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Coach’s Corner

Published on March 2, 2017 by in Coach's Corner

Attitude points

Dear friends,

Last month I laid out the reality of being Parkview in this day and age. You had almost a month to chew on that. Now I would like to weigh in on what our attitude should be to that reality.

Jay Wright, the coach of the men’s basketball team at Villanova University, has written a book called:”Attitude.”  He has taken advantage of having won the NCAA title last year. He talked about his coaching philosophy in a recent interview on Charlie Rose. He said:” I tell my team we are not responsible for our success, but only for our effort.”  Then he went on to say that he gives his team points for attitude. They get points for staying focused on the play at hand.  He tells them they lose “points” for the time they spend celebrating themselves and their plays or making a face at a referee’s call or beating themselves up after a missed play.  All those reactions just make them lose energy.

I think this applies to the church also and our congregation in particular.  We as a congregation are not responsible for thriving or not. That is the job of God’s grace in our lives.  We are not responsible for how society has changed or how busy people are or how people are less interested in church than they used to be or even how many kids and youth are part of our community.  We are not responsible for who shows up on Sunday.   We are only responsible for our efforts and commitment in the moments at hand.   Thinking of what the national Church used to be like in the fifties, sixties or even seventies just drains energy unnecessarily.  All we can do is give our best effort in the now.

Lately the reality of not having a parking lot has taken energy. That problem is now behind us for the foreseeable future.  We are renting a significant portion of the parking lot we used for free for many years. We have found a way to make up half that cost which leaves us to find only $5 per space per month (the cost of a fancy Starbucks drink).  So the parking lot issue should be behind us now.

This brings me back to an issue I have brought up occasionally over the years in these Coach Corners: “how to create energy in the church rather than lose it.” This leads to a discussion at the session retreat on how we organize and plan events and how to make all Parkview family members feel included in those events.  For a small congregation we have a good number of operating groups (Parkview Presbyterian Women, Mariners, Jujikai, Men’s, youth, choir, golf group and even the beginnings of a biking group). All these groups organize one or more events every year.  Then of course we have Eddie and Yvonne’s invaluable Crew who head more than four fundraisers every year.  They draw support from all those groups. The session sees the value of groups, rather than individuals, being responsible for making one or more events happen.   However, the session also sees value in a new coordinating group with representatives from the different groups (and Eddie’s Crew), joining hands, hearts and minds in planning events that become part of a central calendar.  We believe the joining of planning efforts will create energy, reduce overlap and encourage more (and especially newer) members of our Parkview family to participate.  It may also lead to a greater balance of events (i.e. social, games, service, outreach, outside and inside, entertainment, dining, sports and physical activity and travel etc.). On March 12 after the service we would like to get your ideas about this. Please join us. Remember, we’re only responsible for our effort right now. See you in church and may God bless our ministry. Aart

 
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Reflection February 26

Published on March 2, 2017 by in Reflections

Exodus 24: 15,16; Matthew 17: 5,6,7

Limited Visibility

So once again we talk about a high point of Jesus’ time on earth, the Transfiguration. It is also the experience that seems the farthest removed from earthly life.  Several disciples go up with Jesus to the top of the Mountain, traditionally considered to be Mount Tabor, overlooking the Megiddo valley and looking toward Mount Carmel.  This is a mystical experience for them as they have a vision of Elijah and Moses and of Jesus with His garment dazzlingly white and His face bright as the sun.  But the text says the disciples’ vision is obscured by a cloud above Jesus as He talks to Elijah and Moses. Pity the disciples, professional fishermen just a short time before and now witnesses to the high point of Jesus’ revelation as the beloved by God. They’re trying to make sense of it all.

The text in Matthew points back to Exodus where Moses goes up to the mountain, not in Northern Israel this time, but beyond its furthest border in the Sinai.  There on top of the mountain the text says he is in a cloud for six days, just waiting there until God calls him out.  I like the idea of the cloud image in both text. I like this reality of limited visibility. The lack of visibility of Moses on the mountain hundred of years and hundreds of miles away from Peter, James and John on the mountain to the north, both trying to figure out what’s beyond the cloud. It goes back to this Old Testament concept of God Who is so holy that God cannot be seen, so holy that God’s name cannot even be spelled out.

Friends, in the movie Twentieth Century Women the viewer is effortlessly transported to the nineteen seventies in Santa Barbara during the presidency of Jimmy Carter and we see a single mother born in 1924 whose behavior is excused by all the young people because “she was the Depression.” She is quite modern in her own way, but she prefers fifties music and she claims she can smoke because she started when it was fashionable and not unhealthy. She also does not like frank talk about intimacy.  She has the burden of raising a young teenage boy. She feels ill equipped and asks for the support of two young women who float in and out of her old bungalow.  The three of them try to raise this boy, but he doesn’t need much raising really and they wind up confusing him.  It is as if they are just making things up. Even though all the days in the movie are sunny, the characters have no clue what they are doing.  They are making it up as they go along. They have limited visibility.

