Uncertain Times

I clearly recall every detail of September 11, 2001. I can tell you everything I saw, heard, said, and experienced throughout that day. Where I was, what I was doing, who I was with is all etched deeply into my mind. On that day, and many times since that day, I have commented that 9/11/2001 is for me like Pearl Harbor was for the generation before me.

In my lifetime, there have been a handful of significant events that have created a lasting impact upon me. In addition to the attacks on New York City, Washington D.C., and the downing of the plane in Pennsylvania, there is the day when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded shortly after take off on January 28, 1986. Added to my list of significant dates would be November 9, 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. The beginning of the Gulf War on January 16, 1991 is a final date that I will add to my list. There have been other significant dates of events in my lifetime which I recall but each of these on my list had some type of impact directly upon my life. Each created some sense of uncertainty for me.

We have now entered another period of uncertainty in my life. Our nation and our world are dealing with a health emergency at a level that I have never experienced before. Everyone of us is being impacted in some way by the international virus which we have come to know as COVID-19. Today, the mayor of my community issued an order for all people to stay at their homes except for essential trips to the grocery stores, places of work, pharmacies, gas stations, or medical facilities. When I go to the grocery store, meat and milk are in very short supply and what is available is highly limited. Other items are gone from almost all store shelves throughout the metropolitan area. These changes make life a whole new experience for me and millions of others.

So what do we do with all this uncertainty?

First, I suggest we keep everything in perspective. This is not the first time our nation, or our world, has faced a life-altering crisis. Throughout the history of humanity, events such as this one have occurred many times, and yet we have seen the crisis end with our species surviving. This does not mean that significant losses have not happened. Nor does it mean that at the end of crisis, the way in which we live does not look the same as before the crisis began. So rather than panic, we need to take each day at a time, navigate through the crisis to the best of our ability, and heed the advice of those who have the greatest knowledge available.

Second, I suggest we strive to deal with one another in compassionate and loving ways. Where possible, assist those who are combating the crisis, aid those who are most vulnerable, and give rather than hoard. When people work together, the outcome is more positive than when we isolate and only look out for ourselves. Providing comfort to those who experience a negative impact due to this situation expresses love that comes from above.

Third, rely upon your faith to be the strength you need. As a Christian, I turn to my Lord to give me reassurance and hope. I have seen some of my Muslim friends expressing their trust in Allah which is their understanding of our God. No matter what your faith tradition is, I encourage you to connect with that faith as you deal with the uncertainty of this crisis. It is through faith that we have hope necessary to realize we will emerge on the other side of this particular crisis.

We once again live in uncertain times. Like those before us, and those who will come after us, these times are just a period in our lives. Our nation and our world will survive and be changed by this even but it will not be destroyed.

The Struggle

I saw a person wearing a t-shirt which read, “The struggle is real.” After reading the words on the shirt, I began to ponder some questions. What is the struggle? Is it life? Is it a specific situation? Is it a project or task upon which effort is being made? Is it something spiritual? Is this in reference to an addiction? What exactly are we talking about here? Then I came to realize that the specifics are not what matters, what matters is the acknowledgment that for this person the struggle is real.

The truth is that all of us have struggles whether we declare it by wearing a t-shirt or if we keep them to ourselves. For some of us the struggles change over time. Others have a constant struggle like those dealing with addictions. There are times the struggle seems overwhelming. At different times we may even be able to manage the struggle and even overcome it. While facing whatever struggle is in our life, that struggle is completely real to us.

During his ministry, Jesus encountered many individuals who faced struggles. In the Bible, these struggles at times are verbalized in a spiritual sense using words which conjure up images of demons. An example of this is the man who is found naked in the graveyards outside of Gerasenes. Different stories of struggle are shared using words which create the idea of physical abnormalities. The man who was blind is an example of this imagery. In every one of the stories about Jesus encountering people with struggles, Jesus demonstrates a loving response. Jesus does not minimize their struggles but instead shows compassion, a willingness to listen, and provides for their needs. This example is one which can be very important as we strive to understand how to respond to the struggles of those around us.

