Journeying with Jesus in Stormy Times

I often recall that early Christians used a boat as a symbol for the Church.

The Church is a vessel that sails through smooth times and difficult times. The image of a boat is often used to describe the Church because it’s a vessel that carries people all the way to the gates of Paradise. If you look up while you’re sitting in many church worship spaces what you’ll see is that you’re worshiping in what looks like an upside down boat.

Immediately after Jesus fed more than 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 little fish, He commands the disciples to get into a boat and sail to the other side of the sea. Imagine these early followers of Jesus getting into a boat (the Church) and moving, together, toward the place where Jesus told them to go. As we read Matthew 14:22-33, we’re invited to think about the ministry that we’re doing today. We listen to Jesus. We gather together in the boat (the Church). We go where we believe Jesus wants us to go.

But then, in the middle of this well-known story, something happens.

We read that the boat that was carrying the disciples was being beaten back by the wind and the waves. In Matthew 14:24, we read that the “wind was against them.” The earliest Church was sailing directly into the wind. The earliest Church was experiencing opposition and was even being pushed in the wrong direction! And the Church is going through a time just like that in 2020. Many church buildings are still closed. Tens of thousands of churches all around the world have needed to embrace new technologies. And the scariest part of it all, at least for me, is that we don’t know how long this disruption is going to continue, or what our ministry is going to look like when we get to the other side of the sea.

It’s easy for us to go where we think Jesus wants us to go when we simply need to unlock the doors of a building and wait for children to arrive for Sunday School. It’s easy for us to do what we think Jesus wants us to do when all that we need to do is give someone a key to a building. It’s easy to go where Jesus wants us to go when we don’t need to deal with Zoom meetings, and the misunderstandings that often occur when people stop talking face-to-face and start to reply upon email and text messages.

But these are days when the winds have shifted.

I can picture myself in the boat (the Church) in Matthew 14:22-33. I, sometimes, feel like I’m taking two steps forward and one step back, or even one step forward and two steps back. I’m reminded of the times when storms have emerged while I was sailing and when I needed to constantly adjust the sails and the rudder while water poured over the gunwales and started to collect in the bottom of the boat. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt that the wind was blowing against you and trying to push you in the wrong direction? Do you feel like that, right now?

But Jesus carried the boat (the Church) through the storm, didn’t He?

And Jesus is going to carry us through this storm as well. We don’t fully understand what our ministry “on the other side” is going to look like, but we can know that it is Jesus who is taking us to that “other side.” None of us can predict the long-term personal and economic impact of the coronavirus. None of us know how this time of protesting and political turmoil is going to end. But we do know that the boat (the Church) is going to continue to sail – even if it looks very different than it did just a few months ago.

And so, this week, I’d like to encourage you to think about where YOU are in this story.

You might want to begin by remembering that we’re all in the same boat, right? Some of us have been thinking about what’s most important to us. Many of us have needed to return to Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment and to try our best to keep interpreting the actions and behaviors of others in the best possible way. Some of us are being called to step onto the water in faith during a time that’s scary. We’re all learning about life and faith and ministry because in every crisis there are opportunities to learn and grow and stretch our wings.

Please remember that you’re not alone.

Your journey is a part of my journey, and my journey is a part of your journey. And OUR journey is a journey that’s being shared by our friends and family members, by the people that we work with, by our neighbors and by people that we don’t even know. And we’re sailing through these scary and changing times even when we’re feeling both weary and frazzled knowing that better days will surely come as Jesus continues to lead us and guide us and direct us toward the “other side” where our ministries will grow and flourish again because that’s what the Church has done in every Age.

For this week’s message, please click here:

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Rest for the Weary

Christ lifting pic

Where are you seeing Jesus in your life these days?

Jesus brings us together to sing hymns, to listen to stories from the Bible, to pray and to discover God’s presence in our lives. And then, Jesus sends us back into the world. This week, some of us will work 40 – maybe 50 – maybe 60 – perhaps even 70 hours. Some of us are deeply engaged in parenting during these unusual times. Some of us will spend this week enjoying our retirement. Others may spend the week caring for a loved one, going to doctors’ appointments, facing the challenges of aging and perhaps being reminded that the “Golden Years” aren’t golden at all.

