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Category Archives: Faith and Family

A Summer Day With Jesus: Early in the Morning

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The view from our dock “on the pond” in Maine

(a sermon for June 19, 2016, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost; first of a series, based on Mark 1:35-39)

It might well be one of the most profoundly spiritual places I’ve ever known.

And the thing is, it’s nothing special!  It’s just the wooden dock that sits on the lake shoreline down at the end of a long set of stairs in front of our camp in Maine.  It’s gotten pretty old over the years and always in need of some kind of repair; it’s not nearly long enough or wide enough, and can tend to be kind of, shall we say, “eee-awwey;” and don’t even get me started on what it takes it get it in and out of the water every year!

And yet, as I think back over the years, that dock has always seemed to be the place where great things happen.  I learned to swim in very spot, and years later, so did my own children.  It’s the place where friendships were nurtured, and where I had a front row seat for approaching thunderstorms and summer meteor showers!  Lisa and I planned our future together (!) while sitting down on that dock; and I can’t even begin to tell you the number of family gatherings where that dock has been the central point of fun, laughter and a fair amount of chaos!  But even more than this, I’ve realized that it’s also been a place where each one of of us in our family has gone for moments of quiet reflection.  Friends, I am not by any stretch of the imagination a “morning person,”  but I have to tell you sooner or later every summer I’m compelled to rise up in the “wee hours” so that I might go down to the dock and, in the midst of that early morning silence, watch the sun rise over the eastern shore of the lake.  And it’s been in those times alone with God that I’ve rejoiced, that I’ve cried, that I’ve worked out many of the uncertainties of life that have come my way; and sometimes, in the utter confusion of it all, I’ve simply looked heavenward and asked, “Why?”

It’s just a dock… “the wharf” as we used to call it, but for me it has truly been that place of quiet revelation; the place to learn and often to be reminded time and time again of who and whose I am.  It’s the kind of place where I have to imagine “a summer day with Jesus” would most certainly begin.

And so we read in our text for this morning: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” 

There’s a writer and biblical commentator by the name of Thom Schuman who says that “like a mystery novel, scripture sometimes gives [us] a clue” as to who Jesus is and how he “is able to do the things he does.”  Well, in that single verse – which, not coincidentally, comes pretty much at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel – we find out everything we need to know about how a day spent with Jesus would begin.

Look at different translations of scripture and you’ll find it named in a variety of ways: “a solitary place,” which is how the old King James Version describes it, “a lonesome spot,” or simply “a place where [Jesus] could be alone.” Or, if you want to get literal, the Greek word used is eremos, which gets translated as “desert,” but which in scriptural parlance, is often a word used to represent “a place of revelation.”  That’s in fact where we get to the heart of the matter:  that this was the place and the time where Jesus found the strength and the courage to follow God’s will and not his own; to speak God’s words and not his own; to do God’s work and not his own.

Understand that this is more than mere platitude; put that verse from Mark about Jesus going to a solitary place in the context of what comes before and after, and you begin to realize just how important that time “away” was for Jesus!  As Mark tells the story, the day just previous had been demanding, to say the least, and the new one promised to be just the same. The news about Jesus was now spreading quickly throughout the region of Galilee; people were hearing the authority by which Jesus taught the scriptures; they’d seen him cast out demons, and saw evidence of his healing power.  And so now, of course, everyone’s seeking him out!  All the day before, and well into the night there were people quite literally pressing in upon Jesus with all their problems and all their diseases.  They wanted to be healed, yes; but they also wanted to talk to this man Jesus and to hear what he had to say; they needed to find out for themselves if this glimmer of hope was real and if what they’d heard about him was true!

So many people… so many problems… so much need… so many demands on his time and energy and spirit; how could Jesus possibly help them all?  Where would he get the strength that he needed to keep up the pace; to fulfill his mission?

It is no accident that, right in the midst of that kind of chaos, Mark makes a point of telling us that “in the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  These, you see, were the moments of spiritual intimacy that took place between Jesus and his heavenly Father; they were moments essential to the day and the work that was ahead; and they were the times when Jesus was reminded of who… and whose he was.

Which begs the question:  if Jesus, who was the very son of God, knew that he could not live in the world or face the challenges before him without God’s presence and strength; then why would we ever assume it could be any different for you and me?