Jesus also encountered struggles of his own. Stories of Jesus struggling to continuously minister to those around him are numerous throughout the Gospels. Jesus also struggles with the frustration of his message not being heard and understood by those with whom he speaks. The most poignant display of Jesus’ struggle is when he is in the olive trees on the Mount of Olives, the night of his arrest. The struggle is so intense that the author of Luke shares, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) Again, Jesus gives us an example of what to do when our struggle seems so real, every time he would go to the Father in prayer.

Yes, the struggle is real, but Jesus provides examples of how to handle the struggle. Whether the struggle is someone else’s or our own, Jesus shows us the way.

Remove the Clog

Sometimes in life we encounter clogs. Drains and toilets clog for a variety of reasons. If you have dogs who shed, like we do, you often find that you have to deal with a vacuum which clogs because of all the dog hair it is picking up. Whatever the cause, clogs can be very frustrating and may require a large amount of effort to remove. As long as the clog is there, the flow of water, air, or other materials will be impeded.

Times in life occur when we are clogged. I had a pretty wicked cold at the end of the year and for a couple of weeks my breathing was hampered because of a clogged nose. The experience is actually what started my thought process around clogs. Realizing that I was continuously blowing my nose in an attempt to remove the clog, I began to think about how at times I can become spiritually clogged, congested so that nothing is flowing through me.

I have heard others express what I have felt at times. A person might talk about not being able to feel connected to the Lord. The individual may mention that there does not seem to be a sense of spiritual energy flowing through them at a given time. When I preached regularly and led worship, I would have times when I felt disconnected from the Lord and disengaged in some ways. There existed a hindrance of some sort.

During these periods of time, I had to pause myself to do some examination. Much like with a clogged drain, I had to determine what was the source of the clog. Only by understanding the source could I go about the task of unclogging it. After discovering the source and taking the proper action(s) to remove the clog, then I felt the Spirit flowing through me once again. I think this is vital for everyone. Self-examination done on a regular basis is necessary to discover and remove whatever may clog our lives and prevent the Spirit from freely flowing through us.

Have you ever felt that you might be spiritually clogged? Do you regularly check to determine if a clog, or even the start of a clog, exists in your life? Is the Spirit flowing through you unimpeded?

Blessings

“You will be blessed the moment you realize that you already are.”

Bryant McGill

When I think of blessings, often what comes to my mind are big things like the home in which I live, the work which provides for us, my husband, my family, and my friends. However, recently I have discovered that there are many small blessings which fill my day and I do not pause to acknowledge. The quote from Bryant McGill reminds me that realization of being blessed allows those smaller blessings, along with the larger ones, to create an attitude of thankfulness within me.

A few days back, I was taking a break and sitting on the couch. One of our dogs, Leroy, who is a one hundred pound black lab mix suddenly decided to join me on the couch. This rarely happens, often because our smaller beagle/basset mix dog has already claimed space on the couch. This day not only did Leroy join me on the couch, but he decided to lay his head on my lap. I cannot recall a time when he chose to do this. Add to this amazing action the fact that at the time he was wearing a cone due to a medical procedure to his ear a few weeks prior. I was totally caught off guard and savored the moment. This was an unexpected blessing which filled me with great joy.

This event opened my eyes to see other small blessings in my life. Blessings like sitting outside in our backyard on a warm, sunny day while watching birds at the three feeders I have placed by one of our fences. I enjoy watching the birds and seeing what different types come to eat. One of my favorites is a cardinal which lives in the trees and bush found in our neighbor’s yard in the corner where our fences meet. Recently, as I sat outside, I noticed the brilliant red color of the cardinal’s feathers as he moved between the feeder and the fence. I decided that if he was going to be a frequent visitor, he should have a name, so I named him Roger. A small blessing which brightened my day.

Having moved into our new home last November, life had been pretty hectic at the end of the year. The holidays added to the busyness of our lives. At Christmas time, my husband gave me the awesome gift of Adirondack chairs which he painted white. I had been saying how much I wanted a pair some day. After we took down the Christmas decorations from our front porch, he moved the chairs there along with a fun half-barrel stand which he also painted white. Now when the sun is shining I can sit on our front porch, greet our neighbors, read, and enjoy the beauty of our neighborhood. This has become another small blessing in my life.