Jesus calls us to follow Him and to go back into the world to make it a better place. And, as we do that, Jesus travels with us, points us in the right direction, opens doors in front of us that we can’t open by ourselves, lifts us up and keeps us strong. And, in the midst of that, Jesus speaks words of encouragement: “Come to me, all who are weary and who are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.

The image of yoke is one that often confuses us.

We know that yokes are placed upon the shoulders of animals who are being required to do heavy labor. We know that a yoke joins animals to a wagon or, perhaps, to a plow. But, did you know that a yoke serves a different purpose? Yokes bind animals together and make them into a team. Yokes bind animals together because there are jobs on a farm that are simply too big for one, single animal. Yokes spread the burden.

And so, what does it mean to be “yoked” to Jesus?

Being yoked to Jesus reminds me that I’m never alone. It reminds me that Jesus is with me in the times when I don’t feel that there’s enough of me to go around. Being yoked to Jesus reminds me that, with God beside me, I can do far more than I could ever imagine doing by myself. Being yoked to Jesus reminds me that God is intimately involved in my life, that Jesus is helping to carry my burdens, and that Jesus is with me even when I am feeling alone and overwhelmed by the circumstances in my life.

Where are you seeing Jesus in your life these days?

Look into the eyes of the people who are around you this week. Can you see Jesus in the eyes of people at work? How does the love of Jesus shine into your life as you fulfill your role as a parent? Can you see Jesus in the eyes of your spouse or your partner (if you have one)? Perhaps, if you look hard enough, you’ll even see Jesus in the eyes of your doctor or nurse; in the eyes of a loved one who needs your help; in the eyes of a friend, child, pastor or member of your church? Jesus is with you.

And so, remember that you are not alone even if you’re feeling weary right now.

Jesus is walking beside you. Jesus is helping to carry your burdens and share the load. Perhaps, this week, you will come to sense that Jesus is right beside you (yoked to you) more deeply; so that, even in the times when you are weary and overwhelmed, you’ll find the strength, courage, faith and love that you need to meet the days ahead.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

God’s Presence in Times of Change

yoke pic

We can learn a lot about living faithfully by returning to the Jewish Exile.

The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar invaded the land of Judah, destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem; and, most likely, ordered the Ark of the Covenant to be destroyed. Homes and crops were burned. People were dragged away in chains and yokes, and they were now living in a strange country with different customs. And people began to dream about being able to return to what once was as they continued to live in exile.

Many of the rabbis that I know are referring to the Jewish Exile these days.

We’re not able to go where we want to go and to live our lives in the way that we’d like to live them. Many faithful Christians are still watching worship services online and are far removed from the worship spaces where they’ve come to know God. Some people in our country (and all around the world) are trying to explain away safety measures that we’ve been asked to take while others are refusing to wear any sort of face covering to make a political statement. We are responding to this crisis in so many different ways!

The coronavirus has brought grief into many of our lives.

We usually associate grief with the death of a loved one, but grief is something that’s far more complex. I am grieving because I’m not able to visit my grandchildren. Many young people are grieving because they didn’t get to attend a prom or graduation ceremony. We see young children acting out because they miss playing with their friends. We’re sensing that things are different and that it may not be possible to just return to doing things that we once took for granted in the near future. And many people are still grieving the loss of their job or even of their home, aren’t they? Some are grieving because we know that things that we cherish are going to be different.

We often wish that we could just go back to what once was when we are grieving.

And that’s what we see in Jeremiah 28:1-9. The false prophet Hananiah has started to talk with people who were living in Exile about being able to go back to what once was. Hananiah speaks about bringing sacred vessels back into the Temple (which, remember, had been flattened like a pancake by the Babylonians) and returning to the place that the Jewish people had called their home for generations. It’s almost as if Hananiah doesn’t want to accept the fact that things have changed, and he’s trying to encourage people to believe that they can simply return to what once was and watch the storm just go away. Perhaps you’d like to be able to do that today? But Jeremiah wasn’t that optimistic.

One of the things that I’ve learned in life is that our lives are often lived in cycles.

