Pastor Jim’s Blog: What We have Seen and Hearne

 
 
 
 

Be Someone’s Piglet

“Today was a Difficult Day,” said Pooh.
 
There was a pause.
 
“Do you want to talk about it?” Asked Piglet.
 
“No,” said Pooh after a bit. “No, I don’t think I do.”
 
“That’s okay,” said Piglet, and he came and sat beside his friend.
 
“What are you doing?” Asked Pooh.
 
“Nothing, really,” said Piglet. “Only, I know what Difficult Days are like. I quite often don’t feel like talking about it on my Difficult Days either.”
“But goodness,” continued Piglet, “Difficult Days are so much easier when you know you’ve got someone there for you. And I’ll always be here for you, Pooh.”
 
And as Pooh sat there, working through in his head his Difficult Day, while the solid, reliable Piglet sat next to him quietly, swinging his little legs…he thought that his best friend had never been more right.
 

I agree with Winnie the Pooh – Piglet was so right. To be present for another in the darkest moments of life is perhaps the greatest gift we could ever offer. It is certainly one of the most sacred gifts we could receive.  Every time I sit and visit with a parishioner whether it be in my office, at the hospital, nursing home or their home, it is a privileged “gifted” time. 

If we are honest with ourselves, as much as we might portray on social media and other means that our life is great, that each day is perfect and runs according to “plan,” many of us admittedly have difficult days.  We might have had a difficult day at work, at home, with a co-worker, with our spouse or kids, with a fellow church parishioner, with a neighbor or friend.  Maybe nothing went right that particular day.  Maybe these just past holidays weren’t so jolly because of the absence of a loved one or friend.  Winter in the northern hemisphere with weather teetering on cold, somewhat gray (although we have evaded the snow) can be a time many people experience depression, great anxiety and difficultly. We can have and do have difficult days.

I find that as a pastor when I get those incredible brief sacred moments of love and support I get to offer someone and there are no words, no real actions, no magic formula that I use with them- that’s a holy encounter with the Spirit.  Simply said, it’s just the gift of presence.  To sit with someone sobbing and hurting in grief is sacred. To listen to someone who is facing incurable illness or diagnosis is holy. To bring Holy Communion and prayer to someone at the hospital, nursing home or home is gift itself.  Just showing up itself to be with another person is real gift, the presence of Christ, in our world.

It’s a matter of fact that every human being will experience “difficult days” and go through aging, sickness, loss of job, death and loss among other things. It’s part of our human condition. There’s a mysterious place called Octopus Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Octopus Springs is one of the unique places on Earth that’s labelled an “extreme environment.” For life to exist here it’s poised with “against all odds” defying challenges. The fact that life can even exist at all is nothing short of a miracle. But life does exist. Against all odds, it finds a way. 
 
So too for us against all odds in those difficult moments and days, we can find a way:

1. Don’t resist “difficult days.” They will come and happen. It’s a reminder we do not have much control over external situations.  Accept what you cannot change.

2. Be open to helpers. Be open to the “Piglets” in your life- those who will simply come without judgment and sit with you in your difficult moment. It is help from heaven.
 
3. Rest. Relaxation is the best medicine for survival and helps quiet the energy of our minds. Jesus took time to rest to help him overcome difficult trying times.
 
4. Have Faith. Developing faith can help us cope with hard times.  Faith is friendship with God.  God never promised an easy life but rather promised to be with us always. Read the Bible. Journal. Talk to God. Find a welcoming worshiping community of faith that embraces you and feeds your soul. 
 
5. Change your perspective. You might not be able to change the difficult situation you find yourself in.  But you certainly can change your perspective on it. Cultivate having a gratitude practice. Be thankful. Piglet didn’t try to change Winnie’s difficult day.  He just reminded him he was with him through it all.
 
We all have difficult days. What if we could be the “Piglets” who simply sit with others having those challenging moments and days?  Who has sat with you in your trying times?  Maybe as we turn the page on a new calendar year, we can offer the best gift to each other of our time and presence.  Difficult days are so much easier when you have someone there for you.  For us people of faith, God walks with us.  Recall the final blessing from our worship service: May God go before you to guide you; be behind you to encourage you; above you to watch over you and beneath you to support you. But may you discover the presence of God within you and know that God will always be your friend. God has our back, dear friends.  Just don’t be afraid to simply sit and have the back of someone in need in your life. You’ll be giving the best gift ever.
 
~P.J. 
 


What Would Be the Kindest Choice?

Who’s the kindest person you know?  
 
Someone who exudes “nice.”  Who is always willing to help without a complaint. Who offers a smile and an encouraging word.
 
It might be a parent, a colleague, a friend, a neighbor, a fellow church member or even a boss. But somewhere in your life there’s a person who rises above everyone else with the level of kindness they show. Do you ever wonder how do you think they got that way?  It’s not by accident.
 
One of the most legendarily kind people is Fred Rogers. “Mister Rogers,” as he’s known to countless children (and adults!) seemed to be the manifestation of kindness. There has been a buzz lately about Fred Rogers with the release of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks as our favorite next-door neighbor.  The movie is loosely based upon an Esquire profile of Fred Rogers “Can You Say…Hero?” (https://classic.esquire.com/article/1998/11/1/can-you-say-hero) done by Tom Junod back in 1998. I encourage you to read that article and then see the movie. 
 
His slow, quiet, and patient demeanor and his way of accepting everyone were indicators of what a kind man he was.  He did the same small good thing for a very long time. 
 
But Mister Rogers the celebrity — who by all accounts was the same as Fred Rogers the man — had to work at it. Every day. He admitted as much in his counsel to everyone about what it takes to build relationships:
 
“Mutually caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain. We need to accept the fact that it’s not in the power of any human being to provide all these things all the time. For any of us, mutually caring relationships will also always include some measure of unkindness and impatience, intolerance, pessimism, envy, self-doubt, and disappointment.”
 
Mister Rogers wasn’t perfect. Neither is any one of us. He worked hard on his humanness: He would swim laps each day at the downtown Pittsburgh Athletic Club near the studios where he filmed.  He would aggressively watch and keep his weight at 143 pounds.  He would at times strongly bang notes on the piano to give off frustration and express anger. He would pause and offer silent prayer and meditation for those he had met and encountered.  He read the Bible every day.  He by no means was perfect.  And yet he gave an incredible insight and road map into living a life of kindness. 
 
This is why reflection and tranquility are so important as we determine who or what we want to be, in our private lives and in our public lives.
 
It takes a great deal of practice and deliberation. The word “deliberation” is a direct descendant of the Latin word deliberare, which means to consider carefully.
 
In the film A Beautiful Day in the NeighborhoodTom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers. Now, if you know anything about the actor Tom Hanks, it’s that he is widely considered one of the kindest people in show business.  So much so that, according to a recent New York Times article, a journalist who attended a panel suggested that Tom Hanks is just playing Tom Hanks, but “slower.”  
 
But the slowness of Fred Rogers — the un-self-conscious, considered slowness — was hard, Hanks said. It felt ridiculous when he first tried it out. He studied hours of tapes, because sometimes he couldn’t imagine that he was supposed to go this slowly… ‘It’s a combination of procedure and behavior that was singularly Fred Rogers.’”
 
But there’s something to that notion of needing to slow down. Especially now in our lives and world.  When everything is calling us to go faster (work, technology, calendars, etc), perhaps we all could simply slow down the brakes, pause and appreciate.  When you need to weigh things in your mind, you need peace and solitude to allow that to happen.  And you need to choose deliberately what you’ll do.
 
Every day, we’re faced with decisions that require our response:
  • I need to give my direct report feedback or criticism about their behavior.
  • My children are misbehaving at school or home.
  • The business strategy we’ve chosen isn’t working out.
  • A new family has moved into our neighborhood.
  • Someone made a post or tweet critical of me or something I believe in.
 
It’s up to each and every one of us how we choose to respond in these situations.  Every one of them involves some level of emotion, and it’s easy to simply react in the moment. To let ourselves blurt out what we think needs saying. But Mister Rogers, in his deliberate, reflective way, at times like these, would ask himself one simple question that guided his response:
 
“What would be the kindest choice?”
 