These are a few examples of the small blessings which can easily be overlooked or taken for granted. The Lord continues to give me both large and small blessings. When I take the time to realize how blessed I am, I am moved to express gratitude. The key is taking the time for such a realization to manifest. I encourage each of you to look for not only the large blessings of your life but also the small ones. I leave you with this quote…

“Not what we say about our blessings, but how we use them, is the true measure of our thanksgiving.”

W T Purkiser

Out of the Boat

Some years ago I led a discussion group who explored the book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat, written by John Ortberg. Ortberg used the passage from Matthew 14 in which Jesus comes to the disciples who are caught on the water during a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus challenges Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water to him. Peter begins the journey but becomes afraid and starts to sink. When Peter calls out for Jesus to save him, Jesus lifts him out of the water, and they safely return to the boat and the other frightened disciples. Ortberg presents the understanding that in order to achieve something great, we have to be willing to take the risk of getting out of our “boat” and following Jesus’ voice.

I have always found the passage from Matthew to be somewhat intimidating. I can easily relate to Peter who wants to be bold enough to step out but then becomes frightened and seems to be sinking. Generally in life, I have been an individual who tries to play it safe. I weigh all my options and attempt to calculate the possible outcomes of my decisions before making an attempt. There have been a few rare occasions when I have stepped out quickly but soon rush towards safety once again. Yet, the passage Matthew and the words of John Ortberg challenges us to take risks if we want to achieve some type of success.

A person doing a Google search for motivating quotes involving risk will run across a significant number of quotes. Just search, “without risk there is no reward,” and you will find that quote attributed to a number of individuals. The search will also provide a long list of similar quotes with generally the same message. Yet for so many to promote this concept, there seems to be a limited number of people willing to step out of their boat. There are far fewer churches willing to take the same type of actions.

The reason that I chose this book with its focus on the passage from Matthew for my discussion group was because I felt a need to challenge myself, the members of the group, and the congregation which I was serving to step out of our boats. In this imagery, the boat represents the safe, the familiar, the comfort zone of our lives. As I continued to watch the changes taking place in the world around us, I came to realize that if the church was going to have a meaningful impact on these changes, we would be required to get out of our boats and “walk on water.” In essence, do what we did not think was possible, or we could even understand at the time.

Even though the book was written almost twenty years ago, I still sense there is a need for individual believers and communities of faith to get out of the boats. I realize that we might be frightened. The world is not the world when Christendom reigned. The perception of the church and of Christians have been damaged in the eyes of those who are not engaged at this time. There may even be the feeling for many within the church that this is a hostile time. Historically, when the Church has experienced hostile times (perceived or real), the Church retreats. This is one of the human instincts associated with fight or flight. We hide behind the familiar and in our sanctuaries.

However, I think it is exactly during these times that Jesus stands and calls to us. Jesus invites us to come out onto the stormy waters and meet him. He tries to draw us out of our boats. Why? It is only by getting out of our boats that we are able to achieve something of significance. Jesus wants us to be significant in the world. Not wielding power or exacting our will upon the world but being in the midst of the world’s storm, so we can provide assurance and presence. During our personal life storms, Jesus is present with us and assuring us we are not alone. He calls us to do the same during the storms which the world is experiencing. By being present, we can demonstrate what it means to love as Jesus has shown us love.

The challenge remains… are you going to get out of the boat? Are our churches willing to get out of the boat? Remember — If you want to walk on water (do something significant), you have to be willing to get out of the boat (take the risk).

Christian Robots

My mother introduced me to the church when I was very young. I do not recall a time in my life when I was not connected with the church, except it was a much looser connection while in college. Since most of my life I have been part of one denomination, I know the liturgy of worship, the way the church runs itself, and the correct responses and timing. There is comfort in the familiarity of being a member of a church most of your life. There is also a pitfall which comes with being an active member most of your life. The pitfall is that you can easily become a robotic church participant.

The condition which I am labeling as “robotic church participant” comes from having such a familiarity that little to no thought is put into the actions and words which the person uses during worship. This also extends to going through the church year without thought to the meaning of the festivals and special days throughout the year. The person just goes through the motions of being a participant but does not have a spiritual feeling while doing so.