Good times are almost always followed by bad times; and even the worst times in our lives can give way to much better times. Think about grief. We mourn over what we’ve lost and wish that we could have it once again, but life moves forward and we change as we adjust to our new reality. Christianity is built upon the death and the resurrection of Jesus: Life being lost in death and death giving way to new life. Our faith reminds us of the fact that God blesses us with new life even while we’re still caught in our grief.

Now, think about the Church.

We were knocked off-center when churches needed to close; and yet, in the midst of this pandemic, churches that had never done so in the past have incorporated electronics in their ministry. That’s new life! People who don’t normally attend worship services are listening to sermons and are participating in online worship services. That’s new life! We’ve had the chance to improve our methods of communicating with each other. That’s new life! The church that I am serving is even working with several other congregations to launch an online Vacation Bible School for children in the next few weeks. That’s new life! Leaders throughout the Church have been imagining new ways to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in more creative ways – realizing that, even as we grieve, Jesus moves us toward something new and exciting and life-filled. That’s new life! That’s resurrection!

Listen to Psalm 89:1 – “I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations!

This week, I’d like to encourage you to do three things:

  • Think about grief and about how grief might be affecting you, right now. It’s not easy to be told that you can’t do things that you like to do. And it’s very natural for people who are grieving to imagine what it would be like to just to back to what once was even though it’s not possible anymore.
  • Pray for the many people who need to make big decisions today and remember that they are trying to do the best that they can even when you disagree with what they think needs to be done.
  • Pray for patience and offer some of your time, energy, vision and creativity to those who are struggling to discover how we can best return from our Exile and proclaim the message of God’s love and the hope of the Resurrection in new and exiting ways as the people of God, today. You can be a part of the new life that Jesus is creating!

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Calming Music

keyboard pic

Martin Luther once said that, next to the Word of God, the devil dislikes music more than anything else in the world. Music can calm our hearts and lift our spirits. Music can help to restore a sense of peace in our lives and quiet our racing thoughts. Sometimes, I like to simply stop at the end of the day and listen to calming music before I go to bed.

We are traveling through a very unusual and stressful time right now. And, in response to that, I’ve added a new menu option to my blog entitled Calming Music.  I’ve enjoyed playing the piano for many years and have even written some music and hymns of my own. I, also, enjoy creating new arrangements of familiar songs and hymns. I am offering these original recordings of familiar hymns and other songs for you to enjoy hoping that they can bring you moments of calm and peace in the midst of this storm. Please feel free to share them with other people that you know.

One of the songs I have included in this collection is an original composition entitled, “Through the Years.” I wrote this song while journeying through life with a very dear friend who was dying. I recently added an oboe part to the score. I have, also, added some other instrumentation to some of the songs that I have included in this short collection to add some variety to your listening experience.

I hope that you will enjoy listening to these songs that I’ve played and that they will bring you a sense of calm and peace during these unusual and challenging times.

Click Here to Listen to “Calming Music”

Jesus: The Son of Man

Son of Man Pic

I think that we’d all admit that the last few weeks have been unusual.

I’m sure that you’ve been watching the news and that you’ve been trying to figure-out what all of this means. Maybe you’ve been stockpiling supplies? Maybe the fact that some of the shelves in grocery stores are empty is making you nervous? Many churches are trying to live-stream worship services for the first time in order to help people stay connected to each other in these unusual times.

And the big question is: “Why do people in the Church need to stay connected?”

Do you realize that God saw something wrong with the Creation long before Adam and Eve ever took a bite of the forbidden fruit? The book of Genesis tells us that God made the sun and the moon, the trees and vegetation, the stars in the sky, and even animals and human beings. We learn, in the book of Genesis, that God saw that the Creation was “very good” and that God was very happy. And then, God noticed something wrong….

And then, the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)

The worldwide response to the coronavirus has created a deep sense of isolation in our lives. Children are not able to go to school and many people are working at home. We see people very wisely staying at a safe distance any time we leave our homes, and some of our governors have ordered a complete lock-down. And, at least for me, it’s all been very overwhelming. Almost every part of my life has been uprooted, and I can’t do many of the things that I’ve taken for granted all of my life. And I’m sure that you’re feeling the very same way as you continue to weather this storm at home, too.

