On June 17th, 2020, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America remembers the Emanuel 9 -- 9 members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, who were gunned down during an evening Bible study five years ago. I will admit not knowing any of the victims, yet news of this one hits hard for several reasons. It hits hard because Dylan Roof, the convicted killer went through confirmation at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation. It hits hard too, because of the longstanding relationship the ELCA has with the African Methodist Episcopal Denomination. It hits hard, too, because at least one person killed had been taking classes at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. And, it hits hard because the lives of these faithful nine were prevented from sharing their God given gifts and abilities with the rest of the world.
Five years ago, I don't think I had words to express what I was feeling. I'm still not sure I have the words to express the emotions feeling this day. What I do know, and maybe you have experienced it too, is a weariness. A weariness that wonders why we STILL haven't learned the simplest, yet hardest lesson in Sunday School; a weariness that wonders why we as humans have to be so dense and stubborn learning this lesson; a weariness that wonders when God is going to get tired of our behavior.
Sadly, I don't have any answers to why we can't accept the reality Jesus loves everybody, or why people would rather hate than love, or when God will call "Time Out!" on us. What I do know is too many people are weary, tired, and hurting.
I know too, we can do better than this. We have to do better than this. We don't have to save the world -- that's already been done for us through Christ. One small step, one small thought or attitude adjustment can and will make a difference.
Feeling a need to do something, I've started an online book discussion on the book "Be The Bridge: Having God's Heart for Racial Reconciliation." We will meet on Thursday evenings at 8:30 p.m. online. If you would like to be part of the discussion, please let us know through the contact form on this website so we can share details and information with you on ways to participate in the discussion.
It's a start, and we have to start somewhere on a path towards repentance, reconciliation, and loving our neighbor. Taking the first step on anything is a challenge, but not impossible with God. Every trip has to have a beginning. It doesn't matter the path we take as long as we get there.
I hope you will join me in this beginning!
"I can't wait for things to return to normal" a church member shared. "It will be great to be together and see everyone again!"
While I share the hope of seeing everyone again, my mind wrestles with the understanding of this new normal. Yes, I have missed people and things during this time. I miss physically seeing members on Sunday mornings or during the week for meetings. I miss running down to Sheetz for a cup of hot chocolate in the middle of the afternoon, or my favorite lunch. I miss being involved within the community.
But, there are also somethings I don't want to see return in my life in this new normal. I don't want to return to being so busy I don't have time to talk with a church or family member. I don't want to return to ignoring the subtle (or not) cues and changes in nature. Nor do I want to return to ignoring a daily routine that has become so important in keeping track of days and time during this global pandemic.
Perhaps one of the things challenging for so many is trying to establish solid footing on the reality of what our new normal (collectively and individually) will look like. At this point, no one knows, because, we simply don't. None of us here have any idea because none of us have ever experienced something like this before.
As I write this, I am reminded of Paul's words in 2 Corinthians: "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)
We don't know what this new normal will look like. It might be fluid as it continues to take shape. It might mean making changes, daily, perhaps hourly.
What it does mean, is that God is still working in and with our lives. God has something planned far better than we can ever imagine or thought possible. It means God isn't done with us, and hasn't been done with us. Knowing God is working and continues to work is exciting! Whatever is ahead of us, God has us, and isn't going to let us go. God is going to be with us every step of the way, no matter what. I can't wait to see what this new normal will look like with God part of it!
Over the past few weeks while working from home, I have heard Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine address Pennsylvanian's concerns about Covid-19, and the global pandemic. I have been impressed with the clarity and direction each has provided. I have been impressed with their delivery of difficult and heavy information. Each time Dr. Levine finishes her presentation, she ends with the phrase, "Stay calm. Stay safe. Stay home."
There's something reassuring in hers and Governor Wolf's demeanor and presentations. There's something about the phrase "stay calm" that is reassuring as well.
Before life began to completely unravel, we learned in church a new way of sharing the peace with one another. This new way came to us by using American Sign Language and the words for peace and be calm. This word began with putting our hands together, palms touching, as though we were praying, turning both a quarter turn in opposite directions (as though you're getting ready to clasp your hands), and then push away. This sign literally means "peace be calm."
After the resurrection, Jesus appeared numerous times to the disciples: at the tomb, behind locked and closed doors, while they were out fishing. Each time Jesus appeared, the disciples responded in fear. Each time the disciples responded in fear, Jesus replied, "Peace be with you." Or, be calm.
There is much in today's world that leaves us anxious, angry, scared, confused, frightened, worried. We are concerned for the health and safety of those we love and care for. We wonder when life will return to normal, and what it will look like.