 
Kindness doesn’t happen unintentionally. You need to direct yourself there. And in those quiet moments of reflection, consider how those on the other end of your response might react.  What would our lives (and even world) look like if we all asked that question of ourselves each day: What would be the kindest choice?  Would we engage in road rage?  Would we shout and scream at our spouse and/or kids?  Would we give the silent treatment to family members or friends who seemed to have wronged us?  Would we not forgive? 
 
If you’re unkind or abrupt, what might they think, do or say? How might that further damage the relationship? How might that in turn hinder any progress you wanted to make?  I often ponder what Anna and Peter think of my use of words and how that impacts the way they think about the world or themselves and how they in turn will use words with others. At times I let my impatience and anger get the best of me. I may take out things unfairly on them or others for something that was my own fault.  I know I fail at times with Amy being short and curt instead of thinking thoughtfully through my words weighing how they will affect her.  Words do hurt.  Our word choice can have lasting intentional or unintentional consequences. 
 
Kindness. Empathy. Patience. These are some of the tenets that guided Mister Rogers every day. And they can guide us too.  Fred had many great quotes about life, faith, kindness and love.  Once he quipped, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind.  The third way is to be kind.”  It sounds so elementary and so basic and yet isn’t a heavy dose of kindness what we all could put forth in this world?   
 
Some say he was quirky and odd wearing the cardigan sweaters and trying to pretend to be something he wasn’t.  I don’t think he was fake.  He was someone who believed in helping children and making a positive impact in their lives every day.  He impacted mine.  I couldn’t wait as a little boy to see what next adventure he would take me on.  I couldn’t wait to go to the land of “Make-Believe” on Trolley.  I couldn’t wait for Mr. Rogers to say those precious words to me (and everyone else): You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.  
 
So, what would be the kindest choice for me and you today?  It’s a question that should be on our mirrors, on our phones and devices, in our classrooms, in our workplaces, in our churches, in our homes and in our neighborhoods.  In this crazy season of running ourselves ragged going here and there, shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning, traveling, partying and such…in this time when we are meant to prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of Emmanuel (God with us)…in this time when we are reminded that relationships should come before any gift or present…what if we all became the heroes Fred Rogers thought we were and could be by slowing down and simply being kind?  It actually works.  His life was proof of it.  And I know another person whom Fred adored that lived with kindness, hope and peace: Jesus Christ.   
 
Try it.  Practice asking the question each day: What would be the kindest choice? And then thoughtfully and intentionally do it.   
 
Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for teaching us kindness is really the only way to live a life worth living. Rest in peace, dear neighbor. 
 
~PJ


Make a Difference

Over the summer I came across a story entitled The Domino Factor. I’m not sure why exactly it resonated with me. Perhaps because I like a good story. Maybe because it’s a preach-able story. Or maybe just because I need to work on my attitude. Who knows?
 
Jerry was not a morning person. He yawned as he grabbed a paper and poured himself a cup of coffee at the corner convenience store. He yawned again as he made his way to the counter where the clerk stood like a mannequin waiting to take his money. She yawned too, as she mumbled the amount Jerry owed her. As he fumbled through his pockets for the correct change, he yawned again – which prompted the man in line behind him to yawn as well. Jerry paid and left the store. He was a block away before he realized that he’d left his newspaper on the checkout counter. He vowed to be more on the ball tomorrow.
 
Well the next morning when Jerry stepped into the store, a raucous scene was unfolding. A man was arguing bitterly with the cashier that the coffee wasn’t hot enough. Two other customers bickered at the pastry kiosk after one of them had picked out a roll and then put it back. A woman let out a cry as her purse fell open, spilling its contents down the aisle. And as she urgently tried to retrieve everything her toddler began to scream. This was too much for Jerry. He turned around to exit the store and accidentally bumped into a man coming in. Hey, watch where you’re going! the man bellowed. I certainly will, thought Jerry, because I don’t want to be around any more cranky people today!
 
As Jerry was a creature of habit, he went to the same store the next day to get his morning paper and coffee. But this time, he poked his head through the doorway to gauge the mood of the customers. A new cashier stood at the register, smiling. Good morning! she said as she waved him in. I just put on a fresh pot. Jerry poured his coffee and grabbed a paper. Smells great, doesn’t it? Will that be all today? she asked. Yes and yes, Jerry replied with a grin. Without batting an eye, the cashier said, OK then, that will be $125. Jerry reached into his pocket and then looked up at her quizzically. She gave him a wink. Gotcha, she giggled. Jerry shook his head at his slow uptake. Yes, you did! He smiled broadly. Now there’s the smile I was looking for, the clerk said as she handed Jerry his newspaper. Now go out there and make it a good day. Jerry called out: You too, as he headed out the door. He stooped at the entrance and looked back at the clerk. She was laughing with another customer in line. Jerry started to chuckle himself. This was going to be a great day!
 
Attitudes are contagious! This is the point of the story. And I wonder sometimes if this isn’t the essential point for every family, every community and every church. You see, the attitudes we carry around within us each day affect other people. In ways in which we are not even aware, how we speak to others, and smile at others, and respond to others creates a chain reaction that can bring more darkness and death to our world – or – more light and life.  And here’s the bottom line– we are responsible for our attitudes!
 
Most recently I volunteered to coach Anna’s “under 6” soccer team.  I’ve never played soccer but the seven kids on the team don’t care.  They just want to run around, kick the ball, have fun and chase me at the end of practices and games.  Their attitude is so infectious…their smiles, giggles, laughs…their running around, falling down, exultation at kicking the ball into the net helps remind me what life is all about.  We can choose to be grumpy, forlorn, down-in-the-dumps OR we can be joyous, hopeful, energetic and have a smile on our face.  It doesn’t mean our lives are perfect or that we don’t have our particular challenges or issues, but we choose to live with this underlying attitude of joy.  We can choose to accept to live a life of incredible blessing.  I remember playing basketball in grammar school and if the Bears lost a game, Coach Farnesi would come to practices on Monday in a bad mood.  Even if our team had won, it didn’t matter.  If the Bears lost, that meant we were running and running a lot. I never understand that.  We choose our attitudes!
 
This is I think what Paul meant when he wrote the church at Ephesus: “Blessed be the Maker of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Before the world began, God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless and to be full of love” (1:3-4).  Simply said, you are blessed! Wherever you go you will leave a flavor or attitude. Life can be boring and sad, solemn and forlorn – OR – it can be filled with life and zest, adventure and joy. You are the difference! Leave your mark, your blessing, and flavor the world!
 
 
As I write this blog I am looking out my office window at the beautiful landscape of the mounds off in the distance while listening to Linda Seeley’s recently recorded “Pure Joy” CD.  I am reminded of the numerous blessings that always surround me at any given moment.  We sadly often choose to see the negative side of things, the cup as half empty and be conveyors of pessimism and bad news or just not see the blessings that surround us.  Sometimes I think church is often full of people who too easily find life burdensome just like the character Eyore from Winnie the Pooh. The short story I shared above is a reminder we need to be like the cashier in the store choosing to be an agent of joy and blessing.  And when we do exactly that, it’s contagious just like the sign of peace we share at worship at BLC to the tune of “Old Church Choir.”
 
We can make a difference in the lives of others by simply being agents of joy.  We can share our blessings with others.  Blessings, or the promises of God, are meant to be given away and not hoarded.  Our attitudes are contagious.  What do you want to pass on to others?  What do you want your mark to be in this world?  As we move into September and the busy-ness of another school year try to remember this each day.
 
As you rise from sleep make this your prayer: 
 
Lord help me to bring the blessing of your kingdom to this day. Whoever I meet today may they be touched by my attitude and changed by meeting me. Let me bring more joy to this world. Help me to laugh easily and love freely. Help me to be generous and kind, understanding and accepting. Use me as your instrument O Lord!
 
Amen. 
 
~PJ


Pray, Lament, Groan

The recent news and photos coming from the detention centers on our border with Mexico have been harrowing to say the least.  Just last week an immigrant and his nearly two-year-old daughter drowned trying to cross the border caused a stir among some- that little arm around the neck of her father, hanging on as they drowned in the Rio Grande. These are human beings; a dad and his child, a family.  We barely have time to process the emotion before we read about sick, hungry, migrant children who are at risk in detention centers.  Children?  And reports of children combing lice out of each other’s hair?   

