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

 
 
 
 

Patience, Discernment & Kindness

 

The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring; these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings.” -Parker Palmer

 

Kenosha, Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, Charleston, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Sacramento, Louisville and Minneapolis. These are just a few of the cities where in the last few years black people have been killed by police.  These deaths have led to rioting, protests, calls for reform, athletes speaking out, boycotting of sports and organizations, heightened tensions, vigilante citizens, heated conversations about race and whether there is or isn’t racism, people defending police, and those calling for police departments to be defunded. Many have perhaps seen the horrific video of Jacob Blake in Kenosha being shot by police. And yes, there’s always more to the story. But at some point, when will all this stop or better yet when will we rise up in love to put an end to bigotry, racism and hate?  It’s so much to absorb or take in. And I suspect for many of us, it’s too much or we think it’s really just not our problem or issue. Or, worse yet, we just don’t see a problem at all. Most recently, in a series of my daily Fireside chats, I suggested the possibility of one day in the future our kids, grandkids or great-grandkids coming up to us and asking us the question: “What’s hate?” Wouldn’t it be marvelously outrageous if this world had become so full of love, that hate itself became extinct? And some of you are saying, “Yeah right, PJ…nice pipedream.” Ultimately, I am reminded of Langston Hughes’ famous poem:

 

Hold fast to dreams,

For if dreams die,

Life is a broken-winged bird,

That cannot fly.

 

We must not only dream but work to make those dreams a reality. I think because God is love that love will, in the end, win out. As school ramps back up I’ve been thinking about 3 basics of Christian living we all need to re-think, re-learn and re-imagine in these days.  Because this is no longer a race issue. This a human and spiritual issue. Maybe these three simple things- patience, discernment and kindness– might be the tools we need to keep the dream of love not only alive but thriving.
 

Patience

Patience helps us to wait on saying or posting anything hastily or without giving it much thought. Perhaps part of the current cancel culture we will live in is our lack of patience to listen or even try to understand what others are saying. I came across this great meme illustrating this point. It says “Only you can prevent Facebook drama.” Posting, speaking and writing in anger, haste or without thoughtful consideration shows a lack of compassion and understanding. Our society in general lacks patience. Remember, patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble or suffering without getting angry or upset. I can’t help but think that Jesus had to exhibit a considerable amount of patience dealing with the disciples, the Pharisees, unbelievers, the crowds…pretty much everyone he encountered along the way.
 

I love listening to Anna and Peter watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (a cartoon version of Mr. Rogers). They will sing the simple songs Daniel teaches…one comes to mind: “When you feel so mad that you want to roar; take a deep breath and count to 4!” Beautiful wisdom that we often forget as adults. Even Peter will say on long road trips, “Guys, it’s hard to wait.”  We all find it hard to wait. But in waiting we can find clarity, calmness and God’s direction. What would happen if we all practiced “patience” in a world that demands instant and immediate responses? As God practices tremendous patience with us, let’s try practicing it with one another and ourselves. There will be resurrection in time. Patience will help you to see your life as a marathon and not a sprint. It helps ground us in thoughtful rhetoric instead of a quick hot take which does us or no one else any good. Wait and pray. Then wait some more.

 

Discernment

I think the second tool patience will lead us to is discernment. Essentially discernment is the power to see what is not evident to the average mind. It stresses accuracy. It offers us the ability to read someone’s character, appreciate art, make difficult decisions besides other things.

Discernment really helps us to identify what we see before us. Martin Luther once wrote: “This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed” (LW 32:24). Discernment is learning to think God’s thoughts after Him, practically and spiritually; it means having a sense of how things look in God’s eyes and seeing them in some measure “uncovered and laid bare.”  How often might we hear an expressed opinion or viewpoint from someone that disappoints us? Perhaps we say to ourselves “I thought that person would have thought more deeply or have more discernment than that.”  Or how often might people think that of us after we offer a quick response or thoughtless opinion?
 
Understanding discernment from a biblical viewpoint can be helpful. The word used in Psalm 119:66 means “taste.” It is the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action. It includes the ability to “weigh up” and assess the moral and spiritual status of individuals, groups, and even movements. How different might our world look if we “tasted” or discerned things like this?
 