Friends, like the mortals in text, we are the ones in the clouds or trying to see through the clouds.  We are dealing with limited visibility, trying to piece together what it is we are dealing with.  This is not just the case with God. God is the biggest mystery. We can’t quite get the full picture of God, we have to leave a lot to our imagination.  If the Bible is any indication, God appears to like it just fine that way.  God can never be captured and if think we can capture God fully, we are probably on the wrong track.  But this limited visibility is something we deal with all the time really.  And I am not talking about driving in the valley fog. I am talking about adolescence and marriage and parenthood, about our economic future and more recently the direction of our country.  We have limited visibility. We are trying to piece together our journey forward in each of those aspects of our lives with less than the information we need.  Life is a lot like putting together a piece of IKEA furniture without the instructions. With the manual it’s challenging already, without it we will have to try every screw, every bolt and every bar in different places. We make things up as we go along.  Let’s face it, friends, a lot of life is winging it.  Imagine Moses on the cold mountain in fog for days wondering what on earth he is waiting for. Imagine the disciples scrambling to be helpful and appropriate, awkwardly offering to build a booth for Elijah, Moses and Jesus each, not realizing they were dealing with a vision. Both scenes are among the most supernatural in the Bible, but when we look closely there is a real humanness we see.

Once on an October morning I tried to retrace the steps I took with a high school group I had helped lead into the Desolation Wilderness and I walked past Echo Lake, through the trees, higher up toward the next lake and I was in the clouds. It was in that brief period of my young life when I was an accomplished hiker.  This is far behind me now. Anyway, there was no one there.  Suddenly the clouds lifted, revealing the first dusting of snow of the season.  Limited visibility, that’s true, but then more than once the clouds do life and we get a view that makes all the fumbling worth it.

Friends, welcome to the cloud, and I do not mean the sphere where we store your data without a clue about how that’s done.  No, welcome to the reality of a world where clouds drift in and out of our lives, where we are always winging it no matter how prepared we are.  The clouds come more often than usual this season it seems. As we figure things out, may we trust God’s grace and may we be commit to being good, loving justice and being compassionate as the Bible teaches us. May God help us.

 
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Reflection February 19

Published on March 2, 2017 by in Reflections

Matthew 5: 43,44: I Corinthians 3: 11, 18,19

Foolish faith

I am telling you today that foolishness can be good, because that is what our lectionary readings tell us. But there is a problem with this.  We really don’t believe that.  We generally don’t think foolishness is good.  We do whatever we can to keep our kids from doing foolish things, without curtailing their freedom of course.  There is no good side to foolishness.  Once in a while we accept it when we see movies. It’s kind of a cliché: There is always someone who is averse to risk taking and then someone else encourages them to do some wild or rather…foolish things. In the movies those things always work out and never result in tragedy.

I finally went to see the movie La la land. It was turning into a cultural icon and I needed to see what it was about, partly because it takes place in our state. The freeway signs directing us to it are just a block away.  The characters in the movie are caught between common sense and foolishness.  The foolishness lies in believing you can accomplish something everyone wants to accomplish: stardom.  Common sense tells you this is not possible. In days gone by we believed more that all of us could accomplish what we wanted if we have talent and we try hard enough.  That’s never been true of everyone and it is less so today.  We can do a lot of things with technology that we couldn’t do before, but that is a different issue. What makes the movie work on the level it does is that isn’t about sappy love only or about foolishness only. It is about both. You see, what it comes down to it the only time foolishness really makes sense is when it is put in service of love.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes that “the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.” What he means by the “world” are the things that people care about most: power, sexual opportunity, money, fame.  These often lead to abuse, promiscuity, greed and lies.  Some of the attitudes of the world are mentioned in our call to worship.  Jesus says: “If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek. If someone asks for your coat, give them your cloak.  Give to anyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.“ And then the zinger: “Love your enemies.”  Now I don’t know about you, but I am feeling pretty inadequate up here.   Our response at best is : “yes, but…. What if the person asking for a coat is severely mentally ill and has three coats in his shopping cart under the cotton wood tree in Discovery Park? What if the coat he wants is the one your grandmother bought for you at Christmas at full price from her fixed income?  What if thirty people in a row in a five minute span ask for money on K Street?  How will I have money for gas to get home?” Believe me, that’s not a stretch. “What if your enemy killed your most beloved relative?”  Jesus calls for an ideal world where the common sense of the times is turned on its head.  Transformation is what Jesus is after.  Now there is one thing that probably needs to be mentioned and that is the Jesus’ followers saw the coming of the kingdom of heaven as something that could happen at any time.  Nevertheless we cannot reason away Jesus’ call to extreme compassion. Yet in terms of the “world” as I just described it, what Jesus saying is total foolishness.  But it works because the foolishness is put into the service of love of God and of other people.

