The Tree of Life Massacre – One Year Later

Yard Sign

It’s hard to believe that it’s been one year since the unconscionable slaughter of eleven innocent worshipers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill (a part of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). I’m reminded of my first feeble attempt to “do something” and to “take a stand” after a senseless tragedy that left me both numb and speechless each time I see the sign in the front yard of my home.

We have been challenged to think and to reflect in the last year. Many of us have grown and have been changed as we took a more honest look at ourselves in the mirror and as we’ve wrestled with what we believe about other people. Faith leaders in the Pittsburgh area have traveled for many miles – coming from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples – to join in both open and honest conversations that have helped us to better understand each other and the faith traditions that we represent. God has been at work in our communities to challenge us, to soften our hearts, to open our ears and hearts to the voices of others, and to stretch both our patterns of thinking and faith.

The last year has, also, been a time when leaders and members of spiritual communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania have worked hand-in-hand to create a Statement that we, as leaders of different faith traditions, believe expresses the principles and beliefs that we can embrace together. I am providing a copy of this newly released Statement to you, and am hoping that you will take some time to read it, to reflect upon it and even to pray about it. We, as faith leaders in Southwestern Pennsylvania, believe that our faith traditions challenge us: to recognize the dignity and worth of those around us; to speak boldly and clearly against racial supremacy, demonization of those from other cultures and religions, and the violent acts that grow from those bitter roots; to stand in solidarity with minority and marginalized communities; and to repent from our own complicity in words and deeds that have expressed individual and systemic bigotry, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression.

We have committed ourselves to building more loving communities and neighborhoods that uplift the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual, and that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times even as we continue to both recognize and accept the fact that we believe many different things about both God and our world because of our different faith traditions.

I am now presenting this Statement to you hoping that you will take some time to read it, to ponder it, to pray about it, and to allow it to both challenge you and lead you toward the new kind of life that God calls us to embrace in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Living Faithfully with One Another

As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to interpret and draw guidance from sacred texts and traditions.

The sacred texts of the world religions all affirm the created dignity and worth of each individual and our sacred responsibility toward those in need. As we interpret our own sacred traditions in preaching, teaching, meditation or prayer, we will lift up these values.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in support of the dignity and worth of each person.

With sacred texts and traditions as our guides, we reject the theories and rhetoric of racial supremacy, the demonization of those of other cultures and religions, and the violent acts which grow from these bitter roots. We embrace the right of all people to worship (or not to worship) according to the dictates of their own consciences, and we expect the government to respect this freedom.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in solidarity with those in need.

We turn with compassion toward those in our midst who have the greatest cause for fear and insecurity. We stand in solidarity with all marginalized and minority communities, especially those who have been targets of injustice, discrimination, prejudice, and hate. When any of us are attacked in word or deed, we promise our support, help, and protection.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak truth to those in positions of power.

Our voices must be spoken and heard in public discourse. We seek to bring the perspectives of sacred traditions to bear in our shared public life. We call upon and remind elected, appointed, and professional leaders throughout our community to uphold and enforce the values of justice, fairness, nondiscrimination, and dignity.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to high standards of self-reflection.

We call upon ourselves, our faith communities, and our institutions to acknowledge and repent for complicity in words and deeds that express individual or systemic bigotry, racial or religious supremacy, and oppression. We are committed to growing in wisdom and inclusivity as we learn from one another.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to live abundantly, joyously and harmoniously with one another.

We will work resolutely to strengthen the ties that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times. When and where we disagree in our understandings, we commit to acknowledge, listen to, and value the perspectives of others even as we respectfully present our differing opinions.

We covenant to create, expand and nurture a community of mutual support throughout Southwest Pennsylvania. Seeking Divine help and guidance, we commit to building the beloved community, a neighborhood of neighborhoods that lovingly uplifts the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual.

October 3, 2019
Pittsburgh, PA

When You Get Off Track

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Sin almost always starts with something small, doesn’t it?

Imagine a small child walking into a grocery store, picking up a candy bar, stuffing it into his pocket, and walking out the door. Picture a middle-aged man who is struggling to pay his bills, and who decides to free-up some cash by cheating on his income taxes. Perhaps, you know someone who’s living in an unhappy marriage and who’s begun to talk with one of her co-workers about her problems – and maybe, she’s shared a few drinks, some secret telephone chats and Internet messages, a few secret meetings, and perhaps even a bit more with him…. Imagine sometime telling a lie that quickly grows into something bigger, and into something even bigger, and then into something monstrous.

Sin almost always starts with something small, doesn’t it?

King Herod’s problems probably began with a little wink. And then, there were secret meetings and much, much more. And when John the Baptizer told King Herod that it was not right for him to marry his own brother’s wife, Herod had him thrown in jail. And after that, emotions flew out of control and anger turned into rage. What seemed to be an innocent little wink turned into an unexpected demand for an innocent man’s head to be removed.

