Tuesday, February 12, 2013

“Epiphany” - A Season to Blossom

As I write this, I feel a little burned out from Christmas. It has been said that “Christmas falls like a seed on soil exhausted by too many harvests” or sometimes we are of two minds about how we welcome the Christ child into our lives and hearts. We are a little like the Inn Keeper: we want the child around but maybe “outback.” Having said that, I have just said goodbye to Erin again who has emailed me that she has safely arrived in Afghanistan and thanks me for a wonderful Christmas. It couldn’t have been a better Christmas with everyone safely gathered in enjoying one another’s company.

Imagining her arrival in Afghanistan which many have said is a place of beauty even though it looks like in many places craters on the moon. I suppose Epiphany is a season that is best described as a blossom in which we discover the wonder of God’s presence in our life. Epiphany is characterized by the journey of the wise men found in Matthew 2: 1-12 where three Persians sometimes called Kings or Magi follow a star that leads them to Bethlehem. Actually from Matthew’s point of view, these are authentic spiritual seekers who are journeying in search of truth and hunger for a deeper meaning to life's questions.

In the sermon on the mount, Matthew reports Jesus saying: “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be open to you (Matt. 7:7).” This is an invitation for you to seek and ask deeper questions of yourself and of the universe. This may ask something of you too; that you journey long and hard to discover what God is doing in the world and what you need to be doing yourself.

St. Augustine has a very famous passage in his confessions: “The heart is restless until it finds it’s rest in thee.” I have never understood hearts that weren’t restless. I even have a hard time trying to understand bright and intelligent people who aren’t hungering for God. People who aren’t looking and searching to discover a message that will enable them to find light for their journey, meaning for their lives and a sense of fulfillment for their soul. You are just kidding yourself if you are not hungry for spiritual things unless your soul has shrunk or shriveled to where you have no appetite at all. For me, our universe is fraught with wonder and purpose. I feel I don’t have enough time or enough energy to embrace the many opportunities that invite me into the lives, and the great moments that are available for me to learn, grow and blossom. When Jesus says “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” He is really offering an invitation to journey in a deeper way to where we might find fertile soil to take root and to blossom.

The church lives by seasons. Advent is a time of anticipation, Christmas is the miracle of the incarnation of the word becoming flesh in a baby and Epiphany is the manifestation of our Lord to the whole world. It is the invitation to blossom, to learn, to discover and to embrace this mystery of God that becomes known to us in Jesus Christ.

The invitation is always there for all of us who hunger for God to come to Christ’s table and receive the bread of life. Commit yourself as much as you can to as much of God as you believe in....That is an honest commitment. Make that commitment, not for your own sake alone but for the sake of others, of this community and of the world.

There is a lot of brokenness and pain in this world but in the words of Leonard Cohen from his song anthem “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget the perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

May the light of Christ enter in to the broken places of your life and of this world. Happy Epiphany.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Power is a Precious Commodity

Certain things that you take for granted like electricity which provides power to your home, in some cases hot water, heat and gas when taken away can make you realize that a necessity is really a luxury. The first thing that came across my mind when we lost power, sat in the cold looking at candles lit giving us light was the shanty towns I saw in Johannesburg, South Africa. These little villages have some wires going into homes that were made of tin, cardboard, makeshift pieces of wood that I am sure were on dirt floors. Just to get electricity into these places must be quite a job and I’m sure it is not done with the type of safety that we require in our country.

Power is a precious commodity that I never think about. In fact as I walked from room to room with a flashlight, I would hit the light switch out of habit and always be a little surprised that nothing happened. Another reminder of what we take for granted.

Sometimes things sweep into your life like a storm and raise havoc with your plans and your routine. For me it was rather small, a little less than a week without power. I was uncomfortable and I was in the middle of fighting a bad sinus infection, but all in all, it was not like the pictures I’ve seen of people trying to recover and find lost pictures, scattered about as their house lay in rubble. We were not the people of Breezy Point who saw 80 houses go up in blaze with nothing they can do but watch as the fire grew bigger and bigger and their whole life turned into cinders.
"We watched the whole place go up in flames. It was hell night. It was the devil's night," said resident Thomas

It is interesting what disaster does to people. In some cases, it makes them more creative, it makes them think outside of the box and find new ways to get the things they need for life. For example, my daughter Allison went to Starbucks to get power for her computer and internet needs. Starbucks had kids standing around the outside of the store with cell phones trying to get the Wifi connection. As Allison and her friend Brian sat in Starbucks, there was a young woman who came with a power strip who plugged it in. Soon they and others asked her if they could plug into her power strip and of course she was more than gracious in allowing them to do that. Soon people were buying here lattes, cakes and other items. She probably never had to pay for a thing and had plenty of supplies in terms of food all night long.