The truth of the matter is that for all the times I remember “going to the dock” for that important time away, there are far more times in my life when the regular daily cycle of words and action and moving and busy-ness ends up a higher priority.  Unless I miss my guess, I suspect that many of us here can say the same thing; and the hard truth of it, friends, is that this happens at our peril!

Henri Nouwen once wrote that seeking out the “lonely places” is, in fact, essential to our very lives.  “Somewhere, we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger,” he said.  “Somewhere we know that without silence, words lose their meaning; that without listening, speaking no longer heals; that without distance, closeness cannot cure.  Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures.  The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community form the basis of the Christian life and should therefore be the subject of our most personal attention.”

Indeed; how often do you and I become so preoccupied with the minutiae of daily life that we’ve ended up neglect the source and strength of that life; running ourselves ragged, day in and day out, because we’ve somehow failed to acknowledge or embrace the very reasons we were running in the first place!

Let me tell you friends, for every one of us here, it is a question worth asking! It is so very easy to let our spiritual tank run empty, so to speak, and that has a way of negatively affecting everything else in our lives.  Maybe, for instance, you’re sitting in these pews this morning and realizing that this worship service is the first chance you’ve had to sit down all week!  Maybe you’ve asking yourself why you’re so tired all the time and why the things that used to get you “jazzed” just don’t seem to hold as much meaning anymore.  And maybe, even as you’re thinking that life could not possibly get any busier than it is right now, there are still tons of things out there you need to get to!  Maybe at one time you were one of those people who used to get up every day and proclaim, “Good morning, Lord!” but now, all you can muster is “Good Lord, it’s morning!”

Well, if that’s the case, I would suggest to you that you are in dire need of “a lonely place” of quiet revelation; an opportunity for renewal of our very relationship with God; and a time to be refreshed by his very presence.  It’s there that we begin to get a handle on that what is truly important; to learn when to hold on tightly but also when to let go lightly; to find the strength and vigor to do what really needs to be done and to wholly embrace God’s gifts for accomplishing the task.  To lead the kind of meaningful and purposeful lives we all want to live; to, as the old poem puts it, to “go placidly amid the noise and haste;” this begins with that essential time of solitude and prayer.

I love what Cynthia Hale has written about prayer; she says that “prayer is coming to God.  Prayer is seeking God.  Prayer is the appeal of the soul to God.  Prayer is standing before God as ‘an empty pitcher before a full fountain.’ Prayer is connecting with God who is the power source…. [but] not to pray is to be guilty of the incredible folly of ignoring the possibility of adding God to our limited resources.”  I love that; and isn’t it true how so many of us, including myself from time to time, have been guilty of that “incredible folly” of not connecting with our God in prayer.

Friends, for that relationship with God to be strong, for that connection to real, we need those regular and purposeful moments “very early in the morning” to actually be with God.  Now maybe for us non “morning people,” that time is in the evening, or perhaps a few moments taken in the midst of a busy day.  Perhaps it’ll happen on a lakeshore, or while walking on the beach; maybe sitting out on the deck with birds singing in the trees above you; or else in some quiet corner of your home:  maybe you’ll be like the woman I heard about a few years back who was so focused on having a place for prayer, she literally went into her broom closet with all the dust mops and canned goods because that was the only quiet place in her house she could find to be alone and pray!

Wherever that “solitary place” happens to be, the point is that we go… and that we purposefully spend the time with God; and not simply speaking to God, either; but also and especially listening to God’s voice in the silence, and discerning what it is that God might be saying to you!

In spending this summer day with Jesus, it is likely it’ll be a busy one.  There will be stories and teachings of the good news of God’s redeeming love; there will be acts of healing and renewal; and more wonders to see and experience than we can even begin to imagine.  It’ll be joyous, it’ll be challenging, and it’ll be full… and that’s why, as Jesus himself knew, it’ll need to begin… and end… with prayer!   And why would we not?  With so much stress in our lives; with so many questions before us as we seek to make our way in this world with integrity and peace, why would we ever presume to move forward without having the presence and guidance of the only one who really knows us and loves us as we are, where we are?