Jesus’ discernment penetrated to the deepest reaches of the heart. Thus, while warning us against judgmentalism, Jesus urges us to be discerning and discriminating, lest we cast our pearls before pigs (Matt. 7:16). This is discernment without judgmentalism. Jesus assessed every situation in the light of God’s Word and love.  Discernment means seeing the world through the lens of faith and discipleship. It means trusting God and your gut.  Discernment helps us to “taste and see” that there is more than meets the eye. When we can view things from this vantage point, we begin to see racism, bigotry, poverty, privilege, a fallen world that has been there around us the whole time.
 

Kindness

The third and final tool is kindness. Our patience gifts us with deliberate time to discern. These tools lead us to ask the question: what is the kindest choice to make?  Kindness sows the seeds of trust, hope and love.  Kindness marks us as humble.  When the world is cruel and unforgiving, remain kind and honest and when we live into that kindness we will be a good representative of Jesus, who is our measuring stick as his disciples. Kindness is the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate. We’ve heard about doing “random acts of kindness.” How about we do intentional acts of kindness? Take care of the stranger, learn about different cultures, volunteer your time helping others, becoming a mentor, don’t yell at your spouses or kids, respecting the beautiful colors of every single person. The biblical stories of Jesus are overflowing with kindness: touching the untouchable, spending time with the outcast and rejected, showing compassion on those suffering, offering his life for others.  Jesus demonstrated that if we step outside of our lives and create acts of kindness to the unsuspecting, the undeserving or the hurting, we could change the world.  We could make the world a real community where love and joy flow and heal broken places.  A life that is patient, discerning and kind is one that could change the world.

We are in an age and world that profits from and supports cheap digs, verbal assaults, physical attacks, hot takes, bullying, vitriol spewing, cancel culture and so much more. This is a challenging time for the human race.  When people are bold enough to cry out with their pain, it is an act of noticing God to receive their cries without defensiveness. If this is challenging for us, I pray that you might adopt these practices…patience, discernment, kindness…taking a deep breath…trying to receive the experiences of others as experiences of others, rather than something to be debated. Let’s remember our humanness these days.

 

You and I have the opportunity, though, to swing the pendulum through the Spirit. What if we all were more patient, more discerning and more kind?  Love in the end will win out.  I wonder if these three tools might help us reach that world and kingdom a little more quickly. Try it. Try being more patient, more discerning and more kind in your marriages, friendships, with your kids, co-workers, neighbors, church members…and yes even try it with those on the other side of the political spectrum. Try being more understanding and compassionate with people who have different skin colors than yourself. Try being patient and kind with yourself. Ask God each day to help you be more kind, patient and discerning. These are lessons and tools we all need to be learning and re-learning. Let’s hold fast to the dream God has envisioned for this world and make it a reality!

 


Finding Joy in Exile

 
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” -Psalm 137:1-3
 
 
How much have you wept since mid-March? I suspect many of us have had our own bouts of tears for various reasons. From distance learning to canceled sports to postponed events, Covid-19 has caused many of us to do our own crying and lamenting. The text above comes from Psalm 137 in the Old Testament.  It was a psalm written when people from Jerusalem were held captive in Babylon for 70 years. Scripture scholars refer to this as the Babylonian Exile and it took place nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ. For 70 years the Jewish captives could not gather in their temple, or celebrate their Seder meals, or worship and remember their Passover. They were apart from their brothers and sisters for 70 years! Let that sink in for a moment.  Our tears have not been shed alone.  And yet in the midst of their exile they were able to have hope. Hope sustains us especially in times of change, disruption and upheaval.
 
 
Our church family has been physically distant from one another for about 4 months now. Our quarantine has given us a small glimpse into the pain and longing of the Babylonian exile. I have heard the desire of some people from this congregation to gather and celebrate again, to re-open our church to worship, to celebrate and laugh together, to sing and to commune. We recently celebrated an outdoor service wearing masks and practicing physical distance.  We are planning a few more of these simple gatherings, signs of hope for us in these changing times.  However, I want to reiterate to you that we will be in exile for some time yet, and thus we will continue to refrain from gathering in-person in the building. The Church Council and our Covid-19 Response Safety Team is following the recommendations from Public Health Board in Wisconsin as well as the recommendations from the CDC, the Wisconsin Council of Churches and the advice from our Synod and the church wide office of the ELCA.  I have been part of conversations with other area ELCA Churches who are choosing to worship virtually. All of these resources are recommending extreme caution.  My own personal opinion and sense is that is in the best and safest interest to keep worshiping online for the near future.
 