Friends, for those who think Jesus was just a wise teacher with deep insight or who think God is a figment of the imagination, a church such as this is foolishness.  For can you imagine every week, with clockwork, for a hundred years, organizing a party where the guest if honor would never physically show up? There are songs, there are speeches, there are prayers, there is food, rain (mostly not) or shine, in cold or hot weather. Of course we believe otherwise.   Could it be friends that Paul does not just acknowledge that the life of the Church is foolishness to the “world,” but that he actively encourages us to embrace foolishness?

Friends, it may be hard to hear this, but it is not irrational to say that our faith in Christ is foolish. In fact it is the opposite. I am never shocked when someone says they are an agnostic or an atheist.  That is a rational point of view. It is also a sad and dark point of view.  For what then do you base your life on?  To put our life in the service of faith is a huge risk of turning us into fools.  It is a risk I have been willing to take. I trust you will continue to do so also.  For what better foolishness is there than to put our foolishness in the service of a love that will never die.   “Go ahead,” Paul says: “Be foolish. Have faith. Believe.” Thanks be to God.

 
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Reflection February 12

Published on March 2, 2017 by in Reflections

I Corinthians 3: 5-9

Our place in time

I know you waited in suspense. Would it happen? Would Tom Brady win his fifth Super Bowl trophy?  Could it happen that the man who already has everything got some more?  Okay, you didn’t care either. You have to give to him and his coach for a total commitment to quality and preparation. At the ceremony Brady celebrated with such passion that he looked like a man who had just won the lotto after forty years of trying.  How you interpreted his response to his victory depends on your perspective.  Perhaps he felt he had now truly surpassed his hero John Montana as well as Terry Bradshaw. Perhaps he felt vindicated because he had been suspended earlier this year because of underinflated balls and still won. Or perhaps he is one of those people who always have to win. Or maybe it’s all of the above. I can just say that it really bored me stiff to football. After the concussion reports and with all the commercials after every kick and run, I think this may add to the demise of football.  When is enough enough for the Patriots?  Everyone plays their hearts out and the Patriots win. Let’s skip the next season and go straight to the fourth quarter of the Superbowl. I think maybe we can say God does not care about equality in sports: here’s a statistic for you.  Throughout sports history, when you count championships in major sports, Boston: 37, Atlanta 1.  This must not sit well in the heart of Dixie.

We are a nation of teams. Sports teams, political teams, religious teams.  We tend to be true to these teams.  The reason is because our identity and self-esteem get wrapped up with those teams.  Which fan is objective about the calls of referees?  If our team does well, we are worth more in our own eyes.  Who wants to wear the jersey of the team that has never made the Superbowl. In Corinth people are picking teams and they are picking leaders.  Paul has to play referee, even though he is the leader of one of the teams they are choosing.  We have talked about today’s Bible passage where Paul is referring to his relationship with the congregation at Corinth. Paul has not spent that much time with this diverse community of new Christians and is spreading himself pretty thinly across the whole of the northern Mediterranean.  He talks more to his followers as if they were children. Paul has pulled their hair out over the behavior of their people.

Paul has to deflect his congregation away from the competing teams and their leaders.  His wisdom really shines through. He turns himself and the other man, Apollos, into joint leaders of the same team: ”I sowed and Apollos watered.” It is the same ministry with different moments. It is not about who gets the trophy or the credit. “Only God makes things grow,” says Paul.

I don’t know about you, but there are plenty of times during my life when I wanted people to admire me.  And we do things to get that result.  But as you get older, you realize that the people who might have admired you won’t recognize you on the street ten years later or have forgotten completely who you are.  Friends, you and I do so much to please the people in our lives: our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our schoolmates, our colleagues, our college friends.  So much effort is put into proving that we are smart, kind cool and lovable.  We all have awards that would have been nice to get, but I am learning that what we need to be after is a sense of peace.  With sense of peace I mean that we slowly become comfortable with our contribution to the world, the feeling that we do not say wow (in a positive way that is) when we look in the mirror in the morning (who does anyway?), but that we are comfortable with the person behind that aging face. Now that is not easy to achieve and it takes a lifetime, but I think that is what we should be after.

