Finding Faith at the End of the Line

It was a Sunday morning on a crisp spring day in 1995, and I was standing waist-deep in the cold currents of a river in southwestern Virginia. How I got there is the thing.

At the time, I was on cusp of major life transitions. At 25, I had just completed my masters degree in English and was in the midst of determining whether to pursue a Ph.D. As I was deciding whether to turn left or right at the fork in the road, I was rammed from behind. I discovered a devastating truth – the woman I had been in a committed relationship with for more than two years had been cheating on me for months.

As the shock gave way, the pain set in like realizing you’ve broken your arm several minutes after a violent collision. The next morning, the muscles in my face hurt from continuous crying. During the first few weeks, I felt paralyzed while waves of questions and doubt pounded me. I could focus only on the small and immediate: do the laundry, wash the dishes, buy milk, take the dog for a walk. Other questions stomped around in my head and demanded attention. Why wasn’t I enough? Why couldn’t she have just ended it? Why? But I could only look away and sweep the kitchen floor. Just do what’s next on the list.

In retrospect, the signs of infidelity seemed so obvious—the phone calls not returned, the excuses for not being available, the downcast eyes of her friends. I felt the fool and increasingly withdrew from the world fearing everyone else saw it, too.

It took months before I allowed a friend to drag me out. It was one of those awkward evenings in an apartment with several couples drinking and making small talk. I ended up in a conversation with a guy who was going fly fishing the next day. After a few beers and some nudging, this fly fisherman agreed to take my friend and I with him.

On the river the next morning, our guide showed us the lifecycle of a trout’s diet. He talked through the mechanics of casting and showed us its art. He showed us how to read the water’s currents and where to look for trout feeding. We spent hours fishing along the wide and beautiful river, but I was the one who was hooked.

On that Sunday morning in 1995, I found myself back on the water alone. I had retraced the route of our guide the previous day. I walked along the train tracks that followed the river and ambled down the footpath that led to the water. I pulled line from my reel and began working my way up the river. My novice casting was as clumsy as my footing on the slick moss-covered rocks lining the riverbed.

Soon, I noticed a subtle dimple on the water that revealed the position of a trout feeding just ahead. I slowly positioned myself within casting range and worked my line back and forth above the water until it reached its target. The fly landed softly about six feet above the memory of the rippled surface and started its descent downstream. The noise of the broken water could barely be heard above the sound of the current, and a small bubble appeared where the fly once rested. I raised the rod and felt the heft of a connection on the other end. I watched the tip of the rod bouncing up and down.

As I held the fly line in my hand, I felt the tug and shake of life calling me back. It took a fish on the other end of my line to make me feel alive. I felt connected to the outside world again. It was a tangible relationship with another, albeit with a fish. But it was a start.

I pulled the 10-inch brown trout up to me and marveled at its beautiful bronze and gold body with orange spots. The sun had begun to peek over the trees and between the hills on either side of the river. I watched the trout slip easily from my hand and back into the mystery of the river knowing I would be back. I would be back again soon.

In the fly rod I found an instrument, and like a musician, I would spend countless hours that summer practicing my craft, exploring new beats, and harmonizing with the rhythm of old rivers.

Entering the water, casting a fly poised on the surface of the river, and waiting for a fish to rise became my ritual. To tempt a fish to rise from beneath the water is to tempt the mystery of all things to the surface of consciousness. For a moment, I could satisfy the questions continually cast out into the currents.

Fly fishing requires a little knowledge, lots of practice, and faith that a fish will rise. It is a discipline of seeking and, on occasion, connecting with the wild and unpredictable. Fly fishing coaxed me out into the open to seek such connections both on and off the water.

It wasn’t answers I found on the river but a renewed strength to rely upon the mystery beneath the surface of what I could not see and what I could not control. It was a faith forged not from the pulpit or from a holy book but from working my way upstream. I didn’t find answers, but I did find new life calling me back. The anticipation of the next cast and the promise of a tight line.

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Signs

I typically believe in signs. Everything from the bunt sign and exit signs to tea leaves and crop circles. I just don’t always follow them, especially speed limit signs. My driving record can attest to that.

But recently I’ve taken objection to one particular sign. Driving to work this week, I saw a spray-painted board nailed to a tree that read, “Jesus is Coming.”