In this week’s message, “When You Get Off Track”, we explore several things we need to do when we’re drawn into sin and find ourselves behaving in inappropriate ways. We discover that God calls us to:

  1. Honestly admit that we’re doing something wrong and stop doing it.
  2. Intentionally change course and move in a different direction.
  3. Realize that, when we sin, we need to change course immediately – because sin can set a whole set of consequences into motion that can deeply affect our own lives, or the lives of people that we both love and cherish.

And, perhaps, the hardest part of the whole thing is that we simply don’t want to do any of those things if we’re left to ourselves. Sins usually get repeated because they make us feel good in one way or another. Sin makes us to feel good when we think we’ve tricked someone, or when we think that we’ve gotten away with something. Sin causes us to feel good when we are struggling in a relationship by driving us into the arms of someone who seems to be “so much better” than the person we’ve married. Sin often encourages us to excuse our inappropriate behavior away – even as we hear God calling us to change course.

Sin almost always starts with something small, doesn’t it?

And so, today, I want to encourage you to just stop what you’re doing and change course if you know that you’re doing something wrong. The love and mercy of God is great, and God will give you the strength and courage you need to change course. Jesus promised that He will always be with us – even as He challenges us to change our lives, so that we can live-into the future God’s planned for us. As I shared last week, God’s grace is always sufficient to meet the needs of today – especially when we need God’s continuing help to battle against the very things that have the power to destroy our lives.

As We Enter Lent

Ash Weds

Many Christians entered the Season of Lent yesterday.

Lent is a time of reflection when we think about the connection between our daily lives and our journey of faith. Lent is a time of the year when we remember that, sometimes, we are a part of what’s wrong with the world – and that, sometimes, the best thing that we can do to change the world is change ourselves. We don’t always love God with our whole heart and mind and strength, and we don’t always love other people the way that God does. Our lives are often tainted by pride and impatience, anger and envy, prejudice and contempt for others, and by a lack of concern for people who aren’t “like us.” And Lent is a time when God calls us to abandon those ways of living and to come home.

“As We Enter Lent” is a message that’s created to encourage people to stop for a moment and reflect upon their lives as they enter Lent.

Jesus once attacked folks who lived their lives trying to convince the world that they are somehow better than other people. There’s a difference between being “religious” in a way that causes you to be noticed by other people and being a “person of faith” who is struggling to make sense of what it means to follow Christ. There’s a difference between being “religious” in a way that makes you think that you are somehow better than other people and being a “person of faith” who struggles to find a way to bring God’s love into the world.

We are created to live in a relationship with God, and we’ve also been created to live well with other people. God created us to live well with each other – encouraging each other, spurring each other on, building each other up, and equipping and empowering each other for life and ministry in our quickly-changing world.

Living together as God’s faithful people challenges us to explore what it means to live in a world where other people don’t always think the same way that we do, or look like us. Hearing God’s Word and sharing the Lord’s Supper provides strength for our journey. Authentic and honest listening and prayer can help us to more clearly see the difference between “where people are right now” and “where God wants to take them in the future” – which can help us to serve others more effectively and proclaim the message of Jesus in more relevant ways. Striving for justice and peace in all the world isn’t easy because it’s never going to be easy to speak God’s truth to people who are in positions of power; but, as we gather as God’s people and live well with each other, we can discover new ways to discuss difficult issues, and to equip and empower each other for life and ministry.

Faith is about far more than an invisible relationship between me and Jesus. It’s about discovering Christ’s continuing love in a fallen Creation and it’s about learning what it means to live well with other people.

Welcome to Lent. May God richly bless you in this reflective time of the year and bring you out of the holy Season – Strengthened, Renewed and Sent.

 

Read Through the Bible – Week 18

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Summer is a wonderful time to shift gears and to set-aside time for something new!

Many people have never read through the entire Bible. Some people don’t know where to begin, and other people begin in the first chapter of Genesis – but get bogged-down when they reach Leviticus. We all like to know that we’re doing things with other people. That’s what the ExploraStory Cafe is all about! It’s about reading God’s Word with other people. It’s about exploring foundations of our faith by listening, together, to recorded messages. It’s about spending quiet-time at the end of the day – reviewing the events of the past day and even asking ourselves, “What will I need from God – as I face the joys and challenges of tomorrow?”

This week, we’re going to ride a roller coaster during our journey through the Bible!

We’re going to read the 10 Commandments on Monday, and we’re going to read David’s psalm of confession (which was written after his disastrous affair with Bathsheba and after his role in causing the death of her husband, Uriah, became public) on Wednesday. We are going to encounter a threat that God uttered against a false-prophet, Hananiah, (“I am going to remove you from the face of the earth!” ~ Jeremiah 28:16) on Friday; and, on Saturday, we’re going to see Mark’s Gospel abruptly end as the three women who went to Jesus’ empty tomb flee in astonishment and say nothing to anyone. And, as we’re reading through these parts of the Bible together, we’re going to be challenged to think.

Which of the 10 Commandments am I breaking – right now – at this point in my life?

Do I regularly think about the things that I’m doing and ask God to forgive my sins, or do I wait until my sins are lifted before my eyes by another person?