I think this is partly what Paul is trying to tell the people in Corinth in his letter: It is not whether you are on the winning team and it is not whether you get the credit for the endeavor, it is whether you are playing your role in God’s work on earth.  That puts things into perspective.  I truly hope Tom Brady has a sense of peace after his fifth trophy that he did not have after his fourth and I hope all the sportsmen and women are at peace with never having won anything that made the news.  For that feeling is more important than all the accolades we pick up along the way.  Friends, whenever we are not in touch with that experience of peace, may we find what it would take to get it.   May God give us wisdom.

 
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Reflection February 5

Published on March 2, 2017 by in Reflections

Isaiah 58: 4-7; Matthew 5:13,14

Being salt AND light

“Dat slaat als een tang op een varken.” This is a strange Dutch expression that is hard to translate. It is something like: “that applies like a pair of pliers applies to a big.”  Or “that makes as much sense as a pair of pliers on a big.” Or:”those statements belong together as much as a pair of pliers on a pig.”

When we spend some time talking about the two verses in Matthew, we could ask that question:” are salt and light as qualities of the Christian not like a pair of pliers and a pig? How are they the same?” Yet the text has Jesus mention them almost in the same breath.  On top of it he doesn’t mention others.  But we must assume there is a reason for it.  Then it occurred to me that salt is of the earth and light is beyond earth, heavenly if you will.  Then I found in an article (in the Christian century) that both light and salt have one thing in common: they both dissipate. They do their magic but disappear having left their mark.  Let’s talk about light first.

In the current Netflix series “The Crown” Winston Churchill sits for a portrait commissioned by both houses of parliament.  He develops a relationship with the painter and they talk about their grief together.  However, when the painting is finally revealed, Churchill is irate. It shows him as the eighty year old man who is not in good health.  The painter explains that he paints truth, but Churchill winds up burning the painting in his garden.  He can’t bear that the light is no longer on him as the younger, powerful man he once was.  He can’t accept that the light he shed on the nation cannot stay on him.

Let’s assume there is a reason they are together

We are also talking about salt today, what the properties and characteristics of salt are and about how Christians are supposed to be “salt” to the world.  This is what Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5.  So we have done some reflecting about that.  We have talked about the verse in question and we talked about the Old Testament lectionary reading in Isaiah for today.  Isaiah does not mention salt at all or any other ingredient for that matter, but he does talk about food or rather the withholding of food for religious reasons, namely fasting.  Isaiah questions the sincerity of those who do the fasting.  He thinks it’s just for show. It is an act of blandness.  These people fasting are not the “salt of the earth.” Isaiah says :” Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them…?”  In other words, Isaiah is accusing the people of not connecting to life and the suffering of the people around them.  It’s almost as if they going through the motions of the ritual of the fast, floating above the world in a way and not connecting with it.  They are detached from the suffering world in which they live.  This is unacceptable to God.

We have talked about the properties of salt, about the vital nature of salt in the human body, we can talk about Gandhi’s long walk to the coast to make salt to tell the British that his people were alive.  There are a number of things about salt that speak to how we should live.  First, salt gives taste. It fights the blandness of food.  To a lot of people today life is bland, it has no taste. They live lives without meaning, focused only on themselves and how to meet their every day needs and wants. They are bored and they feel irrelevant.  They feel no one needs them or that they don’t have the skills to help someone who needs them. This also has to do with traction. On icy freeways, salt can give traction.  Even when we are not detached from the lives of others, we do not feel we have much traction.  It’s as if we cannot firmly plant our feet on this world, make a difference, or change where it is going. Then we get to preservation. This is another way salt contributes to our lives. Salt helps preserve.  When we are salt in the world, we preserve the tradition of thousands of years that proclaims God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Finally, salt purifies. It cleans.  We gargle with salt, we ease sore throats with salt water.  We chemically rebalance ourselves with salt. Sometimes we need to put salt in the wounds by speaking the truth adamantly.  May God help us to give taste to, to find traction on, to preserve the faith in and to touch the wounds of our earth. (Northern California born Richard Rodriguez (Darling) quotes) William Saroyan, the Fresno Armenian American writer (who) has kind of been forgotten. Saroyan calls all of us human beings to an engaged life. This is what he said:” Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive.” It as Saroyan’s advice to a young writer.  It could also be advice to us.  We must be the salt of the earth and the light of the world as long as we can.  May God help us.

 
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Coach’s corner

Published on February 9, 2017 by in Coach's Corner

Swimming upstream

Dear friends,

Occasionally it is fitting for a pastor to address his or her congregation in terms of a stark realism so that the people may discover a fresh hopefulness.  I think now is such a time.

