Review: How Not to Be Afraid by Gareth Higgins

The vision of life has changed for many people over the past year as the world is encompassed by a mass pandemic. This is a good point in time for Higgins book to take center stage. Taking precautions this past year by making sure we wash our hands and wear masks should seem simple. However, some equate that with living in fear and not trusting in God. When caring for others safety is not fear.

How Not To Be Afraid is part memoir bringing the events of Higgins life of growing up in Northern Ireland to light. As he shares his fears of living through times of uncertainty it connects the reader with their own personal fears. Higgins is extremely relatable as he shares his personal stories and connects with opportunities for reflection and healing.

His call to live in relationship and community helps dispel the fear. In his guidance, he turns from memoir to someone walking alongside the reader like a spiritual companion. The notion of the story we tell ourselves is how we live into the fear seems very accurate. To surround ourselves with stories, builds a strong foundation of hope. It provides shelter. Higgins writes, “And a shelter is a kind of story. It’s a blanket we’re weaving that covers us, enveloping us in its warmth and hope. A trustable story shelter is a treasure indeed. And a trustable story shelter has three elements: mentors, calling, and community.” (pg 145)

You may not find connection with each of the seven fears that the author presents, but his stories wrapped around those fears bring them to life. If we are honest with ourselves, I truly think everyone has encountered the fear. He calls the reader into a new way of being and living through that fear. Each chapter concludes with the opportunity for contemplation or practice. Drawing one out of fear and into a new way of living.

This book could be an endless resource and one to return to again and again for your own personal growth or to help others.

Awakened by Your Name

April 4, 2021 Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18

“Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?

Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?

Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,

will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?”

These are the lyrics to the contemporary hymn, The Summons, by John Bell. This hymn was included last week in our Palm Sunday liturgy as I preached on Jesus’ obedience to God’s will and thus our calling to follow in his footsteps to do the same. Isn’t this what Jesus’ entire ministry has been about? It has been an invitation to come and follow him. It is in his final days that the call is much more tumultuous. We have sensed hesitancy among the disciples. They say they won’t deny Jesus, yet they have stepped away and are hidden in the upper room not sure what to do next. It is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus that take Jesus’ body down from the tree and place him in a tomb before the Sabbath begins.

It was in the tomb where they expected to find him once the sabbath was over. The disciples are grieving and numbed by the experience of Jesus’ death. During the sabbath they are secluded. It is Mary Magdalene who makes the first move as the sabbath draws to a close and she wants to go grieve Jesus at the tomb and ensure his body was properly cared for.

Mary quickly notices that the stone is rolled away, and she runs to get Peter and another disciple without looking in the tomb first. I imagine her arriving to speak to Peter out of breath and frantic. Something does not feel quite right, and she wants reassurance from others that she was not imagining it.

The footrace then ensues between Peter and the other disciple to get to the tomb. Everyone sees something different once they arrive. The other disciple looks in the empty tomb first and notices the linen wrapping lying there. Peter proceeds to look and goes in and sees the linen wrapping, as well as the clothe that had been on Jesus’ head neatly rolled up. We are then told the other disciple then stepped in the tomb, saw, and believed. What did he believe? Did he believe Mary’s account of the stone being rolled away? Did he simply believe that Jesus’ body was no longer there? It is not clear whether the reference to him believing is directed toward the resurrection, yet!

Once they leave, Mary steps to look in the tomb and sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body would have been laid. Wait a minute, where were these angels just a few minutes before when Peter and the other disciple were in the tomb? Maybe, they were not open to hearing the truth just yet. Maybe that truth was meant for Mary.

And what an amazing truth it is! And it comes to a woman! When there are arguments still in Christianity whether women should be allowed to preach and teach, in reality it was a woman that heard the truth first and it was a woman who first proclaimed the Good News that Jesus is Risen to the rest of the disciples.

We witness Mary’s compassion and love for Jesus through the author of John’s gospel. She wept and kept weeping for Jesus. She is heartbroken and she is looking for answers. She wants to know what has happened to Jesus’ body. She wants to know where her Lord is now. I like to think that she was going to pray in the garden when she first notices the unrecognizable man. She is still weeping, and she thinks that perhaps this gardener did something with the body.

Then she is awakened! She is awakened to the truth. She is awakened by the calling of her name, “Mary.” There is power and recognition in hearing your name be called.

Think of the times in your life that you have heard your name called. When you were baptized. During your confirmation as you affirm your faith in Christ. During graduation where it marks a great accomplishment. During your wedding when it is combined with your partners and a relationship is blessed. In your death, you will be named boldly and in confidence of entering the kingdom of God.

These are the milestones in your life. Hearing your name makes you feel loved and cared for. However, when you are so desperately looking for something, instead of listening, you can miss Jesus calling you. When you have your eyes glued to your smartphone instead of the world around you, you can easily let Jesus slip by. When you do not take time for the silence and seek God in prayer, it is easy to be caught up in clatter and chaos.

Now, imagine Mary weeping in the garden and encountering this man she does not recognize. She is seeking out Jesus. She is looking and pondering deep within herself where he could have gone. In the simple act of stating her name, “Mary,” Jesus awakens her to a new reality. In this first Easter, Mary is not being drawn to the past. She is being drawn into the future.

It is a reminder for us as we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic, though we have a long way to go. The light we encounter on Easter does not reveal the past. It reveals something new! It is a promised new future that Jesus is guiding us into. It is a future full of hope and the truth of Christ. It is a future where we are called to work together in relationship and learn one another’s name. It is a future that first comes into view in the stone rolled away and continues in hearing our name.