How are my thoughts and actions being shaped by God’s Word, and how do my thoughts and actions bear testimony to what God’s doing in my life and in the world?

How do I respond to my encounters with the Risen Christ? Am I telling others about what Christ is doing in my life? Am I trying my best to figure-out what it means? Am I afraid to speak about the things that God’s doing? How could I be a more effective witness to God’s work in my life and in the world?

Here are next week’s readings:

Sunday: 2 Corinthians 4-5 – Monday: Exodus 17-20 – Tuesday: 2 Samuel 5-9 – Wednesday: Psalms 51-53 – Thursday: Job 35-36 – Friday: Jeremiah 27-31 – Saturday: Mark 15-16

Blessings!

Read Through the Bible – Weeks 15/16

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Welcome back to “Read Through the Bible”

But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the ways I command you, that it may be well with you.’ But they did not obey or incline their ears, but they walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.” ~ Jeremiah 7:23-24

I suspect that we’ve all had times when we’ve lived in the way that God commanded us to live, and I suspect that we’ve all had times when we drifted off course. We read and digest God’s Word, and we pray for God’s guidance and direction. We have times when we drift away from God because we don’t listen, because we walk in our counsels, and because we can even be drawn off course by our own stubbornness and rebellion. But how do we get back on course and find “peace with God” after we’ve gone astray?

Many people believe that “peace with God” is achieved by returning to obedience. We’ve been told that we’re supposed to confess our sins, repent and change course. Even God’s Word tells us: when we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins. (1 John 1:9) But if we seek “peace with God” by trying to live in the right way, how can we know when we’ve done enough? If “Judgment Day” is a day when we’re going to stand in front of a great, big scale in the sky with all of our “good deeds” placed on one side of the scale and all of our “bad deeds” placed on the other of the scale, how can we know – with 100% certainty – that the scale’s going to tip in the right direction?

St. Paul struggled with that idea as he was making sense of what it means to be baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  St. Paul made some big mistakes along the way, and he was present at the stoning of Steven. (Acts 7:54-60)  Paul was severely and continuously criticized throughout his ministry because he persecuted the early Church. (Galatians 1:13) Centuries later, the German reformer, Martin Luther, struggled with the same issue – “How can I ever be ‘good’ enough to find peace with God?” And that question is what, ultimately, led Luther to post his 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church.

When we’re not perfect and when we make mistakes (even when we’re trying our best to do differently), how do we find “peace with God”?

St. Paul’s answer is simple: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are made right by God’s grace as a gift through redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23)

“Peace with God” comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. “Peace with God” isn’t found by somehow returning to obedience and by find a way to “get it right” this time. We find “peace with God” when we discover that we’re the recipients of a gift from the hands of God that comes to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

And now, here are your readings for the next two weeks:

Week 15

Sunday: 1 Corinthians 13-14 – Monday: Exodus 5-8 – Tuesday: 1 Samuel 21-25 – Wednesday: Psalms 42-44 – Thursday: Job 29-30 – Friday: Jeremiah: 12-16 – Saturday: Mark 9-10

Week 16

Sunday: 1 Corinthians 15-16 – Monday: Exodus 9-12 – Tuesday: 1 Samuel 26-31 – Wednesday: Psalms 45-47 – Thursday: Job 31-32 – Friday: Jeremiah 17-21 – Saturday: Mark 11-12

Blessings!

 

God Wants You Alone!

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We begin our journey through Lent this week.

Some of us have decided to “give up” something for the next few weeks, and some of us have entered Lent with the desire to try something new. Lent is, traditionally, a time in the year when we’re called to be more reflective and to carefully examine our priorities. And, as we travel through these next few weeks, we’ll be drawn to the base of the Cross, and we’ll be challenged to think about what the death and resurrection of Christ means to us today.

We begin Lent with a time of confession. Have any of us loved God with our whole heart and forgiven every single person who’s hurt us? Have any of us never experienced pride, or envy, or apathy? Have any of us never been negligent in prayer? Have we never closed our eyes to injustice, or allowed our deep-seated prejudices to affect the way we think about other people?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once penned a well-known book entitled: “Life Together.” And one of the central themes of that book is “alien righteousness” – a theme that clearly reminds us that, as we share our lives with other people, we can never forget that we are people who aren’t perfect and that we don’t have the right to demand perfection from others. This is an important truth for us to grasp as we live with each other in a fallen world.

Bonhoeffer writes:

“It is the grace of the Gospel which is so hard for the pious to understand. The Gospel confronts us with the truth and says: ‘You are a sinner; a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to the God who loves you – knowing that God wants you as you are; and He does not wants anything from you (some sort of sacrifice or good work). God wants you alone!'”

That’s where we begin our journey through Lent. And in the message, “God Wants You Alone”, we’re invited to enter the Season of Lent with that in mind. Perhaps, instead of moving through the Season of Lent with our list of things we’re willing to “give up” as a sign of self-denial, we can use this special time in the year to focus upon the love and grace and embrace of the Living God – hearing once again: “God Wants You Alone.”

Blessings!