I’m sure there is a sermon in here somewhere but let me say this, each of us needs to think of ourselves as a power strip that when connected to the source of all power, we can make a difference in the lives of others. Maybe we shouldn’t count ourselves short when it comes to our ability to give, to help and to support others who are in need. If people plug into us, they may discover a vast resource and we might even discover that we have a lot more to contribute than we thought!

In the end, don’t underestimate yourself and the gifts God gives you.


Friday, September 7, 2012

“The Everyday Olympics”

I am not sure how much of your summer was taken up watching the Summer Olympic Games in London? I know from time to time I was watching everything from Michael Phelps taking home the most medals ever to Olympic fencing, equestrian events and Gaby Douglas and the fabulous five do unbelievable gymnastic routines. I was also mesmerized by the opening of the olympics which had everything from the history of England, to Harry Potter, to Mary Poppins’ falling from the sky with umbrellas to Paul McCartney singing as well as ever. It has been quite an experience just watching it on television.

What is also interesting are the life stories behind the scenes. They are stories of enormous discipline and sacrifices just to compete for the gold medal in their field. Some like Gaby Douglas were separated from their family as she went to Iowa to train. Others were never told that their grandmother died or that their mother had breast cancer because they didn’t want to upset the concentration of these young athletes on obtaining the goal of victory.

Today the Olympics are big commercially. Companies are fighting to sponsor the Olympics and get their name out there for all of us to see as we watch the Olympics on television. There is big money at stake for the cities that compete to hold the Olympics and the whole thing seems to be very commercialized. It was not always that way. I happen to run across an article on elderly people who had competed in the Olympic games the last time it was held in London. They are mere shadows of their former selves. In fact, some are holding a cane and one is in a wheelchair. Time has a way of taking things away from us that we once took for granted. Few of us can even remember the Olympic games of London that took place in 1948 just after World War II. As I looked at these former gold medal winners, I thought of the hymn “Oh God our help in Ages Past” which has the verse “Time like an ever rolling stream soon bares us all the way.”

The ’48 Summer Olympics in London was the first after a twelve year hiatus caused by World War II. The United States sent 300 athletes by boat to discover a city still devastated by years of bombing. The games were known that year as the “Austerity Games.” Food rationing was still going on. No one had fancy uniforms and most brought their own equipment with them. As I looked at these old men and one old black woman who were winners over 60 years ago, I was moved. The Olympics were one of the greatest moments of their lives. Bill Smith won 2 gold medals with a 400 meter freestyle and the freestyle relay. He said simply that he trained in an irrigation ditch. Harry Marcoplos at 86 was in field hockey. He said “We didn’t win any gold medals, but I guarantee you we improved ourselves.” Finally, Frank Havens, 87, competed in 4 Olympic games. Won the silver medal and a gold medal. He said these profound words, “After it was over, a reporter was there, and they asked what I was thinking about. And I said well, I am thinking about the sacrifice my dad made.” When I read that, it took my breath away. I guess an experience like this makes you reflect upon the scope of your life and those who helped you to get where you are.

Sometimes we think that we have earned everything and we deserve it all. But those of us who are humble enough to see beyond our egos and self-centeredness realize that we are where we are because of the people who have helped us to get there. There are the teachers who inspired us, there are those who have encouraged us in our lives from friends, peers and of course our parents. As I look at my life, many people took time to nurture what looked like a good prospect who could become an able pastor. All I can say is that life is meant to be lived with gratitude and generosity when we pass things on.