Many years before St. Paul was even born, the Jewish community was looking forward to the coming of the Son of Man.

The Son of Man was described as God’s ultimate warrior who would come into the world to set everything straight. The Son of Man was supposed to come into the world to drive back the forces of evil and everything that defies God, and the Son of Man was to be the ultimate judge of the living and of the dead. And that’s the background that we need to bring with us when we read: Romans 8:31-39.

St. Paul writes: “I am certain that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of Creation will be able to separate us….

And why is that?

If the Son of Man (Jesus) came into the world as God’s ultimate warrior to drive back the forces of evil and everything that defies God…. If the Son of Man (Jesus) came into the world to set things straight and to restore the Creation…. Wouldn’t it make sense to say that since God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18); and that, since the life and ministry of Jesus – the Son of Man – was meant to destroy what God says isn’t good, Jesus came into the world to conquer the types of isolation we’re feeling right now?

Jesus – the Son of Man – came into the world to destroy isolation.

Churches are continuing to have online worship services and Bible studies because that’s what Jesus-people do. Jesus-people understand that the community of the Church is a place where relationships are important and where life-long connections are made. We travel through good and bad together. We try to remain connected to each other even when it isn’t easy. Jesus-people understand that they can fight against loneliness and isolation by remaining in contact with each other through telephone calls and electronic connections, snail mail and even by having children color pictures and send their own masterpieces to people who are feeling isolated and alone.

It’s sometimes hard to maintain relationships, but that what Jesus-people do.

And this week, I’d like to encourage you to think about that. Jesus – the Son of Man – came into the world to destroy isolation. And one of the best ways that Jesus-people can be a part of the ongoing work of Jesus in the world today is to strive to remain connected and in contact with others – even during a time when the coronavirus has driven us all back into the isolation of our own homes.

And, with that in mind, think about these things:

Do you know someone who is homebound (or who lives alone)? If so, please give that person a telephone call this week to remind that person that he/she is important.

Are your kids looking for something to do? If so, why not have them color some pictures and send them to other people who need some love right now, or have them draw some pictures on a sidewalk where they’ll bring a smile to people’s faces when they’re taking a walk to get some fresh air?

If you’re not connected to the ministry of a specific congregation right now, maybe this is a good time to learn more about what some local churches are doing and about what you can do to be a part of what’s happening.

In times like these, we need to remember that: “neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of Creation – including the coronavirus – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” And perhaps, with that in mind, we can all find ways to move through these challenging times together with strength and courage and faith.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Jesus: The Living Water

Samaritan Woman Pic

The coronavirus has created a world-wide crisis.

The shelves in grocery stores are empty, and schools and businesses are closed. People have stockpiled hand sanitizers and toilet paper. It’s nearly impossible to find sanitizing wipes and isopropyl alcohol. Pastors are communicating with the faithful people they serve using new and previously unexplored technologies. And, of course, we’re all being told to wash our hands both thoroughly and frequently.

People in the United States don’t usually worry about having enough water.

We simply turn a knob when we want water and the water magically appears. Many of us wash laundry whenever we want, and even water lawns and flowers in the summer. I once listened to a group of teenagers complain about the fact that they need to get up early every morning, so that they can beat their siblings to the shower; because, if they don’t win the race to the shower, there’s not going to be any hot water left.

But it isn’t that way everywhere.

I had a well when I lived in a rural community and I needed to carefully space loads of laundry during dry spells. I remember talking with one of my friends from Africa who was simply horrified that Americans wash their cars with water that they can drink. In some places, even today, people have to walk long distances to get fresh water. And that’s what we see in a story about an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob (John 4:5-42) – which, by the way, contains the longest conversation that Jesus has with another person in the entire Bible.

Picture a woman who is parched after a long journey in the hottest part of the day.

Here, we find a woman who was coming to the Well of Jacob because she was looking for something that she needed to survive. When things like water are scarce, there’s a very human part of us that tells us that we need to look out for ourselves first. The Samaritan woman needed water; and yet, she was being asked to give what she thought she needed to survive to someone else (Jesus).  Have you collected so much hand sanitizer that other people can’t get any? Are you one of the people who has been hoarding sterilizing wipes and toilet paper? Do you have boxes of masks to put over your face (that are desperately needed by other people) to protect yourself from the coronavirus?