We want to look away
 
Some might not even read this blog because of the nature of its content.  For a moment- just a moment– would you, or could you put down your political lens and leanings just to reflect with me about this subject matter?  
 
I propose no solutions here.  There are people more qualified than me to do that.  But I would like to offer at least a way for us as Christians to reflect and respond in our own way.  Because of grace we have a lens and way to view and respond to the things happening in this world.  Let’s not turn away.  Let’s not return too quickly to our summer activities.  Let’s let these reports and images prompt the deepest form of prayer.  Let’s pray, lament and groan.
 
Most of us have been born and raised in this country.  Most of us have never had to think about where we will sleep on a given night, where our next meal will come from, wonder if our son will be taken off into a gang, or if our daughter will be gang-raped, tortured and murdered.  We have been born into the most privileged country ever in the history of the world.  We have all the basics with no questions asked.  And we scramble to get the latest phone, television, luxury car, vacation home, etc.  We have jobs that give decent wages so we can pay the bills.  The point is: we have.  I would argue none of us- not even myself- will ever understand what some of these people are trying to escape from in their Third World Countries.  They are running away from violence, extreme poverty, gangs, corrupt governments, lack of education, etc.  They are fleeing hopelessness.  And they are running towards a chance, a dream, a better way, food, water, life.  They are running towards hope.  What would I or you do if we were in their footsteps?  Would we want do everything in our power to give our children a chance to live freely?  Would we not risk everything- including our own lives– to see that our own flesh and blood will live to see another day?   
 
We can argue politics behind immigration policies.  We can argue our current border patrol system.  We can discuss the protocols in place for citizenship.  We can talk about those who try to skirt the system and enter illegally.  Here’s the point, though: for us as Christians, we always, always, always start with the PERSON.  No one is illegal.  We are all travelers on the road.  Jesus was a migrant whose parents had to flee to Egypt with him to save his life.   
 
And so with any ethical dilemma or moral question, we start with the person.  And they each have a name and a story just like you and me.  What would you do if you were put in a similar situation?  We can’t do everything, but we can do something.   
 
Our detention centers were never built to house so many migrants trying to enter our country.  Our system as it is was never set up to handle the thousands and thousands of requests of green cards, permanent statuses and citizenship requests.  I don’t know if any system could.  There is no policy that could adequately accommodate the vast number of migrants seeking asylum and entrance into this country.  Just last month an ELCA Pastor student serving in a congregation in Racine were deported back to Columbia.  They were arrested in their home in Chicago.  She left Columbia originally to escape Columbia’s bloody, half-century conflict between government troops, paramilitary militias and guerilla insurgents.  She now is returned to those conditions.  We groan the images of children and adults being stuck in cages for weeks and months on end.  We lament the desperate conditions of immigrant families.  We lament the impossible assignment given to the Border Patrol and officials.  We lament the inability to find civil solutions.  We pray for God-breathed solutions.  Lord, please help us.  Prayerful empathy is the first place to start.  This is an incredible mess.  A humanitarian, heart-breaking mess.  As all political parties argue and wonder what can be done, I think we can do what we are called to do.  Pray, lament and groan.   
 
Lament is a cry for mercy or help in a time of sadness and regret.  Because we are uncomfortable in lament, we often look away in times of overwhelming tragedy.  We don’t want to feel grief over the deaths of migrant children.  We are so tempted to turn from the hurting and in some cases, even question whether it’s really that bad.  Politics, cynicism, and fear pull us away from lament, repentance and action.  As this keeps happening, will people keep reading and staying tuned or will this become another example of “compassion fatigue?”  As Christians we are called to weep with those who weep.  We ask for the courage and strength to hear the cries of children and all people.  We commit to do justice for the immigrant, for we are all travelers on the road.  Lead us, Lord, not into temptation and deliver us from evil.  Deliver all from violence, hunger, abuse and extortion. From detention. From despair. We remember Oscar and his two-year-old daughter Valeria Ramirez who died drowning in the Rio Grande.  They matter.  Jesus sees them.  Do we?        
 
As we pray, lament and groan, may these words help keep us centered in our mission as disciples of Jesus:
 
God won’t ask
What kind of car you drove. 
God will ask
How many people you drove who didn’t have transportation. 
God won’t ask
What your highest salary was. 
God will ask
If you compromised your character to obtain it. 
God won’t ask
In what neighborhood you lived. 
God will ask
How you treated your neighbor. 
God won’t ask 
The square footage of your house. 
God will ask
How many people you welcomed into your house. 
God won’t ask
What your job title was. 
God will ask
If you performed your job to the best of your ability. 
God won’t ask
About the color of your skin. 
God will ask
about the content of your character. 
God won’t ask
About the clothes in your closet. 
God will ask
How many have you helped to clothe. 
God won’t ask
How many friends you had. 
God will ask
How many people whom you were a friend to. 

There are no easy answers.  But there is a way for us to at least respond with a kind and prayerful heart. 

Pray.

Lament.

Groan.

  

~P.J. 



God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

God won’t give you more than you can handle.
 
I’ve heard it said to me.  Heck, I know early on in my ministry I would utter this line to someone facing some significant crisis.  Not knowing what else to say, it simply came out: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  If you “google” the saying, many pretty depictions of the saying come up with nature scenes in the background.  Here’s the funny thing: Jesus never once said that. 
 
I know.  I’ve had more than I can handle more than once.  Losing both parents at different moments, leaving the priesthood, moving back home to live with my dad, interviewing at congregations and discerning where God might be calling us, being a distance away from our families, ministering on multiple levels to parishioners in very different places while still trying to be a good and loving husband and father.   I think of the days, the worships, the sermons where nothing seems to go right and it all seems too much to bear.  And yet it was in my church families where I saw strength, beauty and grace.  Both you and I have had more than we can handle more than once.  God gave you and I strength and God gave us people who came alongside us to bear our burdens when we couldn’t.
 
You see “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is idolatry of self-sufficiency hiding behind some nice spiritual sounding words.  The truth is people are dealing with more than they can handle all over the world.  That’s why we need God and why God has given us each other.   As pastor I see and hear about the burdens many of you are carrying everyday…grief, working long hours in an endless job, loveless marriages, challenges with raising children and grandchildren.  I think of all of our farmers who face burdens I will never experience in my life.  And the temptation for all of us, even myself, is to say “Hang in there…God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  My best response as a street theologian is to simply say: “BS.”   
 
Throughout the Bible we hear about characters who were given seemingly impossible tasks: Moses having to face Pharaoh and freeing thousands, young David facing “the Giant,” Daniel being surrounded by lions in the pit, Jesus facing a mob, being betrayed, denied and eventually encountering a horrific death.  I wonder what Jesus would have done or thought if Peter said to him “Lord, don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  I bet words like “Get behind me, Satan” or some tongue lashing for “the rock” might have been given.  Do you think of any of these so-called “heroes” of the Bible were in the middle of such extremely stressful circumstances and thought “Well, God won’t give me more than I can handle so I’ll just keep hanging on?”  Absolutely not.  Maybe the point was to show something possible could come of an impossible situation.  Maybe the point or the truth is that God doesn’t give us anything that God can’t handle.  Or maybe the point was that none of these people did it alone.  Their work was accomplished through a community of believers.  The resurrection was experienced by the women at the tomb, by the apostles locked in the upper room, by the first believers hearing the stories of Jesus’ comeback defeating death.  It happened when they were together.  
 
God uses us and places us in our community of faith so that we can experience the gift of community.  Whether you are single, married with kids, widowed, empty-nester or what-have-you, one of the greatest blessings of belonging to a church is experiencing the “richness” of relationships and “doing life” together.  Would it be easier to go it alone?  Sure, sometimes.  But then we miss out on what God does for us through others.  I think for the most part we can recognize the need for God in our lives but we often fail or forget how much we need each other to grow in the faith.   
 
Since I have come to BLC I have observed the tendency for people to quite casually miss our worship time together.  Other “things” get in the way.  I will never stop reaching out to every single parishioner reminding them how important it is to be in prayer together.  When we don’t bring our children to worship, what does that communicate to them?  When we are only present once a month or some even less, how can we truly build the Body of Christ here in Barneveld?  This is not a guilt piece.  I realize how busy everyone’s lives are.  And we all can claim life is really hard.  But we are trying to build something quite beautiful here.  We are a church family.  And when family is not present, we are lacking.  It always strikes me that when things are good, we don’t need God.  But as soon as something goes wrong- a bad diagnosis, an unexpected death, a challenging time, etc. the first question often raised is “where is God?”   
 
