World Communion and More

World Communion and More—30 SEP

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday despite the continuing COVID mess.  We’ll be sharing in our building in safe ways, and streaming the service for those who would join World Communion at home (so be prepared), but it makes me wonder even more how to be the church with COVID still making things difficult?

Autumn has definitely fallen with cooler weather, changing leaves, and I’ve even seen frost of the roofs across the street a couple mornings already.  Was it just yesterday, a few months, or a few years ago when we were sure COVID would be long gone, and everything “back to normal” by now?  But it’s not gone, and we’re seeing signs for standard flu shots all over the place now to help prevent ordinary flu bugs (got my shot last week), and isn’t COVID a kind of flu too, that we can expect to see more of with the coming flu season?

Whether the pandemic is as bad as the Powers That Be describe it, or something less as some prefer to think, it’s undeniable the impact COVID continues to have on how we gather and live, more isolated than we would ever have imagined.  We’re still wondering how to do church, how to do anything normal these days.  It’s times like this when I find my love of history to be strangely encouraging.

While our human propensity to love big gatherings has probably been around forever, for most of human history, including every time the Church has seen periods of strong growth, large gatherings were a rarity.  Sure, big sports events go all the way back to the stadiums and coliseum of Roman times, but even then, it was a rare treat to attend such event for most people (“season tickets” hadn’t been invented yet).  Despite those limitations, communities thrived, people found ways to love God and love neighbor in such powerful ways that some communities criticized Jesus people for turning their world upside down (Acts 17: 1-9).

How did those early followers of Jesus manage to “cause trouble all over the world” as another version translated that text, when they either just met in peoples’ houses, or talked on the streets?  No live streaming at the time, no big church gatherings or Christmas cantatas, just small groups building one another up in Christian love, with that love overflowing into communities dying for help and hope in their time of need.  And isn’t that a lot like where we are now?

The church has ever been, and remains even in our COVID world, a beacon of hope.  But the Church is not a big group meeting in special buildings on Sundays.  The classic children’s song many of you likely learned reminds us “The Church is not a building, the Church is not a steeple, the Church is not a resting place, the Church is the people.  I am the Church. You are the Church.  We are the Church together…”

Which means we are the church in our neighborhoods, when walking our dogs, when going to the park, when eating on the restaurant patio (many of which are setting up outdoor heaters to stay open in our colder months…), when in our yards and homes.  We’ve neighbors down the block who regularly have people over in their garage and yard, I’m often hearing cheers or groans from sports fans gathered around a fire pit, and I doubt people will give up walking the dog when it gets cold. So the question might be, how can each of us find ways to “do church” not just in a building, but outside the walls?

Keep being a blessing—Pastor Jim

Running into Friendship

Family Matters— Running into Friendship

Across my last deployment several years ago, I had learned WAY more than I wanted to about running.  My assistant and office partner was a cross-country and track coach at the school where he taught back home.  Knowing how important running and fitness are to we Soldiers, he would press me every day about what running I had done, what was coming next, and along the way would share all kinds of pointers about how to do better on running times and such.

With his pushing me, I did 5k runs probably every other weekend, at least when I wasn’t doing the Army 10 Miler, the Akron Marathon shadow run on a relay team, and two half marathons, which would have included a third as well, but for my emergency return home for my dad.  It was encouraging, sometimes quite the pain (LITERALLY), but pushed me to more than I ever thought possible for myself.  Quite the parable for what a friend can do.  I realized there, though, that the myth of the “runner’s high” is a great big lie, because I certainly never found it!

So now, though running is still far from my favorite activity (but I’m still a Soldier, so I’ve got to keep going…), I’m working on my third running coach/partner role, helping to bring out the best in others, even though it can be a painful process!  That role of running coach that my SGT did for me, and that I’ve been called in to do for others, reflects in a lot of ways this month’s memory verse about friendship: “A friend loves at all times.  They are there to help when trouble comes.” (Prov. 17:17).

From a biblical perspective, a friend is not just a companion or someone who makes you feel good about yourself, but one who pushes you too, like our old Army slogan used to say, to “be all that you can be,” even when it can be painful to do so.  I’ve never seen so much encouragement and support as I had across those many 5k runs in Kuwait, with literally hundreds of encouragers, pushing each other to go a little farther, a little faster, to keep pushing even when it would be easier and feel better to stop.

Not only is this kind of friendship a wonderful gift from God, but in God’s great wisdom, God made this kind of friendship a thing that ANYONE can do, do matter what age, what talents or strengths one might have.  I love seeing even our preschoolers learning to show this kind of friendship, and am wonderfully blessed when I see it or experience it in or from our elder saints as well.