The sign seems to suggest a message that good things are coming for those who have been good, or hell, damnation and/or coal await those who haven’t been so good. That type of theology, if three words can be said to aspire to such, is better left to Santa and nursery rhymes.

Since it is December, the message immediately brought to mind the lyrics from Santa Claus is Coming to Town” — “You better not shout. You better not cry. You better not pout. I’m telling you why …” and then just replace Santa with Jesus and you get the idea.

I wanted to paint my own sign to post beneath it that says, “Why Wait? Be the Christ You Want to See in the World.” You know, as in the “on Earth as in Heaven” part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. I want to tell the person who spray-painted this prophetic three-word warning that Jesus would probably prefer that he or she attend to the needs of this life rather than waiting for whatever awaits in the next one.

The sign promotes this Pharasetic notion that belief trumps action. Don’t worry about all the awful shit happening around you in this world. Just make sure you have your bags packed and ticket punched when the Jesus train shows up to cart off all the “true believers.”

Promoting this type of mentality has some pretty damning consequences. This week, I also read a profile of the at goofy-looking asshole who killed three people at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado on Nov. 27. According to a recent New York Times article, his former wife described him as “a serial philanderer and a problem gambler, a man who kicked her, beat her head against the floor and fathered two children with other women while they were together. He found excuses for his transgressions, she said, in his idiosyncratic views on Christian eschatology and the nature of salvation.”

Her affidavit in 1993 stated: “He claims to be a Christian and is extremely evangelistic, but does not follow the Bible in his actions … He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases.”

You can chalk the shooting up to crazy, but part of what we’re seeing is the expression of a culture that has been saturated with over simplification and extreme polarization of issues via cable news and our political talking heads. It not hard to figure out how this guy might have come to the conclusion that his white, heterosexual, male, Christian, American way of life was under constant attack. And if he perceived himself as being attacked, what else would he do other than fight back with his second-amendment-protected firearm.

Clearly, this is a case of self defense, culturally speaking. He was just protecting his way of life against an unjust world whose values don’t align with those of his warped perception of our country’s forefathers. And I’m sure that this mantra is already among the talking points on some cable news stations and blogs. Fucking A.

Can I resign my position as a white, heterosexual, male, Christian, American? I want new representation. I feel better aligned with any minority group or all of them. I’m considering becoming a Jewish LGBTQ woman, a transgender Buddhist, a Skittle-loving African American teenage boy with a hoodie or a dyslexic Muslim parrot, depending on which application process is fastest. But in truth, my application would probably be denied because I’d be viewed as a potential threat based on the track record of “my people.”

But perhaps I protest too much. Maybe I should just stick with a simple sign. A single finger ought to do it.  

Fallow Fields: Death, Religion and Gardening

Yesterday the Pew Research Center’s released its findings from a U.S. religious landscape study called “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” that reveals that Christianity has dropped from 78 percent of the American population to 70 percent within the last seven years. In addition, those unaffiliated with any religious tradition has increased from 16 percent to almost 23 percent.

On the same day, I read a post by Rachel Held Evan’s from her new book, “Searching for Sunday.” It read:

“Lately I’ve been wondering if a little death and resurrection might be just what the church needs right now, if maybe all this talk of waning numbers and shrinking influence means our empire-building days are over, and if maybe that’s a good thing. Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It’s certainly not something resurrection people worry about …”

The gardening metaphor is so beautifully apt. It helps reframe the significance and perspective of the Pew study findings. And if you extend the metaphor just a bit more (and maybe she does in the book, which I haven’t read yet), the implications continue to hold true. In gardening or farming, doing the same thing over and over results in declining value. If you plant the same crop in a field every year,  over time you will deplete the soil of the nutrients that sustain the plants. Rotating crops or leaving fields fallow allows for replenishment of the soil so that it may remain fertile ground. And so our religion must continue to go through the cycle of death and rebirth to provide sustenance for its people.

The Benefits of Getting Lost

I remember vividly the first time I was lost. The feeling of fear, of being alone in an unfamiliar world. That first experience leaves an impression that lingers. The fear burns into your memory like a hot iron on soft flesh.