Pity the poor salmon having to swim upstream against the river current after the deluge our region has been experiencing.  Fortunately for the energetic creature the strong waters have come after the spawning season.

This past summer Carolyn and I spontaneously decided to rent a kayak near our house one Saturday and propel it past the old Folsom bridge into the canyon. A strong current ran between the Folsom and Nimbus dams and it took us more than two hours.  I consoled my tiring spouse that the same current would carry us swiftly back to where we started.  I was wrong.  By the time we turned around a stiff wind was blowing toward us and it took us even longer, zigzagging for the leeside of the lake from shore to shore, all that on the fuel of one bottle of water and a granola bar.

Sometimes that is how life is and for some life is almost always like that.  It’s like swimming or boating upstream.   Aware or not as we may be, this congregation has swum upstream for about a century, against an inhospitable ethnic environment,  against the cruel government imprisonment orders of the Second World War, against the forces of secularism that saw traditional Christian faith as antiquated  and irrelevant and against the competition of so many new forms of entertainment.  The thinning mainline Church and the decreasing enrollment at seminaries have resulted in less interest in our groundbreaking residency program than we had anticipated.  Now suddenly the country’s political divisions have crested into the noxious slick of a dark spirit of discrimination, misogyny, disrespect and intolerance flowing down the water ways of our nation and into the ocean we share with the world. This is dampening our optimism and draining our positive energy.  The Church must avoid being carried off in this slick, double down on swimming upstream toward clearer waters and speak with an authentic voice, lest we will be held responsible for the poisonous atmosphere by a young, inclusive and incredulous generation.

Now as a congregation we are forced to deal with the reality of a changing city that is hungrily looking for land to fill in and redevelop.  Partly because of this we will be losing the use of the parking lot which has been a free blessing to us for nearly two decades now.  We knew this was inevitable, but still it has us eyeing the future somewhat anxiously.  For congregations in other parts of the world this would be a laughable hindrance, but this is America where we have become dependent on the automobile.

This is why I am planning to do a Lenten sermon series on “How to Keep the Faith” starting the first Sunday in March.  May we be reminded that being Christ’s church entails a long, persistent swim upstream. The current is particularly strong right now. Start doing your pushups while wondering: “What would Jesus say?” May God bless our ministry.  See you in church. Aart

 
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Reflection January 29

Published on February 9, 2017 by in Reflections

Micah 6: 8; Mark 5:6,7,8

Do you feel lucky….or blessed

This week we are remembering Mary Tyler Moore.  I think it would be hard to find anyone who disliked her.  First there was the likeable, quirky and sometimes silly Laura in the Dick Van Dyke show.  Then the more mature single woman who was building a career in broadcasting.  I would imagine many American women would have wanted to be her in roughly first half of her life, a kind of icon of American womanhood in the sixties and seventies, and the rest wanted to date her.  I mentioned the first half of her life, because she suffered a lot in the second.  Even though she grew up with an alcoholic mother, we would consider that young Mary because of her looks and the opportunities that came to her was lucky, in her career at least. Sometimes it’s timing. Would Mary Tyler Moore have succeeded had she been born fifty years later?  Would she have had the right voice? Sure she had talent, but success also comes with a lot of luck.   Look at any person who made it big in entertainment or sports or politics, there has to be an element of luck.  When I still played tennis, a tennis partner of mine once said that in sports you make your own luck.  But do we think that’s true. Sure you can set yourself up for luck, like the bridesmaid who stands just in the right place for the bride’s garter, but can you make it?  But, friends,  luck is so deep in the human psyche. The idea of making our luck.  It’s kind of magical thinking and it can easily lead to obsessive compulsive behavior.  But there are lucky numbers and lucky shoes and lucky whatever else…

Roughly a billion and a half people celebrate Lunar New Year again this weekend.  Envelopes of lucky money are being passed around.  We sent some off to our kids already, small red envelopes with crisp new bills. Family members are on their best behavior. Great movements of people are taking place.  The stage has to be set for the New Year.  Luck is an important concept, luck and how to guarantee it.  We all have a little bit of that lucky thinking in us, but also very few of us would bank on the lucky numbers and behaviors paying off for us. We really fall back on them to lessen our anxiety.