In our anxiety, anger, confusion, fear, and worry, Jesus meets us. Jesus comes to us, and says, "Peace be with you."
Be calm. Be safe. Be at peace. Christ is with you.
I feel it -- in my neck whenever I've been carrying my backpack around too much or sitting too long looking at the computer. It's more than a crick in the neck, but a minor irritation.
I feel it whenever there is a lot of stress and tension. It goes straight to my shoulders and neck. The relief? Ice packs, heating pads, even working out helps ease the irritation.
Our Advent theme this year is 'Lift Up Your Heads'. It comes from Psalm 24 (v. 7) which references lifting our heads up to see the coming of the King of Glory. In church, Lifting Up Our Heads reminds us to look up -- to pay attention to the decorations that are gradually being put up in the church. Each week also shares meaning behind various decorations used in the church to get ready for Christmas.
The first week of Advent focused on the decorations of the Christmas tree, and evergreens. The evergreen trees point to heaven, reminding us of eternal life we will one day receive.
The second week of Advent focused on light. Before the invention of electricity, many would add extra candles to their homes to help chase the darkness away. Christmas lights and candles remind us of Jesus as the Light that comes into the world.
The third week of Advent will focus on Chrismons made by members of Zion. Chrismons are initials, if you will, of Jesus and the work Jesus does and continues to do. Chrismons will be hung on the trees during the children's sermon and after church on Dec. 15th. The Chrismons also remind us of God's love for us.
Poinsettias will be in the sanctuary on December 22nd. These red and green flowers serve to remind us of the redemption we receive through Jesus Christ. The Bible reminds us we were bought with a price -- the blood of Christ, shed for us.
With the arthritis in the neck, it is too easy to slouch a bit while sitting, to walk with my head down. Walking with my head up, though, is easier on the body. And, it helps me to also see what is going on in the world around me.
As we continue in this Advent season, take a moment to lift up your head, to look up and to see the world around you. More importantly, take a moment to lift up your head and see Jesus coming!
This 'blog' was preached on Sunday, August 18th, 2019. It is shared online as members thought it needed to be shared.
During the first business session of the Lower Susquehanna Synod Assembly, agenda items were moved quickly. With no questions, no discussion, no debate from the floor, even Bishop Dunlop was surprised at how quickly agenda items were being addressed.
Until a verbal vote took place where those in favor and those opposed were too close to tell apart. There it was, the call that changed the direction of business: "Division in the house!"
Under Robert's Rules of Order, when this call is made, it means that another vote in another format needs to be taken. No other business can be conducted until this vote is addressed. While it may delay remaining business until resolved, it allows for everyone's voice to be considered, and for all voting members to have a voice and say on the matter needing a vote.
To have division in the house can be a way of cleaning house.
In his book "Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counseling", Howard Clinebell references a parable first written in 1953 by Theodore O. Wedel. The parable is about a lifesaving station along a dangerous seacoast. With humble beginnings, members of the lifesaving station put their own lives at risk to rescue those in need. As their mission became known, and as people were rescued, more want to be part of this lifesaving station's effort. Before long, members of this station are more interested in the social aspects than in their original purpose of rescuing others. To make up for this, the decision is made to hire a professional rescue crew to take care of rescuing those on the sea.
All is well and good with this decision until there is a major shipwreck. Boatloads of cold, wet, half-drowned, and different colored skinned people are brought to the lifesaving station. The membership was in an uproar: who did 'those' people think they were, and what were 'they' doing in 'their' lifesaving station? Almost immediately, the property committee built a showerhouse outside so victims could clean up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, the membership was divided. Some wanted to stop the activities as a lifesaving station, saying it was bothersome to their purpose. Others argued saving others was their main purpose, reminding the opposite perspective they were still indeed a lifesaving station. Those who wanted to keep the original mission of the lifesaving station were voted down, being told they could form their own lifesaving station down the coast.
And so they did -- going downstream and starting all over. Years later, this small group faced the same reality as the original group. They in turn, divided, and the story repeated itself again, and again and again.
While we may chuckle at the story, the greater reality is we, as humans, don't like to talk about division. We don't like to talk about it because it means there is potential conflict. If there is potential conflict, then we must be doing something wrong. After all, we agree with everyone, and everyone agrees with us, right? Not necessarily so.
If we think because we are Christian, and because we are followers of Christ that everything will be fine, perfect, and united, then we need to take a closer look at Jesus' ministry. In the time Jesus walked the earth, his ministry was also divided:
*among those who believed Jesus to be the Son of God, and those who believed, even hoped Jesus to be a ruler to end Roman rule;
*the person who wanted Jesus to divide his inheritance between he and his brother;
*the man determining who exactly was his neighbor;
*to the religious leaders of the day trying to catch Jesus in an interpretive trap.