Our survival instinct tells us that we need to get as much of whatever we think we are going to need quickly – even if it means that other people won’t be able to get any of it.

And yet, when the parched Samaritan woman comes to the Well of Jacob, Jesus offers her something different: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Here, Jesus reminds us that we can find an abundance of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness. Jesus reminds us, in this short passage, that He’s come into the world to offer us an abundance of God’s welcome and goodness and peace and strength. And, if you think about it, isn’t that what we’re all trying to find?

We begin the Season of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, by remembering that we are dust and that, one day, we’re going to be dust again. We admit that we’re mortal. We admit that none of us are going to be around forever. In fact, as hard as it is for us to admit, we are all going to die at some point – and it doesn’t matter if it’s because of the coronavirus or because of something else. That might sound harsh. But it’s true.

And in Jesus – The Living Water – God provides a solution that gives us faith and strength as we journey through scary times. In Jesus – The Living Water – we can find the courage to continue to live well with each other even in a time when our fear is calling forth our worst human instincts. All will be well. In fact, even when we’re tempted to think that all will not be well, all will be well because we’re safe in the hands of God and because God has already shown us – in Jesus – that no matter what we face, in life or even in death, we are already far more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).

And so, as you journey through scary times, live your life with faith and courage.

Even though there’s a deep human instinct that’s telling us to look out for ourselves, we need each other and must learn how to continue to live well with other people. We can’t allow fear to drive us into uncontrollable panic and we can’t afford to allow ourselves to allow our imaginations to just run wild.

We need to somehow continue to find ways to live well in these challenging times, and we need to continue to search for ways to care for each other and to treat each other in kind and loving ways.

Right after Jesus offered the Samaritan woman “living water,” she said, “Sir, give me this water” (John 4:15); and she, immediately, ran to all of her friends and told them about what she had discovered in the midst of her own time of desperate need.

How can your faith carry you through these times of challenge and uncertainty?

How can your faith help you to calm those around you who are allowing fear to bring out the worst in them?

In every crisis, there’s an opportunity. And, perhaps, this crisis provides a chance for all of us to bear witness to our faith and our trust in God in new and exciting ways?

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Jesus is Searching for You

Searching

Stories are an important part of our lives.

I suspect that many of us can remember the day when terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers, and that many of us can remember what we were doing on that day. My father used to tell me a story about the day when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I’ve been told many stories in my years as a pastor, and I truly believe that many of those stories capture the very essence of life.

Jesus told many stories, called parables, during His ministry.

And one day, Jesus told a story about a shepherd who left 99 sheep in the middle of the Wilderness in order to search for one of the sheep that had wandered off. He searched behind rocks and boulders. He shouted until the back of his throat was raw. He searched and searched and searched and searched. And he rejoiced when he found the lost sheep and was able to return it to the flock.

We all have times when we wander off and get lost in the Wilderness.

Some people get lost when they sink into the bottomless pit of addiction. Some of us struggle to forgive people who have hurt or disappointed us. Some of us get lost as we face the temptation to withdraw and isolate ourselves as we grieve. Teenagers who are being bullied can feel lost. People who struggle with homeless can feel lost. People who are trying to escape from the grip of Internet pornography (which is a plague that affects and ruins many people’s lives – even in the Church) can feel lost. And, when we’re lost, we can’t always find our own way back from the lonely Wilderness, can we?

Jesus is searching for you.

The Church was never meant to be a place where people, who have life all figured-out, come together to be entertained for an hour each week. The Church was never meant to be a place where people, who don’t want to admit that we’re all lost in some way, come together to have their ego stroked by an inspiring speaker. We’ve all had times when we’ve needed to be found by the Shepherd of our Souls. We’ve all had times when we’ve been lost and when we’ve needed to be brought back to the safety of the flock whether it be to the safety of our family, or to the safety of  the Church, or to the safety of a support group that can help and encourage us as we struggle with the uncertainties of life.

Jesus is searching for you.