We cannot experience community alone. 
Can we talk to God in the woods or in nature?  Sure.  But we can’t build or know the sense of community when we are alone.  Worship connects us to God through each other.  It’s a beautiful thing.  In fact, King David thought so much of communal worship he penned Psalm 68:6 which says “God sets the lonely in families.”  Our Christian faith and identity is shaped by our corporate worship and fellowship as a family.  When we feel the burdens of life, we can know and realize we are never alone.  We have our God who comes to us in the faces of the people who sit in the pews along side of us.  
 
In the classic song “Message in a Bottle” by The Police, Sting’s lyrics brilliantly illustrate how we can experience loneliness even when we are surrounded by people who have the same fears and same insecurities we have: Walked out this morning/Don’t believe what I saw/ A hundred billion bottles/ Washed up on the shore/ Seems I’m not alone at being alone/ A hundred billion castaways/ Looking for a home.  
 
God won’t give you more than you can handle.  Hogwash.  God gives us each other.  Remember the gift of being part of something greater than yourself.  Come pray, sing, eat, worship, grow.  There’s a reason we now say: Believe It, Live It, Come to It.  The temptation in summer is to skip out on worship.  Don’t.  If you travel, go to a new and different church.  Giving one hour back to God is pretty simple in the grand scheme of things.  And when you come, you might just be surprised by who you find sitting in the pew next to you.  We are church and family together. 


It’s OKAY not to be OKAY

 
January 11, 1991.  January 7, 2017. These two dates will always be etched into my memory.  My mom and dad passed away on those respective dates.  I lost mom in the middle of my 6th grade year.  Dad just a few short years back.  Both were sudden and unexpected and affected me in very different ways as I grieved them uniquely- with my mom I was 11 years old and then with my dad I was 37, married, a father myself and Pastor of BLC.  All of us will experience some type of loss, bereavement and death of a loved one.  It’s part of life.  And we all will grieve.   
 
What is grief?  There are several ways to define grief:
“Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. The more significant the loss, the more intense your grief will be.”
 
“Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind. Of itself, grief is neither a pathological condition nor a personality disorder.”
 

“Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.”  

“Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who’s always been there, only to discover when I need her [or him] one more time, she’s no longer there.”  
 
“Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who had been there for me at one time, only to discover that I can’t go to them for help or comfort anymore.”  
 
There are many ways to define grief and to try and summarize something so intimate, mysterious and surreal is hard to put words around.  We grieve with the loss of many things- graduating, loss of job, physical abilities, moving, transitions in life, etc.  With this blog I am focusing our attention on losing a loved one.  With mom I experienced a mixture of disbelief, anger and profound sadness.  I was like a blender not knowing what emotion would come out on any given day.  In some ways I still can’t believe she is gone.  But she is.  With my dad, I still reach for the phone to call him expecting to hear his voice, hear a goofy joke and share what the kids have been up to.  I continue to discover over and over each day that he’s no longer there.  Grieving is a highly individual experience; there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and how significant the loss was to you.
 
Inevitably, the grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
 
I see so many who struggle with grief and losing a loved one.  When our world pressures us to get back to work and get back to “being fine,” perhaps all we want to do is just stay in bed, cry and not face the world.  We really aren’t given the time, the space or even language of being able to grieve.  I recently came across a book entitled “It’s Okay Not to Be Okay: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand” by Megan Devine.  I thought the title alone captures what many of us truly want to feel when it comes to grieving but we feel we just can’t.  We might look weak, unsophisticated and “not together.”   
 
Back in the 1960s a sociologist Elisabeth Kubler Ross developed a series of “stages” one grieving goes through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  But not everyone goes through or experiences these stages.  I think a much better wholistic way to picture grief is that of a roller coaster. Instead of a series of stages, picture a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows.  Like many roller coasters, the ride tends to be rougher in the beginning, the lows may be deeper and longer.  The difficult periods should become less intense and shorter as time goes by, but it takes time to work through a loss.  Even years after a loss, especially at special events such as weddings or the birth of a child, we may still experience a strong sense of grief.
 
After a loss we can feel disoriented, numb and experience almost a sense of disbelief like I did with my mom.  We can ask ourselves, “Is this really happening?” I think it is important to just feel what you feel especially in those first moments/days/weeks after a loved one has passed.  You may feel betrayal, abandonment, anger and deep sorrow.  Grief has many elements to it: cognitive, emotional and even physical.  A good rule of thumb is to accept these feelings and not become anxious about the varieties of responses you may have.  One physical response to loss may be fatigue.  We can feel exhausted for months after someone passes.  When my dad passed away I wanted to sleep and eat.  Being a Pastor and dad got me out of bed but I did gain a large amount of weight seeking comfort in food. Some may feel tired, have insomnia, upset stomach, or aches, weight fluctuations or constant headaches.  This doesn’t mean you’re sick or doing anything wrong but rather your body and mind is grieving.
 
You might be thinking: Well what can you do for someone who is grieving? 
Lots of listening, non-judgmental listening, lots of patience, and knowing when to say “Come on, let’s go get some ice cream,” and knowing when to just let them sit and be.  Steadfast patience with someone who’s in pain is the greatest gift we can give.  Our unconditional empathy or non-anxious listening helps us stay with them and allows us the willingness to go with them where they go. 
 
What else can we do?  It can be very healing to get together with other people whose lives have been touched by the deceased.  Telling stories about them and what they meant to you does help to heal.  I know our “Rooted with Purpose” women’s group at a recent meeting shared stories of Katie Barrios which helped those present to experience a form of healing in their grief.  You consolidate memories, writing down what’s important so that you can name the person’s legacy.  In other words, you answer the question what still bears fruit from the deceased person’s life, and your life and other people’s lives.   
 
So what are tangible things one can do who is grieving?  Journaling, praying, going for a walk and just seeing what comes to mind.  Finding a trusted friend who may not get it but will let you just talk, and talk and talk.  Some find comfort in a support groups like “GriefShare” offered at BLC, a funeral home or hospice.  
 
When our foundations have been shaken it’s vitally important to remember the basics: eat and sleep well.Have regular routines that are pillars around which you can organize your time and feelings.  Trying to have a disciplined time of devotion, exercise, and Bible reading can give us a sense of grounding. Routine” can really help recreate a sense of normalcy when it feels totally disorienting.
 
Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to not think about our grief and do something as simple as watch tv, read a book, do a crossword, do laundry, etc. It’s been said God gives minimum protection but maximum support.  Tragedies, disease and death occur in our world.  God doesn’t prevent these things from happening but we get maximum support when they do occur.  God draws near the suffering, the weak, the downtrodden and those who just don’t know if they’re going to get up again.  There is no timeline for our grieving and for each of us it will look different.  Be mindful of your grieving.  Keep an eye on those grieving around you.
 

Here might be some things to do when grieving:

  1. Face your feelings.
  2. Express your feelings in a creative or tangible way.
  3. Try to maintain hobbies and interests.
  4. Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either.
  5. Plan ahead for grief “triggers.”
  6. Look after your health. See a doctor.
  7. Find a faith community that will help with the highs and lows of the roller coaster grief ride.

 

If you’re experiencing symptoms of complicated grief or clinical depression, talk to a mental health professional right away. Left untreated, complicated grief and depression can lead to significant emotional damage, life-threatening health problems, and even suicide. But treatment can help you get better.
 
There is help.  Jesus is our way, truth and life.  One’s faith in the Risen Lord is always the first place to start spiritually.  Praying and meditating opens our heart to God’s incredible love and strength.  Talking to myself, another pastor or friend also can help. 
 
Below are a few of the many resources available for those needing help:

https://www.uwhealth.org/organ-donation/resources-for-grieving-adults/26169 https://www.griefshare.org/ http://www.hellogrief.org/resources/wisconsin/ https://childrengrieve.org/about-us https://www.agrace.org/grief-support/

 

As I reflect on my grief, which I see as a gift from God, I really am grateful for the love and support of Amy, Anna, Peter, my family, friends and church family.  It was dad who helped become a bedrock for me when my mom died.  We had each other.  I thank Amy who helped carry me giving a listening ear and shoulder to lean on when my dad died.  It is OK to grieve, talk, cry, be happy, and live a full life, even with our grief. Our loved ones want us to live.  Don’t shy away or run from your grief; rather, lean into your grief.  It’s okay not to be okay.