At this point in Luke's Gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. There is work to be done, that even knowing WHY Jesus is going to Jerusalem does not stop Jesus. The work needing to be done is the work of repentance, the work of forgiveness. This work takes place through the fire Jesus is ready to light -- the fire of knowing God, the fire of being in relationship with God. This fire, and this division Jesus brings is for the better -- for the world's well being, and for our well-being.
But here is where this division is both necessary and troubling. It is necessary and troubling because it exposes our deepest loyalties; loyalties we think to be strong, resilient, even accurate; only to discover these loyalties can be false, idolatrous, ridiculous, even demonic. The trouble then is admitting to God and to ourselves the truth about these loyalties, a truth we may not always want to hear, to believe, or accept. The fire Jesus brings with this division is a fire that blends, purifies, and refines our imperfections, our struggles. Repeatedly, Luke tells us this is the fire Jesus brings with him, the fire of God's active presence in the world, a fire that brings repentance and change with it.
On a first read of Luke's Gospel today, it could seem as though Jesus is against peace. Jesus is not. Jesus knows the message he brings, the work he is called to do is bound to be divisive. Yet in being divisive, Jesus' message brings the Truth -- that the Kingdom of God, the Presence of God is here NOW for everyone.
When we stop to think about it, it really is a simple truth. We humans, however, tend to make it more complicated than what it needs to be. We make it complicated because of sin. Jesus also knows, that his ministry, his presence among us and with us may be responsible fore stirring up conflict by bringing both the heat and light of fire to show how sin, death, and the devil are at work in our world even today.
Increasingly, our world is becoming divided; sometimes in ways that can be seen, sometimes in not so subtle ways. Divisiveness can bring unity when that which is divided is shared. For example, if I have a chocolate chip cookie, and our youngest members want some of that cookie, it will gladly be shared with them. Dividing so that others are able to have some. Dividing so that the gift of the cookie can be enjoyed by more than one.
The following was preached as a sermon on Sunday, August 18th.
In April, I shared news of learning about a new health concern. The concern was learning that I have a lack of blood flow to the brain, and that arthritis in my neck could be preventing this blood flow.
At first, hearing this news was a surprise. It was unexpected, and I wasn't a happy camper. I joked that I was on God's least favorite list because of being stiff necked (going along also with hard hearted.) And, I was mad at the news -- this wasn't in what I thought to be the plans in my life. But, what did it mean?
The past few months have had their share of doctor's appointments. Each appointment has been one step closer of ruling out causes, and, learning to adapt and adjust to the arthritis.
One of the more amusing moments came in the scheduling of the sleep study. For the sleep study, it needed to be done overnight at the sleep study lab. It took awhile to convince the schedulers I really needed to schedule this after Easter, not before. Then there was the surprise of how refreshed I felt in waking up afterwards.
Perhaps the biggest surprise came in hearing the results of the sleep study: insomnia. This result did not match my understanding of insomnia where someone goes to sleep and is unable to fall sleep. In this definition, the insomnia is more of being awakened at night, and then falling asleep (or not) after this awakening. A follow up with a sleep psychiatrist is scheduled for August. (I've never heard of a sleep psychiatrist before, have you?)
Before seeing the sleep psychiatrist, a two week journal of sleep habits needs to be kept. Really? Without journaling, I know WHY I wake up during the night. I wake up in the middle of the night because two of our three fur balls decide I am their playground: walking, strolling, seeking attention, and yes, purring loudly in my ear. At times, they have been known to go sailing across our heads and pillows to get to the other side of the bed. Closing the door on them would only lead to a longer period of lack of sleep.
I wish I could say learning this has created a dramatic change in sleeping, or lifestyle or habits. Right now, it's small changes that I think are beginning to make a difference. And, there are probably smaller changes still to be made the more I learn about this arthritis.
It's a growing edge that hopefully will continue leading into life. Stay tuned for updates. . . . .
What's the craziest thing you have ever wanted to do in life? Have you done it? If you haven't yet done it, what's stopping you?
One of the better known triathlons on the East Coast is one called "Escape the Cape". The swim portion of this triathlon starts with a 12 foot jump off the Cape May (NJ)/Lewes (DE) ferry into the Atlantic Ocean. While the thought of jumping off the Cape May ferry sounds like it would be a really cool, amazing, adventurous thing to do, it also sounds scary, overwhelming, and intimidating! Talk about conquering fear and just doing it! -- Maybe someday.