An example of a robotic church participant is when someone says the words of the Lord’s Prayer during worship but does not consider what is being said. The words are so memorized that there is not much thought required and the person just goes along with the audible flow of the other participants in worship. A person can easily do this because saying the Lord’s Prayer is so common and extends beyond denominational lines. This becomes very obvious if you happen to be worshiping with a congregation that changes a few words in the prayer, i.e., “debts and debtors” versus “trespasses and trespass.”

You may be asking yourself, “Why is this so important.” I think this is important because it seems to me that God intended the church to be about relationships. These relationships include between God and each individual, as well as, between the individuals in the church body. Relationships require thoughts, communications, and feelings. If a person is just going through the motions, then it is much more about completing a task versus enhancing a relationship.

If you are a person who has grown up in the church like I have, I caution you to not fall into the pitfall of being a robotic church participant. Engage yourself fully in worship, service, and the relationships which are a part of being a member of the church. Experience the spiritual emotions of what you say, the actions you take, and the commitments you make. I am sure that God prefers a fully engaged person rather than a spiritual robot. If God only wanted robots, God would not have given us free thought and free will.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

When you look into a mirror, what is it that you see? This question easily haunts me. Over time there have been many different references to looking into a mirror. In the classic story of Snow White (or the more modern version entitled The Huntsman), the wicked witch looks to the mirror to assure her that she is the best looking in the land. Michael Jackson wrote and sang a song, Man in the Mirror, which was intended to spur people to act for the betterment of the world. Christian author, Patrick Morely, wrote a book about men’s issues also entitled Man in the Mirror. All these references leads one on a journey of self-esteem, action, and introspection.

I mentioned that my opening question haunts me. The reason for this is that I do not always like what I see when I look in the mirror. Purely looking at my physical image, I can see all my flaws and imperfections. Quickly it becomes an exercise in identifying all the aspects of my face and body which I would like to be different. When I take an introspective look at myself in the mirror, I am again reminded of all my failures, imperfections, and ways I could live my life differently (or should have). Others are able to identify positive traits in both my physical and internal self but these elude me when gazing in the mirror.

This conflicting image between what I see and what others see also exists between the Lord and myself. Unlike the writer of Psalm 139, I do not want the Lord to see inside me. The writer says, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” I know that there is an offensive way in me. I try hard to keep this hidden from God and from others. Yet, what is amazing about the Lord is even though my heart is truly known by the Lord, I do not receive condemnation or punishment, instead the Lord expresses only love for me.

When I look in the mirror through the Lord’s eyes, these are the words generated by the image:

So, when you look into a mirror the next time, pray first that the Lord will give you eyes to see what the Lord sees. You may be surprised with the results.

No Mistakes

A person’s junior high school years can be some of the most difficult years in their young life. The ages of twelve through fourteen are the time in your life when you are trying to figure out a lot about yourself. Add to this the reality that you are physically experiencing many changes and a whole new set of hormones are flooding your body. At this point in my life I had an amazing English teacher, Miss Becky Schmelling. One of my greatest memories of Miss Schmelling was that she had a poster hanging on the wall of her classroom by the door. It was a cartoon image of a boy surrounded by old cans, books, and a variety of other items which appeared like they might be junk. The caption in big, bold letters said, “I am okay because God does not make junk.” I read that caption every single day I was in her classroom since I was feeling like junk trying to maneuver through my early adolescent years.

When I became an adult, I ran across a quote which carried the theme of Miss Schmelling’s poster a little farther. I honestly cannot tell you the originator of this quote or even where I first read the quote. If you do a Google search, you will find these words, or similar words, echoed all over the internet. The quote is this — “I am okay because God does not make mistakes.” I do not think I am the only one who needs to hear these words, and hear them often. There are many in our world who feel like maybe God made some mistakes, or a big one, when God created them. There is no one who can honestly say that they feel everything about them is perfect.

According to figures released by the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2017 (the most recent set of data) there were 47,173 deaths listed as suicide among all ages in the United States. This made suicide the tenth leading cause of death in the United States that year. If you look at the age groups of 10 to 34, there were 14, 717 suicide deaths which makes it the second leading cause of death in those age groups only behind unintentional accidents. What these startling and sad statistics tell me is that there are a lot of people who feel their life is a mistake, and they have no hope. These statistics do not share the number of individuals who attempted suicide that year but the attempt did not result in death.

