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

Do You Want to be Healed?

question mark

I suspect that we all have questions about healing.

We can all see the difference between those who appear to be healthy and those who are struggling with disease. Even little children can sense the distinction between justice and oppression. Almost all major religions try to speak a helpful word to those who struggle with human mortality and to point them to the hope of eternity. Today, we experience many gaps between where we live and experience life today and where God’s promised to take us in the future.

This week’s story is one of my favorite stories from the Bible.

Picture mighty Naaman, an “important” man who lived his life commanding others to do what he wanted them to do. Picture this same man carrying 750 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold across nearly 80 miles of untamed wilderness. And when Naaman gets to Elisha’s house, he expects something big to happen.

But we read that the prophet Elisha didn’t even come out of his house to meet Naaman.

And then, we hear this very human response from a man who expected the prophet to heal him. “I thought that FOR ME the prophet would surely come out!” Naaman says to those who were traveling with him. And, in those very human words, we can hear our own voices can’t we? Have you ever expected God to do something big and spectacular in your life? Have you ever asked God to ride onto the scene and heal a terminal disease, or give you something that you really wanted? Have you ever been disappointed because God didn’t do what you expected? That’s the beauty of this story.

We’re reminded, in the story of Naaman, that God doesn’t always bring healing into our lives in big and spectacular ways. God brings healing through the touch of doctors and nurses, and through the medications that we take. God sometimes brings healing into our live while we’re talking with a trusted friend, a professional counselor, or even a pastor. God fills us with strength and faith as we come to the Table to be forgiven and renewed by Bread and Wine – the Body and Blood of Jesus. God, sometimes, even helps us to bring healing into the lives of other people through the kindness, forgiveness and compassion that we extend to other people when they need it most.

At this end of this wonderful story, there’s a hidden gem!

Picture mighty Naaman, a commander of soldiers, walking down to the Jordan River to wash himself in the water. Naaman, undoubtedly, wore heavy armor. He wanted to look strong and ferocious in battle. He, also, wore his armor everywhere he went because a thick layer of armor also hides leprosy, doesn’t it? Can you imagine what would have happened if Naaman had just walked to the water – wearing armor? Can you imagine Naaman sinking like a rock as his armor dragged him to the bottom of the river?

As Naaman approached the Jordan, he needed to remove his armor didn’t he? Before Naaman could be healed, he needed to remove the armor that protected him from other soldiers in battle and from the eyes of those who would have been shocked when they saw his leprosy. And healing often begins in our lives when we do the same thing.

Sometimes, we need to remove the “masks” that we all wear before God can work in our lives to bring healing. How many times have you told people that you’re “fine” when you really weren’t? How many times have you carried burdens that you carefully concealed because you didn’t want other people to know what was happening in your life, or even in your family? Healing often begins when we become both honest and authentic with ourselves and other people. The “masks” that we wear aren’t always helpful.

Jesus once called us to come to Him when we’re heavy laden and nearly overcome. Jesus calls us gather with other Christians in a community of faith where we can be forgiven and strengthened, renewed and even healed.

What are you going to be doing this weekend? Perhaps, it’s time for you to push all of the busyness of life aside, for just a moment, and to find a precious place to rest with those who love you and who want what’s best for you? God’s calling you, right now, to set aside some time in the next few days; and to spend time with people who will strengthen, heal, renew, and help to make you whole again.

Please Click Here for This Week’s Message

Food for Your Soul

Bread and wine

Many people are watching what they eat these days.

Doctors tells us that we need to eat more fruits and vegetables. I suspect that most of us know that it’s not good to eat a slab of bacon every morning, or to make potato and corn chips a regular staple in our diets. But what are you feeding your soul?

A lot of people seem to be confused about what their souls need and a lot of churches are scrambling to provide what people want in larger portions. Many churches are focusing upon the marvels of technology, and they’re filling their services with flashing lights and loud music. Most pastors know that folks in their congregation want a service that lasts about an hour each week. Many pastors try to accommodate special events by trimming other parts of the service. And sadly, in an effort to provide what they think people are searching to find, many churches eliminate – or seldom celebrate – Holy Communion.