For all of us grieving, I want to conclude with this poem written by Jan Richardson:
Let us agree for now that we will not say the breaking makes us stronger, or that it is better to have this pain than to have done without this love. Let us promise, we will not tell ourselves, time will heal the wound, when every day our waking opens it anew. Perhaps for now, it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery of how a heart so broken can go on beating, as if it were made for precisely this, as if it knows the only cure for love is more of it, as if it sees the heart’s sole remedy for breaking is to love still, as if it trusts that its own persistent pulse is the rhythm of a blessing we cannot begin to fathom, but will save us nonetheless.”  
 
Walking the journey with you,
PJ  
 


Do Lutherans “Do” Lent?

I often hear this time of year “What is Lent?”  I thought I might reflect with you about what it is, where it came from and how we at BLC approach this season of the church. 
 
What Is Lent?
Lent is the season of fasting and self-denial observed by many Christians in the days preceding Easter Sunday each year. The word “Lent” comes from an old English word meaning “lengthening days,” with the Lenten season consisting of forty fast days as days lengthen in early spring.  Since Easter’s date moves each year based on the lunar calendar, Lent’s dates vary from year to year. However, each year it begins on Ash Wednesday, which occurs sometime in February or early March.  This year it began on March 6th.  Last year it began on February 14th.  In 2020, Lent will begin on February 26th.   
 
Where Did Lent Come From?
Lent is neither mentioned nor implied in the Bible. Instead, it is a tradition that developed slowly over the first several centuries of church history. During the first three centuries of the church Christians often prepared to celebrate Easter with a “short preparatory fast of one, two, or more days.”  These early, pre-Easter fasts were used to mark the time between the death of Jesus and his resurrection, and to prepare one’s heart for Easter Sunday. How the short pre-Easter fasts of the first three centuries evolved into Lent is not entirely clear. Some early Christians in Egypt held a forty day fast beginning January 6 in imitation of Jesus’ own time of fasting. Those preparing for baptism on Easter in Rome would fast for three weeks prior, and something similar happened in other places at different times of the year. By the fourth century, “As Easter came to be seen universally as the primary occasion in the year for baptism … these customs coalesced everywhere into a standard forty-day season of fasting immediately before” the Easter festival.  Canon 5 from the Council of Nicea (325 AD) mentions the period of “Lent,” and a few years later Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, wrote to his people and urged them to observe the 40-day fast which “all the world” was observing.

 

Why Do People Fast at Lent?
In the Roman Catholic tradition Lenten fasting has been seen as a form of penance for past sins. Christians from a variety of traditions see it as a time of prayer, repentance, and self-sacrifice for the purpose of focusing their attention on Christ and His sacrifice in the days leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Lent begins on a humble note on Ash Wednesday when people make their way to church to receive an imprint of ashes on their forehead in the form of a cross. The dust or dirt remind us of our mortality and our dependence on God when we hear the words “Remember, we are dust and unto dust we shall return.”  

 

Why “40” Days?
Forty is a significant number in the Bible. It is a number associated with anticipation and preparation. Moses waited on Mt. Sinai forty days to receive the Law (Exodus 34:28), Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the promised land (Exodus 16:35), Elijah walked forty days to meet with God at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8), and most significantly, Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness before his temptation (Mark 1:13). Even after Christians had come to agree on a forty-day period of fasting before Easter, there was little uniformity in how churches counted the days. In Jerusalem Lent lasted eight weeks and people fasted Monday through Friday for a total of 40 fast days. In other places people fasted for six weeks, six days a week, making 36 fast days. Many in medieval times pointed to this period of thirty-six days “as the spiritual tithing of the year, thirty-six days being approximately the tenth part of three hundred and sixty-five.” (See Reference Below) Today Lent lasts six and one half weeks, with exactly forty fast days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Sundays have never been included as fast days, since celebration rather than fasting should characterize every Sunday–the day Jesus rose from the dead.

 

Do Protestants Observe Lent?
At the time of the Reformation the traditions surrounding Lent were almost entirely swept away, as part of the Reformers’ general rejection of the use of all ceremonies in worship that were at best not understood by ordinary people and at worst interpreted in a highly superstitious manner.  In other words, the emerging Lutheran and other Protestant churches wanted to distance themselves from anything looking “Roman Catholic.”  However, over the past two centuries Lent has made a comeback among Protestants.  Today it is commonly observed by Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians and members of other mainline Protestant denominations. In recent years other Protestants such as Baptists and non-denominational congregations have begun to adopt the practice of fasting from something during Lent. While the practices, timing, and even the theology behind Lent has differed over the years and continues to differ between churches and individuals, many Christians continue to prepare for Easter Sunday through some form of fasting.  

 

Lent at BLC
We offer a theme or focus for people to use, pray and act upon during these 40 days this season offers.  This year’s theme is “God Sees Beauty in our Brokenness” which is based upon the story of the Prodigal Son from the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  We will hear this well-known story on the 5th Sunday of Lent (April 7th).  At the heart of the story is a son who has decided to return penniless, broke and broken.  While still a distance away, the father sees the son returning and runs out to greet and welcome him back.  The father saw beyond the brokenness of the son- seeing an inner beauty that is within us all.  Through our Sunday worships and Wednesday midweek services, we hope to explore what this brokenness and beauty may look like in our lives.
 
We are offering our 3rd annual Lenten devotional in which reflections prepared by people of BLC and the community will be offered each day reflecting on the theme of brokenness and beauty.  This has been a powerful way for our community to grow together learning a little bit more about each other walking the journey of faith.  Our Wednesday soup suppers offer a chance for people to come together for fellowship and community building.  We have unveiled a special “Lent/Easter” cross that will be used for the two seasons.  During Lent folks will be invited to write a brokenness or pain on the cross.  Then we will take colored plates collected and break them to create a colorful mosaic of plate pieces that will be displayed on Easter.  Our brokenness will literally turn into something beautiful. 
 
Each Lent we partake in a particular “almsgiving”- a special offering which we lift up a work or ministry outside of BLC.  This year our focus is two-fold: half collected will go to the Nabor House in Houston (a Christian preschool the youth from BLC did their service day at last summer in Houston) and the other half to Join the Movement (a 501c3 non-profit organization to provide awareness and education about what human trafficking, sexual assault and internet safety).   
 
When does Lent end?
I smile when folks ask me when Lent ends because what they are really asking is when can they return to the things they gave up for the 40 day season (i.e, chocolate, tv, etc).  They want to know when the “Lent fast” ends.   The liturgical Season of Lent ends with the celebration of the evening service on “Maundy” or Holy Thursday of Holy Week.  The church enters into the 3 holy days or the Sacred Triduum of Jesus’s last moments on earth.  Many though will continue as a spiritual discipline what they gave up or took on for the season of Lent through Easter Sunday and others beyond as part of a life change. 
 
Postlude
As we begin this reflective or introspective season of Lent, I pray your journey to meet Jesus in a new way is fruitful.  Lent ultimately is about our relationship with Jesus.  We are invited to spend well-meaning time thinking about life, death, relationships, faith and Jesus these 40 days. Lent is much like life- a clock that is ticking.  We have the opportunity and invitation to use the time wisely or waste it away.
 
Whether you give something up or take something on, do it with charity and focus.  If you choose not to give up something or do something differently, try to focus on the image of the father running to the son in the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  All too often we think we are unworthy carrying a deep hurtful shame about what we have done or haven’t done in our relationship with God.  God comes running to us this Lenten day and always- never forget that.
 
Turn back to God with all your heart and let God embrace you as the beautiful beloved son and daughter you were created to be!  In the end, we are not defined by the things we have done or haven’t done.  NO!  We are defined by the God who loves us no matter what.  Take some time this Lent to know, feel, see, taste and touch the goodness of God.  
 
~PJ
 
References: Paul F. Bradshaw and Hoffman, Lawrence A., eds., Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times, vol. 5, Two Liturgical Traditions (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).          


Why does God allow suffering?

Why does God allow trials and suffering in our lives?  This question was posed to me at a worship at the end of last summer where I had a minute to answer.  I wanted to spend some time reflecting on this question in this blog edition. 
 