Another interesting aspect of the Christian faith is that St. Paul likens the Christian journey to that of the Olympics. He writes in Philippians “I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” It sounds like language of a coach who could be training an athlete to win at the London Olympics. I know that when I ran the New York City Marathon, I repeated every mile the words from Philippians “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In the end, we all face what these old timers are facing now which is the end of their lives. Throughout our life, we all face difficulties, obstacles, challenges, losses and sometimes great pain. It is not easy. On the other hand, when times get tough, we need to reach back for the resources that we are given that will allow us to come through these hardships and win the day. It is my prayer that as you look towards September and the busyness and chaos that fall brings, that you will greet it as an opportunity to continue to grow and be enriched by everyone you meet. As the laid-backness of summer is over and the stress of our own “Everyday Olympics” continues may you find the strength, energy and discipline to not grow weary of doing good things in the name of our Lord.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Message from Red Square

Thoughts on the meaning of Easter

One of the dreams of my life was fulfilled when I was able to walk into what is known today as “Red Square.” I tried to imagine it when I was young as Communist leaders stood up on the high walls of the Kremlin and waved their hands to huge displays of missiles and soldiers marching. It was scary yet exciting and intriguing to a young boy growing up in the middle of the “Cold War.”

Two summers ago, I was able to put my feet down on this piece of ground in Moscow. I also visited a mausoleum. It was a bit ere as I walked down into this modern mausoleum. There was a line but only a certain number were allowed in at a time. It was dimly lit and there was this strange smell that permeated this bomb shelter like structure.

Then at the bottom of the steps there was this light that shined directly on the body. He looked good for being dead since the early 20’s. He looked like he was asleep - this mummy like body. He could have been made up by Estee Lauder and looked like someone out of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

There he was Vladimir, known for over a century now by his Bolshevik name, Lenin. He was one of history’s greatest mass murderers. In the course of his ruthless efforts to impose communism on Russia and it’s neighbors through brutal force, terror, and extra-judicial homicides in the millions, he became one of the greatest persecutors of the Christian church in two millennia.

Lenin’s minions killed more Christians in a slow week than the last of the great Roman persecutors, Diocletian, did in years.

Boris Yeltsin along with the Orthodox Church wanted him gone. They moved Stalin a number of years earlier and put him under some trees nearby with lesser officials even though he ruled Russia with an iron fist for more that 30 years. He too was a mass murderer of even larger proportions. But when it came to moving Lenin, 30% were against it so Putin prevented the plans to move him. I guess 30% is a majority in Russia?

It was the smell of death and a desire to anoint Jesus’ body that led the women to the grave that Easter morning. No matter what you do, you can’t remove the smell of death. There is not enough embalming fluid to bring you back to your old self. In fact I kind of chuckle when I stand in front of a body during a wake and people say “Doesn’t he look good?” I think to myself, nobody looks good after you have been embalmed. Perfume, makeup and a hairdresser can’t make you look like you are alive or bring you back to life. Death has a finality about it.

We have just been through 40 days of Lent and are deep into the Easter season. Jesus is risen - risen indeed as Christian’s have said for centuries. He is Christus Victor. He is the one who has conquered death, stared down death and has risen from the dead. This signals new life, hope, energy and vitality. This is the Christian proposal to the whole world. It comes to us in many ways - but first of all it simply says that the grave is not our final resting place. It says that love is stronger than hate, hope overcomes despair and life conquers death. Christians for centuries have declared this message of the abundant life, of new life and of life eternal.

You probably do not remember the name Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin. During his day he was as powerful a man as there was on earth. As a Russian Communist leader he took part in the Bolshevik Revolution 1917, was editor of the Soviet newspaper Pravda (which by the way means truth), and was a full member of the Politburo.

His works on economics and political science are still read today. There is a story told about a journey he took from Moscow to Kiev in 1930 to address a huge assembly on the subject of atheism. Addressing the crowd he aimed his heavy artillery at Christianity hurling insult, argument, and proof against it.

An hour later he was finished. He looked out at what seemed to be the smoldering ashes of men's faith. "Are there any questions?" Bukharin demanded. Deafening silence filled the auditorium but then one man approached the platform and mounted the lectern standing near the communist leader. He surveyed the crowd first to the left then to the right. Finally he shouted the ancient greeting known well in the Russian Orthodox Church: "CHRIST IS RISEN!" En masse the crowd arose and in unison, the response came crashing like the sound of thunder: "HE IS RISEN INDEED!"

