The Faith to be All In

Pastoral Ponderings—The Faith to be All In—18 NOV 20

I was praying through the sanctuary the morning as I often do, this time in a more ponderous mood.  Thanksgiving is just a week away, and the theme this Sunday, surprisingly enough, is Thanks GIVING.  So you’d think seeing the Autumnal décor would seem just right.  But perhaps with the subdued lighting of only the morning sun shining through narrow windows, and with Advent and Christmas preparations crowding Thanksgiving out already– not to mention the rolling storms and thunder of COVID reshaping both the season and our outlooks– the festive fall colors seemed strangely out of place.  They seemed to speak more of transitions than a season to embrace.

We all find ourselves in a season of transition this year, from the comfort of what we have known, to no one knows what.  We’ve been hoping it’s a season of transition from our exhaustion of COVID, back toward some sense of a post-COVID new normal.  But we can only hold onto that hope if we ignore the mounting numbers, and more and more personal connections being struck by and stuck in COVID and its quarantines and isolation.

Many churches have traditionally come to this time of year with Thanksgiving and Autumn transitions, with a stewardship drive, a generosity campaign– some way of looking to a future where we continue to be a church blessing our community, or  where we commit together to new ways of blessing our community.  But this year when it’s hard to see into the future at all, it’s easier to feel stuck and paralyzed than to make renewed commitments.

“Unprecedented” is a word too often used to describe where we are, yet in many ways it is far from unprecedented. We come from a long line of generations who faced and overcame seemingly endless dark days.  Whether ourselves, our parents, grandparents or other forebears who overcame personal seasons of hopelessness and loss, or as a community or nation making it through years of war and depression, or, if we read our scriptures– slavery, exile, oppression and persecution—all seemingly endless and hopeless, all overcome.

In fact, one of our most memorable treasures of scripture is a whole chapter long litany of over-comers, starting with Hebrews 11: 1—“ Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…” building to the great conclusion at the beginning of chapter 12—“ Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also… run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross…”  And while nowhere in scripture do we ever even get a hint that this enduring, this perseverance, this overcoming is easy, comfortable, quick, or painless—our need for it, God’s grace which is sufficient for all our needs, and God’s provision for overcoming, are FAR from inaccessible or  “unprecedented.”

While our future is even more shrouded in mystery now than ever, of one thing we can be certain: GOD holds the future, and God is and will be there in the future to bring us through, as much as God has ever been in our past.  And as we commit in generosity to continue to be the church in this place with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness—we are both proclaiming God’s hope to our neighbors and community, and that we are “all in” on God’s winning team.

ALL IN together—Rev. Jim

Lines for Church?

Pastoral Ponderings—Lines for Church?  3 NOV 2020

There has been some concern expressed about people behaving themselves while voting this year, so some community leaders in Akron have been encouraging pastors and social workers to find way to be a calming presence as needed at voting locations.   That was pretty easy for me, as our church is a polling place again, as it has been for years.

I wasn’t originally planning to be here with the lines before polling started, but I couldn’t sleep with being concerned about it, so I got here by about 6:15, with polling starting at 6:30.  There was already a line by the time I arrived, and by the time the doors opened, the line stretched almost all the way back to the street.  I ended up being something of a traffic cop, directing people to park in the grass just like for Flea Market days, because every space in the lot was filled!

I was impressed, though, that everyone was behaving themselves, and as I was wandering along the line, I told some of them that if they don’t like lines, they could come back on Sunday, since we don’t have lines for getting into church!  Well, these days that wouldn’t be such a good idea anyway in our COVID environment to have so many in worship at once, but it was quite the preacher’s fantasy, to have the parking lot overflowing and people lined up to the street to come to hear the Good News of Jesus!

When we read in our history books about “The Great Awakening” events in the 1700s and 1800s, we hear of people by the thousands coming to hear many of those preachers, including John Wesley, the accidental father of our forbearers in the Methodist movement (and all without sound equipment!).  We only had a couple hundred waiting in line to vote, but it was still an impressive sight.  I’ve often wondered why God was moving in such powerful ways back then, but sure seems to be less so now.

This election is the first I’ve seen in a long time with lines like this, too.  So what’s the difference?  Maybe that word is the key—people are eager to “make a difference”– and with this election it seems that either way you vote, you could be making a real difference.  So would that make a difference for us as a church—if we could find a way to let people know that what we do in church can make a real difference too, but for people coming to church, and by helping our church folk make a real difference outside the walls?

Maybe it’s easier as we approach the holidays, when we can remind people that an attitude of gratitude—of “thanks-giving”—makes a big difference in all our interactions.  Or with Christmas—as one book I’ve seen put it “It’s not YOUR Birthday!”  How much of a difference would it make in our own families, as well as in the community around us, if we were to pivot just a little to ask “What do you want to GIVE for Christmas?” rather than the more common question, “What do you want to GET for Christmas?”