I must have been three or four years old. I was with my mother in a department store. We had made our way down the toy aisle, and I was busy entertaining myself when my mother told me to come along. My mother, who managed three young boys, didn’t have hours when she went shopping. It wasn’t a leisurely activity when she had to bring us along — a fact I can appreciate so much more now that I’m the parent trying to shop with two young girls in tow.

My mother kept walking, and I kept playing with the toy I was holding. At some point, probably only a few seconds later, I looked up and realized she was no longer there. I dropped the toy and ran toward the end of the aisle, but I didn’t see her. I went to the next row and didn’t see her there either. Meanwhile, she had worked her way back on the opposite end of the aisle to find me, but I was gone, having already bolted in frantic search.  With every step a rising sense of panic seized my chest and shortened my breathe. Tears began to flow quickly, as I shouted repeatedly the universal cry for help, “Mom!”

Now, in truth, I was probably only separated from her for a matter of seconds, but truth is a matter of perspective, so for me the moment stretched into a space within an eternity. Being lost is less about location than it is a state of self-awareness. Typically, you are in the exact same location moments before you realize that you are lost, and then your entire sense of perspective to your surroundings changes.

Everything is up-side-down, inside-out. Everything is new and different. Your senses are amplified, and every nuance that blended into the background before now juts out in stark relief. You desperately search for any familiar detail that you might grasp to guide you back to something known.

I certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time, or most of the times since, but there are benefits to getting lost. I’m talking more about the sense of self-awareness than specific locations. Taking a wrong turn in a city I’ve never been in before isn’t so swell, but finding myself lost in a completely foreign experience can often lead to transformation. In fact, most of my truly transformative experiences in life have all come during periods of being lost. Consider experiences like going to college, starting a new job or career, becoming a parent, going through a break-up or divorce, or the death of someone close to you. These are all times when we get lost and everything is new and unfamiliar. And these are often times of reflection, struggle, prayer and transformation.

I’m sure there is a fair amount of research behind the benefits of getting lost. If not, there should be. There are the physiological changes — increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and an increased sensitivity to hearing or smell. The body becomes a more effective receptor for all stimuli, and the brain records everything in case something turns out to be useful later. But, unfortunately, the biological purpose of our hardwiring tends to look for the familiar, rather than the nuance. Once we find a road sign that points us back, we’re quick to hop back on the highway of familiarity and leave behind a potentially wonderful opportunity to learn or experience something new, different and unique.

Because the brain records all of this information, if we take the time to reflect and dive into the data, we can still benefit from it. But how often do we? There is security in finding our way back home, either metaphorically or in GPS terms. And there is fear in the unknown, and probably an evolutionary predisposition to avoid going back to it. When we do engage the unknown, be it an idea or an experience, we tend to search for ways in which the idea is familiar to something we already know. We attempt to co-opt it by assimilating it into our conceptual framework rather than assess it on its own terms.

Walking into the unknown requires courage and patience. Invariably, when we look back on our most influential experiences in life, they are times representing major shifts or disruptions in our normal patterns of thinking. But we must first suffer through the discombobulation and anxiety that comes with these experiences. And that’s easier said than done.

I must confess that I am prone to my comfortable routines, my well worn paths, the known. I’m much more likely to sit on the sofa and watch Robin Williams do the Carpe Diem thing, than to do it myself. When I am thrown off my routine, I forget things … like leaving my laptop at home and driving off to work or leaving my wallet on the shelf.

But on occasion, I go against my nature and jump into something new. This requires an intentional effort on my part. Mostly I’m a big introvert who just wants to be left alone. But when I do forget myself and agree to do something outside my little box, I am pushed to learn, grow, explore myself and the world around me. And the experience always shapes me in large or small ways.

We get into routines in our spiritual lives, too. The routine helps preserve this illusory precept of control we have. Diving in over our heads quickly dispels such notions and brings us back to the realization that we are not in control and we need help. One of the aspects of Jesus’ story I find so compelling is that he sought out the people who were lost and in way over their heads. The adulteress, the divorcee, the tax collector, the conflicted soldier, the prostitute, the Samaritan, the grieving mother, the angry father, and the leper. These are more than characters in a story. They are part of our collective consciousness, the archetypes that live inside us and are born through our experiences. In these places and through these experiences, we are more likely to look around for help, to look for some sort of savior. That is when we open ourselves to welcome him. Their stories are our stories, our promise, and our hope.