It’s easy for us to forget that we live our lives of faith from Meal to Meal to Meal.

At the Table of the Lord, God creates a space in our lives where company presidents and the people who work for them kneel beside each other. At the Table of the Lord, God creates a little “snippet in time” when people who are homeless and people who live in a mighty mansion are offered the exact same meal in the exact same portion. And then, God sends us back into a world where hundreds of people compete with each other every time a new job is posted. God sends us back into a world where people are not at all reluctant to push other people out of the way as they climb to the next rung of the corporate ladder. God sends us back into a world where people build their identity by defining life as “us versus them” – “insiders versus outsiders” – “people who are just like me versus people who simply aren’t.”

Living a life of faith isn’t easy. Living a “Kingdom Life” that bears testimony to the fact that God has given ALL of us value and worth and that lifts-up the fact that EVERYONE deserves to be honored and cherished as a Temple of the Holy Spirit isn’t easy in a world that’s built upon competition and getting ahead of other people. And that’s why the life of the Church is built around a Meal. The Bible tells us that, from the very start, the earliest Church was built around gatherings where people shared Bread and Wine.

God forgives us and renews us and strengthens us at the Table; and then, God sends us back into the world as people of faith. And, with a new set of eyes and with a heart that has been filled by the power of the Holy Spirit, God sends us into the world as people of faith who have been given a little glimpse of how the Kingdom of God really works and who are called to point other people in that direction. And when we grow weary, God brings us back to the Table to be forgiven and renewed and strengthened again. Jesus calls us to live our lives of faith from Meal to Meal to Meal.

You see, the Church is built and is sustained by the Meal. Holy Communion continues to be food for our souls in a world that’s so filled with consumerism and searching for the greener grass that many people are losing touch with what their souls are searching for in a world where life’s never easy.

Jesus continues to build His Church around a Meal that’s meant to strengthen us and give us a glimpse of God’s presence in the world. Holy Communion is a little “snippet in time” when Jesus provides a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

Let’s eat!

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Stronger Together!

something-new-graphic

I can’t think of any words that describe the last few months of our ministry at Christ’s Lutheran Church better than the words: “Stronger Together!” We’ve been devoting a lot of time to developing partnerships with other churches and organizations, and the seeds that we’ve planted have already sprouted and grown into fruit-bearing trees! God has been doing mighty things in our midst and we have some exciting stories about how God has been at work in our congregation to share with you today. So, here’s what’s been happening….

Flea Market

In June, our Social Ministry and Outreach Team sponsored yet another successful Flea Market that drew hundreds of people from our local community together. Many of our partners in ministry at Christ’s generously donated items that were sold, while other partners carefully sorted and priced the items before the “BIG DAY” arrived. We had partners who supplied baked good, other partners who cooked hot dogs and sold cold drinks. We had still other partners who worked on the day of the event collecting money from hundreds of people who arrived searching for their treasures, and yet others who packed-up what remained unsold at the end of the day. People who joined together as partners with a common cause raised more than $2,000 that will be used to support life-giving ministries throughout our community.

As the month of June drew to a close, it was time for the young people from Christ’s and their adult sponsors to travel to Lorain, Ohio for our long-anticipated Mission Trip! We spent a week digging holes, pounding nails, pouring cement, painting walls, talking with people that we’d never met, worshipping in a church building where we’d never been, reflecting upon our own journey of faith, and learning what it’s like to be more deeply engaged in mission. We learned that people don’t have to travel to a strange land to be a missionary – because Lorain, Ohio isn’t all that different than Murrysville, Pennsylvania. We learned that people who serve as missionaries often face tight budgets and don’t always have the money that they need to do the things that they want to do. We learned that when we are willing to step out of our own “comfort-zone” we can learn things about life and other people that we’d have never known it we didn’t do that. And we learned that, sometimes, there’s a difference between what people need us to do for them and what we want to do for them (I remember a conversation with one of the women we were serving who wanted the steps on her deck to be placed in a different location, so that it would be easier for her to bring her groceries into the house – and there was a little bit of angst because the “plans” that were drawn for her deck indicated that the steps were going to be built in a different location).