 
I have heard the argument made: Why shouldn’t churches be allowed to worship at 25% capacity if the state and multiple counties allow restaurants, bars, gyms and retail stores to do so? My response is this: First of all, the mission of the church is different from the rest.  Our mission is to be Jesus for the world and to protect life.  We are most “the church” by loving one another and distancing ourselves as an act of love and life until we have a treatment or a vaccine for Covid-19. Secondly, what is legal to do is not necessarily the right thing to do. I have expressed my reservations to my colleagues in certain Evangelical and Catholic churches on their re-opening. Church at its best is about protecting all life not putting anyone in harm’s way. Ultimately, I have been called with being the pastor of this BLC faith community. Other churches can do as they please but I choose not to follow their example. As Martin Luther said: Here I stand. I can do no other.
 
 
Still, as a pastor and shepherd I feel deeply for the loneliness and, in some instances, loss of hope some members of our congregation might be experiencing these days. They are truly exiled, living in a strange and bitter land. The Council, besides myself, has been keeping in touch with all our parishioners and will continue to do so. Even in this time of weeping, I have seen how creative our community has been in connecting with one another (birthday and graduation parades, card showers, etc). We must re-double our efforts to ease the exile and remind folks we still are church together. When we do this, we keep HOPE ALIVE! Over the next few months I hope we can keep finding ways of doing just that. Perhaps it will be small gatherings in the parking lot at church, opening the church sanctuary for personal prayer (one or two at a time), continuing the outdoor services with distanced seating (outdoors) where we could see one another. This is how we will love one another.
 
 
I’d like to offer one final word about re-opening. Nearly every expert in the field of virus transmission admits that it may reach a point where it is safe for large groups to gather again, yet they caution it will likely be only for a short time. As I have consistently said, this virus will dictate to us what we do and when we do it.  Most epidemiologists say that we are now in the eye of the hurricane and the autumn will bring renewed spikes. I asked Dr. Jodi McGraw her thoughts about in-person worship and this was her response: “This is such a fluid situation that it is difficult to give an answer, but my best thought at this point in time is to continue to avoid indoor in-person worship. Some outdoor worship with social distancing and masks sounds reasonable for now.” Very recently after being part of a small prayer gathering I was contacted with the news someone present at the gathering had tested positive for Covid-19.  I immediately called my health care provider and arranged to get tested.  After some anxious days, the test results came back negative.  You can imagine the restlessness I felt as my thoughts and worries were intensely focused on Amy, the baby, Anna and Peter. What if I had infected them?  Folks, this is real.  It is not a hoax.  Keeping hope alive may mean doing things a little differently and that’s OKAY.  Our faith formation leaders are creatively thinking through what Holy Moly, Bridge and Confirmation will look like this year. I suspect it may begin online or be some type of hybrid experience. I ask for your patience, understanding and compassion. This “road” and time of exile will continue to be different for ALL OF US.  I understand there are as many opinions as there are parishioners in our church family.  Please reach out to Council Members, the Covid-19 Safety Team and myself if you like to share your thoughts.
 
 
Here’s an important point to remember: even if we were to gather for worship, it would NOT resemble what we experienced before all this happened. There would be no gathering/conversation, no congregational singing, preaching would be shortened, communion would be very different, and certainly no fellowship afterward. Until there is treatment or a cure this is our new reality. I miss you. I miss celebrating with you. I miss worshiping the way we are used to worshiping. Yet this is how we will be the Body of Christ for the world and one another and keep HOPE ALIVE– by protecting each other and not risking life unnecessarily. After reading, praying and talking with others, here’s my final point: One day we will journey on this road out of exile to be together again – ALL OF US – not just the young, not only the healthy, not only those who are not physically compromised, not merely 25% – One day all of us will gather again. Remember how we conclude our worship at BLC: Let’s go be church after church. These simple words now take on a whole new meaning on this road we find ourselves. I find incredible hope in that and I pray you do too.
 

Jesus gathered people (especially around tables), but he also scattered them. Early in the Gospels, Jesus sent his newly recruited disciples out to heal and cast out demons. They didn’t have much in the way of supplies, and in two accounts, they’re sent not in pairs, but entirely alone. Start looking, and you’ll see roads all over the Bible. These solitary travelers journeyed in situations of great uncertainty, much like our own. Their destinations may have been clear, but their futures were less so. Somewhere along the way, however, they always encountered something unexpected: the astonishing presence of the sacred.’