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?” This unspoken invitation, simply in Jesus saying, “Mary,” reverberates through millennia as we continue to tell and share the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ today. It is not in our seeing. It is in our hearing and more importantly, in our listening. We may hear the noise around us, but are we truly listening for Jesus to call our name amid the commotion and confusion? At times, Jesus speaks our name in whispers so soft we must be fully present, and at other times it can be so loud we have to stop and take a deep breathe. This Easter season I invite you to listen for your name. Listen for your name from loved ones and acquaintances.  Listen for Jesus calling you into a new creation. I invite you and encourage you to use other people’s names as often as possible. Hearing our name and speaking the name of others builds a connection and stronger relationship. Today we give thanks for the risen savior, and boldly proclaim him, Jesus Christ the Messiah.

Christ is Risen!

He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

A Living Obedience

March 28, 2021 Palm Sunday

Mark 14:17-36

As Jesus enters Jerusalem to fanfare and shouts of “Hosanna,” I am sure that the disciples still fully did not understand what was about to take place. They were holding out hope that Jesus would be like the conquering Messiah they had imagined. Jesus predicting his death, is not what they were hoping for and it has them on edge and there is hesitation in their footsteps. The parade into Jerusalem seems celebratory. In their minds however, there is apprehension. At this point, they are being obedient to Jesus and follow in his footsteps. Living on this side of the empty tomb, we know how quickly it will change.

It was my prayer, like many others, that as we entered this Holy Week, things would like very different. I prayed that the pandemic would have started to fade away and this Easter season would be a return to the familiar. And yet, here we are. Macomb County has one of the highest infection rates in the country. Part of our obedience to loving one another is in our practices of washing our hands and wearing masks.

It has become practice to blend Palm Sunday and the Passion story. It has become typical to read through the entire Passion narrative each year through the eyes of which ever gospel is our focus for the given year. This year it is Mark and instead of reading the entire narrative, I prayed over the entire text and picked a selection that can speak to us today.

I read from the eleventh chapter of Mark as we began worship on this Palm Sunday. And it is in Jerusalem where we now find Jesus. Sitting down to have a meal and break bread with the disciples. Jesus fully understands what the next 24 hours hold for him. The disciples are busy and caught up in their meal to fully understand this will be the last time they sit back and relax with Jesus. It is in this meal that we find the institution of Holy Communion. It is in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine that Jesus once again points to the saving grace of the actions of the cross.

While Jesus decides to head to the Mount of Olives to pray, he continues teaching. He informs the disciples that they will be scattered by the very action of Christ’s death. In word, they want to stay obedient, with Peter leading the pack. All of them, except Judas who had already left to set into motion his betrayal, agree that they will never deny Jesus. We know that does not hold true and they will sit in disbelief for three days with the thought of what has occurred on the cross.

So, what struck me in this particular scripture selection? Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Being in the Holy Land last January has given me a new perspective. Walking the same paths of Jesus has ingrained the gospel story much deeper within me. Being among centuries old olive trees and seeing a glimpse of what Jesus probably had seen is breathtaking. I actually had to run to catch up with our group when we were at the Mount of Olives because I got caught up in prayer in the church that is now located there.

Listening to Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane reveals a fear and hesitation on his part. Jesus is even questioning the coming events and if the cup can be taken away from him, he would rejoice. In what appears to be his fear, one can fully witness the human Jesus. A humanity that connects with the very creation that he came to be with in his birth. In Jesus’ reluctance, I feel closer to him and also some assurance that when I have to face things reluctantly, I am not alone.

It is in his prayers in Gethsemane that Jesus turns himself over to true obedience. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” While Jesus may be hesitant and perhaps a little reluctant of his impending arrest and crucifixion, he knows God’s will be done. Amid his obedience, he is already sensing the disciples are starting to step away. They cannot even stay awake for him as they wait.

To be obedient means we follow the commands or guidance of someone or something that is in control. One is expected to obey his parents. One is expected to obey the laws that govern a nation. These make for good civil order. At times we can find ourselves in a quandary when the laws enacted conflict with the commandments of our Lord. Who then are we to follow? Jesus teaches us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. If we live out this obedience to God, a love for all creation is manifest.

Francis of Assisi became a living example of obedience. When Francis looked around and found himself surrounded by war and living the life of a soldier, he sensed he was far from his calling. Wandering around the countryside one day, he found himself near the dilapidated Church of St. Damian. He went into the church and heard God speak to him, through a crucifix, saying, “go and repair my house, which, as you see, is completely destroyed.” Francis took this commandment literally and would begin to rebuild the church placing one stone on top of another. Francis followed through obediently. He would move on to a couple more churches and do the same. Francis’ father did not agree on his new endeavors and took him to the bishop. Francis would attend church and was being drawn to the crucified Christ even more. He began to understand “repairing the church” was much more than erecting the walls. It was a greater obedience to God. Francis followed through obediently. It was an obedience to live in the love of Christ and to share the same love with others. It was Francis’ obedience to the Lord that would guide him for the remainder of his life. No matter how foolish he seemed to others at times.

Often, obedience can easily be taken out of context and seen as a foolish or negative trait. It may feel restrictive and put a damper on your personal desires. Yet, obedience is also a call to love one another. It is a call to support and respect all creation throughout time. To be obedient to God is a call to follow God’s will and not our own, as Jesus so rightly prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Throughout the Bible and history we have examples of obedience and following God’s will. Being obedient to God is not always an easy path, and it can lead us to uncomfortable yet essential growth in our faith. Jesus walked obediently through is last days in humility and thankfulness for God’s will being done. As you enter this Holy Week, may you experience the love of Christ through his death on the cross and practice obedience in his word.