Jesus constantly challenged the religious leaders who felt they had everything figured out. He answered with questions and parables instead of absolutes. He invited people to seek and explore new ways of looking at old laws.

Jesus also challenged people to walk away from the familiar and embrace the opportunity for transformation. When he told those fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to “follow me,” they dropped their nets, walked away from their boats, their livelihoods, their family and into an unknown. That’s really radical. Can you imagine just dropping everything in your hectic life and walking away with someone who said, “Follow me.” I”m guessing that if Jesus walked up to most of us in our everyday life — shopping in the grocery store, washing dishes, or coming out of a meeting at work — and said, “Follow me,” most of us would be like, “Right on, Jesus. Thanks for asking me of all people. I’m so honored that you would choose me. Just let me do a couple or 3,001 things that I simply must finish before I can go with you. And how long do you think we’ll be? We’re planning to visit some friends this weekend.”

Sometimes, for the love of all that is holy, we need to embrace our inner Van Halen and “Jump!” Of course, preceding that plunge into the deep end should be some prayerful consideration. Risk taking just for the sake of risk taking doesn’t honor the sacredness of entering the wilderness either. Listening to that inner voice, the indwelling of God in all of us, should help in the discernment process, as well as fostering the sense of peace, confidence and courage that are typically required.

I entered a new wilderness recently. I took a sabbatical from my church after having completed a couple of arduous leadership positions during a period of transition for our congregation. First, I served as the congregational president after our senior pastor was dismissed for sexual misconduct. Then, I served as the chair of the committee to identify our next pastor. I lived in the center of major church activities. During that period, I also helped teach a discussion-based adult Sunday school class, played bass guitar in the contemporary worship service, maintained the church website and Facebook page, taught the newcomers class, and coached the men’s softball team. I was church with a capital “C.” And so much of my identity was wrapped up in those activities.

Separating myself from my church identity was hard. I felt lost, untethered and waving in the currents of my own making. The first couple months of the sabbatical felt very uncomfortable. I wanted to return to my normal routines and responsibilities. Of course, my ego was served through my church identity. People relied on me. They needed me. But most of the discomfort was the anxiety of the unfamiliar, the what now, what next. At one point, these church activities were my wilderness. I had intentionally thrust myself into the unknown of these roles, and I grew immensely in my faith by doing so. But now I felt the strain of Newton’s law of thermodynamics regarding an object in motion. The force was pulling me back to what I already knew, more out of inertia than a true sense of purpose or calling. Being still and waiting while these activities went on without me was disquieting, like sitting in a waiting room without your smart phone to distract you. What to do now? Sit, look, think. Or pick up a magazine and find out what Kim Kardashian is up to now.

The longer I am away, the more confident I grow that God may be calling me to other purposes, and I should shed my anxiety about my former identity and seek to learn what is needed of me in this new season. The trick now is to be patient and listen. And to quote Tom Petty and the Heatbreakers, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Scars

I haven’t always treated my body so well. Over the years, I’ve collected a few scars. When I look down at my hands, I’m reminded of the events and experiences that left a written history on my body. Some are reminders of my own carelessness, others represent something more. But they all are part of my history and reflect the experiences that have helped shaped me.

As I look back on this year, I’m reminded of the scars we share now as a body of Christ at St. Philip. We suffered through the trauma of our pastors resigning and now bear the scars of the toll that trauma left on us. At times, we have questioned ourselves, our faith and each other. We have lashed out in our pain or have failed to offer comfort to others. We have been rejected, denied and rebuffed. And we have done likewise to others. We have failed to put our complete trust in God, and we have failed to trust each other.

We may be tempted to cover our scars, hide them, and try to forget the pain of those experiences. But it is because of those experiences that we have grown and become stronger. We should honor our scars and the experiences that etched them as part of our collective consciousness and history. They will remind us of how God gives us strength to endure when times are tough.

Scars also reflect healing. The body repairs and renews. When I fractured my arm playing baseball when I was 10, my father told me it would heal stronger in that place than it was before. And sure enough, there is a small bump on my forearm where the bone healed.