So who are you friending and encouraging in these difficult times?  And I don’t mean “friending” is the social media sense, but in the real, flesh and blood sense (respecting social distance, of course!)?  Perhaps the best thing social media has done for us, is to help us realize that “friending” is a verb, not just a noun—it doesn’t just passively, accidentally “happen” where we find ourselves in the same space with others, but a thing we can CHOOSE to do, a way that we can bless whomever we choose to bless!

And remember that the best way our Little Ones can learn about this REAL kind of friending, is to experience it and to see it in their adults and mentors.  So I guess the question is not just who are you friending and encouraging, but who are the Little Ones around you seeing you friend and encourage, so they can learn to truly friend others as well?

Keep on friending—Rev. Jim

Solitude or loneliness?

Pastoral Ponderings—Solitude or loneliness?  SEP 21

I don’t do a lot of social media—too much negativity in the virtual realm.  It’s one of many intentional choices I make to focus on thriving rather than just passing through (and it makes it easier to live Philippians 4:8, encouraging us to focus on the Good Stuff!).  But one of the few blogish things I regularly follow is on church leadership from Carey Nieuwhof.  In today’s post, he pointed out “Solitude is a gift from God.  Loneliness is a tool of the enemy.  Leaders, you’re only as lonely as you choose to be.”

He also talks in today’s post that though it’s never been harder to lead churches, that with all the loneliness, divisiveness and broken community in these days of the COVID crisis, “the church has never been more important.”  Combine those observations with a bit of Army wisdom that Soldiers live by, that EVERY Soldier is a leader, perhaps we have a growing thought to share here.

A lot of times people look to the pastor and a few others to be “church leaders,” which is certainly true in a sense.  But we are also children of The Reformation which began more than 500 years ago, based largely on “the priesthood of all believers,” the assertion that every follower of Jesus is also a leader for Jesus.  So when Nieuwhof points out to leaders that “you’re only as lonely as you choose to be,” he’s talking to all of us.

When a lot of the fallout from the COVID crisis is how it has been eroding relationships and community, falling into a sense of loneliness is too easy, almost as if it is a natural, unavoidable thing when our human contact is limited.  But it’s also a choice because of how we choose to respond.  Karol and I were making deliveries for her church last week, and at one stop where the family was outside, Karol had a long conversation with Nicole (outside with proper social distance!) while I reconnected and had a long conversation with Travis.  This morning I had a face-to-face (without getting too close) with my neighbor across the street when we were both heading out to work (marveling that we’re already getting FROST!).  I sometimes have a visit with folks out on the street walking their dogs, and when we go to a restaurant (ONLY with patios!), we often connect with the servers and ask how we can pray for them.

Now of course we all have our comfort levels, but even praying for someone and sending them a personal card or note in the mail is a way to connect and build relationships and community.  After all, while God created snails, earthworms, bears, gophers, spiders, and so many other critters to function well on their own, that’s not how God created the human animal.  The yearning for connection and relationship God instilled into the human heart, is God’s sneaky strategy to keep us seeking Him.  St. Augustine described this reality so well centuries ago: “Lord, You have made us for yourself, so that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Sure, it’s harder to build relationships and community now than before COVID.  But Jesus never said anything about making our lives EASIER—more like “take up your cross and follow…” But as with Esther in the OT book that bears her name, “perhaps you were made… for just such a time as this” (Esther 4: 14)

Keep getting creative in being a blessing!

Rev. Jim

Link to the whole post if you’re interested:

Why You Shouldn’t Quit Ministry Right Now, Even Though You Feel Like It

Living Water

14 AUG— Living Water

My garden has been needing extra watering lately with our dryer weather.   That’s one of the things we probably don’t think about so much, is the power of water to bring and sustain life, and without a regular supply, things just die.  You might even think of water along these lines as “living water.”

I didn’t realize until our trip to Israel another way the term “living water” is used.  Among other things, the guide was telling us the difference between wells and other sources of “living water” as opposed to what can often be dangerous, still or stagnant water.  In that sense, “living water” is flowing water that is continually bringing in fresh water, as opposed to water that just sits in a pond or something, where dangerous things can grow in it.

Our next Messy Church is coming up soon, Sunday afternoon, Aug. 30, with the theme of “Living Water.”  With my garden reminding me of the importance of regular watering, and with this theme bouncing around in my head, I’m also reminded how important it is for us to regularly encounter and draw from Jesus’ Living Water.  A good rule of thumb for our physical survival is the rule of 3— we can only survive 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food—and that’s merely survival.  But for thriving, we of course need much more!