I share all this with you to impress upon you two important points. The first is that each of you need to remember that God does not make mistakes. There is not one of you who is a mistake. God created you with a purpose and exactly the correct combinations of physical, mental, spiritual, and creative traits. You are unique, there is not now or ever any duplicate of you. You fit into all God’s creation in a way which no other being could ever fit. Your role in this world is very special. God loves you exactly the way you are right now.

The second point is that each of you must share this truth with others. Whether you have a poster hanging for others to see, or you share the message in words and actions, you must communicate to others that they are not a mistake because God does not make mistakes. By sharing this message, you may have an impact that you will never be aware of but an impact nonetheless. This may be the message that prevents someone from choosing to attempt suicide. Sharing of this may also be just the words that gives a person renewed purpose, meaning, or a sense of value. When you communicate this message, you demonstrate the love of God which went into the original creation of a person.

Let me tell you this one more time, you are okay because God does not make mistakes!

Pastor Crush

Why would someone choose to go into full-time ministry? This is a question that many people ask especially today. There used to be a time when full-time ministry, or becoming a pastor, was considered a noble aspiration. During the Middle Ages, it was considered an academic pursuit that was reserved for the wealthy who could afford to get a formalized education. The culture of today seems much different and many factors contribute to the less than lofty stature full-time ministry now occupies. So, why would someone choose to go into full-time ministry?

For me, I consider it to have been a limited choice. Why I state it in such a manner is because long before I would “choose” to enter full-time ministry, a sense of call was placed upon me. I come from a denomination which emphasizes the understanding of a call. The church culture in which I grew up, and would eventually seek ordination from, felt that every person has a call placed upon her or his life by God. Some are called to be teachers, some business leaders, some lawyers, some medical professionals, and the list goes on through every form of employment and volunteer opportunity that comes to mind. I was taught that each person has a call, or often multiple calls, placed on them by God. Just because God places a call upon a person, the person is not required to fulfill the call. In fact, many individuals pursue other courses in their lives. However, after years of resisting the call into full-time ministry, I chose to respond reluctantly in the affirmative.

General themes of why a person answers the call to full-time ministry exist. One of the reasons some give is a desire to help others on a daily basis experience the love of God. Another reason is to assist others in developing answers to their questions regarding their faith. Other responses might include a fulfillment in walking through life’s challenges with another person. For me, it was a strong desire to open for others the wonder of what a relationship with the Lord might mean in their life.

Whatever the answer to the question of why a person has gone into full-time ministry, a sad reality exists…the church is crushing pastors at a very alarming rate. What I mean by this is that in too many conversations with colleagues and those who have exited from full-time ministry, I have heard too often that the demands of the congregation and the denominational hierarchy crushed their passion and desire to continue in full-time ministry. Too often these demands distract the pastor from their role as a shepherd, teacher, companion, and spiritual leader. I would say that the demands actually prohibit the pastor from fulfilling these other roles. Yet, these are usually the roles which lead the person to enter full-time ministry.

Let me share a few examples of these demands. The first one which quickly comes to mind is the demand of being the referee. What does refereeing have to do with being a pastor? Well, it really should not have anything to do with it but often the pastor is the one expected to enter conflicts within the church and reduce or eliminate the conflict. Imagine being a parent who has over one hundred kids who have a tendency to enter squabbles over toys, control of the television, or who gets to play the Xbox next. This is often what a pastor feels like when trying to maneuver through all the he-said, she-said arguments which arise out of situations such as who decides what to serve at the Fall Festival Dinner.

Another example of the demands which crush a pastor is the endless amount of discussion and input from a variety of individuals in order to make a decision. Churches love to have committees to discuss and plan everything from what coffee to serve during fellowship time to what songs to sing during the Christmas season. While there is indeed value in seeking input from various voices and creating an atmosphere of participation among the members, these groups often get bogged down in details and personal opinions. These details and personal opinions frequently lead to the squabbles I mentioned in the above paragraph. The other issue which arises is that little progress is made in making a decision and it all is very time-consuming.