Mission Trip 2

Mission Trip

We had a lot of fun. We learned a lot about life. We had many opportunities to reflect upon our faith. And again, it was all made possible because of partnerships that were forged between people who joined hands. Many of our generous partners at Christ’s contributed the money that we needed, and a few of our partners worked tirelessly to bring it all together. NextStep Ministries forged connections that we couldn’t have built by ourselves in Lorain, Ohio; gathered the tools that we needed; identified the locations where we worked, secured the necessary permits, and prepared our meals. The Avon Lake Presbyterian Church provided a place where we could leave our belongings, shower at the end of the day, gather for meals and worship, and sleep (when I wasn’t blasting Podcasts in the sleeping quarters). Once again, partnerships bring explosive results and open new doors to life-changing ministry!

And then, before we even had a chance to unpack the suitcases that we had taken to Lorain, Ohio, it was time for another adventure with Vacation Bible School. Once again, an army of partners at Christ’s was raised and rallied – and kids, from our congregation and from our local community, came out of nowhere. We sang songs and played games. We talked about the wonderful world that God has created, had a blast working on crafts, and filled our bellies with snacks every day. We even had a surprise development this year! On Monday, it took me a little bit longer than I had anticipated to get to the Fellowship Hall to say the prayer before the snack. Well, on Tuesday, the kids decided that they were not going to sit around and wait for me. And so, one of the kids stood up and said, “I’ll say the prayer today!” And every day after that, one of the children stood up and volunteered to say the prayer before the snack was served. Awesome! Another display of partnership! A great team of people coming together with a common goal and purpose – making great things happen together!

VBS

Now this story’s a bit tricky (and we can’t share a picture because of confidentiality issues), but it’s a real gem! Last Spring, our Outreach and Social Ministry Team had an idea and decided that it would like to reach-out to people in our community who are presently living their lives in the role of a “caregiver.” As you know, being a caregiver is not easy and we, at Christ’s, don’t have the resources (or the expertise) that we need to be able to offer the kinds of support that caregivers both need and deserve. And so, once again, partnership became something for us to explore. Our Outreach and Social Ministry Team contacted the Westmoreland County Area Agency on Aging and discovered that the agency offers a 6-week class for caregivers called Powerful Tools for Caregivers. And Voila…! We were ready to move forward. But, then, there was another challenge. How could we work together to enable people who are caregivers to attend the classes, particularly if they are a sole caregiver who needs to stay with their loved-one nearly 24-hours each day? And we found the solution in yet another partnership with the United Way through its Open Your Heart to a Senior program. Well, I’m happy to report that these vital partnerships (another example of our ministry bringing people and organizations together) is working well. We have 12 people enrolled in the class (the maximum number of people who can be enrolled) and we have four more people on our waiting list – ready to attend our next class!

And finally, yet another exciting partnership is blossoming at Christ’s Lutheran Church! This summer, we formed a new partnership with the Northside Common Ministries – a ministry that is supplying food to people who are facing hunger and homelessness in our area. The Northside Common Ministries is devoted to taking meals to people in our area who are homeless. Meals are packaged and delivered to the distribution site; and then, they are hand-delivered to people who are homeless by people who are committed to reaching-out to children of God who are caught in a quite difficult situation. Together, we have supplied food containers and flatware. Several of our partners in ministry have joined in the distribution of meals. And a group of our partners in ministry gathered on August 10th to prepare 66 meals that were distributed to people facing homelessness later that evening. This wonderful new partnership is yet another example of the fact that we can do far more when we join hands with other people who share the same kind of hopes and dreams that we have for a better world.

