The only thing I don’t like about preaching is the way God seems to hold me to account for the things that I say. This walking the walk thing is hard! While you haven’t heard Sunday’s sermon yet, it focuses on the difficulties many of us have in receiving a gift, which gums up the works on several levels. You’ll see what I mean on Sunday.
So I should not have been surprised that my move has tested my own ability to receive. It started small—the lovely flowers (and cat treats!) and notes of welcome, and an offer from Sue Powers to bring dinner on Tuesday night. With everything still on the Cape until Wednesday, I was more than grateful. But then it got harder.
On that sweltering day, I eagerly went up to the bedroom to turn on the air conditioner. The cord didn’t reach the plug. “Hi, Sue? When you come with dinner, do you have an extension cord you could bring? Oh, and an adaptor?” Of course, a wonderful dinner with an extension cord chaser was immediately given. But now I had to put someone out. it was only the beginning.
The past 36 hours have been a constant parade of people giving to me of their time, advice, food, and service, some of it planned, much of it not. Jim Clayton, Colin Simson, and Frank Leathers were all on the floor of the parsonage kitchen, trying to figure out why the refrigerator was leaking (it’s fixed now), Sue helped to unload my overpacked car, and every bit of information I needed was just a text to Sherry Miller away. And I needed a lot. So much for serving a congregation. You were all serving me!
But the biggest one was Wednesday night. The boxes were all in the house, the cats delivered and in hiding, and I scrambled to eat the food graciously left from the night before, take a shower, and find something to wear to the Backyard Blessings, which is a gift from Pam Reeve and Sue DiMarzo to all of us at Crawford. I was running late. I got in the car. It wouldn’t start.
The day before when unloading my car, I had managed to bump the switch for the cargo light without noticing. Now a day later, it had drained the battery. It was advertised that I would be at the Backyard Blessings, and I started frantically texting and calling to try to get word to Pam. Sue Powers was soon on the road, giving up her own quiet time of reflection to pick up the pastor who was supposed to lead a church but couldn’t manage to start her car.
I arrived, frazzled, just as Pam was beginning the closing time, after which she didn’t miss a beat and patiently walked me around to the blessing stations, shining her phone for me to read in the dark. Once that was done, Susan Blomquist volunteered that she and Jim would bring me back and jump the car. Which they did, in the dark. They even had to help me find the switch to open the hood of my own car. Jim had already been at the parsonage almost non-stop to help with my electrical outlet and air conditioning issues, to haul away junk, tweak ceiling fans, break down boxes, and all sorts of other things that I never expected to need, but did.
And so I skid into the end of my first week in ministry with you, and you are the ones ministering to me. Gift upon gift, blessings upon blessing, going above and beyond when you’re tired and stretched yourselves. These days have been the definition of grace—that unmerited gift from God to all of us and channeled through each of us as we complete the circle of giving and receiving. It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but nobody gets that blessing until someone is willing to accept the gift. It takes two.
It can be hard to receive, especially when raised in this culture of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. “No, no…I can do it.” Except when you can’t. But by opening up to receive the gifts of others we eventually learn to accept the gift of grace from God, the greatest giver of them all.
Thank you for your warm welcome to Crawford. I hope to return the favor.
In the recurring cycle of the church, this long swath of time from Pentecost until late November is called “Ordinary Time.” I can’t think of an arena of life in the United States that could be called “ordinary” right now or that is likely to become so before (and likely even after) Advent comes knocking on our door. Trying to ground myself as everything is shifting under my feet is a problem, so lately I’ve been grateful for the often-neglected third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit.
Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:8, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Whenever there’s a shakeup in Scripture; whenever the old ways are disrupted, we find the Spirit behind it, disrupting the status quo and causing what revered civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis called, “Good Trouble.”
Right out of the gate we see the Spirit of God hovering over the primordial waters in Genesis 1:2. Then in Genesis 1:3, blam! The first light erupts on the scene and then the sky and the land and the seas and the vegetation, culminating in the creation of human beings who in the next chapter are charged with caring for it all. In the Bible, everything literally begins with God’s Spirit disrupting the status quo for positive change. Good trouble.
The Spirit is all through the disruption of the Exodus, and when the prophet Isaiah describes what happens when the Spirit of God fills a person in chapter 61, it results in a call “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” Every bit of that is the Spirit empowering God’s people to shake up the solid ground for the sake of “good trouble.”
