When Someone Dies

Funeral Pic

It’s always difficult to face the death of people that we’ve loved.

God brings special people into our lives because God knows that it’s not good for us to travel through life alone (Genesis 2:18). We share our lives with a wide variety of other people: parents and grandparents, perhaps siblings and a spouse, teachers and friends, perhaps a pastor or someone at the place where we worship. And our lives are enriched by relationships, and we even learn about life from other people.

But, sooner or later, we need to say, “Goodbye.”

Death can come suddenly, or it can come after a long illness. We, sometimes, see people trying to make everything “right” with their friends and family members before they die; but, sometimes, people die leaving unresolved conflicts and people who have been hurt and alienated behind. But, no matter what the circumstances, death is always hard and one of the things we often do is wrap people in thick layers of sentimentality that leaves us believing (or wanting to believe) that they were more perfect than they really were.

I’ve heard people say things like, “Nobody could ever bake an apple pie like Grandma did,” but people don’t want to talk about the fact that Grandma’s coffee almost always tasted burnt. We want to remember “Mom” as a lady who did wonderful things for other people, but we don’t like to talk about the fact that Mom loved to argue with others so much that, when nobody else was around, she’s stand in front of a mirror and argue with herself.

In Psalm 149, the writer speaks about something called a “two-edged sword.” Two-edged swords are forged to pierce armor. Two-edged swords are forged to puncture and pierce through something that is wrapped around people in order to protect them. And, I think that’s a helpful image to remember when we honor and memorialize those that we have loved who have died on a day like All Saints Day.

We, sometimes, wrap people in a thick layer of sentimentality when they die. When we are remembering those who have died, we might want to remember them as people who were somehow bigger than they actually were. And that can leave us thinking that we are somehow “less.” The thick armor of sentimentality that we wrap around people who have died can cause us to forget that their lives were a mixture of both bad and good, great strengths and character flaws just like our lives are marked with those very same things today.

But, what would happen if we allowed a “two-edged sword” to pierce through the thick layer of sentimentality that we wrap around those who have died?

Perhaps, we could more authentically celebrate the goodness in the lives of people who have died while remembering that they were no more perfect than we are. Perhaps, we could more clearly see that, in every Age, God’s people have displayed a rather odd mixture of both good and bad – a bold reminder that we all live our lives as saints and sinners at the same time. Perhaps, we could more honestly admit that people who have died had a few quirks and flaws; and, yet, God worked in their lives anyways. And, in that realization, we could begin to more easily understand that God is working in our lives to do good things – even though we sometimes live our lives as our own worst critic.

God has done wonderful things in the lives of those who have gone before us who now rest in the arms of the God who has promised us the gift of Eternity. And yet, if we allow the “two-edged sword” of God’s Word to pierce the “armor of sentimentality” that we all too often wrap around those who have died, we can see them in a much more authentic way. And, when we do that, we’ll find it easier to understand that those who have died were not any more qualified to have God work in their lives than we are.

And that’s a word of Good News, isn’t it?

Click Here for This Week’s Message

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

Do You REALLY Want Life To Be Fair?

scale

I have always believed that life should be fair.

I like to watch “Law and Order” because less than an hour after somebody commits a crime that person is hauled off to jail. I believe that good things should happen to good people and bad things should happen to bad people.

But life is NOT always fair, is it?

Several weeks ago, a woman in the area where I live, drove off with a little child in the back seat of a car leaving the child’s father standing in the dust. Several hours later, the child was found dead. Just last week, a man who plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates (who shall remain unnamed) was arrested for allegedly abusing young people while he was being paid millions of dollars to play baseball. Have you ever been hurt by a person who walked away from you as if nothing happened or by a person who refused to admit that something was wrong? Have you ever had a time in your life when you were trying to do your very best, but ended-up on the short end of the stick? We probably all have.

This week, we focus our attention upon a really strange story that Jesus told about a man who squandered someone else’s property and who was fired for doing it. (Luke 16:1-13) And, even though many of us have seen people get fired because they did something that was wrong, the horror of this story is compounded when the man who is being fired for his misbehavior calls-in other people who owe his boss money and “cooks the books” to reduce what OTHER people owe, too. Now there’s nothing really fair about that is there? And yet, the boss commends the man and pats him on the back. “Well done!” the man’s boss exclaims. “You were really smart when you decided to cooked the books and reduce the debts of other people!”

And that’s NOT fair, is it? People who borrow money from other people should pay back every penny they borrow with interest! People who struggle to make ends meet should just work harder. People who commit a crime should be labeled as “felons” for the rest of their lives even it means that they can’t find a job after they have served their sentences. Why is a man’s boss commending him for doing something even more outrageous than he was doing before he was fired?

Perhaps, the reason we have a problem with this story is because even though we THINK that we believe that life should be fair, we really don’t? We THINK that life should be fair to US, but we DON’T really care if life is fair to other people.

Think about a time in your life when you hurt someone with your words or actions, and when somebody forgave you even though you didn’t deserve it. Think about all of the times when God has filled your life with blessings even though your life of prayer was pretty dry. Think about all of the times when God has scooped you up and has  forgiven you after you’ve fallen flat on your face. Think about love. Is love always fair? I thank God that I have relationships with people who continue to care about me even in times of disappointment. I thank God that people don’t simply strike back and try to hurt me as badly as I’ve hurt them. I thank God that love often survives ups and downs in daily life simply because it ISN’T fair and because it DOESN’T demand justice when a relationship is moving through a difficult time.

What if I told you that God’s love isn’t fair? And what if I told you that “unfairness” can be a sign of the inbreaking of the Reign of God?