The Greek word for Holy Spirit is the same as for wind or air, and if Jesus is the “Living Water”—both remind us of how essential REGULARLY, on a daily basis, living in the Spirit, and drawing from Jesus’ Living Water is, not only for our mere survival, but for thriving as God created us for.  Every time we take a breath, every time we take a sip of refreshing water, can be a living parable of how much we need of the life God gives, not only on Sundays, but every day, every moment.

Keep that daily spiritual focus—and keep blessing others daily with Jesus’ Living Water too!

Pastor Jim

Why the Weeds?

14 JUL—Why the Weeds?

So now they’re truly launched into the real world—our youngest not only graduated from college, now a real “adulty adult” as she used to say of those grown-ups in the real world (as opposed to young adults still in college).  Kristopher moved out again, but I think for real this time, rooming with some guys who are not only good friends, but prayer and accountability partners.  I’m not sure how well we’re doing with the “letting go” part, but we’re getting there.  Quite the eventful summer—not to mention coping with COVID and emerging new civil rights movement—and its barely the middle of July!  No wonder I’m a little tired!

I was just on an interview team for a young Army Chaplain Wannabe, who has already spent years in his still young life, struggling with the big questions of “Why?”  Why the awful weeds growing alongside the fruitful grain? (kind of a foreshadowing of what we’ll be talking about Sunday morning—check out Matthew 13 for more).  We celebrate kids growing up, but cry when they’re gone.  We celebrate God’s mighty miracles in our lives, alongside personal struggles of praying for dying loved ones, as well as our social struggles of the dual pandemics of COVID and enduring racism.

Are we too Calvinist for our own good?  I’ve heard it said that faith in America is deeply rooted in Calvinist/Presbyterian ideas about ALL that is, being intentionally fore-ordained by God.  In which case the question necessarily comes up when bad things happen, how can a loving God “cause” that?

We Methodists, though, really carry a different theological DNA.  In our understanding, God is certainly the all-powerful creator of the cosmos, yet we have been heirs for millennia to a fallen, broken, sinful creation.  We don’t claim to understand why, only THAT, as one of our summer favorite hymns says, “through it all, through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust in God…I’ve learned to depend upon His word.”

So for us the question becomes not “Why the weeds?” but “How, in the midst of the weeds, can we keep growing in the fruitfulness of God’s blessings and grace?”  No so much “Why did my loved one die?” as “How, in the midst of devastating loss, can I know God’s grace through it all?”  Not so much “Why would God allow COVID?” as “How can we be signs and agents of God’s grace through it all, even in the midst of the pandemic?”  Not so much “Why would God allow the evils of racism?” as “In the scars of racism, how can followers of Jesus be agents of God’s redemption through it all– both for persons suffering, and for a broken society?

Note an important difference: the Calvinist perspective leaves even Jesus people merely passive receivers or victims of what happens, while the Wesleyan DNA (rooted in Arminianism, if you’d like to look further), recognizes the power of grace, the reality of human choice for good and evil, and the call on all followers of Jesus to be ACTIVE agents of God’s grace in the world.

So even today—how will each of us be praying for God to open our eyes and open our hands to be agents of God’s grace, through it all?  In your interactions with your mail carrier, in how you drive and navigate through angry drivers, in how you interact with your loved ones near and far, in how you interact with the waiter, the cashier, the delivery driver, the lawn guy, how can each of us in our choices large and small, be real agents of God’s grace?

Weeding with Jesus—Rev. Jim

Obstacles

16 JUN 20—Obstacles

I’m sure their intent is good, but it still puts obstacles in the way of our connecting.  I don’t know if it’s a recent change in how gmail works, or what, but the Google system has started blocking my group emails, and saying I need to use Google Groups, so if you haven’t registered for the group mail I sent out last week, please do.

Essential to our faith and discipleship is regularly connecting to keep in touch— regularly connecting with God, with our “spiritual battle buddies” who help us in our discipleship, and with all the neighbors God calls us to love.  There are certainly enough obstacles to that kind of connecting normally, but this COVID mess, now this gmail change, and oh, by the way, did you notice the big cell phone fiasco yesterday cutting service off for hundreds of thousands of people across the country?  At least that one didn’t last too long!