This made me think about the difference between luck and blessing.  “Blessed are the ones who…,”Jesus preaches. Mary Tyler Moore, who was lucky in her career, taught us something about being blessed also.  She challenged the idea that single women without a man couldn’t be happy and fulfilled.  Society didn’t believe that kind of woman was blessed then.   Society has a lot of those assumptions. Linda Schiphorst McCoy (sermon notes)writes: “Happy are those who have lots of money and can go anywhere, do anything, have anything they want. Happy are those who are successful and well acclaimed in their businesses or professions. Happy are those who are healthy, or those who have good marriages, or who have perfect children. “Happiness is, in John Powell’s words, an inside job.” If we stop to think about it, we are all smart enough to know that happiness does not come as a result of money or material possessions or from any external source. Sometimes we let ourselves believe that having all the outward looks of happiness actually means we’re happy. However, being blessed doesn’t have anything to do with external circumstances. The point Jesus is trying to make is that being blessed is not found where the conventional wisdom of the world would have us believe. In essence, Jesus turns things upside down, and offers the reverse of what we might expect. The feeling of being blessed can be experienced in some unlikely places, and is a byproduct of our manner of living and our attitudes toward life.  Part of the assumption here is that God wants us to be happy. That’s God’s intent for our lives. Jesus knew that unhappy people tend to be self-focused, and look on the gloomy side of things. People who feel blessed, on the other hand, have different characteristics, and tend to be more energetic, decisive, flexible, and creative. They tolerate more frustration, are more forgiving, and tend to be more willing to help those in need.”

In the end, friends, luck is a tenuous thing, and may be dependent on a lot of factors.  In the end luck we cannot control.  If we could, we wouldn’t be able to call it luck anymore.  Being blessed is totally different.  Feeling blessed is not dependent so much on what happens to us. Luck is.  Being blessed is an inside job.  It is about acknowledging God’s grace in our lives.  That is why those who suffer can be blessed, not just because what will happen to them in the future, but because they have discovered an inner light.  We have all met some amazing people I am sure who have shown us that you can feel blessed even though their lives appear to be so miserable. May God make us see our blessings.

 
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Reflection January 22

Published on February 9, 2017 by in Reflections

Jonah 3:15,20; Mark 1:14-20

Leadership is very much on our minds these days.  Leadership is an important ideal in American society.  Following is not an activity that has a positive connotation.  Everything is about being a leader. Go to any bookstore and you will find a big section on following.  There are plenty of books with ten to twelve points or principles for leadership.  Often these methods are not more than an inch deep.  I think it’s a pretty good guess that you will find no books on following.  A funny cartoon shows a pack of scraggly dogs following the head of the pack in a single file.  Says one dog in the middle of the pack to another:”unless you’re the lead dog, the view is always the same. “ I’m sure you can get the picture of what the dogs who are not the leader see.

Friends, we often confuse ourselves with contradictory statements that we embrace with equal enthusiasm.   We value leadership, but we also value team players, meaning people who not feel they have to be out front all the time.  We expect both at the same time.  Again, I don’t think there are books that tell you how to be both.  Dear friends, how can we a follower and still keep our head high?  In our text in Mark, Jesus calls his disciples to follow. The text does not go into detail.  We wonder: did these fishermen really drop their work like that? What happened to their boats? What happened to their family’s livelihood?  That Jesus had enormous charisma and radiated personal power is beyond question.  The Gospels are full of people being awe struck by Him.  You and I, however, do not have the benefit of a personal face-face to encounter with Jesus. So how do we follow Him?  Perhaps we can learn from the experience of Jonah?  Jonah is a minor prophet, so minor in fact that is difficult to place him historically.  But Jonah’s story is without a doubt one of the greatest stories in the Bible.  He refuses to follow God, boarding a boat instead of heading to Nineveh.  He goes west instead of east.  Jonah doesn’t care about the job, doesn’t care about the people he’s supposed to rebuke.  Jonah’s not into following. As a result he winds up in a pickle, or rather a whale after having been thrown overboard.  As hard as he wants to escape his task, he winds up in Nineveh.  So in our Gospel text we have eager followers while in the book of Jonah we are introduced to the most reluctant of followers.  So, friends, where do we fit in?  Are we eager followers or reluctant followers of our God?  That we not be a question we often ask ourselves.  Earlier we saw the five characteristics of good followers: imagining being a leader/ recognizing that leadership is an important and difficult task, sharing a commitment to a larger purpose rooted in mission, cultivating relationship and trust, practicing the art of learning and giving good feedback, and keeping boundaries.  It gives us clues on how the be active rather than passive followers.  In a way to be an active follower is the happy medium between being a leader and follower.  Did you notice how in literature and tv there are many great active followers like Watson to Sherlock Holmes and Tonto to the Lone Ranger?  These are followers who do what needs to be done to improve the situation.  They do not just wait for orders.  I have always been impressed by the way Parkview family members step up when we special events.  You are active followers. You never have to be told what to do. You pay attention to what needs to be done next, which person is trying to pack away left over food or store a table on his or her own.  Active following is in intentional and attentional following.  The Presbyterian Church is set up for people to be active followers, because the congregations are led by representative known as “ruling elders.” The pastor is officially a “teaching elder.”  That creates a culture of participation in our denomination. This may answer the question of how we can be followers in this congregation.  This is both a practical and a spiritual question.  It involves the conscious decisions of “being ready” and “letting go.”  The Disciples did this and Jonah didn’t.  Being ready means that we are ready to pay attention to the nudging of God’s Holy Spirit and the subtle opening and closing of doors in our lives.  Letting go means not clutching to everything so tightly in our lives and insisting on always having our ducks lined up.  You see, our culture encourages us to be control freaks. Did you ever notice how many sitcoms have a control freak and a lovable disorganized person play off each other, going back at least as far as the Odd Couple?  I can tell you that whenever I think I have everything lined up nicely, something happens to mess it up. Usually I will do something thoughtless or embarrassing.  It keeps me humble and makes me more conscious of the power of God’s grace. That grace runs like a current through our lives. We can ignore at our peril, as in the Jonah story or follow it as the new disciples did by the lake. When we truly actively follow God is it never because of force or coercion, it is because of our being ready and our letting go. May God help us.