Food Packers

And so, as you can see, it’s been a busy summer! It’s been a summer where we’re stretching our wings in some new ways, where we’re exploring some new types of ministry, and where we’re seeing God work through the power of partnerships that we have formed with other groups of people in our community. Please keep your eyes open as we move into the Fall and as we continue to share the stories of other things that we’re doing. There are so many different ways that you can be a part of what God’s doing at Christ’s Lutheran Church. And there’s a special place for everyone – including you!

While Journeying to Paradise

ZZZ - Psalm Intro and Response

Christians talk a lot about Paradise.

We look forward to the day when the New Jerusalem will come down out of Heaven and when God will, personally, wipe the tears from our eyes. We long for the Day when there will no longer be any pain and suffering, mourning and sorrow,  or crying and grief. And we, sometimes, disagree about how that Great Day will come. Some folks invest a lot of time and money reminding people of the Day of Christ’s return. Others speak of God’s Kingdom in the world today – slowly transforming everything into what God wants it to be. And, of course, in the last few weeks, we’ve been focusing upon “Olam Haba” – “What our world is yet to be” – while keeping in mind that the words “Olam Haba” don’t appear in the Bible even though the concept has been discussed and debated by the rabbis and theologians in the Christian tradition for thousands of years.

We look forward to the Great Day when the promises of Christ will be fulfilled; but we, also, need to live in the world today. So let’s keep things practical in the same way that the writer of Psalm 15 did so many years ago.

The writer of Psalm 15 begins by reminding us that we are sojourners – travelers – who are moving from one place to another. The psalmist reminds us of the days when the people of Israel worshiped God in a tent that was located in the Wilderness. The psalmist then goes on to speak of the days when God’s people worshiped in the Temple – before it was flattened like a pancake by the Babylonians and then, again, by the Romans. But, much to our surprise, the psalmist doesn’t write about cultic practices and about how we should worship as we travel from “where we are right now” to “where God wants us to be in the future.” In fact, the rabbis even warn us against using Psalm 15 as an “Entrance Quiz” to determine “who is welcome” and “who is not welcome” as we gather in worship.

And so, how do we live as we are journey toward Paradise?

The psalmist is clear. “Do what’s right and speak truthfully from you heart.” “Tame your tongue and use words to build people up.” “Be a person whose life is clearly marked with honesty and integrity.” “Live your life with a spark of hope in your heart and honor other people by treating them fairly in a world that’s often marked by heartless attitudes.”

Have you ever though about why God put you on the earth?

How would your life and your relationships with others change if you focused upon the fact that you’ve been put on the earth to learn how to love?

The promise of “Olam Haba” continues to point toward better days. The vision of “what our world is yet to be” can ignite a spark of hope in our hearts and send us into the world as people who point other folks toward the light at the end of the tunnel in a world that’s often both challenging and cruel. And isn’t that what Christian ministry is all about? Isn’t Christian ministry about going into the world and doing God’s work with our own hands – after we’ve captured a vision of “Olam Haba” – “What our world is yet to be” – in times of prayer and worship?

Click Here for this Week’s Message

 

עולם הבא

ZZZ - Psalm Intro and Response

In the coming weeks, we will be using the Hebrew words: Olam HaBa. Olam HaBa, which can be translated as “what the world is yet to be,” lifts-up images of hope and of what life and the world will be like when God’s final plan for the Creation is complete.

Olam HaBa is widely discussed by theologians. Some speak of Olam HaBa as the time when those who will be resurrected and those who will not share in the “world to come” will be separated. Others speak of Olam Haba as a time of radical transformation—as a time when single grapes will produce enough wine to fill a flagon, when trees produce fruit one month after they are planted, and when God’s people will be known throughout the world as the producers of the finest grain and wool. Olam HaBa is the fulfillment of God’s promised Messianic Age.