 

Perhaps there’s something about being jolted away from our rituals and routines for a time that helps us see their value in new ways. No one was anticipating or planning to walk this path that we were all thrust into back in March. And I would argue it’s given us a shock of clarity. At once, we are suddenly unemployed, attempting to both parent and work full time, hesitating about this fall’s college plans, or fearful of illness.  Nothing seems for certain anymore.

 
This chart from the Texas Medical Association shows what risks may be involved as we participate in different activities. Educate yourself. The greater the numbers, the greater the risk. As we walk this road of exile, let’s boldly love and be beacons of hope for this community we call home.  Dear Church, I want to encourage you to stay CONNECTED to this family of faith.  Now more than ever, we need each other.  Join in our virtual worship, whether live on Sundays at 9:00am or later in the day when it works for you.  Read the weekly emails and the monthly newsletters. Call, email, write or text your fellow parishioners. Our ministry is continuing albeit in somewhat different ways than before.  All of us have in our own way have wept these past few months. But we are not the first to undergo an exile. Our God is with us…and we need to be supportive, kind and compassionate with each other.  When we remember God is with us, we can know, feel, see and experience JOY once again.  Here on the road in our exile between the old life and new one, we have an opportunity to be remade. One way of being remade is to just love one another- and one way you can simply do this is by wearing a mask.  Practice physical distancing.  Be safe. Avoid large gatherings.  Virtually connect to BLC and our ministry of sharing Christ’s Light. Those first exiles eventually got to get back on the road and return home.  In due time, we will too, and in doing so find joy and hope in exile.
 
 
 
If nothing else, even in our weeping, let us be confident of our God who hears our prayers, worries and anxieties. That’s hope. Would you please pray these words with me:
 

Dear Lord, 

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) affects our world, we continue to pray.

We invite you into our hearts, Lord — hearts that have so much on them right now.

Amidst our fear, disappointment, confusion, uncertainty, grief, anger, frustration and more…

We invite you in, Lord. 

We know you are bigger.

May we be given a peace and understanding of cancellations and physical distancing rules.

May we act with humility to not just preserve our own safety and health, but to look beyond ourselves and think of how our actions will affect others.

May we be alert to the ways we may help those around us, and give us the grace to step forward without hesitation to be men and women for and with others, for Your greater glory.

Come to our aid and help us, Lord.

Open our ears to hear your voice in these troubled times, may we listen and be prudent and may we draw ever closer to you. Remind us in this exile to have hope in You.

Amen.

 

~PJ


Letter to the Next Generation

Black Lives Matter. What is it about those words that makes so many of us uneasy, nervous, or defensive? We (and when I say “we” I am referring to white people) immediately want to respond and shout “ALL LIVES MATTER.”  It’s our first instinct, right? I think the accompanying picture of this little girl and her sign perfectly explains what is at stake these days.  But here might be another way that gives picture to what is happening: imagine your child dying and you are giving a eulogy explaining what your own child meant to you and how special your child was, and then someone grabs the mic and says “actually all children are special…” That’s what “all lives matter” these days sounds like to our brothers and sisters of color.  Black lives matter.

This is a human issue. And we as people of faith have to fight for all people, no matter race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, social class.  We are all made in the image and likeness of God.  Look around the world. If it’s not white against black, it’s Palestinians and Israelis, it’s civil wars in African countries of tribes fighting tribes.  Racism is nothing new. And at the core it is not a skin color issue, it’s not an issue of social elitism…it’s a HUMAN issue. 

Langston Hughes, the African American author, poet, social activist, novelist, playwright and columnist. He is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.  He died in 1967 from complications of cancer surgery. Yet his legacy and poetry continue to be a driving force for our thoughtful reflection and action today. His poem “Harlem” alludes to these tensions rising:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—And then run?

 Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
 
Perhaps we have seen this “explosion” the past few weeks with protests, rioting, looting and all around calls for a change to the system.  I am in no means promoting or advocating the looting and rioting that has occurred. It’s unfortunate that some have taken advantage of the situation for their own personal selfish and evil means. But the protesting that has happened is a call for all of us to open our eyes and see that dreams are exploding. As a white man with white children, I will probably never have to worry about Anna and Peter driving one day and being pulled over by a cop because of their skin color. But ask a parent of black children and that perhaps is one of their biggest fears- their child never coming back home after going out driving. There is so much “we” may never understand because “we” have been privileged unlike people of other races/ethnicities.
 