This is the good news we share, this is the hope we proclaim and this is the love that empowers us. This Easter season we are reminded and encouraged to not only live out this message but to share it with others. *


* The above was part of Pastor’s Easter Sunday sermon.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What’s the Matter with Sermons Today?

Advice from Philip Seymour Hoffman

I was recently visited by my insurance man who indicated to me that he was visiting St. John’s because the church he had been going to for the last thirty years had become a bit stale. Even though he socialized with his pastor and called him a good friend, he said that the sermons didn’t seem to be reaching him.

Sermons are an interesting phenomenon. They mean many things to many people. To the minister grinding them out every Sunday, or should I say writing them – they are a constant challenge, a nagging headache and a ticking time bomb. As soon as you are done with one, the clock begins ticking towards the next.

Sermons to others, who listen, can be a moment when a glaze begins to cover your face and from those observing, you look like a deer caught in the headlights. To others, it is a moment to close your eyelids for a moment that seems to move on to many moments. I once asked someone about their eyes being shut while I was preaching and they said that there were just closing their eyes to concentrate and remove the distractions from their surroundings. Hmmm, I’d like to believe that they were telling the truth, but I remain suspicious. To others, sermons are a topic for jokes. Let’s keep it short this time pastor. Pastors are very sensitive when it comes to sermons and often defensive.

One of the great actors of our time is Philip Seymour Hoffman who is currently starring in the Arthur Miller play, “Death of a Salesman.” He once played the lead role in the movie “Doubt” where he was a priest. The film revolves around the question of a priest’s culpability and gives excellent insight into the life in a Roman Catholic parish.

In an interview, Hoffman talks about his own interpretation of the role. He said “I did research by, among other things, going to church. As a kid, I was confirmed and I went to church, but I was bored. Now, I feel the opposite: a good sermon is just theatre. It combines the political scene, the scriptures, and I thought, Hey, I could do it like that. It’s like a teacher getting up and saying, this is the school I come from.”

Hoffman in his own brilliant way makes an observation that is lost on many. Luther often said that the bible is not simply to be read but it is to be proclaimed. A Viva Voce, a living voice that comes alive when it is proclaimed. Yes it is theatre, it’s fireworks, it’s drama, and it is as fresh as today’s news and in the pathos of it all, it becomes good news. It’s too bad that in the daily struggle that we ministers have, a lot of that passion gets lost because the day’s responsibilities, obligations and tasks nickel and dime all of the inspiration out of us.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Leap Of Faith

Reflections on Jeremy Lin’s Jump Shot

Being the type of person that enjoys culture and everything associated with arts, music and religion, I am of course smiling when it comes to the media talking about being Christian. Often times Christianity is mocked or made fun of as passe. However recently we’ve all been surprised by two athletes who have risen to the front pages of our newspapers. Namely, Denver’s Tim Tebow and the Knicks’ Jeremy Lin.

It’s interesting that the media is making a big deal about the fact that Lin is a Christian. If anybody follows the Knicks, you have had many bruising years of disappointment, upset and even despair. Somehow in a haphazard way, Jeremy Lin rejected by other basketball teams and resigned to sitting on a couch even sleeping there is now given the Knicks one of their longest winning streaks in recent memory. He lights up the court with his once overlooked basketball skills which are amazing everyone. Night after night Lin has been helping the Knicks defeat all competitors and sometimes doing it in the fading minutes of the game.

What I find interesting is that Lin is Asian, he is tall but not by basketball standards (only 6’3”) and he is humble. But the papers are noting something more, namely that his faith has created an appeal too. For example, his success has fired the imagination of Asian American Christians and Christians in China who continue to face varying levels of persecution. Recently, I read that micro blogging messages tend to be very enthusiastic about his faith. “Your physical agility has shown me the glory and omnipotence of God” one internet user wrote. Another blogger wrote “How should young Christians live the life of the Lord?” It appears that Lin is becoming a natural symbol for Christians in China. “Just by his being a Christian, it is a fantastic way to broadcast the ways of Christ,” he said .