Of course at Pentecost in Acts 2, the Spirit comes like a mighty wind, breaks down the barriers of language and nation, and nothing is ordinary from that time forward. Everything changes, first for the followers of Jesus, then out to Asia Minor, and then to the rest of the world. The times were often brutal, many were beaten and killed for the “good trouble” they caused. And when the church got too comfortable and forgot its calling, the Spirit moved reformers to shake the ground yet again—a cycle familiar to anyone well-versed in Israel’s story in the Bible.
So in this time of total disruption, I have stopped looking down at the shaking ground or even up into the heavens, hoping for a miracle. Instead, I have begun to look around at what is rustling in the trees and to listen for the sound of the wind of the Spirit. I encourage you to do the same. We probably won’t know where it comes from or where it’s going, but the Bible has taught us how to distinguish God’s Spirit from others. The mighty wind from the Spirit of God causes “good trouble,” and we can all trust that when we put up our sails and catch that wind, the destination that remains now out of sight will be the place of God’s choosing.
As we begin our time together, sermons will focus on the work of God’s Spirit in causing “good trouble” in both our inner and outer lives. Who is God? Who are we? How then shall we live? Be sure to check out online worship this Sunday, August 2, as we begin that journey with a wrestling match, a limp, and a blessing at the Jabbok River.
~Conversation with Joyce Cummings~
When Leslie asked a month ago if I would be willing to write a reflection for the newsletter, I was happy to say yes. She told me the lectionary for the day would be about prayer so I could write about that or if I was uncomfortable writing about prayer I could write anything I wanted. Well, I thought writing about prayer would be a slam dunk. Of course I could write about prayer. Even though I start and end every day with some prayer, I have not prayed as much in the last five years as I have in the last five months so it would be very easy to put a few paragraphs together. I was VERY WRONG.
The more I worked on pulling together several coherent paragraphs, the more my brain kept skipping around. I could not concentrate and one day I said to myself, “your brain is scattershot.” I didn’t even know if that was a real word, but it kept coming back to me. Finally, I asked Bill if scattershot was a word and explained my dilemma to him. He said he thought it was a word, he understood what I was thinking, and encouraged me to just go with it and write about my scattershot prayerful thinking.
By stark coincidence, later that day, I saw the word scattershot printed in two very different places. First, the New York Times in an article about the government’s scattershot approach to the pandemic. Later in the book VARINA, an historical novel about Jefferson Davis’s wife. The author, Charles Frazier, described “brilliant scattershot letters, often on scraps of mismatched paper” Seeing that word twice within in a few hours of my conversation with Bill validated my use of the word. My thoughts and words are not brilliant but they are a scattered mismatched approach to prayer.
Here are a few of my scattershot prayer thoughts and some favorite prayers:
Prayer is a conversation with God. One definition of the word conversation is “a talk between two or more people in which news and ideas are exchanged.” The old adage “we have two ears and one mouth” makes me remember being told “you can never learn anything while talking.” So when praying I talk and God listens and then I should allow God to talk while I listen.
Without us God won’t. Without God we can’t. – From a sermon by a former pastor. How can we be with God without prayer?
Many years ago, I heard Billy Graham say we should pray four hours a day. I thought he was crazy and it was obvious he did not have four young children clamoring for attention most of the day and sometimes much of the night. But then I read some prayers by Marjorie Holmes. One entitled “Praying While Peeling Potatoes” gave me a whole new perspective about how, when and where we can pray.
Sometimes I tell friends that every time I think of them it is offered as a prayer.
Where did we get the idea that God only answers prayers if they are answered with yes? I believe God ALWAYS answers our prayers. When asking for something there are many possible responses. Yes, maybe, I’ll think about it, later, and no are all answers we get from people. Why do we think God has not answered our prayer if we don’t get exactly what we asked for? Although the tune is catchy, I dislike the lyrics to a country music song entitled I Want to Thank God for Unanswered Prayer. God answered the prayer and the answer was “no.” And Bette Midler’s From a Distance has always bothered me too. I don’t think God is watching us from a distance. I think God is walking with us and watching closely. If that is not so then I think it must be because we pushed God away.
My favorite place for joyful prayer is at the piano playing hymns. Early in the pandemic I made a list of things to do at least three times a week and starting to play piano again was on the list. It has been joyful to experience improvement in my playing as I sing in full voice my favorite hymns. I concentrate on hymns of praise, worship, celebration and thanksgiving.
My new favorite prayer is a Buddhist prayer from the adult study book, Grateful. The Buddha offered these words to sum up the day: “ Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die: so, let us all be thankful.”
My old favorite prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
And a parting scattershot thought from St. Francis of Assisi: “First do what’s necessary. Then do what’s possible and suddenly you’ll be doing the impossible.” I think prayer is a necessary component of this directive.