I’m sorry to say I’m not expecting our parking lot to be filled and people lining up to the street when we gather next this Sunday.  But maybe if we help people understand that church is all about making a difference, then more people just might find the time to check us out.  Make a difference—not just in your own life, but in your neighborhood, and in our community, so people can see the difference God in us can do!

Rev. Jim

For All the Saints

For All the Saints— 27 OCT

We will be using that great passage from Hebrews 11 this Sunday that reminds us that we are not alone in this journey of faith.  In addition to those we worship with today, we are surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses, both living and dead, who have paved the way in our faith, and who attest with us to God’s faithfulness, even in the face of trying, dry times in our spiritual journey.

“All the Saints” are not just those super-heroes of the faith as are those talked about in Hebrews 11, but ordinary people who have helped us grow in our faith, and helped us know the real presence of God along the way.  Often they are family—spouses, parents, children or others spiritual beacons in each of our clans.  Other times they are our “spiritual battle buddies” or mentors—those who have been there with us through the most trying of times.  Sometimes they are pastors or other church leaders who planted seeds, or nurtured them along the way.

One of my earliest church memories is of my Sunday School teacher when I was in third or fourth grade, Ms. Helen Redding.  She was a spiritual giant in a tiny, wounded body.  I never saw her without crutches, and don’t remember any of the lessons, but remember her as the angel of God’s grace, helping me fall in love with Jesus and the Bible.  I’ve mentioned before my fifth grade best friend, David, and the powerful role he had in my life through very difficult times.

Other powerful angels from years past in my life were Tom Farmer, Bob Bushong, Tom McClosky, Waite Willis, Scott Wojohn, Bill Barnes, Rob Achley,  Caryl and Bert Kelley, Len Sweet, Jim Nelson, Brent Grafton, Janet Neighbors and others.  Some of those I have had long deeper relationships with, others may not even know how much they have shaped me, some I’ve even been able to tell in more recent years what they’ve meant to me.

What saints have helped shape your life, and helped deepen your relationship with God?  And for whom have you been such an angel, building them up in the faith along your journey?  We’ll never know how we’ve touched many in our lives, but when we’re intentional about building others up, at least we can know when we’ve had some impact.

I think of one of the guys who has impacted me without even realizing it.  I called this gas station attendant “Mr. Smiley” for a long time before I came to know his name, because he always greeted me and many others with a big smile, just when getting gas.  I don’t know of his faith journey, but I know how much his smiles have meant to me along the way even from “JUST a gas station attendant.”

Take this time to thank God for those Saints who have helped shape your soul, and pray for God’s guidance and discernment for how you can be that kind of angel for others, as that’s a big part of why God put us on this world to begin with!

Keep being a blessing-

Rev. Jim

BOO!

BOO!– 14 OCT

You see, even though I try to scare you with my “BOO!” that I’m sure caught you off guard, it doesn’t work!  Might that lack of fear in you come from your being a follower of Jesus, where “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear” (I John 4: 18)?

Halloween can be a confusing time for church folk. Used to be, it was just a secular holiday for fun and costumes.  I remember a lot of church sponsored Halloween parties when I was a kid, with both fun and spooky costumes.  Then came some controversy when some church groups started seeing Halloween as “Satan’s holiday,” while others used it as a tool for evangelism, reaching thousands each year.  So what do we as a church do with Halloween these days?

For as long as there has been a Church, and since St. Paul proclaimed the Gospel at Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:22-24), Christians have been using tools from the surrounding culture to reach beyond the walls to share God’s grace.  Halloween is one such opportunity, where we get kids from all over coming and knocking on our doors, eager for a blessing from us.  Now how often does THAT happen?  The article in the link below talks a bit about the convoluted history of the Church and Halloween that might be helpful to get a sense of perspective.

So how can you, how can our church be a blessing to those around us in this tricky time of year, and be sweet enough in how we treat others to help open them to the blessings Jesus has to offer?  Twin Falls Church will be doing “Trunk or Treat” again this year starting at 4 on Sunday, Oct. 25.  Check out “Trunk or Treat” on line for more images and thoughts on what it can be.

If you would like to help reach beyond the church walls by bringing and decorating your car or trunk, please let us know!  If you’d like to support the event by providing some “store-bought” goodies, please bring those too, and ideally, package up a few of the smaller treats in a small baggie that would simplify a COVID “safe” delivery of the goodies to our guests.  Or you can certainly support our efforts with prayer for the event and our guest, praying that it opens more hearts in the community to be receptive to God’s transforming grace through the church.

Maybe I should dress as St. Paul this Halloween, so with him, “I have become all things to all people so that by any means, some might be saved” (I Cor. 9:22), but what would that costume look like?