A third example which is too frequent is the financial stress the pastor absorbs. When it comes to church finances, the same story exists in some level in every church, there never seems to be enough money for anything. This leads to many different burdens placed on a pastor. One is the idea that a pastor should be the chief fundraiser of the church. Some members view it to be the pastor’s responsibility to find creative ways to bring money into the congregation and then lead those fundraising efforts as spokesperson and arm twister but do these things in a very unintimidating manner. The other side of the coin is that the pastor is often charged with the responsibility to reduce and maintain spending at the lowest level possible. The pastor is left to rely on volunteers and donated monies to accomplish all that needs to be accomplished from repairing the leaky flat roof to having weekly activities for youth from age 0 to 35. Of course the use of volunteer labor will also require being flexible and understanding that they have real lives so cannot accomplish what they commit to doing for four to sixteen weeks. Yet the pastor gets the blame when things are not done correctly and in a timely manner.

The list of examples can grow with each exhausted pastor with who you have the chance to speak. Horror stories and tears are in abundance as pastors tell of the demands placed upon them and the way in which they are often treated. Besides the personal anguish and abuse, yes, I will call it abuse, the issue that tears most pastors hearts the most is that they do not have the time or the energy to live out the passion which called them to full-time ministry in the first place. Every once in a while they are fortunate to see a glimmer of their call fulfilled in the life of another person but these occur like shooting stars at night which are fleeting and way too infrequent.

The congregations and denominations of the church are crushing the pastors who feel God calling them to full-time ministry. It is the congregations and denominations who are losing out on women and men who would love to shepherd, teach, walk alongside, encourage, and spiritually lead in the example of Jesus. Until the church wakes up to this reality and does something meaningful about it, you will continue to see pastors step out of full-time ministry, pulpits remain empty, and seminaries have fewer and fewer students.

The Christian and the Atheist

I have a good friend who identifies as an atheist. He was raised in a Christian church and went through all the rites associated with the Christian belief in God. It was not until he was older and witnessed his father die a horrific death caused by cancer that he decided that there is no God of any kind.

Atheism is defined as the absence of belief in any deities.

By this definition, my friend is an atheist. His reasoning is that if a god did exist, especially the Christian understanding of God, then his father would never have died in the manner in which he did. My friend would not be the first to make such a claim. Not everyone who states this thought begins to identify as an atheist however.

As a Christian leader, how can I be friends with an atheist?

My answer to that question is pretty simple…because I believe in Jesus Christ. My understanding of what my Lord taught is that all people are children of God, even those who do not acknowledge God. If this is true then I am already in relationship with my friend because he is my brother in God.

Another important lesson which I have picked up from reading Scripture is that I am not empowered to choose who receives God’s mercy and love. The choice of who receives and who does not belongs solely to God. We see this in the story of Nineveh and Jonah. We see this in the story of the woman charged with adultery and Jesus. God retains the power of who God gives mercy and love. With me not having to make that decision and my belief that God has chosen to give ALL people mercy and love, then I am free to love even those who identify as atheist.

My understanding of my commitment as a Christian is that it is not my responsibility to save anyone. I am not even sure what someone would need saved from other than maybe themselves. Once again, the saving has fallen into the realm of God. What I am called to do as a Christian is to do my best every day to demonstrate the love and mercy of God to others as I have received it. The reason that I strive to do this is not because it impacts my receiving of love and mercy but in response to having received that love and mercy.

I have heard some people state that there is no way they could ever be friends with an atheist. Why they feel that way is only known to them. However, I can speculate that for some it is out of fear. The individual may be afraid that if they befriended an atheist, that friendship might weaken or damage their faith. If that is the case, then I think they need to examine their understanding of faith and work toward a healthy faith.

Others may argue that being friends with an atheist would shed a negative light on them when viewed by their Christian friends. This argument has problems abounding. First, you would need to question what type of Christian friends you are associating with if they do not view extending love and mercy to others is in opposition to Christ’s teachings. Second, using the example of Jesus, a follower should never allow the viewpoints of others to limit reaching out in relationship towards others, especially those termed undesirable.

A Christian and an Atheist

I am a Christian. I am a leader in the Christian church. My good friend is an atheist. We have a wonderful relationship in which we can share ideas (even opposing ones), laughter, jokes, and some coffee. I no longer get to see my atheist friend anymore since we live in different states now but I think of him often. I look forward to being able to see him again soon.