The process is the same for us as the body of Christ. Despite the trauma, or perhaps because of it, we have come together this year to understand each other better.  As a result, our relationships as individuals and as a community are stronger. We don’t always agree, but we have found better and more respectful ways to seek understanding, which is a sign of a healthy community. We have come together to celebrate and plan for our 50th anniversary. We have risen to meet the financial challenge of our deficit campaign. We have welcomed new members, created a new website, formed new fellowship groups, and launched new outreach efforts. In short, our ministry is growing stronger every day.

As we close out a long and arduous year, I want to express my deep gratitude for your prayers, words of support, and acts of love and kindness. So many people have stepped up this year to assume more responsibility for our church and our ministry. You have come and offered yourselves saying, “Here I am, Lord.”

I am especially grateful for the service of Pastor Anne Marie, Pastor Nagle, our staff and those on council this year. Few will ever understand or appreciate the sacrifices these women and men have endured to deal with the difficult decisions that offered no easy answers and only more challenges. I thank God for bringing these people together at this time, especially Pastor Anne Marie. She has invested countless hours, provided wise counsel, and offered steady guidance throughout the year to help bring healing and renewal.

But as I stand here looking back at the year, I know that we have come so far only because of the grace and love of God. In the end, love wins. The love of a God who sent his only son to suffer and die, nailed to a cross, so that through his resurrection we might be free. In the end, those are the scars that matter.

Listening

One Sunday a few years ago, I was trying to get one of my daughters dressed for church in a cute pants and blouse outfit when she started crying. Between sobs, she kept saying, “I don’t like it! I don’t want to wear it!”

Typically, I would push through such episodes to get her dressed and out the door, but for some reason, I stopped and listened. Once she calmed down, my daughter explained that she didn’t want to wear pants because she preferred wearing dresses to church. But more importantly, she thought people would laugh at her because she would be wearing pants.

What she had been saying (“I don’t like it!”) did not really reflect what she meant. And on this occasion I took the time to stop and listen well enough to realize it. So, we went and picked out a nice dress instead. We were a little late, but I was reminded how important it is to stop and truly listen, not just with our ears, but with our heart.

Too often, my instinct is to act first. But lately I’ve been trying to listen more, especially when it comes to what God is asking of me.

I pray that during the next several months you stop and listen to what God is asking of you. The Call to Action effort has conducted a ministry needs assessment to identify where additional support and resources are required for us to fulfill our potential as a congregation and our calling as doers of the Word. God’s work awaits, and more hands are needed.

As the apostle Paul mentioned in his first letter to the Corinthians, God has blessed us each with spiritual gifts to serve the common good. If we listen with our hearts, we might hear how He wants us to use our gifts for the good of our ministries at St. Philip.

In the coming weeks, we will be asking every member of our faith community to assess their gifts and where they might be able to use them to serve God’s mission. But you don’t have to wait. If you hear God calling you to serve – whether as an usher, counter, teacher, greeter, outreach, finance, music, property, etc. – please ask any member of council or staff how you can put your gifts to work at St. Philip, and we would be happy to help connect you with the appropriate ministry.

A few weeks ago, we sang “Here I Am Lord” in worship. The hymn is a good reminder to listen to what God is asking of us and that we are not alone when responding to His call.

Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord?

I have heard You calling in the night.

I will go Lord, if You lead me.

I will hold Your people in my heart.

 

It’s a Hit

January 2014

The sun had ducked behind the tall pines in the outfield and the light had begun to fade. But the bats for the St. Philip Men’s Softball team were just beginning to come to life.

After trailing most of the game against Friendship Baptist, St. Philip had slowly work its way back into contention to tie the game in the bottom of the last inning, sending the game into extra innings.

Friendship was up first and scored 1 run in the next inning before St. Philip managed three outs and picked up the bats. The first two batters went down quickly, and St. Philip was staring at 2 outs with no runners on base and down one run. Then, Paul Grantham hit a deep ball into right field and rounded the bases for an in-field homerun, tying the game up again. Up next was newcomer Shane Walsh, friend of Tim Casadonte. Friendship decided to intentionally walk Shane, who was hitting clean-up, by throwing well outside the strike zone.  But the first pitch was close enough for Shane to reach. So he leaned into the pitch and swung. The ball quickly found its way over the fence for a walk-off homerun.