Here’s where I want to offer us some food for thought. A few weeks back I asked these two questions: What will people 100 years from now thank us for?  And what will they wish we did differently?  I’ve thought a lot about those questions.  One answer I came up with is to leave a roadmap in the form of a letter for my family and generations to come of what I hope they might learn from my mistakes. What follows is a letter to Anna, Peter, Baby Hearne and any grandchildren that may come along. It’s my thoughts to them about these days.  
 
 

Dear Anna, Peter, “Baby Hearne,” and future grandchildren of mine-

I love you. Remember that. One day, I hope you will read this and it will make some sense. Over the past few weeks (May-June 2020), I have been imagining a better world for you.

I love to preach as a pastor. But maybe I have totally missed the mark in my preaching and teaching. And perhaps I have not prayed as hard or reflected as much as I should have in my life. I have realized once again in the light of current events I can’t imagine a better world for you if I don’t fight for a better world for people who don’t look like you. I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong in my life.  This might be one of the biggest. And perhaps I have been wrong for a long time. I’m sure the rest of the family can tell you more about some of the things I have gotten wrong. But rest assured I can tell you stories about them, too. But I digress. I hope you will be able to read this and learn from some of my mistakes.

Somewhere along the way I think I began to rationalize my own racism. I believed that as long as I was friendly to people of color, voted my conscience, treated everyone respectfully, generously supported specific causes and preached about love every Sunday in church that I certainly didn’t have any racist attitudes. I grew up in a white suburb of Chicago that quickly saw “those” people moving in from the city forcing white people to move away. I saw it happen right with my own eyes. “Those” people were black. “They” were somehow different and going to make our block and community less safe and certainly bring the value of the housing down. I heard my dad speak in those terms. I heard others, too. I just listened. I didn’t say anything. I just minded my own business. I was complicit.

 
I am pretty sure that most people who are racists don’t know they are. This is one of those issues that can too easily become a personal blind spot. That’s why you have to become intentional about taking a closer look at yourself. Racist attitudes can be seen in how you react to a joke, make assumptions about someone’s guilt or intelligence, allow a slur to go unchallenged, dismiss another person’s opinion, look at someone walking down the street or stay silent when there’s a threat. So, I’m going to give you a little fatherly and pastoral advice.

 

Here are some things I hope you will always do:
 

First, make friends with people who don’t look like you. Don’t just be friendly with people who are different than you. Do the hard work of becoming friends. Sit at a table with them. I wish I had done this more in school where it was all too easy to sit with those who looked like me, spoke like me and dressed like me. Dream with them. Share life with them. Lastly and most importantly. listen to them. If you don’t listen to people who are different than you, you will never see what you can’t see. Here’s the point. Most of us pick friends who see everything the way we do. Friends who are like you make life more comfortable. But when you have friends who see things differently, they challenge your world views in a good way. These friendships will always be harder. The problem is that, if you leave them out of your life, you will actually miss out on what makes life- magical, fascinating, and passionate.  I really failed at this. Don’t make this same mistake.  

 

So, invite yourself into their world and invite them into yours. It will create a better world because it will make you a better person. When vocabulary changes from “those people…” to “my friends,” people are changed forever. One of “those” people was a boy named Steve who lived two houses away from me growing up. He was black. My white friends and I would often play basketball in our backyards. I would see him playing by himself in his yard. My other friends would make fun of him. At first I said nothing. Then one day I asked if he wanted to play with me. He did. It started a great friendship. I didn’t care what others said. Steve was a boy like me who just wanted to play. And we did. That’s what I hope for you.

 

Learn the history in this country from people who don’t look like you. I studied lots of history in school especially at Loyola University and all the authors of the books I read in class were white. Diversify what you read. Get a different viewpoint. This is what I hope for you.

 
I have always believed this country is a land of incredible opportunity. I am thankful that you live here for more reasons than I can write in this letter. There are men and women from every background who have sacrificed everything so you can live with the privileges you have. Sadly, you don’t really understand or appreciate this fact until you get older. Be thankful. This is my hope for you.
 
But there is another sad reality. “America has not treated everyone who lives here equally.” I need to say this very clearly: you need to study what happened. You need to hear the stories of the Native Americans, of African Americans and all people of color. You need to imagine what was unimaginable. I’m afraid if you fail to imagine it, you will never speak up against it. I studied it as something I thought was some past event only to see it happen again in front of my own eyes.  Study, listen and learn. This is my hope for you.
 