One only can to turn on any news channel, look on Twitter or Facebook and see the trials and sufferings going on in our world.  Whether it’s extreme temperatures, hate crimes being perpetrated, abortion or infanticide laws being promoted, cancer diagnoses, cops being shot, school shootings, black people being targeted, wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorists exploding themselves killing others in the name of God, you need not go far to experience the pain of this world.  And people immediately ask: “Why?  Why did God allow this?” 
 
These tragic events are just added to the everyday pain and suffer you and I may experience in our individual lives.  There’s illness, abuse, broken relationships, betrayal, sorrow, injuries, disappointment, heartache, crime and death.  We all can easily ask the questions: “Why? Why me? Why now?”
 
It’s not a new question.  It goes back thousands of years.  It was asked in the Old Testament by Job and the writers of the Psalms, and it was especially relevant during the 20th century, where we witnessed two World Wars, the Holocaust, genocides in the Soviet Union and China, famines in Africa, the killing fields in Cambodia, the emergence of AIDS, the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.  The 21st century did not start any better with 9/11, the Syrian slaughters, and on and on.  Why do all of these horrific things happen if there’s a loving and powerful God?  Why do bad things happen to good people?
 
Several years ago there was a national survey that asked people what question they’d ask if they could only ask God one thing.  The number one response was: “Why is there suffering in our world?” 
 
I don’t have an exact answer.  In fact, perhaps my best answer is: I DON’T KNOW.  But we have a tradition and perspective that might be helpful for considering suffering in this world.  Jesus himself was honest about the inevitability of suffering.  In John 16:33 he said, “You will have suffering in this world.”  Notice Jesus didn’t say “might”- he said it is going to happen. 
 
I don’t have God’s mind and can’t share his perspective in this world.  Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:12 “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.”  Someday we will see with clarity, but for now things are foggy.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t grapple with the question of why God allows suffering in our lives.  We can understand some things. 
 
Back in December Amy and I took a trip to Verona to see the play “A Christmas Story.” On our way back home in the dark on 18/151, the conditions were perfect for a thick fog to settle in the area.  I could barely see the white stripe on the edge of the road.  Amy was anxious.  I didn’t want to stop because I was afraid someone might come along and rear-end us.  It was actually frightening!  But then a truck appeared in front of us and we could clearly see the taillights through the fog.  He had fog lamps in front.  I knew if we could just follow those taillights, we’d be headed in the right direction.  I think this might be a good analogy for trying to understand why there is tragedy and suffering in our lives.  We may not be able to make out all the details of why certain things happen, but there are some elements or faith truths that can be points of light for us so that we can remain headed in the right direction. 
 
1.)God is not the creator of evil and suffering.  Turn to Genesis in your Bibles and you will read in 1:31 that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”  If God created all to be good, where did evil, suffering and tragedy come from?  When God created the world in LOVE, he created us with the ability to love and the gift of free will to love or not to love.  Love always involves a choice.  Humans have abused that gift of free will by rejecting God and walking away from him.  Evil is the absence of good.  When the terrorists on 9/11 killed the pilots, took over the planes and flew into the Twin Towers and Pentagon all in the name of Allah, they had a perverted understanding of God.  God never would call us to harm one another.  Those terrorists created and undertook that malicious and evil plan.  You see when we walk away from the ultimate good- God- this allows evil to enter the world.  God knew we would rebel against him, but still created us knowing many would choose to have a relationship with him.  For God, it’s all worth it because of the potential for joy, love and meaning in our lives.  God is pure love and good. 
 
2.) Though suffering isn’t good, God can use it to accomplish good.  Romans 8:28 promises “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  Notice the verse doesn’t say God causes evil and suffering, just that he promises to cause good to emerge.  Also notice the verse doesn’t say we all will see immediately or even in this life how God caused good to emerge from a bad circumstance.  You and I are tempted to say: “No, God can’t bring good out of my circumstance.  The harm was too great, the damage was too extreme, the depth of my suffering has been too much.”  God’s promise is powerful and everlasting.  When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf back in 2005, the world’s eyes were opened to the extreme poverty in New Orleans and the South.  People from all over the world traveled to help rebuild the affected areas.  New relationships were formed and partnerships were made.  We can now look back and see how God’s grace and promise took suffering and used it to accomplish something good. 
 
3.) Our suffering will pale in comparison to the good things God has in store for us.  In Romans 8:18 we read: “I (Paul) consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  Remember Paul suffered through beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, imprisonments, rejection, hunger, thirst- far more than most of us will ever have to endure.  This is not to minimize pain and suffering, but sometimes we need to take a long-term perspective.  Here’s a way to consider this: What if on the first day of 2019 saw you have a root canal, get into a car accident, your stocks take a big dive and your spouse or child get sick?  But then every other day of the year was incredibly terrific.  You get a promotion, win the lotto, your health is good and you take a wonderful family vacation.  When someone asks in 2020 how was your 2019 you’d probably say “It was great and wonderful!”  You’d remember the first day and how bad it was but then look at the totality of the year and put it all in context.  The 364 terrific days outweigh the one bad day.  That day just fades away. 
 
Losing my mom on January 11, 1991 and my dad on January 7, 2017 were two extremely painful days in my life.  But I look back and see all the days I had with them and how much they were such positive, loving people in my life and not even those two days of death can take away the life mom and dad instilled in me.  I miss them every day but I focus on the good God had in store for them and now for me.  That’s the promise of God to us.  Let the words of 1 Corinthians 2:9 soak into your soul: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
 
4) We decide whether to turn bitter or turn to God for peace and courage.  I have sadly witnessed how suffering can cause people to turn bitter, to reject God, to become hard, angry and sullen.  I’ve also seen how suffering can cause another to turn to God, to become more gentle, more loving and tender and willing to reach out to compassionately help others who are in pain.  BLC recently offered “GriefShare”, a recovery support group for those grieving the loss of a loved one.  I saw first hand how those suffering from grief were compassionate walking with the others in the group through their pain, hardship and tears.  They became a support system for each other.  They turned to God instead of turning bitter.  What happens if we run towards God in our suffering and pain?  The possibilities are endless because God’s promise is limitless. 
 
I want to finish by returning to John 16:33. Here is the entire verse: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” God offers us the two very things we need when we’re hurting: peace to deal with our present and courage to deal with our future.  God always has the final word. 
 
 
Amy and I eventually made it through that thick fog by following the taillights of that truck.  The fog slowly began to lift and we made it back home with the lights of town eventually guiding us.  Things became clearer making it possible for us to see our way home.  God’s ultimate answer to suffering isn’t an explanation; it’s the incarnation.  God became one like us in all things…including experiencing and knowing suffering.  Jesus was betrayed, denied, accused, doubted, he cried seeing friends die, and he himself in his last breaths suffered tremendously.  Jesus travels into our deepest darkness.  Every tear we shed becomes his tear.  God doesn’t just sympathize with us.  He enters into us.  Turn to Him.  That’s the promise.  When the suffering comes and it will; when you’re wrestling with pain and you will, make the choice to run into his arms.  It will make all the difference in the world.  The question is not so much “Why,” but rather “Now what?”  I pray you will give your suffering and pain to the One who offers us the greatest promise ever. 
 
~P.J. 


Who is your Morrie?

At a Sunday worship at the end of summer I answered 5 questions that Amy and some others thought would be interesting to hear my response.  I did not know the questions ahead of time.  I was only given 1 minute to respond to each question.  To refresh your memory, the questions were:
 
Why does God allow trials and suffering in our lives? 
What one book other than the Bible has most influenced your life?
 
This month I want to talk about the book that has most influenced my life other than the bible.   
 