The victory was one of the most exciting of the season for the 2013 team, which returned to the league championship game for the first time since 2001. But while we keep score and track wins and losses, those numbers don’t reflect the true measure of the success of the team.

The St. Philip Men’s Softball Team is a ministry of the church, and we measure our success through the quality of the relationships we establish with those we play with and those who come out to support us.

For example, this year we welcomed several new players – some who are members, and some who are not. Through the ministry of softball, we developed and fostered wonderful new relationships that have carried into other ministries of the church. We don’t keep stats for evangelism, fellowship, stewardship or outreach, but those are some of the true measures of our success.

We are so very grateful for the wonderful friends, family and congregational members who came out to support us in our run to the championship game. We may have lost to powerhouse Covenant Baptist Church 20-12, but knowing we have already won the victory of the cross, everything else is just a consolation prize.

The Boys in Blue will be back on the field again soon, so be sure to come out and join in or cheer us on for 2014.

The 2013 softball team included:

  • Brian “Apple” Kindl
  • Chris “Hard Hitting” Heath
  • Derek “Set and Spike” Swartz
  • Don “Ice Cold Pitcher” Helmey
  • Greg “Lighterweight” Scarborough
  • Jary “Hobble” Huspek
  • Joel “Triple Home Runner” Kepley
  • JP “Ohio” Attanasio
  • Kyle “Rip and Run” Rodabaugh
  • Mark “Coach” Krynock
  • Matt, Tim & Paul “Clan” Casadonte
  • Mike “Chatter” Davis
  • Mike “Go Daddy” Hetrick
  • Mike “DL” Sebastian
  • Paul “Pop Up” Grantham
  • Shane “Young Gun” Walsh
  • Tim “Wood Working” Weinzapfel
  • Tyler “Hot Rod” Brown

 

 

Three Things I Learned at Synod Assembly

July 2011

In June, my wife Christine and I attended the Synod Assembly with clergy and other lay representatives from more than 200 ELCA churches in North Carolina. In truth, I was expecting boring parliamentary procedures, bland cafeteria food and long meetings. In fact, it was a wonderful experience. We worshipped together, we met new friends and reconnected with others, we shared ideas and learned new ones. The food … well, the food was still cafeteria food, but there was lots of coffee available. To boil down the three-day Assembly into three bullets is a great injustice to the full richness of the experience, but the page is short, so I’ll do it anyway.

Bishop Bolick loves dogs. His wife, not so much. But after recovering from a heart condition and helping move his mother of 90+ years into an assisted living center recently, Bishop Bolick’s wife finally agreed to talk about the possibility of getting a dog. A day later, they brought home Rocky, a little beagle puppy. Bishop Bolick said he loves the dog, and maybe not so surprisingly, so does his wife now. “She loves Rocky because she loves me,” he said. “The relationship makes all the difference.”

Bishop Bolick used this wonderful little story to describe how our relationship with Christ changes us, changes our heart and changes how we engage with the world. Our vision is to save the world, share the good news, show God’s love – one person at a time. As Jesus told his disciples upon seeing the crowds of people in need, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:37-38).

We are many, yet we are one. Bring together clergy and lay representatives from more than 200 congregations and you are going to see different opinions and perspectives. We voted on a number of motions and resolutions that were presented during the Assembly, and not everyone agreed on the issues. I was reminded how that is an important part of being in a community. We are different – we have different experiences, opinions, perspectives and backgrounds. These differences can divide or they can strengthen. During this time, the entire collection of us in the auditorium also took communion, and I was reminded that despite our differences, we are one in the body of Christ. In fact, the word “communion” shares the same root word as “community.” So the act of sharing communion both defines and strengthens us as a community.