I preach and talk about Jesus a lot. He might be the key in all of this. He was about healing people inside out.  If you see someone broken or hurt, do anything you can to help them. We will never heal until enough of us are willing to use whatever privilege we have to restore what has been broken. I hope and pray that will happen in my lifetime. We must care for every single person we meet.  Every-one.
 

Talk about God with people who don’t look like you. Here are a few interesting facts: Jesus had darker skin than yours. The disciples were from the Middle East. More than likely, it was a black man helped Jesus carry His cross. The Gospel story compels us to love neighbors who don’t look like us. God is infinite. He is far too big to be understood through the filter of one race. Never make the mistake of only viewing God through the lens of people who look like you. If you do, your version of God will be extremely limited. When you see, hear, and experience faith from people who don’t look like you, God will become bigger than you ever imagined. This is my hope for you.

Take your cue from Jesus. He showed us all what it looked like to love others. Speak up for people who don’t look like you. If we stop and truly listen to others, we can love with and because of our differences.  This is one of the things that makes being human great. There are so many of us and none of us is the same.

 

By the time you are my age, I hope it will be a much better world. I’m not naïve enough to believe hate and racist acts will not exist. But my prayer is that those behaviors will not be tolerated by most people who look like you. That’s why, I hope you will always speak up for people who don’t look like you. Not because they shouldn’t speak up for themselves, but because they shouldn’t have to speak up by themselves. The most dangerous version of racism is the kind that is quiet.  Quiet racism is harder to clarify, confront and confess. And it invites hatred to continue unchecked.  There is a saying I leave you with: “If you refuse to confront racism anywhere, you invite racism to thrive everywhere.” That same can be said of evil…evil must be confronted. That’s why the only way to imagine a better world for you, is to fight for a better world for people who don’t look like you.

 

Wherever you are, I will be with you. I’m proud of you. And I love you. Live by the words of Fred Rogers, who I loved watching on TV as a child: What is the next kindest choice? Then do it. This is my hope for you

 

Love,

Daddy and Grandpa 
 

 

So, dear friend, how might you answer the question: what will people 100 years from now thank you for? What will they wish you did differently?  Perhaps take some time this summer to craft and compose your own letter to future generations. What would you say? What legacy will we leave them? How might you speak about faith, justice, mercy and love? What does happen to a dream deferred? Will it just blow up or can we actively do something now together to make our world right? I finish with the words of “We are Called,” a hymn we often sing at worship. May these words become more than just words. Let them become a way of life for us:

 

Come! Live in the light!
Shine with the joy and the love of the Lord!
We are called to be light for the kingdom,
to live in the freedom of the city of God!

We are called to act with justice,
we are called to love tenderly,
we are called to serve one another,
to walk humbly with God!

 
~PJ


April Fools?

I shared the other day on the Fireside Chat video that Anna broke down and began crying when Amy and I shared with her we wouldn’t be going anywhere on Easter Sunday to physically see family, that soccer was probably canceled and that we wouldn’t be going on our planned trip to Tennessee the week after Easter. I think her tears best captured how we all are feeling with the COVID19 pandemic. We didn’t sign up for this.  Any of this. This is NOT the April we planned for or wanted!
 
We wanted spring training. We wanted to go to church during Holy Week and Easter Sunday. We wanted those spring break trips to Florida, Alabama or just the planned visits with friends going out to eat or having a drink.  We wanted to go to the movies.  We wanted to put in time at the gym.  We wanted the Masters golf tournament. We wanted March Madness and the NCAA Men’s AND Women’s basketball championships. We wanted opening day of Major League Baseball.  We wanted to go to school and see our friends. We wanted baseball, soccer, races, proms, graduations and Palm Sunday processions. We wanted it all.  
 
But this April? This isn’t the April or the spring time any of us had planned for or wanted.
 
But this is the April we’ve been handed: daily reports of disease and death. An economy that’s in freefall. Urgent calls for masks, gloves and ventilators. Another extended timeline of distance and isolation. And, most of all, a time of fear. We fear for our family. We fear for the well-being of our health workers. We fear this microscopic, COVID-19 culprit that stalks our streets like a thief. I fear for two of my sisters working in the front lines as nurses in their respective institutions.  I fear for so many of our parishioners who are in the health care field faithfully serving those who are ill and in need of care. I fear for Amy pregnant with baby #3.  I fear for Anna and Peter.  I fear for you.
 