I imagine it wouldn’t take much to convince some people it looks like a giant conspiracy to put even more obstacles than usual in both our personal and spiritual connections these days.  But there are countless mysteries across the scriptures that seem to present obstacle to faith. Some of the readings in Genesis for our hero Abraham’s journey seem to be real obstacles to faith, to include what has come to us as God calling Abram to sacrifice his son, the hero bowing to Sarai’s jealousy and spite, sending Hagar and his other son, Ishmael into the desert with only one skin of water and a little bread, which not only looks cruel, but can be thought of as setting the stage for (even embracing?) racial hatred (Ishmael is the father of the people whom we now know as Arabs).

Yet somehow, Abram is reckoned such a model of faith that his life is so changed he becomes Abraham, and the father of the people of Israel who become our spiritual fathers and mothers as well.  Yet seeing the full scope of God’s “HIS-story” of grace and redemption, especially in Jesus, and seeing how God has worked in my own life over the years, I take it on faith.  Not a blind, silent faith to accept just anything, but a faith that includes wrestling and woundings with God, as was the case with Abraham’s grandson, Jacob in his wrestling with God’s angel.

Knowing what we do of Abram’s life, it looks like faith is more a gift from God than how he reacts to God.  But this shows that faith is both a noun—a thing which we can be give, or somehow have—and a verb—how we react, or what we do.  The book of Hebrews (11:1) tells us “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” “Assurance,” too, is both a noun and a verb—also a gift, and something that we can do and give.

So do you think Abram/Abraham through all his challenges, always felt strong in his faith?  I’m guessing not.  Yet he is still a great hero of the faith.  Some of his faith is what he did—which may or may not have had anything to do with if he felt very spiritual.  But he also received that gift of faith from God.

If it works with Abram to receive the give of faith, to act in faithful ways even when he was far from perfect, and likely not always feeling faithful—maybe it can work with us, too.  We may not be able to flip a switch to feel more faithful.  But we can act in faithful ways, and pray for the gift of faith along the way.

Ever faithful- whether it feels like it or not—Rev. Jim

Living Water

My garden has been needing extra watering lately with our dryer weather.   That’s one of the things we probably don’t think about so much, is the power of water to bring and sustain life, and without a regular supply, things just die.  You might even think of water along these lines as “living water.” 

I didn’t realize until our trip to Israel another way the term “living water” is used.  Among other things, the guide was telling us the difference between wells and other sources of “living water” as opposed to what can often be dangerous, still or stagnant water.  In that sense, “living water” is flowing water that is continually bringing in fresh water, as opposed to water that just sits in a pond or something, where dangerous things can grow in it.

Our next Messy Church is coming up soon, Sunday afternoon, Aug. 30, with the theme of “Living Water.”  With my garden reminding me of the importance of regular watering, and with this theme bouncing around in my head, I’m also reminded how important it is for us to regularly encounter and draw from Jesus’ Living Water.  A good rule of thumb for our physical survival is the rule of 3— we can only survive 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food—and that’s merely survival.  But for thriving, we of course need much more!

The Greek word for Holy Spirit is the same as for wind or air, and if Jesus is the “Living Water”—both remind us of how essential REGULARLY, on a daily basis, living in the Spirit, and drawing from Jesus’ Living Water is, not only for our mere survival, but for thriving as God created us for.  Every time we take a breath, every time we take a sip of refreshing water, can be a living parable of how much we need of the life God gives, not only on Sundays, but every day, every moment.

Keep that daily spiritual focus—and keep blessing others daily with Jesus’ Living Water too!

Pastor Jim

FOCUS!

Dear Lord,
So far I’ve done all right.  I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.  I’m really glad about that.
But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed.  And from then on, I’m going to need a lot more help…

I’d like to give appropriate attribution for this prayer to its original source, but couldn’t find it.  Perhaps because it’s not any ONE person’s prayer, but a prayer for all of us!  How often does our day seem to start going down hill as soon as we think about putting our feet on the floor in the morning?  Why is it so hard to remember that “This is the day the LORD has made!”—even if we’re stuck at home with COVID quarantines, and all we see in the morning news is bad and worse?

I love being around the kind of positive people who, when you do the perfunctory “Hi, how are you?” (not that you’re really interested, being concerned with more important things like the latest crisis, your cold coffee, and the guy who cut you off at the stop sign just a bit ago…) and their response is something like “Living the dream!” (without sarcasm), or in my Army circles at least, responding “It’s another great Army day!”  It’s almost as if people like that have actually read, believe and live the words of Philippians 4: 8—“ whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Not that we don’t have bad things to deal with every day—crises still happen, people still get sick and die, people still get nasty at you when you’re trying to be helpful, cars still break down at the most inconvenient of times, coffee even still gets cold—but we don’t have to let any of these externals warp our attitude.  This is STILL the day the LORD has made—we can STILL rejoice and be glad in it, despite what’s going on around us.