 
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Reflection January 15

Published on February 9, 2017 by in Reflections

Jonah 3:15,20; Mark 1:14-20

Leadership is very much on our minds these days.  Leadership is an important ideal in American society.  Following is not an activity that has a positive connotation.  Everything is about being a leader. Go to any bookstore and you will find a big section on following.  There are plenty of books with ten to twelve points or principles for leadership.  Often these methods are not more than an inch deep.  I think it’s a pretty good guess that you will find no books on following.  A funny cartoon shows a pack of scraggly dogs following the head of the pack in a single file.  Says one dog in the middle of the pack to another:”unless you’re the lead dog, the view is always the same. “ I’m sure you can get the picture of what the dogs who are not the leader see.

Friends, we often confuse ourselves with contradictory statements that we embrace with equal enthusiasm.   We value leadership, but we also value team players, meaning people who not feel they have to be out front all the time.  We expect both at the same time.  Again, I don’t think there are books that tell you how to be both.  Dear friends, how can we a follower and still keep our head high?  In our text in Mark, Jesus calls his disciples to follow. The text does not go into detail.  We wonder: did these fishermen really drop their work like that? What happened to their boats? What happened to their family’s livelihood?  That Jesus had enormous charisma and radiated personal power is beyond question.  The Gospels are full of people being awe struck by Him.  You and I, however, do not have the benefit of a personal face-face to encounter with Jesus. So how do we follow Him?  Perhaps we can learn from the experience of Jonah?  Jonah is a minor prophet, so minor in fact that is difficult to place him historically.  But Jonah’s story is without a doubt one of the greatest stories in the Bible.  He refuses to follow God, boarding a boat instead of heading to Nineveh.  He goes west instead of east.  Jonah doesn’t care about the job, doesn’t care about the people he’s supposed to rebuke.  Jonah’s not into following. As a result he winds up in a pickle, or rather a whale after having been thrown overboard.  As hard as he wants to escape his task, he winds up in Nineveh.  So in our Gospel text we have eager followers while in the book of Jonah we are introduced to the most reluctant of followers.  So, friends, where do we fit in?  Are we eager followers or reluctant followers of our God?  That we not be a question we often ask ourselves.  Earlier we saw the five characteristics of good followers: imagining being a leader/ recognizing that leadership is an important and difficult task, sharing a commitment to a larger purpose rooted in mission, cultivating relationship and trust, practicing the art of learning and giving good feedback, and keeping boundaries.  It gives us clues on how the be active rather than passive followers.  In a way to be an active follower is the happy medium between being a leader and follower.  Did you notice how in literature and tv there are many great active followers like Watson to Sherlock Holmes and Tonto to the Lone Ranger?  These are followers who do what needs to be done to improve the situation.  They do not just wait for orders.  I have always been impressed by the way Parkview family members step up when we special events.  You are active followers. You never have to be told what to do. You pay attention to what needs to be done next, which person is trying to pack away left over food or store a table on his or her own.  Active following is in intentional and attentional following.  The Presbyterian Church is set up for people to be active followers, because the congregations are led by representative known as “ruling elders.” The pastor is officially a “teaching elder.”  That creates a culture of participation in our denomination. This may answer the question of how we can be followers in this congregation.  This is both a practical and a spiritual question.  It involves the conscious decisions of “being ready” and “letting go.”  The Disciples did this and Jonah didn’t.  Being ready means that we are ready to pay attention to the nudging of God’s Holy Spirit and the subtle opening and closing of doors in our lives.  Letting go means not clutching to everything so tightly in our lives and insisting on always having our ducks lined up.  You see, our culture encourages us to be control freaks. Did you ever notice how many sitcoms have a control freak and a lovable disorganized person play off each other, going back at least as far as the Odd Couple?  I can tell you that whenever I think I have everything lined up nicely, something happens to mess it up. Usually I will do something thoughtless or embarrassing.  It keeps me humble and makes me more conscious of the power of God’s grace. That grace runs like a current through our lives. We can ignore at our peril, as in the Jonah story or follow it as the new disciples did by the lake. When we truly actively follow God is it never because of force or coercion, it is because of our being ready and our letting go. May God help us.