So we need to brace ourselves. Adjust our expectations. April as we wanted will not happen. God willing, it will reappear in 2021. Hopefully the year of 2021 will be known as our “Comeback Year.”  But the 2020 version? It’s time for a deep breath, a steady resolve and a few decisions. I’m thinking of three basic essential tools.
 
GRATITUDE. “Pray continually, and give thanks whatever happens. That is what God wants for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:16-18).  Collect your blessings. Catalog God’s kindnesses. Assemble your reasons for gratitude and recite them. Look for JOY around you.  It’s a good discipline and practice for all of us in these days. Even the tiniest bud on a tree or plant is a sign of joy.  We can either choose to be bitter and disappointed or we can choose to be grateful for this time.  I’m hearing of families having wonderful intentional togetherness in this time- time which we normally wouldn’t have because of our crazy hectic schedules. 
 
Look at the totality of the situation. Always be joyful. Pray continually. Give thanks whatever happens. Try the Jesus Prayer…repeating the short mantra “Jesus, have mercy on me.”  Place yourself gratefully in the presence of God always.
 
Gratitude is always an option and practice.  Wake up and be grateful for the gift of life, your family, friends, and the gift of time to shelter in faith at home.  And for those of us who have essential work, be grateful for your employment. Write one or two things down a day you are grateful for.  Make it a habit.
 
OTHERS. And, be kind to others. Be the family member who offers to wash the dishes. Be the co-worker who reaches out to check on the team. Be the neighbor who checks in on the elderly person next door. Use the example of Cliff and Yvonne Hooks and the Barneveld Community Café where there is no charge for food but rather an opportunity to care for each other even in our social distancing. Personally, I’ve been able to connect with folks I haven’t spoken to in years because of this time given to me. Look up that old classmate, co-worker, neighbor or friend and call them.  Connect with others. Remember those who are isolated with no family to be with in this time.
 
You’ll be better because of it. Research bears this out. Studies have shown that when we communicate and help others, it triggers dopamine. That really means our bodies react positively when we help others.  Discipleship and love entails seeking the good of the other.  Seeking joy?  Do good for someone else. It really is better to give than receive. Make a card and send it to them. Make a difference in the life of others in this time.
 
DEDICATION. It’s time for gratitude. It’s time to serve others and it’s time for a little dedication. If there is one thing my parents instilled in me it was the gift of being dedicated to what I was doing.  No one worked harder or was more dedicated than my dad.  Whether it was something little or a big project, from working on Zenith TVs or helping at church, he gave 100% to whatever it was he happened to be involved with in that moment. My parents taught me to put in the work learning to do the little things. Both mom and dad gave us the necessary tools but it was us who needed to do the work. And this came to our work and relationships with others. Dad had a grit about him- he was going to repair that old tv, care for the grass and garden, make improvements to the house, help with things at church, and make calls to a list of friends and acquaintances determined to lift their spirits with his jokes and humor.  Dedication simple means being committed to a task or purpose. Maybe use this time to re-commit or dedicate yourself to the work and relationships around you. 
 

When we put in the work and fix our eyes on hope, wonderful things can happen. Hope is ALIVE!

Gratitude.

Others.

Dedication.

G-O-D.
 

God is still in charge. This Easter the tomb is still empty. People are ministering and caring for each other in more intentional and profound ways than ever before. The chorus of Alleluias will be sung and echoed on tv, radio air waves and live stream throughout the world. Children will still find colored eggs and baskets in their homes and backyards and will play in the outside fresh air.  The birds have returned chirping up a chorus of songs.  There are signs of life all around us. 

April Fools? This is no joke. It’s not the month we wanted, but maybe, just maybe, it is the time we all needed. So perhaps see this time as blessed or bonus time.  Take the time to be Grateful, to think of Others and have a Dedication to be well, be safe, to grow, to do a little more around the house you hadn’t really anticipated…to spend a little more quality time with the kids which for some of us we will never have again…to actually pray at home with your family…to cherish meals together…to take walks or go for bike rides…to check in those isolated, lonely and forgotten…in other words, use this time to just be…to just be h-u-m-a-n.  As we seek to physically protect ourselves, let’s be spiritually connected. Remember, G-O-D has the entire world in his hands. 

 



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  
 



“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