Drawn to Jesus

March 21, 2021

John 12:20-33

Who remembers playing telephone when you were younger? You know, the game where you hear a message, and you have to share it with one person at a time to see how accurate the message is at the end. This can be a great icebreaker. It also tests how well we listen and how well we comprehend

On the television show, Ellen’s Game of Games, they have a game that is played like telephone. It is called, Say What? The message is passed through 5 people, so they should have it easy, right? Well, they are wearing headphones with music playing so they must read lips and the message that is relayed from the last person to hear is usually far from the original. While listening to others, we may not have headphones on, but what other things do we allow to distract us?

In John’s gospel it appears we have an early version of the telephone game. We have some Greeks come into the scene right after Jesus enters Jerusalem. It is before his arrest and crucifixion. We have no explanation of why they desire to speak to Jesus and whether Jesus speaks to them. The Greek people most likely come to Philip because he is one of the few disciples with a Greek name. Perhaps they knew him and they figured Philip could be the guy that could get them in to speak with Jesus. However, it is not that simple. Philip brings their message and request to Andrew. Together, Andrew and Philip go to Jesus. It is here that Jesus makes the proclamation that the time has come.

What is it in the desire of the Greek people to speak with Jesus that he makes this proclamation? Jesus speaks of being lifted up from the earth, and when this happens, Jesus will draw all people to himself. Yet, Jesus is already experiencing this. It has occurred throughout his short three years of ministry. From the time of his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist, to his healing and miracles, people are being drawn to Jesus. Crowds appear wherever he goes. Crowds sometimes make it difficult for him to travel. Jesus has even found it hard to step back and take time in prayer by himself.

Even though this has been happening all along, Jesus is expecting even greater things once he is lifted up. Not only lifted up onto the cross, but also lifted up in resurrection and eventually his ascension as he leaves his disciples to proclaim the Good News with their feet on the ground.

The Greeks being drawn to Jesus are a sign of the things to come as Jesus draws all people to himself. It could also be an indicator of the mission of the disciples in the coming years. Now to say someone was Greek, would also signify them as a gentile, or a person of non-Jewish descent. If you recall, it was the Apostle Paul who was specifically called to minister to the gentiles as he traveled over vast territories. Through his disciples, Jesus would continue drawing people to himself. A drawing that continues to happen today.

What does it mean to be drawn to Jesus?

Being drawn to something usually means there is a type of attraction that is taking place. A piece of metal being drawn to a magnet. Plants being drawn to sunlight. When you realized you were going to marry your spouse. Peanut butter being drawn to jelly. Okay, the last example may be an exaggeration.

Being drawn to Jesus reveals a natural attraction that occurs in our hearts as we are created in the image of God. Being drawn to Jesus is like the plant that reaches out for the light or corn in the dry days of summer as it reaches to the air for a drink of water. Jesus wants us to be drawn to himself. It is much easier to be drawn to something than it is to be pulled.

When we are pulled into something, it is not usually a pleasant experience. It can often times be accompanied by kicking and screaming. Of course, we can witness that with children as they are told it is time to leave the park. It can also be just as bad for adults, although the kicking and screaming is usually on the inside. When we have to be pulled, we are not ready for whatever it is we are being pulled to. It may be something negative we are being pulled to by peers that are a negative influence, such as doing something illegal. It could be something we feel ill-prepared for or not qualified for. Many times, we have to be pulled out of our comfort zone into something new.

Sin and brokenness have entered our world when we have to be pulled into relationship with our neighbors because we don’t see them as a child of God, but look instead upon the color of their skin, whom they love, or what their beliefs are. The uptick in Asian-American hate crimes this past year has revealed that sin and shows that words matter. When we look towards those characteristics of a person, it is like putting on headphones and being distracted and not hearing the full message. A message that comes from Jesus when he says he will draw all people to himself.

During the season of Lent, it provides an opportune time to allow oneself to be drawn to Jesus. As we reflect and repent, Jesus waits. Silence can run rampant in this time and is essential if we are to hear Jesus and the calling he has for our lives. Being drawn to Jesus can be an emotional experience as we listen and wait. Being drawn to Jesus invites us into prayer as we welcome that relationship that Jesus longs for. Jesus is not going to pull us along. Jesus waits for us to be drawn to him. A drawing that occurs in our hearts as we allow ourselves to be open to the grace and love of God. The grace and love is always present and we choose to receive it in our own time and when we are ready. Theologian Fredrick Buechner writes, “Who knows how the awareness of God’s love first hits people. Every person has his own tale to tell, including the person who wouldn’t believe in God if you paid him.” Listening to the stories of those that have already reached the destination can be influential and this is most likely what the Greeks wanted to hear from Jesus.

Word of mouth is the best advertisement. And it is free! The Greeks heard about the many things Jesus was doing through word of mouth and they wanted to see him. The request progresses through the disciples before Jesus hears the news. It is an additional sign for him that his work his now complete and he is ready to be glorified. The Greeks that turn to Jesus are an example of how he draws people to himself. It does not matter where your beliefs have rested in the past or your station in life. Jesus draws all people to himself as he encourages his followers to imitate his proclamation and continue to carry out his healing and loving touch to all nations. In Jesus, all of creation is drawn to eternal life.

God Loves All!

March 14, 2021

John 3:14-21

Judgement and condemnation!

I don’t know about you, but as I read beyond the well-known John 3:16 verse, I have more questions than answers. So, God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, ok I understand that. If God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, why are we confronted with the condemned in the very next verse? Past the condemned, we discover a judgement of those that love the darkness. If God so loved the world, why is there judgement and condemnation?

Where does the judgement and condemnation originate? We’ll get to that shortly.