It is always interesting to watch how people resinate with great curiosity the commitment and beliefs of others. Soren Kierkegaard always was quick to point out that there are many who “flirt” with Christian beliefs and practices but who never really make a commitment. I’ve seen many so called “seekers” who are in a permanent holding pattern circling the airport but will never land. Sometimes it is appealing to watch someone who has decided to do what Kierkegaard also says is key to understanding the nature of faith. He says that faith is being willing to “take a leap into 50,000 fathoms.” Understood differently, faith involves a leap into the unknown with the trusting feelings that it will all be okay.

Luther points out that many of us needed props for our faith. However props really in his words destroy faith. So when a scientist declares something about god, or when people come back from the process of dying to say that they were floating on air, going into the next dimension but came back - this is really not what we mean when we talk about faith.

Believing, trusting, letting go of all the crutches, props and reassurances is what faith is all about. In a word, faith is trust. It’s hard to come by but for those fans of Lin and Tebow, it is very appealing. To us who believe it’s something we do every day when we let go and let God into our lives and our world. It’s not as glamorous as a jump shot for three points in the last second of a game but it does get you through the day when you seem to have run into a lot of dead ends and difficulties.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Second Chances

Reflections on Lent

As I write this, my mind is jumping ahead to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Lent to me is almost like New Year’s where you make a lot of resolutions that you hope will push you in the right direction - towards health, wellness and a deeper self realization. The text for the beginning of Lent is always about Jesus struggling with temptation in the wilderness to give up his calling and for that matter the purpose of his life. Lent can be a dramatic time in which struggle is very much a part of the season.

Actually, after seeing the movie “Descendants” I came to the realization that it is about Lent as well. George Clooney wakes up to discover his wife is dead and his two kids are living lives that he was out of touch with. For that matter, he was out of touch with the life that his wife was leading as well. Clooney is up for an Oscar, but I am told that in this role he is simply playing himself. I’m not sure, but I do think that he plays the role of a father in a wonderfully, open and non-reactive way. He eases into the discovery that he has been absent from the life his family was living and he has taken much for granted which was a mistake.

I enjoy the fact that he doesn’t give up but hangs in with his troubled children to discover what their life is all about. Because of his wife’s death, a door opens for him to rediscover what life is all about. He checked out for a long time but now he’s into the discipline and routine of what it means to be a parent. Many days parenting is not a glorious job rather it is a painfully difficult responsibility.

The reason why this movie reminds me of Lent is that George Clooney discovers that he has lacked the discipline and presence that go into being a good parent. He has been absent and has allowed his wife to handle the responsibility. He has just been the bread winner which of course accounts for something but doesn’t take the responsibility away from his role as a father.

Lent gives us second chances and challenges us to do better. It is an opportunity for repentance and forgiveness and restoration. Clooney takes advantage of the fact that he is getting a second chance. He is getting a chance to be there for his kids during a difficult time. He is getting a chance to get to know them in a way that he didn’t know before. He is getting a shot at being a real father.

What I appreciate about his role is that he takes a lot of heat from his children for being absent and distant and disconnected. When he tries to reconnect he gets hit hard with heavy and harsh criticism. But what I like the most is that he is really a non-anxious presence and doesn’t respond to his kids in the same way but rather takes the heat, listens and does not disconnect.

In fact he reconnects with a discipline he hasn’t known before namely the discipline of parenting. One of the the themes of Lent is discipline. Nothing gets done in this world without disciplined people making it happen. Back in the days of the first mayor, Richard Daly of Chicago, the slogan was “The garbage is always picked up.” It was just another way of saying that there was a discipline in running the city that you could count on and even set your clock by.

Actually when you look at your own life and try to find what you would call successes, they probably are connected to discipline. That is the seeming routine that you go through each day to hold your family together, to provide a sanctuary for your children and spouse and to develop a space where everyone can be nurtured and grow. Without discipline things just don’t happen and people can’t be counted on.

Lent asks us to take a second look at ourselves and how connected we are to the life God has given us. Over the course of the year, I’m sure we have all suffered setbacks, difficulties and loss of focus when it comes to achieving the important things that not only sustain life but enrich it. Lent is here for us to reexamine our journey, take a second look at the parts of us that are damaged and have failed. Lent is a chance to regroup, reestablish and refocus on what is important.

It is my hope that we can use Lent as an opportunity, not simply as an obligation.