No matter where you find yourself in life, right now, the arms of God are opened wide and God’s embrace is big. Take heart! The Shepherd of our Souls continues to search for you even when you feel lost and alone. Jesus is searching for you in whatever Wilderness surrounds you today. And that’s truly a message of Good News, isn’t it? It’s a message that can comfort and sustain us when we’re feeling cut-off from other people and when we’re feeling that even God is standing at a distance as we struggle to find our way through a Wilderness that can leave us feeling very lost and alone.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

 

God is Near!

Elijah

1 Kings 17:6-24

Life is filled with ups and downs, isn’t it?

We save money for a rainy day, and we invest our time and energy in relationships with other people. We plan for our future (often expecting the best) and we even go to church and pray – believing that God stands beside us.
But, life throws us curves, doesn’t it?

Children sometimes go astray when they grow up, and close relationships can end when people move to a different city – or even die. Today’s bad choices often shape tomorrow’s reality. Marriages crumble. Jobs can be lost. Sudden illnesses can bring us a mountain of unpaid bills. And, when any of those things happen, our faith can be shaken and we can even begin to ask hard questions.

In this week’s message, “God is Near”, we explore a brief moment of time in the life of a widow who experienced a roller-coaster of emotions. She watched the ground dry, crops wilt, and animals die after Elijah told King Ahab that God was going to withhold the rain because of Israel’s wickedness. The widow had seen her small barrel of meal and flask of oil provide more meal and oil that she could have ever imaged after she (in faith) baked Elijah a small loaf of bread and gave him a drink of water. She watched her only son die, and cursed the day she had met Elijah – because she blamed him for what had happened to her son. And then, Elijah wept and prayed and held the dead corpse of the widow’s only son; and, suddenly, he came back to life!
We experience a wide range of emotions as we travel through life as people of faith.

When everything’s going well and when we’re happy and prosperous, we feel like God is blessing us and we praise God from the mountaintop! But, when the pendulum swings in the other direction, we ask tough questions, don’t we? “Where was God when I needed God to be present?” “Why do bad things always seem to happen to good people?” “Why do little children face starvation and horrible diseases?” “Where is God when violence explodes at a local synagogue?” “Where is God when little children are being abused by priests?” Where is God when overdoses claim the lives of people that we love?” “Where was God when the widow of Zarephath’s only son got sick and suddenly died?”

We are reminded, in this week’s message (“God is Near”), that God is near to us in both good times and bad times. God was present as the widow of Zarephath wept for her son. God is present when people gather together to lift each other up and to stand beside each other in difficult times. Jesus promised us that He will always be found when we come together as God’s people to share gifts of Bread and Wine in Holy Communion. God will always be found in the love we receive from people who encourage us and hug us and whisper tender words into our ears, and God will be present every time we offer our love and support to other people – comforting others with the same kind words and actions that others extend to us during difficult times (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Our journey of faith teaches us to know that God is near in every circumstance.

It’s easy to see God’s presence when we experience times of blessing. But Jesus promises to be close to us even when the pendulum swings in the other direction – and when our lives become difficult.

Trust the Lord and know that God is near to you. Look for Jesus in every circumstance of life – whether it’s good or bad. And know that our God promises to draw near to us and to sustain us and to renew us in every situation that we face.

Tree of Life: Where Healing Begins

Tree of Life Pic

“We pray for healing of the body.

We pray for healing of the soul.

For strength of flesh and mind and spirit.

We pray to once again be whole.”

These are words that resonate deeply with my soul.

I’m sure that we were all both shocked and horrified when we learned that a lone gunman had walked into the Tree of Life synagogue near Pittsburgh, PA on Saturday morning and had opened fire on innocent worshipers who had gathered there on the Sabbath. The story of what happened quickly moved to the center of the daily news. Eleven of the worshipers, ranging in age from 54 to 97, were killed almost instantly as the police, emergency teams, SWAT teams and the FBI mobilized and quickly traveled to the scene. The gunman, who was later wounded in a shoot-out with the police, surrendered and was quickly removed from the scene. And our journey into the “unspeakable” began.

I learned, many years ago, that there are times when our words can’t fix things.