Keep being a blessing in all kinds of ways—

Rev. Jim

Halloween history article link-

https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/did-christians-historically-hijack-halloween.html

Messy

Pastoral Ponderings—Messy 6 OCT

I love that paper towel commercial that proclaims as its tag line “Life’s messy—clean it up!”  It’s a good reminder of the messy character of the life of any church or group of people—at least for groups composed of more than zero people!  Things regularly happen wherever I am to remind me how messy and broken life is, and that no group or church is immune.

Just a few months in at the very first church I served as pastor years ago while I was still in seminary, I welcomed both a new District Superintendent and Bishop on their very first day on the job with a call: (NOT here at Twin Falls, mind you!)  “Our church custodian was just arrested for showing pornographic videos to neighborhood kids in the church…”  I’ve known pastors imprisoned for various forms of abuse, one of my old youth choir directors, while still a pillar of the church, raped his own daughter, who was a good friend of mine.  I’ve had neighborhood kids crying in the parsonage living room, asking for help from an abusing grandmother, or piling into the church following a shooting down the street.  I’ve had a jail visit one Sunday morning that made me late for a worship service I was leading that morning.  They say about 10% of any group if people are likely alcoholics, and porn addiction is even worse.  According to a 2019 report, “64 percent of Christian men and 15 percent of Christian women report watching porn at least once a month.”

Life is indeed messy.  Our lives are messy inside the church, where we’ve found hope and help in Jesus, and in helping each other out of our messes.  Our neighbors’ lives are messy too, but many of them are really struggling to find hope and help in time of need.  I once wrote to a judge on behalf of a parishioner, “Ours is a church of ‘wounded healers,’ where broken and hurting people find hope and healing for themselves, in order to be better able to be blessings for others.”  I hope that’s true here.  How do we let those around us know that this church is more of a combat hospital or a self-help group- just starting to patch people up, or pulling each other out of our own swamps- rather than a club of holy people beyond life’s struggles?

Perhaps that’s part of why I like the concept of “Messy Church” so much, as it’s at least a step in the right direction.  I’m excited that our next Messy Church on Oct. 25, is coinciding with Trunk or Treat, because even though many people might be scared of church, few people are scared off from Halloween (ironic, isn’t it?)! So, I invite you to be thinking of how you might be able to help with or contribute to this coming opportunity to help our neighbors know that we’re messy too—and we welcome others in the midst of their messes.

Life’s messy—clean it up!  Rev. Jim

Don’t Like Soap

Family Matters— Don’t Like Soap—30 SEP

I grew up back in the day when moms used soap not only for washing hands, but for washing out mouths too, when words came out that shouldn’t be there.  And that was when it ‘t just a little squirt of the softer soap, but a big ol’ bar of soap to make sure some got caught in the teeth for long-lasting flavor.  It only took me once to find out both that the mama wasn’t kidding, and that I did NOT like the taste of soap!

I was in about the second grade, and heard what I thought were pretty cool and useful words at school that I never heard at home, and the mama always talked about how important it is to learn new things and grow my vocabulary, so I figured I might as well give them a try.  We had a small aluminum fishing boat at the time that miraculously held our family of six without capsizing back “when we were little,” thought I.  At the time, it was one of my favorite play caves, resting upside down on blocks behind the house.  Nobody could SEE me in my little cave, so I thought it a good place to practice my new vocabulary with my GI Joes

I found though, that the more practiced I was with my new vocabulary in my cave, the more likely it was to come out with my sibling where the mama might hear.  You just might be able to guess what happened soon thereafter, and why I can say with a certainty that I do NOT like the taste of soap…

The memory verse for October makes me wonder if whomever wrote the Proverbs had a mama like mine, and also found out the taste of soap was not to his liking: “People with integrity walk safely, but those who follow crooked paths will be found out.” (Prov. 10: 9)  Interesting to note, too, that the original Old Testament Hebrew words here translated as “crooked paths” and “found out” sound very similar to “bad words” and “soap” (not that I ever got good grades in Hebrew class).

It’s always a good idea to remember that “Santa Claus is watching you,” that teachers have eyes in the back of their heads, that moms see even more than teachers, and that all of them are secret agents of God who sees all, even in our own private little caves.  Our “crooked paths” may not get us caught right away, but integrity always wins the day.  And integrity is obviously a really cool thing, because “integrity” is one of the Army’s foundational, core values, one of the most important of things for all Soldiers.

The official Army definition of integrity is so simple, too, that even a second grader (or a Soldier) can understand:  integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.  And it might be important to know that sometimes what happens when “getting caught” doing the wrong thing, is a whole lot worse than finding out how much you don’t like the taste of soap.

Do right. Do good. That’s the Jesus way.  And integrity tastes much better than soap.

Rev. Jim

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