It is easy to rest in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone that believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” As long we believe we are all set, correct? Yes and No! John 3:16 does not say that God loved this tribe or the neighboring tribe. It does not say God loved people in this category but not that category. It says, God loves the world.  All of it! It is a love so deep; it envelops all of creation. There is no end to the love waiting to embrace us as we grow in relationship with the Triune God. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on John 3:16 in his first sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. His words ring true today, “God’s love has breadth. It is a big love; it’s a broad love. . .. God’s love is too big to be wrapped in a particularistic garment. It is too great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God.”

It is important to step back and explore what is happening in the text. We are thrust right into the middle of a conversation when the gospel lesson begins. It is a conversation that begins at the beginning of the chapter. Not only that, but it is a conversation held in the middle of the night so that no one would get the wrong impression. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader in the Temple. Thus, he does not want anyone to see him talking to Jesus, who had just been in the Temple overturning the tables. Nicodemus has seen something in Jesus and wants more information. The teaching ensued by Jesus, is pointing to eternal life and the kingdom of God. Nicodemus does not understand, and Jesus must explain in multiple ways.

Eventually in the conversation, Jesus discusses condemnation and judgement. God did not send Jesus to condemn the world. However, condemnation has already occurred. We do not need Jesus to condemn the world, because we have already condemned ourselves. We condemn ourselves when we separate ourselves from the love of God. Not only do we condemn ourselves, but we also try to condemn others and place judgement upon them.

We judge others when we place labels on them and fail to see and come to know who they are as a beloved child of God. For example,

If he’s quiet, it must mean he is aloof and doesn’t care.

If they cut me off in traffic, they must be a jerk.

If his hands are filthy and his clothes look like they have seen better days, he must be homeless.

If she smiles and laughs a lot, she must be shallow and have a perfect life.

Yet, we do not know their stories. What if we got talking to them and discovered what was happening in their lives? What if we were able to build a relationship with them? We may discover,

He’s quiet because he recently lost both of his parents and is still confronting the grief.

They cut me off in traffic because they just got a call that a loved one had a heart attack and they are rushing to the emergency room.

His hands and clothes are filthy because he had just completed a twelve-hour shift in his construction job and the family washer is broke down.

She smiles and laughs a lot because she is trying to hide the reality of her home life and the painshe endures from broken relationships.

The church itself has not been much better in the past.  I would like to think that the church has grown and become more welcoming in the past decades. However, “over 20 years ago a group of pastors had a conversation about church with four young adults (early 20’s) who were going through alcohol rehab. Every one of these young adults had experienced the church as a place of judgment. They felt the judgment through looks and/or comments that indicated that others didn’t like the length of their hair or the style of clothing they were wearing. Congregations can be very judgmental institutions — which according to this text, is not Jesus’ job — nor should it be ours.”[1]

Once in a small town lived an old blind man. He was blind yet while walking out at night he would carry a lighted lamp with him.

One night while he was out of his house, a group of young travelers saw him. After seeing him they realized that he was blind. The travelers couldn’t understand why a blind person would carry a lighted lamp and started to make fun of him.

One of the travelers was very curious and asked, “You are blind and can’t see anything so why do you carry a lighted lamp with you?”

The blind man replied, “Yes, I am blind and can’t see anything, but I still carry a lighted lamp with me for people like you who can see. If I walk at night without a lamp, one may not be able to see me coming and run into me.”

Now that they knew him, they were struck with remorse for their words and apologized. Seeking forgiveness for words spoken in mockery.

In this season of Lent, we are invited to examine ourselves and the judgement we place on others. We judge people when we think different politically. We judge people when they do or do not have a mask. We judge people by what they wear. We all do it. Yet, Christ calls us to stop. Stop judging those that differ from ourselves. When we disagree, it is an opportunity for conversation, not condemnation. Once we enter into the conversation, we allow ourselves to accept our dialogue partner as a child of God. Once we accept, it opens the door for the very love that is shown to us through Jesus Christ.

God’s love knows no ends. Even when we find ourselves judging and condemning our neighbors, or even ourselves for that matter, God is present and waiting to embrace us in that ceaseless love. It is a love drawing us into a relationship.  It is a love spanning millennia as God spoke order to chaos at the beginning of creation. It is a love poured out and revealed on the cross in the death of Jesus Christ. A love for you, for me, and for all creation.

[1] Brian Stoffregen,

Jesus Restores Life

March 7, 2021

John 2:13-22

How do you feel when you sense that something is not quite right?

Do you question the status quo, or do you become complacent?

For Martin Luther, there would be no complacency. What he witnessed and what he heard the Spirit speaking to him through scripture resulted with him posting the 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. It would quickly bring about conversation among the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and they would ask Luther to recant his words, in which he responded, “Here I Stand, so help me God, I can do no other.”

His writing stirred the elite within the Roman Church from their status quo and he quickly became someone that the German laity and many others would begin to look towards for guidance. The change that Luther sought within the Roman Catholic Church was not welcomed and therefore we would witness a reformation of the Church as everyone knew it in the sixteenth century. As he called for a refocus on scripture, faith, and the grace of God, the Roman Catholic Church was more focused on the structure. For Luther, the question could be, who is serving whom. C. Andrew Doyle in a commentary for this week, notes, “The mission of God in Christ Jesus will always be limited by the time and energy spent on the structure. When the structures serve itself more than the world in God’s name then the structure needs its tables turned.”

It was as if Martin Luther went to Rome and turned the tables over.

