Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is depicted in art and referenced in our culture in many ways. Apart from Jesus, perhaps only Abraham rivals the name recognition of Paul (Saul’s Greek name) when people think of the Bible. And yet to move Paul from his cruel rampage of persecution to the saint who established the church across Asia Minor, Paul had to be knocked to the ground and blinded for three days before he could even recognize that he was in the wrong.
There is another man in this story—a humble follower of Jesus and one of the people Paul was headed to Damascus to arrest. His name was Ananias. It would take Paul over twenty more years to reach the spiritual maturity that Ananias had the day God told him to go find the man who had come to arrest him. Learn about Ananias and what he has to teach us in Sunday’s sermon.
The sanctuary is still covered in butterflies.
For some that’s a sign of an Easter that never was; gathering dust just like our spiritual lives as we claw through these difficult times.
But I see them as the promise of an Easter yet to come; a transformation that’s happening within us now, even though the isolation of our cocoon makes it hard to see.
This next month we’ll focus on that cocooning time of transformation—the struggles, the letting go, and the basics of spiritual growth. The high point will be at our outdoor service on November 1st—the Blessing of the Saints.
At that service we’ll remember the saints of our own lives—the ones who’ve shown us the way to faith, the beautiful butterflies who pushed their way through life’s hardships to model spiritual maturity, compassion, and grace.
That Sunday will also be the culmination of our annual pledge campaign. You’ll get a letter and pledge card in the mail soon and we’ll ask you to send or bring it back on November 1st.
But this year we’re adding a twist.
As we remember the saints on November 1st, we’ll invite you to present your financial pledge to Crawford in honor or memory of someone whose life showed you the fullness of faith. We’ll print your dedications in the Messenger and on the website.
Just as each of us has been transformed by God through the saints in our own lives, so God will transform Crawford through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.
Here in our cocoon, the wings we never knew we had are taking shape. Soon we will fly. The butterflies in the sanctuary are keeping watch over sacred space until we join them.
Jesus changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee is Jesus’ first miracle. He only does it because his mother pushes him, and John’s Gospel is the only place that tells about it. Since some traditions (with biblical support) believe John’s mother was Mary’s sister, it could be that extended family were at the wedding, giving John a unique memory from before he was formally called to be a disciple. But I do wonder what Jesus’ may have done growing up that made Mary so sure he could solve the bridal couple’s wine problem.
But all those questions and more, including the question of whether the account as the Bible tells it is factually true, are beside the point if we want to get to the core truth that the story is trying to tell us. For that, we need to pay attention to the fact that John doesn’t call this a “miracle.” John calls it a “sign.” What did the act of turning water into wine signify? What is John trying to tell us about the purpose of Jesus’ ministry? That’s what we’ll be looking at in Sunday’s sermon. Hope to see you there!
Lots of things in the Bible are confusing or open to many interpretations. But one thing that is crystal clear is the thing that should be crystal clear: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus himself is asked that question and his answer is simple: Love. Love God and your neighbor as yourself. The man asking tries to make it more complicated: “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus is having none of it and tells an uncomfortable parable about a Samaritan to drive the point home.
Paul also makes us uncomfortable if we can read 1 Corinthians 13 without thinking of weddings or funerals. Paul begins that chapter by telling us if we don’t love, all our religious language and grand sacrifices are like a noisy gong. And then he ends with the surprising statement that when comparing the value of faith, hope, and love that the greatest of the three is love.
According to Paul, love is greater than faith. Let that sink in. It’s another way of saying what Jesus said when answering the question of how to inherit eternal life. The answer wasn’t to profess faith but to practice love. We’ll be looking at both those passages on Sunday: 1 Corinthians 13 and Luke 10: 25-37. Join us live on Zoom or catch up later on YouTube.
Traumatic events like the pandemic we’re living through have a way of focusing us on the big questions of life. In normal times they come up, too, but they’re much easier to push away or ignore when we aren’t facing our own mortality quite so directly every single day. Who are we? Why are we here? Who is God—if there is a God at all?
The Bible doesn’t answer that last question. For the people of the Bible, the existence of God was a given. But in the context of that belief, the Bible jumps right in to the other questions that so frequently keep us awake or send us to therapy when we get close to them. Who am I? Is there something I should be doing? Does my life have a larger purpose? Does our life together have meaning or is it just every person for themselves?
The Creation story in Genesis 1 taught us who we are and who God is in relation to the world. But it is the Creation story in Genesis 2 that expands to tell us not just who we are, but why we are—what our purpose is as a human species. It also gives us the very first instance of God calling something “not good.”
On Sunday, come for the nerdy Bible word analyses, stay for the purpose of the human race, and go away with a divine mandate to take a nap while God finds you some help. See you then!
Can This Bible Verse Be Saved?
In last week’s sermon we did a deep dive into Genesis 1 and came to recognize that the “formless void” described in the first verse might be dark and chaotic but is also a place filled with hope and opportunity. All things that every have been or ever will be begin there. When we find ourselves feeling like our lives are like that formless void, we should expect that the Spirit of God is hovering somewhere nearby, getting ready to create something new and beautiful beyond our imagining.
But in that sermon, I also threw a flag at Genesis 1:28, which gives the newly-minted humans “dominion” over all God has made and tells them to “subdue” the earth. In hindsight, this verse looks like a very poor management decision on God’s part. Many, many people working to save endangered species, find sustainable energy solutions, and otherwise work to help the planet read that verse and want nothing more to do with the Bible and sometimes toss out Christian faith entirely. It seems to justify the very spoiling of the earth they are working to prevent.
But what if there were another way to read that verse? Might a different interpretation lead to different behavior? The old Ladies’ Home Journal magazine had a column called “Can this marriage be saved?” This week’s sermon is that kind of effort, only for Bible verses. Can Genesis 1:28 be saved? You’ll have a chance in Sunday’s sermon to try.
I love the book of Genesis. The stories are ancient and rich with wisdom, passed on orally for thousands of years before anyone decided to capture their beauty in writing. While I don’t take these stories literally, I do take them as carefully-crafted reflections of how the ancient Israelites thought about the world and the God in whom they placed their trust. That’s important because it is that worldview and that depiction of the nature of God, humans, and the relationship between them that formed Jesus and, by extension, us.
If you don’t get caught up in taking them literally, the stories of Genesis ring with hope and faith, not to mention a pretty accurate picture of human nature in all of our heroism and folly. So, we’re going to spend a few weeks with the oldest of these stories—the narratives of Creation and the world’s first family. We won’t be looking for facts; we’ll be looking for Truth—the wisdom they share about the ways we are connected to one another, the way God uses power, and what it means to be made in that divine image.
So join me this Sunday for a deep dive into Genesis 1, my favorite Bible word, and the story of what happened when the parsonage air conditioner tripped a circuit breaker.
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.