Think about Jesus crying out from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing!” Think about a Risen Lord who continues to challenge us to live with a sense of “unfairness” in our lives and in our interactions with others. The “forgiven” are given the chance to forgive. Those who are “embraced” have the chance to embrace other people. Those who know that they are “loved” have a chance to love even when it’s tempting to feel that we have the right to strike back in the name of justice and fairness.

And so, let’s think about what I call “holy un-fairness” as we travel through life this week. Is there somebody that you need to forgive today? Are there people that you’re unwilling to welcome and embrace for a reason that you don’t want to share because you are a bit embarrassed to admit the way you feel? How could embracing “holy unfairness” bring you peace, heal your soul, and restore a sense of calm and wholeness in your life?

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

 

Standing Before God

ZZZ - Psalm Intro and Response

Throughout the months of July and August, we’ve been focusing upon God’s plan for our lives and for our world. We all know that our world is far from perfect. And yet, we live as people who look forward to that Great Day when God will wipe away the tears from our eyes and when there will be no more suffering, or pain, or sorrow, or mourning, or sickness, or hurt or pain. And, if you recall, we’ve referred to that Age of Perfection – to “What our world is yet to be” – as Olam Haba.

Well, this last message in our summer series reminds us that one of the most important things that we can do as we’re living our lives in the GAP that stands between “what our world is right now” and “what our world is yet to be” is remain deeply engaged in what’s happening in our world and continue to do the things that we believe God is calling us to do. In Christian circles, we refer to this challenge as God’s call to be engaged in mission.

In Psalm 82, we are drawn into a courtroom and that One who’s seated behind the bench speaks to us both clearly and directly:

How long will you continue to judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?”

And the command of the One who’s seated behind the bench is just as clear: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Mission keeps God’s people connected to other people in life-giving ways.

Picture a group of teenagers pounding nails, mixing concrete, and painting walls in the homes of people who need their help. Picture women crocheting hats for women who are fighting cancer, and other people walking through the streets of a busy city taking meals to people who are homeless. Can you imagine the joy that fills a woman’s heart when a pharmacist hands her a bottle of medication that she couldn’t afford a few hours earlier, or when a family realizes that the water in their home is running again? Mission keeps God’s people connected to other people in life-giving ways. Mission reminds us that God calls us to bring justice to the world, to maintain the rights of the lowly, and to rescue the weak and the needy. 

We all talk about the fact that we’re living in tough times these days. And, as we come to the end of this series of messages, I want to remind you that it’s people just like you who are changing our world and who are helping it to become a better place.

And so, here’s a challenge:  This week, I’d like to challenge you to think about one way that our world could become a better place. Think about something that could help our world to become more like what you think God wants it to be like. And at some point this week, go out and DO SOMETHING that you think would help to move our world in that direction. That’s mission! And you might even discover that it’s God’s deepest calling in your life!

Click Here for This Week’s Message

When in Doubt – Just Love People

ZZZ - Psalm Intro and Response

Last week, I had a great chance to talk with children about diversity.

I began by looking at the story of Creation and by remembering that, in the Beginning, God created our world to be a place filled with many different things. God created the sun and the moon, the birds and the fish, trees and even worms. And then, to top it all off, God made people and filled them with the Spirit that gives life. And God was happy!

But we need to remember that God didn’t only make a lot of different things. God made a lot of different things that are different than each other. There are blue birds and red birds and yellow birds – but they’re all birds, aren’t they? There are people with brown eyes and blue eyes, with long hair and short hair, with darker skin and lighter skin – and there are even people who speak different languages and who are born in countries all over the world. But, when we get back to the basics, we’re all people, aren’t we? We all want to be loved, don’t we? We all want to know that we’re going to be safe as we move around in the world. We all want to have food to eat when we’re hungry. And we all just want to be happy, in one way or another, don’t we…?

But, sometimes, we’re not happy.

Even though God was happy with the diversity that fills our world, people don’t always find it easy to be happy and celebrate the diversity that surrounds them. Kids sometimes pick their friends based upon the kind of clothes that they wear, or the type of shoes that they wear. Adults, sometimes, put up walls when they see people who are different than themselves because they’re scared and want to fee safe. The sin in our lives encourages us to divide and separate our world into more and more disconnected pieces. And when that happens, it makes God sad. It makes God so sad, in fact, that God even decided to do something about it.

God sent Jesus into the world to remind us that “it’s all about love.” The Bible tells us that, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. The Bible tells us that faith and the love of Jesus level the playing field and help us see that differences and diversity can be embraced and celebrated as a part of the goodness of the Creation. The Cross of Jesus brings us together! And, if we ever doubt that the words of Jesus are true, all we need to do is remember Easter. God raised Jesus from the dead on Easter to show us that Jesus is right! It really IS all about love!

And that’s the message I shared with the children at Vacation Bible School. It’s a message that reminds us that God loves us just as we are and that God, also, calls us to extend that very same love to each other. Our differences and all of the diversity that surrounds us can encourage us to divide the world into smaller and smaller pieces, and to build more and more walls to keep other people away from us. Our differences can tear our world apart and create more challenges and problems than we’re facing right now. But there’s another path. The “Jesus Path.” We can learn to embrace and celebrate diversity. We can learn again, with the help of Jesus, see other people through the eyes of God! And when we do that, we’ll be taking a big step toward helping our world to be a better place — the kind of place that God wants it to be.

So, let’s try that, this week. Let’s work together to begin transforming our world into a better place for all of us by embracing the goodness of the world as God made it! Olam Haba – “what the world is yet to be” – is closer than we’d ever imagine. And we can even get a little taste of it — when we go into the world and when we allow love to win!

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

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.”