Turning toward scripture, it was not unusual to find bustling activity around the temple. This is where people gathered.  Especially during times of festivals, like the Passover, the number of people greatly multiplied as they returned to give sacrifices and thanks. Jesus was not pleased with the activity he witnessed at the Temple. Sure, there were signs of great life as many things were happening all at once, however, it was not the life that Jesus had come to encourage. In one of Jesus’ opening acts in John’s gospel, he is already turning things upside down, literally. In his promise of rebuilding the Temple in three days, or his body as we know he is speaking of, we see new life being fulfilled. In some of these opening words of John’s gospel, we are insiders to a story that has yet to play out. As Jesus refers to his body, we too can trust in God dwelling within us, and that life in our bodies is restored as well.

John chooses to present the story of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple at the beginning of his ministry. This is different from the other three gospel writers as this same action occurs after Jesus has made his appearance in Jerusalem right before his death and ultimately his resurrection. You can imagine there have been arguments over the timeline and who is right and who is wrong. I am not going to answer that for you, because there is not a definitive answer. However, by John placing it where he does, it sets up the rest of his gospel, which is always pointing to the glory of Jesus.  It also gives a moment of time for the disciples to look back on after Jesus’ death and resurrection, fully knowing then what Jesus meant when he would raise the temple after three days. It had finally occurred to them that Jesus meant his body.

The scene that plays out before us in this lesson from John can be a bit unnerving. This is not necessarily the loving and grace filled Christ that comes to our mind. Jesus in this moment reveals an anger at what is happening in the Temple. The purpose and the focus of the Temple has become a scene of a marketplace with profits lining the pockets of those that have set up stalls to benefit as much as possible from those that are making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Passover. This is a Holy Space and when Jesus encounters it running amok with merchants and money changers, it is not surprising that he raises the heat a notch and calls out what he is seeing. Part of the concern here is that the Temple authorities seem to have no problem with what is taking place, perhaps receiving their own cut. Their disbelief in Jesus raising the Temple back up in three days after its destruction reveals where their focus rests.

The Temple has been under construction for 46 years, who could simply raise it up after three days? During those 46 years, look how far they have strayed from the true teaching of God. Their focus in those 46 years have been on the building and they have been pulled away from true worship. They have been distracted from material things that are much less important than God. It appears they are more focused on worshipping the building than they are on the God of their father Abraham. Yes, the purpose of the building is to worship the Lord, but have they allowed it to be turned into an idol that God has warned against in the Ten Commandments. They have allowed it to become diluted by the distractions of the marketplace it has turned into.

This past year has given us ample time to become distracted. As we have stepped outside of the walls of Trinity and had to adjust within this pandemic to do community and church differently, it has been just as easy to step back and say I am going to sit this one out. Yet, we are only as strong as those that are on the periphery looking in, waiting to get back to normal. When we focus too much on the physical aspects on what worship looks like, we become distracted, and our focus on God can become easily diluted. And the thing is, this does not happen just in times of a pandemic. It happens when we look back at the “glory days,” when Sunday School classrooms were full, and we had more butts in the pews. However, the reality is that the church is always in constant change and need of reformation.

When Jesus stepped into the Temple, he would set into motion a movement that has never stopped. It is a movement that is always evolving and changing. We can see that throughout history and it is that much closer for us because we can look towards Martin Luther and the Reformation. If the church is not open to constant reform guided by God’s word, then it might as well bow down to let something else take its place.

Amid, our current situation, where do we go from here? I can guarantee you that church a year from now is not going to look like church did a year ago. We have now entered a new time and space.

Jesus has stepped into the temple to discard the distractions that pull us away from being in right relationship with the Triune God. He has raised himself up as the one to follow. It is the temple of Christ’s body that guides us. We too should look at our own bodies as being of God, as we are created in the image of God. This Lent I have encouraged you to return to the Lord as we heard in Isaiah on Ash Wednesday. Let us leave all the tangibles behind and truly focus on the Lord, our God. We do this in worship, in prayer, in our daily lives. Are you keeping this in mind throughout the day as you make decisions and thinking about how it reflects your life as a follower of Christ? Are you allowing yourself to be drawn into a right relationship with God? Jesus has stepped into the Temple to stir things up, as did Martin Luther did 1500 years later. We are now in a time to continue to see the church reformed and be a part of that transformation.

There is a major difference between Martin Luther and Jesus Christ. One fully knew what he was doing and the other not so much. Sure, Luther had a desire to reform the church as he came to know it, yet I am not sure if he could have guessed where his action on that October evening in 1517 would lead him and his followers into the next century and beyond. Jesus, on the other hand, knew the movement he was starting on the first Passover in Jerusalem spent with his disciples. In driving out the cattle, doves, and money changers from the Temple, he drew people back to the true center of what worship should be. In his promise of the temple of his body being rebuilt in three days, our focus is redirected from the physical to the spiritual. It is here in Jesus Christ, as his disciples will come to fully understand at the resurrection, where the Word of God fully resides. A Word that restores us to new life.

Suffering for Faith

February 28, 2021

Mark 8:31-38

How far are you willing to go for your faith?  

Are you willing to put your life on the line if needed?  

                There are countless stories of martyrdom throughout Christian history, beginning with Stephen in the Book of Acts.   I would like to share a couple stories with you which have assisted shaping the faith of many others.

                Silence, written by Shusaku Endo, and adapted into a movie by the same title by Martin Scorsese, tells the story of Jesuit Priests in seventeenth century Japan as they care for communities of Christians. However, Christianity is not allowed in Japan at the time and they must practice their faith secretly. Fathers Sebastiao Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe are sent to search for another Jesuit priest that had supposedly renounced his faith, Father Cristovao Ferreria. In their searching, Rodrigues and Garupe are both imprisoned and asked to renounce their faith. Garupe stands firm and dies trying to save other professed believers. Rodrigues follows in the line of Ferreria in renouncing his faith after much discernment and saving the lives of many others, yet we eventually find out that he never truly left his faith behind.   