~ A Conversation with Brian Rogers ~
When I was a little boy growing up in Brooklyn, it was easy to accept everyone. In the simple mind of a child, you either liked someone or you didn’t…no matter what their ethnicity. They were your friends…or not…not your “black friend” or your “Jewish friend”. And my mom and dad set the example. Then we moved to the suburbs and I went to schools in neighborhoods that were sheltered from reality…sort of like Winchester…and to a Catholic all-male high school and all-male college (that explains a lot!)…not much diversity there. We did our share of praying…talking “to” Jesus.
In 1967, I was at Columbia University in the Morningside section of Manhattan. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous anti-Viet Nam speech at the nearby Riverside Church. In 1967, the overwhelming “non-student” majority of the country still supported the war and King was taking an unpopular stance. He was talking to everyone at the church and to the government…and to my friends and to me and, for the first time, I was talking “with” Jesus…actually listening to Him talking to me instead of me doing all the talking. Two weeks later we were protesting the war in NY City and 6 months later in Washington…and, still at it two years later in Boston and Washington. Jesus, through King, finally got into my head and my heart and told me to get off my butt and act. It only happened because listening replaced talking. Jesus became my prayer partner instead of some invisible being who is there to grant my every wish.
God speaks to us in many ways… through other people like MLK and those close to us…through something you hear or something you read…through music…and, my favorite, through nature…God’s creation. It is still just as difficult as it always was to listen. Years ago I read “The Joy of Listening to God” and have to pull it out of mothballs often to reconnect with my prayer partner. Quiet is essential. I can’t hear unless I am listening and I can’t listen unless I am silent. And, I find that God gave us the wonders of nature just so we can find that quiet, that silence. If you have a spare two minutes, try this video…or better yet…go outside and take in the wonders of nature God has given us.
Psalm 145:5 : “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. “
~ A Conversation with Pisha Chen ~
Having come through the “safer-at-home” directives this spring and coming to the summer, it gives many of us an opportunity of solitude and introspection.
Having time on my hands, I pray, meditate and contemplate, and interestingly, it often leads me to memories. During the process, I also learn to appreciate what Somerset Maugham describes, “What makes old age hard to bear is not the failing of one’s faculties, mental and physical, but the burden of one’s memories.”
I think about my father. As a young man who lost his country and home to Chinese Communists, my father came to Taiwan by himself. In retrospect, I am amazed and intrigued by his gracious attitude, persistent and enduring, even after wars, loss, poverty and separation.
I came to States when I was 24. I was blessed to come with James and keep in touch with my family in Taiwan. With letters and phone calls, I was able to consult my father and sometimes, have him reinstate my confidence when I needed it the most.
After my father passed in 2009, I continue to connect with him through memories and imagination. Whenever I need to make an important decision, I pray and then I imagine what my father would do in such a situation.
Therefore, I believe that if we remain faithful, no matter what the world might throw at us, no matter what our own brokenness might uncover, no matter how far we may feel from our love ones and from God, as the body of Christ, nothing Shall Separate Us!
~ A Conversation with Sue Powers ~
This has been a very stressful year for many of us. We moved into a new condo in February. Three days later there was a fire and we lost everything. We had nowhere to live and no clothes, etc. Friends and family came to our aid and asked how we were coping so well. I realized that no one was hurt and we could replace most of the items. Some of the items had come from my father’s home – family pictures and history. These items were hard to lose. We had much to be thankful for. I also had faith that God would help us find a way to move forward. We were able to purchase the last condo available in the area. Four weeks after the fire, Covid 19 hit. I am a nurse and work closely with staff that cared for patients with Covid 19. Many were deployed to work in areas they had not worked in before – ICU and Emergency room. They had to care for patients at the end of their life who were not able to have family with them. A nurse who is older said she should not have been there because of her age but she is a nurse and was called to help others in need. When I listened to caregivers talk I heard how isolated the staff were. Many could not go home as they did not want to infect their family. They stayed in hotels. They were also able to be in their yards and enjoy their peaceful surroundings during the spring months. Nature and faith in God are wonderful ways to help healing. “God will meet all of your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” Philippians 4:19
Most days I talk a walk. I have a route that takes me around a beautiful pond. I hear the birds singing, the wind rustling the leaves in the trees and whispering in the pine trees. I see the frogs, an eagle, and families of ducks and swans. These are all very peaceful signs that God is sending us. As my walk ends I come across a steam of water peacefully running down over rocks and plants. I see a Blue Heron peacefully standing as the water comes down by him over the rocks. Let us believe in the grace and power of God. Let us have faith in Gods power to heal us and be with us.