But we can’t fully enjoy (or understand) Olam HaBa because it doesn’t exist yet–and that’s what this week’s message  is all about. Olam Haba is still in the future. Think of the day when God will personally dry your tears, and when all of your suffering and pain will come to an end. Think about a Great Day when every type of suffering and sorrow and mourning will come to an end. The words “Olam HaBa” don’t appear in the Bible; however, John of Patmos captures the essence of Olam HaBa when he writes:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” ~ Revelation 21:1-5a

Do you know a child who’s grieving?

Waterbugs

The loss of a loved-one can be devastating to a child.

Some children travel through many years of their lives without experiencing the death of someone that they know. I wasn’t so lucky. One of my grandmothers died when I was four. Less than three years later, I lost one of my grandfathers – and two years after that, I lost my other grandfather.

It’s not easy to talk with children about death.

Children can have as many questions about death as we do. What happens to people when they die? Can grandma still see me even though she’s buried in the ground? Why does mommy cry so much, and why does daddy tell me to just leave her alone? Am I supposed to cry like everyone else? Am I going to die when I go to sleep tonight?

I have used Water Bugs and Dragonflies as a tool for many years. It’s a well-written story, and it’s a wonderful resource that can help adults to speak to grieving children. And now, it’s even available in an incredibly helpful coloring-book format!

If you know a child who’s struggling to make sense of the death of a loved-one, you may want to get a copy of Water Bugs and Dragonflies and spend some time reading a story, coloring, and talking about one of the hardest parts of life that we’ll ever face. 

Hatred will not Win!

Pitts Pic

John 11:32-44

I was as stunned and as saddened by last weekend’s senseless massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh as you were.

I don’t understand the hatred that led to the tragedy; and I don’t understand the racism, bigotry and narrow-minded thinking that led to the senseless killing of eleven innocent people. I spent some time with Jews and Muslims and Hindus and other Christians at Temple David in Monroeville, Pennsylvania last weekend because I needed to witness people coming together as a “community,” and because I wanted to be a part of a small gathering of people who are committed to the fact that hatred will not win.

Hatred descends upon us like a thick and suffocating blanket. Hatred isolates us from other people. Hatred turns off the lights and leaves us in darkness. Hatred makes our hearts cold and angry and bitter toward people that we don’t even know.

We celebrate the Festival of All Saints as a “holy time” in our journey of faith. We take time to remember people that we’ve loved and lost, and we tell stories about their lives (sometimes with a sense of heaviness in our hearts). We remember those whom we have loved and lost through the years and we stand beside people who have experienced the same kinds of loss that we have. And, just like in the short story of Lazarus’ death and raising, Jesus draws near to weep and to comfort us. Jesus brings the “living presence of God” near to us as He dries the tears in our eyes and bears testimony to the fact that even in times of sorrow and loss, God is at work to do something new. John of Patmos bears testimony to the God who is active and re-creating everything in our lives and in the entire Creation (Revelation 21:1-6a). John talks about God dwelling with us and wiping the tears from our eyes. John speaks of a day when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. John of Patmos echoes the great promise of the prophet Isaiah who proclaimed, “God will destroy on this mountain the suffocating shroud that’s spread over all people, and God will swallow-up death forever.” (Isaiah 25:7-8)

“Hatred will not Win!” Christians proclaim that God’s at work to re-create the world all around us; and God’s at work to bring an end to the types of racism, bigotry and narrow-minded thinking that can end the lives of innocent people. Christians stand together in the shadow of a Cross where God binds people together and welcomes everybody with a warm embrace. Christians understand that, when God’s at work, the world that we share can begin to change and people really can stop killing other people simply because they see them as people who are “different” in some way. Christians are called to stand beside our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community and to cry with them as they mourn – always carrying in our hearts the promise of the great peace that we crave in solidarity, and clinging to the fact that the great peace that we desire for ourselves and for those who come after us will come – and, as Julian of Norwich once said, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

I don’t understand the hatred that led to last weekend’s tragedy. I don’t understand the kinds of racism, bigotry and narrow-minded thinking that led to the deaths of Bernice, Sylvan, Melvin, Daniel, Irving, Rose, Jerry, Joyce, Richard, Cecil and David. But I do know that the powers of good will prevail as long as Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus continue to come together and promise each other that hatred will not be allowed to win. The powers of good and of God will prevail as long as we allow God to draw us together into a “community” where what binds us together is stronger than what tears us apart.