Vibia Perpetua was born in the year 182 in the Roman city of Carthage, which was near the northern coast of Africa. We hear of her story from her own words written in a diary. In conversation with her father, she asks, “Do you see this pitcher lying here? Can this pitcher be called anything other than what it is?” His response of no, leads her to make the proclamation, “Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.” Now, Perpetua recently had a baby, yet this did not stop the Roman guards from taking her and several other believers to the city dungeon. Her and the other prisoners, including Felicity another young mother, are herded into the local amphitheater to face wild animals in celebration of Caesar’s birthday. Perpetua and Felicity would die as martyrs of the Christian faith as they faced off against a wild cow. Perpetua leaves for us, her final written words, “Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended at my sufferings.”[i]

The gospel lesson this week is enough to give Peter whiplash and could leave one questioning his faith.

In the verses preceding the reading for this week, we hear Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. A truth that the disciples were beginning to suspect as they witnessed Jesus performing miracles and healing the sick. It is still not the time for others to know and Jesus instructs them to tell no one, much like he does to those whom he heals and sends on their way. Peter is excited because he is correct.   It is like knowing the correct response in Final Jeopardy!

Jesus’ next proclamation is what brings everything to a standstill. You could say that this is the turning point of Jesus’ ministry and he is no longer teaching in parables but making himself as clear as possible so that the disciples understand what he is talking about. Everything has been going great up to this point as they go from town-to-town healing and listening to Jesus preach. It is now here in Caesarea Philippi, where many different gods have been elevated, in which Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah. Not only that, but Jesus also goes on to tell the disciples what the Messiah will encounter.   Jesus’ teaching the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” has them speechless. It is what provokes Peter into rebuking Jesus and telling him that there is no way this can happen. From Peter proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, to now Peter being rebuked himself, “Get behind me, Satan,” there is no surprise he gets whiplash.  

There is a lot going on here.   And as we have learned about Peter, he is quicker to speak than he is to stop, breath, and think. What is getting in the way of Peter’s understanding?   For one, Peter, and I am assuming the other disciples, thought that Jesus would be with them forever. The idea of a Messiah is one that comes to bring the reign of God and no where does that say anything about suffering. However, Jesus is clear, he must undergo great suffering! As Jesus continues his teaching after rebuking Peter, there is a fear that they too could encounter this same fate that Jesus refers to in his great suffering.

This is the first of Jesus’ three passion predictions in the gospel of Mark, therefore it is going to take a bit for everyone to fully perceive what he is talking about.   They must take a second to catch their breath as Jesus tries to make this revelation as plain as possible for them to understand.   Also, as he tells them, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” has their anxiety ramping up and wondering what they have agreed to in following the Messiah. Yet, all twelve stand firm and continue to follow Jesus.  

Let’s pause to think about Mark for a second as he is writing his gospel after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and what many of those following Jesus were thinking. Mark is writing this in the aftermaths of the destroyed Temple, where others are aware of what has happened and probably also aware of those that have already been martyred for their faith.   Stephen became the first Christian martyr; James, brother of Jesus, was killed roughly ten years after Jesus; and by the time Mark was writing his gospel, most should have known that Peter was killed in Rome in 64. There was truth to the words Jesus spoke to the disciples, and to follow him brought dangers that required being courageous and steadfast in their faith. The suffering that martyrs have embraced throughout time can be unimaginable.

          This martyrdom and suffering are difficult for us to understand a couple of thousand years later. Living in America, probably makes it even more difficult. You have probably never been persecuted for your faith. The freedom that we have in our country allows the participation of open worship and we do not have to hide like those in seventeenth century Japan or other areas around the globe even today. Because of that, it is easy to become complacent and take our freedom for granted and call on our faith only when it may be needed. Many have turned their faith into a thing of convenience and do not rely on the Spirit to guide their life daily.  Suffering for our faith is a foreign concept.  

The apostles knew otherwise. While these words of Jesus took their breath away, they would learn to live his truth that he taught them in Caesarea Philippi. Their cost of discipleship would include denying themselves and taking up their crosses;  a focus on not saving their own lives, but first losing their lives for the sake of the gospel;   and living to see the grace, mercy, and love revealed in Jesus’ crucifixion and not being ashamed by it.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we too can learn to live into the cost of discipleship which draws us closer to the living God. We can be thankful for the freedom of living our faith out loud and not having to hide it or worship in secret places. While our suffering may not mirror that of Jesus’ disciples, and I pray that it does not, there is still suffering that occurs. Living a life of faith and commitment to Christ takes courage and sacrifice. Jesus invited us on this journey in our baptisms. In our times of joy as well as our suffering, we receive the promise that we will not be alone.

         Jesus’ revelation of his own suffering and death has turned the page on the ministry that he and the disciples have been doing. The thought of suffering brings much pause and anxiety to the disciples as they attempt to understand Jesus’ words. When we contemplate suffering in our own time, we too want to turn the other way and take the much easier road. Yet, through stories like Perpetua and other martyrs, the power of faith is revealed. While it is easy to turn the other way, Christ gives us the reassurance that whatever it is we must walk through, we will not be alone. Jesus has shown us a way through our suffering, as he walks straight into his own. Suffering is not a place to rest or give up, but a place to move forward from with the mercy, love, and grace of the Triune God.


The Wilderness Reveals God

February 21, 2021

Mark 1:9-15

                Watching your children grow up is exciting. As you witness them taking their first steps or hearing them speak their first words, you get a sense of joy. The milestones that they reach are signs that they are growing as individual beings. There is also a time of trepidation for many in parenthood. The thought of sending your child to school for the first time can be overwhelming. There are tears. Probably more so for the parents than for the children.