Sadly, during the recent Escape the Cape event, there was a death. A thirty six year old male died of a heart attack as he was finishing the swim back to shore from the ferry. Attempts to revive him were not successful.
When one registers for a sporting event, such as a triathlon or any other strenuous activity, participants are encouraged to sign a waiver. This waiver includes wording to the effect that participation in the event could lead to injury, possibly even death, and that the person signing the waiver agrees not to hold the organizer of the event responsible for wrongful injury or death. It's a risk some pay to participate in.
The lesson in this unfortunate death is taking risks can have consequences. Then again, so does being a Christian. Living during a time of intense persecution, those in the early church knew their way of living had risks and consequences connected to it. On one hand, there was joy in finding community, a place to be, and a place to call home in the midst of like-minded individuals. On the other hand, there was the very real threat this way of living ran counter to leadership of the day.
Being a Christian today has risks and consequences as well. Many of our Christian brothers and sisters live in places where Christianity is not embraced or welcomed. Many live in places where the Islamic faith tradition has a heavy influence. Even in America, there can be persecution if religious views are held or expressed that counter current religious thought. If not persecution, then ways subtly and not so subtly to remain silent.
Knowing all this, the early Christians embraced these risks and consequences. They did so because they knew, from what Paul, Peter, and the other disciples shared with them, that to die was to have life. To die was to live with Christ. To live in Christ was/is greater than life itself in this world.
In a few days, the Church celebrates Pentecost. Pentecost takes place fifty days after Passover, and in its origins, celebrated the receiving of the Law, the Torah from God by Moses. When the first disciples gathered, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to speak in languages other faithful Jews who were in Jerusalem heard and understood. Those who first heard Paul's words didn't worry about how deep the water is, or whether or not it was safe to swim. Instead, Paul's words of 'Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved', were an invitation to jump right in.
It's the same invitation to us: to jump in, feet first into the amazing grace of God's love. As we jump in, we trust, too, God will be with us. In this knowledge, we take risks of sharing God's love with others in need.
With it being Holy Week, I'll be honest that I haven't been too much attention to the news. The story that was the hardest to ignore was news of the Cathedral of Notre Dame catching fire.
Watching the news that night, hearing the eye witness accounts of the spire falling, seeing French residents and tourists standing next to one another, stunned, silent, shocked, praying, singing "Ave Maria" were heartbreaking views into the potential loss of this structure.
Seeing the pictures brought memories back of the humanities class taken in college. In that class, we discussed and explored the architecture of Notre Dame. We saw slides of the art, artifacts, and the relics housed within the cathedral walls. We learned how the wooden framework for the ceiling was assembled at ground level before being painstakingly and gently lifted in place with means that even today still inspire a sense of wonder and amazement.
I was saddened too, at the realization of artifacts within the walls of Notre Dame, may possibly never be seen again. Who knew Notre Dame held the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ during his crucifixion? Or that there is supposed to be a piece of the cross encased in glass? Never having been there, and vaguely recalling the humanities class, not me.
But then I saw it. A picture of the inside of the Cathedral after the fire that had gone viral. In the midst of the destruction, in the midst of the rubble, in the midst of the burnt and charred timbers, the altar cross gleamed. Another picture seen later indicated Michelangelo's "Pieta" (the statue of Mary holding Jesus after he has been taken down from the cross) had also survived the fire.
In that moment of seeing the gold cross shining was the story of Easter and the Resurrection. In the midst of ashes -- there is hope. In the midst of darkness, there is hope. In the face of obstacles, there is hope.
The women went to the tomb on Easter morning in the darkness of grief, and in the darkness of the early morning hour. They went, not knowing what to expect when they arrived at the tomb. What they found when they arrived was not what they were expecting at all --angels surrounded by the brilliance of Light greeted them. "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen, just as he said."
The next few days will seem like dark days as we reflect and observe Jesus' betrayal, arrest, judgement, crucifixion, and death. The reality of the Cathedral of Notre Dame catching fire with centuries of religious and world history seems a dark time for many as well.
But. . . .
There is hope.
There IS always hope.
As news began to come out of Paris that pieces of art, artifacts, and relics were safe, of the heroic efforts of many to save these valuable and priceless pieces of humanity, words to a favorite hymn came to mind:
"Built on a rock, the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land, bells still are chiming and calling --
calling the young and old to rest, calling the souls of those distressed,
longing for life everlasting." (Built on A Rock; Evangelical Lutheran Worship; @2006).
The words to this hymn are a reminder: when church buildings catch on fire, when steeples collapse or are damaged, God's Word will continue to be proclaimed, will continue to be heard, and will continue to provide hope -- and light -- in the midst of ashes and darkness.