What do you say to a mother who has just watched her child die? What do you say to the loved ones of someone who decides that life cannot be endured for another day and who then ends it? What do you say to the families of eleven innocent people who were killed while worshiping in a synagogue by a man who ran into the building with guns in his hands and screaming, “All Jews must die!”? What do you say to a community filled with people who trusted in the fact that senseless slaughters always happen somewhere else?

I learned, many years ago, that God didn’t give me any magic fairy dust.

The events that unfolded at the Tree of Life synagogue near Pittsburgh dragged me back in time to a very different – yet hauntingly similar – event that I faced several years ago. I was preparing to begin another busy Wednesday in Lent when my cellphone beeped and alerted me to the fact that a young man had walked into the Franklin Regional High School (about five miles from my home) with two knives in his hands and had stabbed twenty people (click here to learn more) before being tackled. I was speechless. I felt both paralyzed and numbed as I stared at the screen of my television; and yet, I wanted to do something helpful. I suspect that many folks felt that same paralysis on Saturday. When senseless tragedies unfold, we stare blankly at our television sets and watch first responders rise to the occasion. We want to shut the news off and return to our more normal routines, but we can’t. Senseless violence changes us. We sense a solidarity with all of humanity when the lives of innocent people are ended by violent outbursts of anger. We, perhaps, sense our need for human community when violence drives us into isolation. But what then? What do we do in the days and weeks that follow senseless tragedies? How can we begin to take the first steps forward after we’ve been paralyzed by senseless violence?

Here are some things that I learned as I moved through the difficult days and weeks and months that followed the violent outburst at the Franklin Regional High School. And I offer these ideas hoping that they’ll be helpful to you:

  1. I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we need to take care of ourselves. In the Beginning, God said that it’s “not good” for us to be alone (Genesis 2:18) and that’s especially true when we’re struggling. We need each other, and we need to gather in community with other people as we try to make sense of violent acts that change our lives. I remember gathering with people at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Murrysville, PA on the evening of the incident at Franklin Regional High School. We sang hymns together and prayed. We listened to the words of Scripture, and we spent time together. My wife and I did the same thing yesterday. We attended a gathering of several hundred people at Temple David in Monroeville; and we mourned with Jews and Muslims and Christians alike. We were reminded that we must not allow hatred and bigotry to win. We were reminded that we are people who can make a lasting difference in our world by committing ourselves to the path of love and deeper understanding.
  2. I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we need to watch the helpers. I find it quite ironic that the violent outburst at the Tree of Life synagogue unfolded in the same neighborhood that once provided a home for Fred Rogers. I grew-up in the Pittsburgh area and Mr. Rogers was a part of my childhood. I still remember his friendly smile. I still remember him changing his shoes and putting his sweater on at the beginning of each show. But, perhaps even more than that, I remember Mr. Rogers’ kindness and embrace of others. Fred Rogers once said (or at least we are told that he said) that, when bad things happen, we need to watch and to focus upon what the helpers are doing. The world is full of good people. The world is full of people who care about each other and who want to help each other. Think about the first responders and the police officers who were wounded when they rushed into the synagogue. Think about all of the doctors and nurses who rushed to the hospital, so that they would be ready to treat the wounded. Think of the people who will walk beside the families of those who were killed in the weeks and months ahead – often unseen and unnoticed. We can all learn a lesson from Mr. Rogers; because, even in times of unspeakable tragedy, good people gather and help.
  3. I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we need to be willing to listen to what people are saying – even when we hear things that make us feel uncomfortable. I listened to stories from the lips of many young people who were being bullied at school in the weeks and months that followed the incident at the Franklin Regional High School – and it all began when I sat down with a small group of teenagers and said, “When I was your age, bullies flicked your ears and shot spit balls at you. I don’t know what bullying looks like today. Will you help me to understand?” When we listen, we learn. I’ve believed that those who are suffering are my teachers for a long, long time. I’ve been given a small glimpse of what it’s like to lose a child, to face a terminal illness, and to say goodbye to your spouse. I’ve learned a bit about bullying by listening to teenagers tell me about their lives. Perhaps, this is a time when we need to listen to people share stories about Anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry and hatred? Perhaps, this is a time when we need to allow people who are usually silent to speak? I was once told that God gave me two ears and one mouth for a very good reason. We need to remember that in times like these.
  4. And lastly, I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we can begin to turn the corner and step away from feelings of powerlessness by helping. In the weeks and months after the violent incident at Franklin Regional High School, the good and always-faithful people at Christ’s Lutheran Church collected money that was used to pay medical bills, to financially support parents who needed to quit their jobs to care for their teenagers, and to provide resiliency training for local teachers. We were told, yesterday, that the Muslim community is collecting money to help pay medical bills and funeral expenses and to bring financial relief to those who have already faced so much. I found that becoming a helper was even more empowering than watching helpers. If you’d like to help the families of those who have already faced so much because of the horrific attack at the Tree of Life synagogue