It’s funny how God works in our lives.  I’ve seen this over and over and over in ministry and my own personal life.  I remember instinctively answering the question posed to me at worship with “Tuesdays with Morrie.”  What?  Why that book?  Why not some theological heavy weight like “The Book of Concord” or “The Lutheran Confessions” or some even back to my Catholic Seminary days and a Thomas Aquinas book.  Why “Tuesdays with Morrie?”  I’d like to think that has the Spirit prodded me to give that response, the platform with how I base live and minister seemingly came to the surface.  If you have never read the book, go get it.  It won’t take you long to read at a short 192 pages.  It’s a quick read.  If it’s been a while, go check it out from the library and re-read it.    If you’ve never heard of it, here’s the summary from the inside cover of the book:  
 
Maybe it was a grandparent, or a teacher, or a colleague. Someone older, patient and wise, who understood you when you were young and searching, helped you see the world as a more profound place, gave you sound advice to help make your way through it.  For Mitch Albom, that person was Morrie Schwartz, his college professor from nearly twenty years ago.  Maybe, like Mitch, you lost track of this mentor as you made your way, and the insights faded, and the world seemed colde”  r.  Wouldn’t you like to see that person again, ask the bigger questions that still haunt you, receive wisdom for your busy life today the way you once did when you were younger?  Mitch Albom had that second chance. He rediscovered Morrie in the last months of the older man’s life. Knowing he was dying, Morrie visited with Mitch in his study every Tuesday, just as they used to back in college. Their rekindled relationship turned into one final “class:” lessons in how to live. The book is a magical chronicle of their time together, through which Mitch shares Morrie’s lasting gift with the world.”  
 
The book was turned into a movie and Mitch Albom has gone on to write several other wonderful little books including “Have a Little Faith” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.”  But “Tuesdays with Morrie” is the one that touched my soul and spirit and continues to help guide me to this very day.   
 
I don’t want to necessarily write a review of the book- there are plenty of them you can find and read.  The book was first published in 1997.  I had graduated from high school in the Spring and would be heading to St. Meinrad College in St. Meinrad, Indiana for what would end up being a year of school.  St. Meinrad would close its college program the following Spring.  I remember my dad driving me the 300 miles south down Route 41 with all my stuff (way too much stuff as I recall).  I remember being anxious, excited, frightened and eager at being away from home for the first time in my life.  All of my other siblings had remained closer to home for their college education.  I was going the furthest. 

Dad and I

And even though it would only be for a year, it was huge for me and for my dad.  He and I by this time had forged a unique bond.  My mom had died in January 1991.  The rest of my siblings moved out of the house and were living their own lives.  It was dad who would help me survive high school.  It was dad who became the cook of the house.  It was dad who did the laundry and cared for both of us.  I don’t know how he managed to do it all, but he did.  Love gets us to do things we never thought possible.  Albom recounts one of his conversations with Morrie quoting him: “Do the kinds of things that come from the heart.  When you do, you won’t be dissatisfied, you won’t be envious, you won’t be longing for somebody else’s things.  On the contrary, you’ll be overwhelmed with what comes back” (128).  Dad and I had become best buds.  Heck, we even worked together on the maintenance team at our church and grammar school.  At times, it might have been a little too much “Dad” for me, but I wouldn’t trade those days for the world, either.  I got to know Dad in ways my siblings hadn’t since we lived and worked together. 
 
I remembered thinking that as he drove away after dropping me off at St. Meinrad.  I know he cried.  I did, too, without my fellow classmates seeing. 

There I am with St. Meinrad in the background.

He had become my rock after mom passed.  And I’d like to think I had gave him something, too.  We really hadn’t talked about how, when or what time we would talk with each other.  It happened organically.  This was the days before cell phones.  My room had a phone….and Dad never got nor wanted a computer.  That just wasn’t his style.  As I settled into the fall semester, we got our reading list and “Tuesdays with Morrie” was on there for one of my classes.  I read the book and instantly connected with it.  It’s a wonderful story of the heart, human connection, friendship, mentoring, and love.  We all have that person in our lives we want to listen to and want their perspective on things.  As Mitch remembered, reconnected and resurrected his relationship with his old professor, I realized that mentor in my life was my dad.  Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder.   
 

Anna with Dad while he is on the phone! He made more phone calls than any one else I know.

Mitch and Morrie settled on Tuesdays for their sacred time together.  Dad and I settled on Wednesday and Sunday nights as our “Check-in Call Time.”  Just about 8:00pm on those days I could always expect a call from dad.  And yes, he insisted on making the phone call so I wouldn’t have to pay for long distance calls.  Sometimes the calls would last mere minutes, other times 45 minutes.  We would catch up only after he would share a joke or two.  He would ask about classes, the monks (St. Meinrad was operated by Benedictine monks), classmates he had gotten to know of mine (my class had a total of 13 of us so it was small- really small), about meals, and just about everything he could think to ask.  I would ask about other family members, happenings back at home and church.  Those Wednesday Night and Sunday Night “Check-in calls” would be our lifeline.  They probably helped me survive that year away.  Now don’t get me wrong…I loved my time at St. Meinrad.  It was a fun and awesome year.  But I missed Dad.  And maybe this time of year as we get closer to the anniversary of his passing (January 2017), I am nostalgic for his voice…for those phone conversations…pieces of advice and jokes he would share.  We hustle and bustle this time of year and we can forget or just look past the precious gifts right in front of us.  
 
Morrie offered this wisdom to Mitch: “We’re so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks- we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going.  So we don’t get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?  You need someone to probe you in that direction. It won’t just happen automatically” (64-65). 

One of my favorite memories at St. Meinrad was when Dad and my sister Mary came to visit for Easter.

I can’t help but think as I read the book the first time it was like I was reading about my dad.  Dad wasn’t dying of ALS like Morrie was, but my dad had a unique perspective and wisdom about things.  I loved hearing his stories, his opinions and other times I would just enjoy our banter about sports, religion and politics.  Dad was raised in a certain era and that helped to shape his world vision.  Dad was the one who prodded me to think differently, to see the entire picture, to listen more clearly and to think for myself.  Dad loved people.  He loved being with people and enjoyed being on the phone with them.  I was one of his students.  My siblings and I were his favorite pupils until the grandkids came along!   
 
As Mitch began to record his weekly visits with Morrie and the idea of putting those notes into a book came to fruition, it changed him.  Morrie helped Mitch to rediscover himself that had gotten lost in the busy-ness of his career as a sports writer.  Dad helped me rediscover myself time and time again.  Those Wednesday and Sunday Night calls when I first moved away from home were my lifeline.  I would sit at the foot of dad on those phone calls listening for his wisdom, his heart and his love.  One of the lessons from the book is really finding your purpose and living it.  As Morrie helped remind Mitch of that, Dad did that for me.   What I have found in the almost 21 years since I first read “Tuesdays with Morrie” is that how I function as a human being, how I relate as a husband and father, how I minister as a pastor, how I connect as a friend, how I see my siblings- it’s all about relationship and even more specifically- it’s about finding our purpose.  We can be so busy about doing things, we forget what we are and often the people right in our midst.  I’ve tried to let the model of Mitch visiting Morrie, of the phone calls and interactions with my dad help guide and form my life.  The Bible helps lay the framework for our purpose.  Our humanity and faith looks like something, sounds like something, feels like something, tastes like something…whether I’m preaching a sermon or visiting someone in the hospital, whether it’s a council meeting or helping trim the weeds on the church grounds, I try to live my purpose by just being with those I am with.  For Jesus, it always, always, always was about the person he was interacting with at that specific moment.  His purpose in living was to show us that the meaning of life was in our relationships.  “Tuesdays with Morrie” has shaped me more than I’ll ever really know.  It helped me to realize the gift of my dad and his role as mentor in my life.  To Morrie, Mitch, and Dad, thank you for helping me to be me.  I hope to keep the cycle going and be that person for Amy, Anna and Peter.   
 
Here’s how the book finishes: “The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week, in his home, by a window in his study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink flowers. The class met on Tuesdays.  No books were required. The subject was the meaning of life. It was taught from experience. The teaching goes on.”  
 
Who was it for you?  Who is it for you today?  Who is your Morrie?  Can you still reach out to them?  Is there a book that has had a profound impact on you?  Why?  Remember your purpose.  Make it a resolution in 2019.  Rediscover YOU. 


Stay right when you’ve been wronged.

At a Sunday worship towards the end of summer I answered 5 questions that Amy and some others thought would be interesting to hear my response.  I did not know the questions ahead of time.  I was only given 1 minute to respond to each question. 
 
To refresh your memory, the questions were:
  • Why does God allow trials and suffering in our lives? 
  • How do I deal with people in my life who have hurt me?
  • How do I know if I am hearing God’s voice in my life?
  • What one book other than the Bible has most influenced your life?
  • What are things parents can do to instill in their children a love for Jesus? [Sept blog post]
 
Last month I responded to the question about trials and sufferings in our life.  This month I want to dwell with you about how we deal with people who have hurt us.
 