                As parents, we send them with love and a purpose. It may feel like a wilderness much greater than the confines of home or preschool, yet they are sent with a purpose to grow even more. We are continually sending them out to experience something new, both exciting and scary. Sending them out to college is the pinnacle as they are now adults and old enough to navigate their own path, questioning what we have been doing the past eighteen years was enough to prepare them for this new wilderness. So, we send them with our blessing. A blessing to encounter a new wilderness to grow more and report back what they find and ask for help when needed.

                The wilderness is not a new concept in scripture as we get a glimpse of Jesus and his preparation for ministry. Another word for this wilderness is desert. In our current understanding, we image a wilderness as a place with trees and many animals and a desert as more desolate and barren. The wilderness and the desert in Jesus’ time were interchangeable. The land where Jesus spent his forty days was mostly desert in our understanding, yet also had areas of tress and vegetation.

                The image of the wilderness harkens back to the Israelites as they wandered the wilderness for forty years with Moses guiding them. The Israelites did not step as willingly into the wilderness as Jesus. They were constantly complaining to Moses and even crafted their own golden calf to worship because they thought Moses had abandoned them. Moses and Elijah, whom we encountered last week during the Transfiguration, also spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and in prayer. In his forty days, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. Elijah, praying for guidance from the Lord on how to lead the people of Israel fasted for forty days seeking wisdom.

                Mark leaves it up to our imagination as to what Jesus did in the wilderness during those forty days. All we are told is that he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him. For some reason, I do not think room service was an option. Thankfully, we learn a little more from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel as Jesus undergoes multiple temptations by Satan.

                Mark has welcomed us into his whirlwind introduction to Jesus’ life. First, he appears on the scene with John the Baptist at the Jordan. In these seven verses we hear today, we learn of Jesus’ identity, the time of reflection in the wilderness, followed by the task he is called to do in proclaiming the good news of God.

                Jesus hears his identity declared in his baptism as God calls him his beloved Son. As the reader we get the inside scoop, while the disciples that begin to follow have to wait a little longer to fully comprehend what is happening. The wilderness is the time of reflection as Jesus spends forty days in prayer and fasting. In this time, he prepares himself for the next three years of his ministry of preaching, healing, and traveling with his disciples throughout the countryside and villages. In that time of prayer and fasting, I am guessing it was revealed to him what his task would be. In that reflection and preparation, I believe he also grew in his knowledge of his true calling as the Son of God.  

                The wilderness provides the space we need to pray, fast, and reflect on who it is God is calling us to be. There were an early group of mystics known as the Desert  Mothers and Fathers that chose to live a life of self-reflection in the wilderness. I could here the following story come from their wisdom:

A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
“Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?”
“Two words.”
“And what are they, please?”
“Right choices.”
The seeker was fascinated. “How does one learn to choose rightly?”
“One word.”
“One word! May I have it, please?” the seeker asked.
The seeker was thrilled. “How does one grow?”
“Two words.”
“What are they, pray tell?”
“Wrong choices.”[i]

While I don’t believe Jesus made any wrong choices, the earlier prophets sure did. Moses and Elijah in their forty days in the wilderness were given the opportunity for reflection and to hear a direction from the Spirit to help them guide the Israelites in that time and place. The time of testing and temptation drew them closer to God. Jesus too was drawn into a conversation with God during his forty days in the wilderness.

While we have been in a wilderness for nearly a year now, it is easy to slip into a mode where we find ourselves complaining more than giving thanks. For those that want to reach a certain goal, this time has proven hard to measure success in the usual way. This time has also given us the notion that we have to do everything on our own. Personally, I am learning that it is okay to ask for help. We need to be willing to try new things. We need to be willing to make wrong choices so that we can grow.

We can be thankful that it has not been forty years of wandering around the wilderness like Moses and the Israelites after they departed Egypt. Amid this pandemic, we can still be thankful for many things in our lives and the people that we have been able to stay in contact with. We can even be thankful for social media at this time as it has created a valuable avenue for us to stay connected.

At times, it feels that we have been sent out to the wilderness much like Jesus was by the Spirit following his baptism. Jesus’ shows little reluctance to welcome the temptations and struggles that lie ahead. While, on the other hand, we have seen a myriad of reactions to our pandemic. For those that are introverted, they have loved the opportunity for staying away from people, while others have entered this time kicking and screaming. As we care for our friends and neighbors, we have learned to make sacrifices and are learning to live into new expectations.

                While the Spirit sends Jesus out into the wilderness, he is not alone and is accompanied by the wild beast and has the presence of angels. Sending our children out into the wilderness is daunting, yet we have faith that they will be surrounded by others encountering this new wilderness for the first time. In those encounters, we trust that they will not be alone. We are reminded that we are not alone as we enter our own wildernesses. We too have those that accompany us, like the wild beasts, and we have friends and neighbors reaching out with love. We can also trust that as we have been sent into this wilderness, there is something to learn here. It is an opportunity for growth, both personally, and in relationship with God.

                Being sent out into the unknown can be an overwhelming event. The realization that life is now going to be different, brings a longing for the life that once was, even if the new life is grounded more squarely. Jesus models for us what it means to step peacefully into the unknown and embrace the place you find yourself in. The vastness of the wilderness gives caution while also providing nearly endless possibilities for growth. While we may pause before sending our loved ones out into the wilderness, through the reassurance of Jesus we are reminded that we are not alone. The wilderness can be a place of grand possibilities. The wilderness reveals God.

[i] Brian Stoffregen.

Review: The Tea Shop by Karl Forehand

An unexpected surprise from a tea shop in Taiwain.

