congregation member who was planning a dangerous course of action.  He told me, “I feel this is what God wants me to do, despite what others say.”  The first person appreciated how God “corrects our errors in thinking” through the wise advice of fellow Christians.  The second person refused to accept such guidance, and did so at his own peril (although I’m happy to report that he is safe).

Scripture, prayer, and the counsel of fellow believers.  With these tools at your disposal, may you be able to follow God more nearly this month!

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

What the World Needs to Hear


As a church, we have a radical message to proclaim to the world.  It may be easy, particularly for those of us who’ve been part of the church our entire lives, not to realize how shocking the gospel is, and to fail to grasp the enormity of the challenge that we proclaim it.  I’ve recently encountered two examples of how the gospel undercuts the messages in the world around us.

“God loves you.”  This simple statement can sound ridiculously simple, even trite, for those who have lived a long time with an awareness of God’s love for you.  But in my work as a pastor, I frequently encounter people who don’t believe it, or who can’t comprehend, as Ephesians 3:18 puts it, the width and the length and the height and the depth of the love of Christ.  Far too often, when I ask someone if they know that God loves them, they’ll respond with a comment such as “I hope so” or “I wish I could believe that.”  I recently spoke with someone who believed that God would reject her because of a deep-seated pain from her past.  And I recently spoke with another person who thought that God was angry with him for failing to meet a goal that was beyond his ability.  And these were both people who grew up going to church!  Never make the assumption that people can conceive of, let alone believe, the fullness of God’s love for us.  The burden of our own sense of guilt, or of criticism we have received from others, or of the need to “measure up,” hinders many of us from realizing the power of grace: God doesn’t need a reason to love us.  He just does.  Unfortunately, this good news is often undermined by well-intended church leaders who feel it necessary to emphasize our sinful condition apart from God’s love.  I don’t feel the need to point this out because in nearly 31 years of ministry, I have never met someone who was not already fully aware of their sinfulness.  But I’ve met plenty who doubt God’s love for them.

“God desires unity.”  If you’ve attended worship at Old Union Church even once during the past two months as we’ve been studying Ephesians (or if you’ve listened to my sermons on the website), you know that this is a pervasive theme throughout the letter.  But this concept is not limited to one book of the Bible.  For example, 2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us that God has given us the “message of reconciliation,” and Jesus’ final prayer with his disciples was that we may all be one (John 17:20).  We look forward to the day when all of creation will be united under Christ’s lordship.  No exceptions.  Someone who heard me preach this recently took great offense at this concept of unity for all people.  She proceeded to pepper me with outlandish claims about what “they” were doing, and that I am deceived if I don’t think we should do everything we can to oppose “them” with everything we’ve got.  But even if “they” are guilty of everything she claimed, Christ is nonetheless calling us to work for reconciliation toward the goal of unity.  I don’t think she’ll be listening to any more of my sermons, but unfortunately I suspect that she may find preachers who will support her divisive spirit.

God loves you.  God desires unity.  Such simple but profound truths.  The world needs to hear these words.  Our community needs to hear this message.  Some of your friends and family members may need you to help them wrestle with the reality of the gospel.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Radical Hospitality


Our church session is reading and discussing the book “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,” which our temporary pastor used during her time at Old Union earlier this year.  In November, we talked about the first of these practices: “radical hospitality.”  We commented on how important hospitality was in the culture that the Bible comes from, and as we prepare to celebrate Christmas we considered how scandalous it was that no one in Bethlehem shared hospitality with a woman about to give birth.
“Radical hospitality” means more than providing a warm welcome and helping someone feel at home, although it certainly includes that as well.  Hospitality becomes “radical,” or out of the ordinary, when we take the initiative to reach people, rather than waiting for them to come to our doorstep.  One example of such “radical” hospitality is the team of people from our church who go to a local foodbank each week to share conversation with the patrons as they wait for their food package.
Question: In what other ways can we initiate hospitality”?
Hospitality often includes an invitation; think of the invitations you are receiving for holiday gatherings.  Without the invitation, you wouldn’t know when to show up!  As the number of people who have never been inside a church continues to grow, our invitations can include a sense of what to expect, especially for those who don’t know a doxology from a benediction, or who may have had negative church experiences in the past.
Question: Imagine walking into our church for the first time.  Would you know where to go and what to do?
When an invitation is given with a sense of obligation (“you should, or you ought to”) it describes a duty to follow, rather than hospitality to receive.  A good basis for an invitation is a conversation about how the church has made a difference in your life.
Question: What excites you about our church?  What do you most appreciate about it?
Once someone responds to an invitation and comes to church, radical hospitality means taking the extra steps to let them know they are welcome and appreciated.  For example, someone recently moved from her regular seat to sit beside a guest during worship.
Question: How were you welcomed the first time you came to your church? What could have made the experience better for you?
          Hospitality continues once the guest becomes a part of the church family.  Some churches (and families!) send subtle messages to those who have recently joined, letting them know that they’re not part of the in-crowd yet, and that they must conform to our expectations, instead of being their true selves, before they are accepted.
Question: On a scale of 1 to 10, do you expect newcomers to conform to our ways of doing things, or do they change the character of our church with their unique contributions?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Taking Pictures of Squirrels


As part of my sabbatical earlier this year, I spent two weeks visiting national parks in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  I hiked for a week in the backcountry of Canyonlands, then spent a day each at Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Lake Powell, and Canyon de Chelly.  Although I am a Pennsylvania boy through and through, and I love the beauty of the Keystone state, I saw breathtaking scenery that filled me with awe.

Maybe too much awe.

Scenery that, at the beginning my trip, seemed majestic struck me as mundane and ordinary toward the end.  I found myself looking at majestic mountains and amazing rock formations and ancient petroglyphs, but my only reaction was “eh.”  I had already taken hundreds of photos of breathtaking scenery; why did I need to take one more?

I realized that I was experiencing what I dubbed “awe-fatigue.”  It’s similar to “compassion-fatigue,” which generous people feel after they have responded to one desperate need for help after another.  After a while you simply run out of the ability to respond with compassion to the victims of the latest disaster, because your tank of compassion has run dry.  In the same way, my ability to have my jaw drop in wonder and say “Wow, isn’t that amazing!” had reached its limit.

Then I saw it, as I was walking along the Virgin River in Zion National Park, swollen with flood waters from the melting snows in far-away mountains and surrounded
sheer cliffs towering 2000 feet over my head.  My fellow park visitors were captivated by the squirrels who scampered and begged for food along the footpath.  They oohed and ahhed, called their friends over to see, and stopped to take pictures.  Of squirrels.  Regular old gray squirrels, just like the ones you’ll find in any city park or backyard tree.  They were blind to the extraordinary because they were focused on the ordinary.

How often are we like tourists in Zion National Park, taking pictures of squirrels while ignoring the majesty around us?  God has placed us in an incredible world and has surrounded us with amazing people.  He constantly lavishes unbelievable love and blessing and grace upon us.  But we respond with “awe fatigue” of our own, noticing only the problems and difficulties, focusing upon the trivial when God thrusts the astounding right under our oblivious noses.

Today, take a moment.  Clear your mind of the clutter of everyday living.  Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and look at your life again.  Notice the astounding beauty.  Appreciate the blessings around you.  And most importantly, pay attention to the people in your life.  Notice how amazing and profound they are.

And give thanks.