 
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Reflection January 8

Published on February 9, 2017 by in Reflections

Isaiah 42:1-3; Matthew 3:17; (Mark 1:7)

Living Faith and Keeping Faith

The Hippocratic oath that physicians are supposed to take, I am told, states:”First do no harm.” That may be a good way to approach the lectionary passage in Isaiah about the expected One. This expected One will bring justice, so He is supposed to have some earthly power and influence.  But on the other hand there is image of gentleness and compassion and those are the verses I want to emphasize today:”A bruised reed He will not break and a dim wick He will not extinguish.”  It is simple yet beautiful imagery.  A reed has been stepped on or has been hit by something and water isn’t going to make its way up to the top that easily anymore. One more injury and it will be done, rendered useless.  With all the problems churches have with their candles, we certainly can imagine a dim wick.  If you lose the flame you may not be able to get it going again.  Neither wick nor reed are crucial to us, but they were for people in the ancient Middle East in a time of limited building materials and no electricity.

But of course, friends, it is a metaphor.  The text speaks of maintaining and holding on to something that is at risk of being lost. It could be a land, it could be the people, it could me a memory, it could be a people’s spirit.

In an interview on Hard Talk, forensic novelist Patricia Cornwell recently shared her fears.  She said she agreed to come for the interview because she wanted to answer the hard questions. Although she is wildly successful with her novel about a woman detective and she even travels with an entourage, she is still haunted by her past as an abandoned and abused child in North Carolina.  She thought she was worthless.  But one thing she found out she was good at was that she could tell stories really well. She could tell stories, especially scary stories, so well in fact that she could make a whole bunch of boys cry on a parking lot. This empowered her.  But she says she is haunted by her past and things she has seen in the process of her crime research.  Also like many people fears what’s under her bed and in her closet late at night. I don’t know her and have never read any of her books and I am not much of a hugger, but I wished I could have hugged her.  She told me that one of the few people who really embraced her as a child was Ruth Graham, the wife of Billy Graham.  Ruth really reached out to her. A bruised reed you shall not break and a dimly lit wick you not extinguish. Ruth got that. That’s what we should do when we are following Jesus. But there was hurt to come, because when she came out as gay and flew up to tell Ruth Graham first, Ruth just waved it off as impossible.  That was hard on Patricia.  But she understood that within everything Ruth had learned in the Southern Baptist universe in her life time, there was no room for that.  A bruised reed you shall break and a dimly lit wick you shall not extinguish.

Cornwell said something interesting. She feels that her writing is a way of healing people. I suppose this is so because the crime is solved and evil is exposed.   But she admits that she is never healed.  She says:”you can only heal yourself by healing others.”  That is beautifully said, but theologically it’s a bit problematic. I don’t if we can heal people really. We can help, but isn’t in the end God’s grace that does the healing?  And isn’t good helping ultimately empowering people?

There are two foreign movies coming out with the same actor: Isabelle Huppert. One is called

“Elle” and the other “Things to come.”  In the first she is the child of a serial killer who is a successful video game developer who suddenly has to face violence.  In the other she is a philosophy teacher who is betrayed by her husband.  Both movies, judging from the interview with her (with Charlie Rose), are about empowerment of a person who is bruised emotionally and at risk of being snuffed out.

Friends, perhaps Cornwell is right: we can only heal our bruises and our near despair when

we reach out to the ones with bruises who are dimly lit.  On the other hand maybe we can only help the bruised and the dimly lit if we too can face our bruised self and acknowledge the lack of light in us.

The verses are powerful in their simplicity.  The One Who is baptized by John and recognized by God , the One Who will save is also the One Who sees the vulnerable, walking as He were a cat on a table full of porcelain, never breaking anything that should not broken.  In our baptism we officially become part of the Messiah’s family and we commit to trying to walk, gingerly and full of attention and care, through life and among the people. May God help us to do so.

 
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