Stay right when you’ve been wronged. It was my 4th grade year and things were great.  I had a great teacher (Mrs. O’Block) and the crush of my life at that time- Nancy Hammer- was in my same homeroom.  Because of our last names, we were usually seated near each other.  Her blond hair, dimple when she smiled…it all just got me.  I was in love.  She lived down the street from me.  I remember on Valentine’s Day going and buying a candy gift at the store for her and then being so nervous I didn’t want to give it to her.  I remember walking in the snow, cold and ice to her house and placing it at her door and then running as fast as I could.  There was one problem, though.  I didn’t ring the doorbell.  So it was politely suggested to me by my parents that I should call the Hammer house and let Nancy know there was something on the porch for her.  I don’t know how- but I did garner up enough strength to make the phone call and let Nancy know there was something on the porch for her.  The next day at school she thanked me…I think she knew I liked her.  It was pretty obvious.  And yet she played it cool.  I won a poetry contest in school and my reward was a gift certificate to McDonalds.  I asked Nancy if she would go with me for some happy meals and good times!  I was a sweet talker even back then!  With my mom and sister in the next booth, Nancy and I shared what seemed like an eternity of an afternoon talking, giggling and just being.  Things were good until Dawn Farrell entered the picture.
 

PJ’s 4th Grade Class Picture
Can you spot him?

Dawn found out that I was giving gifts to Nancy and lunch trips to McDonalds and so she “started liking me.”  Before all this she hardly spoke a word to me…she was one of the popular girls in the class and she didn’t have time for me.  Until now.  She started passing notes to me in class and I can vividly remember what was written on the paper: Do you like me?  Circle Yes or No.  Someone cool was showing interest in me.  Nancy was nice but Dawn was the popular girl.  She was passing me notes.  Well, you know how this story goes: hook, line and sinker I fell for Dawn’s moves.  I declared my love for her.  I invited her over to my house to play video games and I even used me chore money to buy her a wrist bracelet.  But when I had no more money and she bored of me, Dawn moved on.  And I was left with nothing except heartache and despair.  Okay, I may be bit over-dramatic in my interpretation of what happened (it was like a soap opera, though), but the bones of the story are true.  Dawn wronged me and I felt anger, hurt and sadness towards her.  I wronged Nancy as well in this whole interplay of a 4th grade crush affair gone awry.  I always still liked Nancy but when Dawn showed this sudden interest in me it felt good.  Even through 8th grade I carried feelings of uneasiness and betrayal towards Dawn.  She used me.  I got burned.   
 
Stay right when you’ve been wronged.  I suspect many of us have been wronged…and some more severe and worse than my 4th grade girl drama.  Perhaps you’ve been hurt by someone really close to you- a parent, sibling, relative or a friend, co-worker, fellow parishioner or complete stranger.  So, how do we deal with them realizing for most of the people that hurt us, we still have to deal with them and perhaps live with them.  When we have been wronged, the tendency for most of us is to lash out, attack, criticize, argue, ridicule, unfriend, unlike, condemn, gossip or hold a grudge.  It’s the easy way…but let me tell you- it’s not the best or healthiest or holiest way for us.  Each of us can recall times in our lives when we have been deeply hurt, shamed, excluded, or violated by someone.  We want our violators to understand the pain they caused, offer a genuine apology and hear them pledge to never do it to anyone else.  Other times there either no resolution or no remorse.  We’ve maybe walked away from painful experiences feeling angry, conflicted, hopeless or confused.  How can we justly and respond in a healthy way?  
 
As a young father I see this dynamic playing out in Anna and Peter’s lives.  When Anna comes to me with her own hurtful experiences, I feel a familiar wave of unsettledness.  Most of the time resolution can be found (someone took a toy she was playing with or someone said something about another kid).  But I know her experiences will only deepen as she gets older.  I see it in our young people on social media.  If you don’t get “likes” from someone else, it hurts.  And we can drop people from our friend lists. 
 
But “is this it?”  Is this all we can do when someone hurts us?  No.  Jesus models for us as “the way, truth and life.”  His way is about forgiveness, redemption (not revenge), grace and strength.  He asks us to forgive those who hurt us multiple times over.  But in the same vain he instructs us that if people don’t accept us, we should clap the dust of our shoes and move on to the next person or town.  As always, there is a lot of wiggle room Jesus gives us in the Gospel.  There is not a “one size fits all” response we can apply to every situation.  We are told to love our neighbor as ourselves but also Jesus came to bring division not peace.  What might all this mean for us here and now?   
 
Renowned author and speaker for young people, Kari Kampakis, suggests the following: “Everyone in your life serves a purpose.  Everyone has something to teach you.  And while people who are kind and friendly help teach you who you DO want to be, those who are not kind and friendly teach you who you DON’T want to be.” So what does this mean?  When you encounter someone who hurts your feelings, lean into that feeling.  Ask yourself what they did to make you feel that way.  Was it the words they chose?  Their tone?  The way they picked favorites and then ignored everyone else’s?  Whatever they did, make a pledge. Promise yourself that you’ll never treat anyone the way they treated you.  This is one of the ways we become a kinder and more compassionate person.  This is how we can learn from their mistakes.  
And conversely when you meet someone you really like, lean into that feeling, too.  Ask yourself what they did to make you feel so good.  Then make a pledge to be more like them.  This is also how you become a kinder and more compassionate person.  Regardless of how anyone treats us, we all stand to benefit.  While some people teach you who you do want to be, others teach you who you don’t want to be.  Dawn taught me that I didn’t want to be like that to others- fake, pretentious and a user.  I also learned grace, compassion and forgiveness from Nancy who in the end liked me for me and not anything I gave her.   
 
I want to offer yet another way besides “making a pledge” when someone hurts us.  As disciples of Jesus, I think we could stand to benefit from starting with prayer.  Our natural inclination when we get hurt me is to hurt back.  Our natural inclination when someone says something bad against me is say something bad against them and hold on to it and never forgive them.  But here’s the point- all of the things that we are naturally inclined to do actually make it worse.  
 
But we can break all those chains to bitterness, guilt, resentment and worry.  We can keep from becoming slaves to the past and hurtful memories. We can choose to forgive.  This is one of the most difficult things we can do in our lives and yet one of the most incredibly freeing at the same time.  The cross has the power to free us from grudges, grief and resentment. There is no other way to let go of these emotions that are weighing us down than the cross. Jesus on the cross broke the power of sin and death in our lives. I want you to think of the person you need to forgive, the person whose offense planted a seed of bitterness in you, and I invite you to pray this prayer with me:  
 
Holy God, only you understand how much I’ve been hurt by this person. I don’t want to carry the pain for another second. I don’t want to be a bitter person. But I need your grace to release my hurt and to forgive those who’ve hurt me. This is the turning point. First, I need to experience your forgiveness. You know all the ways I’ve hurt others, and I’m so sorry for my sins. Jesus, thank you for dying for me. I accept your grace and forgiveness, and I need it daily. Today I’m turning to you, and I’m choosing to forgive the way you have forgiven me. Every time the memory comes back, I’ll forgive that person again until the pain is gone. Heal my heart with your grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.  
 
Whether it’s making a pledge or praying for God’s grace to forgive, the best version of ourselves reminds us we must stay right when we’ve been wronged.  It’s too easy to allow negative feelings darken our hearts and souls.  Forgiveness is a journey.  Everyone in our lives serves a purpose and everyone has something to teach us.  I am grateful for Dawn Farrell, Nancy Hammer and many others who have taught me through the years who I want to be for myself.  Jesus is my model par excellence.  Who are the models of forgiveness, genuineness, integrity, compassion in your life?  How are we called to be those things for others?  Make a pledge today- right here and now: don’t allow someone else to have to power over you for the wrong they’ve done to you.  Stay right when you’ve been wronged.             



“This is what Yahweh asks of you- only this: to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God” –Micah 6:8
 
“A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace.” – David Steindl-Rast
 
“All attack is a call for help. When you know this, you begin at once to look deeply into the question of what kind of help is being called for” –Neale Walsch
 
“Every morning I turn my face to the wind. It is not difficult to scatter seeds, but it takes courage to keep facing the wind” –Middle Eastern wisdom saying