Deep down, aren’t we all looking for something that is much greater than us? Karl Forehand may have been searching for something, but did not expect to find it in a tea shop in Taiwan. All he wanted to do was purchase some souvenirs to bring home. When all is said and done, “Sometimes the best adventures are the ones that are unscripted.” (57)

Forehand introduces the reader to the people that join him on this journey and allows the reader to feel as though they are sitting in the tea shop alongside him. Meeting the man with no name, ushered Forehand into new ways of thinking and being in this world. Learning to see God in all things and in the unexpected takes a vulnerability and freedom of releasing oneself into the hands of God. This can be difficult to do when we expect something totally different than what God is offering.

Many of the chapters can be read like a journal entry as the author is rethinking some of those things that he had previously thought. As a pastor myself, reading from someone that used to be a pastor, resonates with my being as some of his thoughts reverberate in my own mind. As he shares some of his own revelations, it brings a sense of joy. The relationships built within this powerful interaction was a revelation itself of God in the world. The willingness to step into the unknown frees us for so much more. Forehand reflects, “I am coming to understand that the stepping into the unknown is not only valuable, but necessary. Most of the time I travel down well-worn paths of familiarity. I want safe adventure , but safe adventures are a contradiction in terms.” (122)

The adventure within this short book is one worthy of taking and you will not be disappointed. The adventure that it contains fulfills some of our need for travel in a time of COVID and is an invitation for our own self reflection.

*Thank you to Mike Morrell and Speakeasy for providing this book for review.

Return to the Lord

February 17, 2021 Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6. 16-21, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

                Have you ever found yourself in a situation you regret?

                Have you ever wished that you could change the outcome of a recent event in your life?

                Returning to the scene of the crime, if you want to call it that, is difficult. To admit we were wrong takes courage and some self-revelation. Yet, there is one person we can count on if we hope to be forgiven and loved unabashedly. Through Jesus Christ, God has revealed a forgiveness and love that flows out to all creation. The Prophet Joel’s call to the Israelites is a call that still is vital to us today:

Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing. 2:12-13

Returning to the Lord and entering right relationship with God is the reason Jesus preached a message of hope.

I do not know about you, but as I contemplated on our gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday, I felt a sense of burden come over me. Within Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he seems to be rattling off a to-do list which seems a bit overwhelming. These are things that we should do in regular practice because of our faith, yet Jesus seems to be putting restrictions in place. Especially on Ash Wednesday, during a normal year when we would take ashes and mark the sign of a cross on our foreheads. How can we practice our piety and not be seen by others when we have a smudge of ash on our foreheads?

                At many times, scripture seems to be a mystery as we want to fully understand it and at the same time we are not meant to fully understand. Actor Martin Sheen when being interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being said this about mystery: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”

                God invites us into the mystery this Ash Wednesday through our reflection on the scripture. Within that mystery is a call to relationship. The Prophet Joel heard this message long before Jesus came to be born to Mary. His call was to share the same message that Jesus is now sharing with his disciples during the Sermon on the Mount. It is a call to return to the Lord. In practicing your piety, do not to do it in the hope that other people are going to see it and be jealous or think what you are doing is better than what your next-door neighbor is doing. When giving to the church, do not flaunt it. God is grateful for your gifts to the church but does not wish for you to flaunt it in another person’s face. The amount you give does not equate to faithfulness.

                Fasting is a wonderful practice in living out your faith. Lent is a time that fasting becomes more apparent for Christians, but do not do it just to make yourself look good or one-up your next-door neighbor. Lastly Jesus asks us not to horde our wealth in places that will be consumed easily by moth or rust. When we go back to the dust, those riches are not going to mean anything to us. When we put our treasure where our heart is, we will truly come to know God.

                This is what Jesus is attempting to drive home. All these practices are great in and of themselves. If your reason for doing them is to lift yourself up for glory, then you are doing them all for the wrong reason.  On the other side of the spectrum, we could choose not to do anything at all. Thinking that we are not worthy of the love that God has promised to all of creation. If we are not worthy of God’s love, then we can choose to walk away and become distracted by the next best thing that will pull us away from God. We then find ourselves in brokenness and sin.

                God knows that humanity is broken and thus the reason for Jesus to come and walk with us as a human. Jesus gets to experience the many things that we experience, and he grows into right relationship with everyone he encounters. We are all invited to encounter Jesus in one form or another and build upon a life-long relationship.

                The gospel lesson and the lesson from the prophet Joel can be closely intertwined as Joel calls for fasting in the hopes of establishing and maintaining a right relationship with the Lord. From the beginning of creation, God’s desire has been to be in relationship with all people. All we have to do is read the Hebrew scriptures and our history books to learn that we are broken and have failed to live into that relationship. As a society, we have failed to love our neighbors and have even failed to love ourselves. The Prophet Joel’s call to return to the Lord is a chance for the Israelites to turn around and repent as they fast and encounter the living God in their midst.

                Jesus’ call to the disciples and everyone that is listening to his teaching is one of leaving your ego behind. It is not about you. It is what is done in the sight of the Lord. Our desire to be in relationship with Jesus and ultimately our neighbors is the return that God is hoping for. Are we living with a hardened heart, or are we allowing our heart to be open to a loving God? Thomas Merton, in one of his prayers, writes, “I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you.” In this desire, God welcomes us with open arms and a big embrace because God’s love knows no bounds.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and a time for us to take inventory. An inventory of our own being and lives in Christ. Are we listening to Jesus when we make decisions? Are we listening to Jesus’ call to repent of our words and actions that lead us away from God? Are we grateful for the love of God that pours out of scripture through a prophet like Joel and the gospels? Are you ready to return to the Lord this Lent? For God is gracious and merciful. For returning to the Lord reveals a love unbound.