Butts in the pew vs. butts out of the pew. Tammy Jones West, who serves as the N.C. Synod Youth and Family Ministry Coordinator, is praying for us. She said that she has been praying for years for some of her family members to “get their butts in a pew.” But her prayer for us as a collection of ELCA churches from across the state is for us to “get our butts out of the pew.” She challenged us collectively to change our focus from membership to discipleship. That weekend she organized about 40 events for hundreds of us to go out into the community to serve those in need. Christine and I joined a group that went to an elementary school where the student body was 95 percent free or reduced lunch, which meant that there essentially wasn’t a PTA to help support the school. In fact, a thrift store had been established across the street by a local church to provide essential clothing and household items for those in need. We spent the morning helping clean up and beautify the grounds of the school. When we left, we felt connected in some small way to the lives of the kids who come to that school every day. And later that afternoon in a Bible study session, we focused on these words from Ephesians, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10). We are saved by faith, but we are created for good works.

 

Can You Hear Me Now?

On the way home from church recently, I heard an interesting commercial on the radio. A woman was talking to a man about all the new features of her new smart phone. The man said he loved his “old” flip phone saying it was cool because it opened like a switch-blade knife. The woman said that she could watch live TV on her smart phone. The man replied, “I can watch live TV, too … on my TV.”

As I drove, I started thinking about all the data being broadcast over radio frequencies, cell towers and Wi-Fi networks. We are surrounded by all this invisible data around us all the time. If you have the right mobile device, you can receive and interpret this data to talk on the phone, read emails, receive text messages, access websites, download videos, play music, and apparently, watch live TV now.

Then I thought about how this was a perfect metaphor for God’s love.  We are surrounded by God’s love all the time, but we don’t always connect to the signal to receive it.

Often our own pain or the busyness of life creates a lot of static that distracts us from remembering and connecting with God’s love. We run around getting kids ready for school, stressing about deadlines for work, obsessing how someone has wronged us, struggling to care for a sick or elderly relative. And later, once things settle down or when we come back to church on Sunday, we remember and connect with God’s love.

What we miss is the opportunity for God to influence our lives during the pain or busyness, to remember that we can turn over the stress, the worry, the struggle, the pain to him. That we can show others how his love has changed us by how we reflect that love to others in our words and actions.

We all walk around with the right technology to receive God’s love. We just need to keep our hearts tuned to his station. God is calling us. Can you hear Him now?

During the Epiphany season we have heard God proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). God calls us to listen to him and go boldly forward, empowered by God’s commandment: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9).

Help Wanted …

“I was wondering if you might be willing to help with …”

So how do those words usually hit you?

Whenever I’m asked to do something new, something that I haven’t done before, my immediate internal reaction is usually something like: I’m not ready, I couldn’t possibly do it, I don’t have the knowledge, I need more experience, additional training, practice, or time to get comfortable with the idea.

This was my immediate reaction when John Garrett asked me about serving on the Congregational Council three years ago while warming up for one of our St. Philip softball games. I thought: I don’t know enough, I haven’t been a member long enough, I don’t know the Bible well enough, my faith isn’t strong enough. The list goes on.

These are many of the same questions and doubts carried by others, including prominent figures in scripture like Moses and Jonah. I associate more with Jonah … you know, if I don’t make eye contact with the person asking for a volunteer, maybe I can hide safely in my pew, hide from God calling. Thankfully, God doesn’t always send a fish to swallow us when we hide, but those opportunities for sharing God’s love in some way are often lost.

Three years ago, I left the door open with John, telling him I would think about it. John was persistent and kept talking with me about serving on council throughout softball season. Eventually, I figured this was something God was leading me to do, and I said yes. I answered with faith and trust in God because I still felt I did not have enough knowledge, experience, service, etc. to do what was being asked of me.

What I have found during the last three years, even during the most challenging of times, is that in giving of myself, I have gained more. I have witnessed God’s love and grace in ways I would not have experienced otherwise. My relationship with God, my wife, my kids, my family, my friends, and my community of faith is stronger, deeper and more meaningful. Saying, “yes, I will,” was my first step to a closer relationship with God and others in my life.

In May, we posted a new feature on the St. Philip website called “Help Wanted For God’s Ministry” where you will find a list of opportunities to serve in various ways. The list will be updated as needs emerge, so I encourage you to review the list regularly and ask yourself where the gifts God has given you might be used in His service.

Take that step, make that call, raise your hand, send the email, ask the question, or say, “I’ll help.” I promise you will be better for it, and so will our ministry at St. Philip.