CLICK HERE

My wife and I joined hundreds of others singing powerful words of prayer during the gathering at Temple David in Monroeville yesterday; and, as I close, I’d like to lift those words before you:

“We pray for healing of our people.

We pray for healing of the land.

And peace for ev’ry race and nation,

Ev’ry child, ev’ry woman, ev’ry man.”

 

Confronting Worry and Anxiety

hibiscus pic

Matthew 6:25-34

Worry and anxiety are big words these days, aren’t they?

Many of us were glued to our televisions last week as we watched Hurricane Michael hit the panhandle the Florida and slowly move through the Southeastern United States with unstoppable fury. We’ve been watching people that we’ve trusted all of our lives fall from pedestals as stories about scandals in the Church, and even in our schools, have filled the news with unimaginable truths. Studies tell us that more people take anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications than ever before, and the suicide rate in the United States continues to rise. Worry and anxiety take a big toll.

In this week’s message, “Confronting Worry and Anxiety”, we explore what Jesus had to say about worry and anxiety (Matthew 6:25-34). Jesus and His disciples were always surrounded by people who were pushing-in on every side and their days were both long and tiring. Jesus was often rejected when His message became “too political” or when His words stirred people’s nests. One day, while Jesus was teaching, nearly everyone in the crowd stood-up and walked away – never to return. Jesus was a man who was “tested as we are” in every sense of the word (Hebrews 4:15) – and so, Jesus can teach us all how to rise above the fray and move forward when our lives become difficult, too.

This week, Jesus reminded me that, when I become overwhelmed, I need to learn to stop and look at the birds in my backyard. And then, I need to ask myself, “If God’s taking care of them, why don’t I believe that God is taking care of me?” A few days ago, my wife and I saw a beautiful hibiscus flower (pictured above) that looked prettier than what either of us were wearing as we walking down the street of a small town. What can that beautiful flower teach us about how God works in our lives and in the world? What can we learn about God (and about what it means to live as God’s people of faith) as we celebrate the Harvest this year and remember that it’s God who provides the sunshine and rain and warmth and good soil that all work together to create the miracle of food?
We worry and become anxious because, deep inside, we want to be in control.

We gather and tuck things away (like squirrels gathering nuts) because we’re afraid that if we don’t collect enough – we’ll “run out.” We hold onto things that we could share with other people because we believe that we need to “save” for days that may not even be on our calendars. We want to remain in control because we’re afraid that if we lose control, something’s going to happen to us that we’re not going to like. And, in the midst of all of that, Jesus calls us to stop and to come back to our faith and to our trust in God.
“Don’t worry about tomorrow.” Jesus says, “Let tomorrow worry about itself.”

What would our lives look like if we went back to the old proverb that teaches us that we can only eat an elephant one bite at a time? What would happen if we learned to live our lives in a way that’s more “centered” upon what’s happening right now, and focused our attention upon today and upon what we can do right now? What would life look like if we lived with a deeper awareness of the fact that Jesus walks right beside us moment by moment by moment? What would our lives look like if we learned, again, to trust in the fact that God’s grace is sufficient for today – and it will be sufficient for tomorrow – and it will be sufficient for the day after that?
Have faith!

Remember that Jesus is walking beside you. Remember that God will provide whatever you need to face today – tomorrow – and the day after that. And when you’re worried and filled with anxiety, take a moment to watch the birds – and ask yourself, “If God is taking such good care of them, why don’t I think God’s going to take good care of me?”