God tries to remind us each day, whether with bright sunshine, a breeze in the trees, the beautiful colors of spring flowers, the kindness of a neighbor’s morning wave, the smell of fresh coffee brewing (God is the one who invented coffee beans too!).  Yet we too often keep letting our eyes and hearts lose their focus on the blessings of God, and shift to the more disappointing perspective instead.

But in the same way that no one makes us call a glass half empty, when it’s actually half full, each moment of every day, each of us gets to decide whether to listen to the voice of God and “count your blessings, name them one by one,” or choose to listen to other voices that would have us focus on the thorns in our flesh instead.

Some of you may have seen me writing on this theme before.  Maybe I need to be reminded, too, that this is, indeed, the day the Lord has made, and regardless of what challenges come our way, God is still with us, equipping us to be overcomers, because we are still “living the dream!”

Keep being a blessing—Rev. Jim

Just a LITTLE leak…

I MAY be finished with the plumbing problem that raised its ugly head last week.  It was just a LITTLE leak, and several times I got it MOSTLY fixed, leaving again, just a LITTLE leak.  It’s amazing how much damage just a little leak can cause, though, if left to keep dripping away.

I ran across a wonderful ministry years ago called “Mercy Ships.” A travelling ministry of hospital ships staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses, dentists and more providing free medical services.  One of the dentists, when working on patients’ teeth (talk about a captive audience!) would talk about tooth infections, saying “just a little infection, if you don’t take care of it, can grow to rot out your whole tooth or the infection can spread into the jaw, and can even kill you—much like my LITTLE leak ~~just like a LITTLE bit of sin, if left untended, will just keep growing…”

Though I had thought I was done several times with my leak repair, sure enough, I check and still leaking.  How often does just a LITTLE anger, bitterness, or resentment, when left untended, continue to fester and grow?  It can be a real pain to keep on working on the same problem over and over again—whether spiritual or plumbing–I may be TIRED of working on my plumbing, but I won’t give up!

This month’s memory verse seems so applicable, even to my little plumbing leak: “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up”(Gal. 6:9). 

Take care of those little SPIRITUAL leaks too!  Rev. Jim

Better than Easter Candy

I am SO glad that there’s more to Easter than a bunny, eggs, lots of candy, and pretty flowers!  While I love decorating Easter Eggs (and HIDING them!), I’m not that fond of eating countless eggs after Easter, and I’m OVERLY fond of candy, which can bring its own problems!  There’s not only the challenge of the sugar crash after eating too much candy, but the post-holiday let down, if that’s all it was about.  But though Jesus’ resurrection is at the end of all the Gospels, it is the BEGINNING of the rest of the New Testament, and the beginning of this movement we now call the Church, still going after 2000 years!

We commonly call the first book of the New Testament after the Gospels simply “Acts.”  But such a shortened name dilutes what it is about.  The book is properly called “The Acts of the Apostles,” and traces the beginnings of the Church of which we are now still a part millennia later.  This Sunday we will be looking at the beginnings of this Church movement, which starts with Peter proclaiming the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, with a brief summary at Acts 2: 24—“But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” 

Easter is not just an annual landmark for the beginning of Spring (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), but marks and celebrates our beginnings of being incorporated into the living Body of Christ IN the world!  As we go through the beginnings of the Church in the coming weeks, we’ll see that the Early Church dealt with an even more extended and deadly “quarantine” at the hands of those who persecuted followers of Jesus, putting many to death, torture and imprisonment. 

Yet that time of “quarantine” did not weaken, but STRENGTHENED the budding new movement of the Church, demonstrating that it was not only impossible for death to hold Jesus in its power, but impossible for even death to hold the people of God in its power either!

Jesus and countless Church leaders over the centuries often emphasize the essential importance of prayer both in personal spiritual growth, and in the life of the Church.  Whether by more time or desperation, people are often driven to a stronger reliance on prayer in times of quarantine and difficulty.  While our current limitations get in the way of many ordinary facets of life, they certainly don’t get in the way of prayer, and in some ways, makes more of a focus on prayer even easier!  Perhaps that is a hidden blessing God is working to coax out of this time of difficulty.

So while it is easy to get too much of a good thing with our Easter candy, prayer is so much better, because we can never get too much of the good thing of prayer!  Keep on praying!

Pastor Jim