But, now is a time to stop – to weep with those who are weeping – and to offer our love and full support to those whose lives have been changed in an unspeakable way.

May God’s peace be with you!

Always remember that, even in the face of tragedy, God is at work to re-create what we see all around us as we stand beside each other and share each other’s pain, and as we open our lives to God’s healing power that continues to work in our lives and in the world.

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.”

 

Your Life and Your Money

Money Pic

Mark 10:35-45

Many people cringe when their pastor begins to talk about money.

The story of our faith tells us that, in the Beginning, God created everything that we see and that God created it all to be “good.” In his explanation of the 4th Petition in the Lord’s Prayer, Martin Luther reminds us that, when we ask God to “give us this day our daily bread,” God responds to our prayer by providing food, drink, shelter, shoes, clothing, our homes, faithful rulers, good weather, peace, good health, good neighbors, and even the gift of money. Signs of God’s faithfulness are all around us; in fact, God’s continuing love and faithfulness is what keeps us alive.
And so, a natural question emerges: “How do we respond to God’s faithfulness?”

In today’s reading (Mark 10:35-45), James and John ask an interesting question. They have been following Jesus for some time. They have seen Jesus perform miracles and heal the sick. They’ve heard Jesus talk about Heaven and they decide that they want special seats in Heaven; and so, they ask Jesus to give them those coveted places.
But Jesus surprises them.

Jesus describes being a Christ-ian as being a person who serves. Following Jesus is not about honor and prestige, and being great and visible. Following Jesus is not about power and authority and getting your own way. Christ-ians follow Jesus by living lives that are dedicated to loosing bonds and setting people free. Christ-ians untie bonds and help people move toward “wellness.” But, in a busy world, we don’t have enough hours in the day to support every good cause, do we? In a busy world filled is many obligations, we can’t set everyone free, untie all of the bonds that we want to untie, and help all of the people that we want to help move toward “wellness.” But, what we do have is a “vehicle” that we can use to do just that.
What would happen if you began to look at money as something that someone else gives to you in exchange for a part of your life that you can never get back?

That’s the truth that this week’s message, “Your Life and Your Money”, lifts-up. Our lives and our money are intimately connected. And our money is a “vehicle” that we can use to do things that we, otherwise, wouldn’t have the time or the physical ability to do.

We may not have time or the physical ability to visit the ill and the home-bound people in our community – but, through the “vehicle” of money, we can offer a part of our lives to restore people who are suffering and lonely to wellness by supporting the ministry of a person who makes those life-changing visits. We may not have the time or the physical ability to feed hungry people in our community – but, through the “vehicle” of money, we can give-up a part of our lives as Christ-ians to untie the bonds of hunger and place food on people’s tables by supporting the work of a local food bank. We may not have time or the physical ability to fight the raging battle against addictions in our communities – but, through the “vehicle” of money, we can give-up a part of our lives as Christ-ians, so that people who are battling addictions have a safe place where they can gather in supportive communities to fight their battle with the help of other people. We may not have time or the physical ability to rebuild homes after a hurricane has destroyed them – but through the “vehicle” of money we can restore hope and rebuild homes, and we can provide help to those who are traveling through one of the most difficult times in their lives.
When we give money to the Church, we offer a gift-of-life that will be used as a “vehicle” to restore people, to untie bonds, and to bring God’s people to a better place in life that’s marked with both health and wellness.

Money that’s given to the Church isn’t just used to support an institution or social club. Money that’s given to the Church isn’t just used to pay ongoing expenses, so that the doors of an aging building can remain open for another week.

The money that you give is a “vehicle” that we use to share our lives with others. Money that we give to the Church in thanksgiving is a “vehicle” we use to share time and energy and life with folks who need to be restored and who need to be brought to a better place in life in the name of Jesus.