My prayer for all of us as this summer season begins in earnest is that we do seize those opportunities to go into the quiet and be with the Lord… to turn off the cel phones for once; ditch the iPads and iPods and fling Facebook for a bit!  And, for then, as the Psalmist wisely advised, “Be still and know that I am God.”  I pray for each of us, as we spend these summer days with Jesus, that might truly be refreshed, refueled and renewed by his presence… and then sent forth by his power and his Spirit.

And in every one of these moments, may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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“For As Often As You Eat This Bread…”

communion 2016a(a sermon for June 5, 2016, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-32)

Early on in our marriage, my wife Lisa and I made the decision that when we had children, we were not going to have them baptized… that is, we weren’t going to have them baptized as infants!

This was out of respect for the Baptist tradition in which Lisa was raised – where it is understood that baptism ought to happen when those children are old enough to able to know and to profess, on their own, a faith in Jesus Christ – and also understanding that this is also a stance affirmed in our own United Church of Christ tradition (and in fact, the way I was baptized as well!).  So we opted instead to have our children “dedicated to God,” which in many ways is the same kind of service; in that we celebrated God’s bringing those children into the world and our lives, and Lisa and I, as parents, were charged with raising each of those kids in a Christian manner.  But for them to actually decide to take on the Christian faith as their own and to be baptized would be their decision “in their time” when they were old enough and ready to make such a confession.

Now, for the boys this was fine; both of them were content to wait and be baptized around the time of their confirmation, Jake in the church where he’d grown up, and Zach by full immersion (!) in the waters of Pleasant Lake.  Sarah, on the other hand, was a different story; she actually started asking to be baptized around the age of three, and quite frankly, never let up from that moment on!

At first, we chalked this up to the fact that she’d seen so many other little children baptized in the church where her father was the pastor that she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t able to have that, too!  But soon we realized it was more than that; and as much as her parents tried to explain to her that she needed to be older, that when she learned and understood a little about God and Jesus and baptism, then we could talk, Sarah would not be dissuaded.  And so, finally, at the age of nine, Lisa and I agreed that she was ready to make this decision (!); and she was baptized alongside of her brother Jake.

But lest I ever thought that the celebration of this wonderful sacrament would signal a pause in any discussions of faith in our house – I’ll never forget it – barely a day had passed when my daughter snuggled up to me on the couch and said, “Daddy, I have a question… now that I’m baptized, does that mean I can take communion now?”

I should have known that was coming, because Lisa and I always took the same point of view regarding children and communion as we did baptism: that when they’re old enough to understand something about the meaning of communion, then they can certainly participate!  But all these years later I must confess that I wonder a bit about that; because wouldn’t you agree that in many ways it’s a stretch for any of us to say we fully understand “the meaning of communion?”  Truly, it’s amazing how something as simple as a small meal of bread and wine becomes layered with so many levels of meaning, laden with so much symbolism and theological interpretation that it ends up bigger than most of us can begin to comprehend for ourselves, much less express to others (especially to a nine-year-old!).

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that we don’t know what communion is:  any of us who have put any time into Christian worship understand that it’s a remembrance – a reenactment, really – of  Jesus’ last supper with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion.  We know that it’s a tradition of Christian worship that dates back to the earliest days of the church; and that what we do here together on the first Sunday of every month is at Christ’s invitation and in Christ’s presence.

But beyond that… well, simply to put some explanation of it into words is a challenge!  Poets, preachers and theologians, they try, of course: they speak of communion as the touching and handling of things unseen, of grasping with firmer hand eternal grace; they regard this meal of carefully cut bread cubes and tiny glasses of juice as the representation of a heavenly banquet spread for you and for me.  When we talk of “the meaning of communion,” we tell of a “holy mystery,” in which the Spirit of Christ our Lord is not only with us in this sanctuary or at the table elegantly set before us, but also present in the bread and wine, which are the very symbols of his body and his blood that we bless in his name. And then, with the meal set before us, we take, eat and drink; we talk of a shared act of worship that, in Jesus’ own words, assures us that we will always remain in him and he in us.  As Christians, we proclaim that receiving Sacrament of Holy Communion is a means of grace: through this shared celebration, Christ comes to us, ministers to us, and assures us above all that we are not alone.

Such a thing looms very large in our hearts and minds, and it’s no wonder that we in the church spend so much time seeking to discern what it all means and why it matters so deeply.  For instance, I remember reading years ago (and I don’t know who decides these things) that there are some fifty “official” and proper ways of administering the Sacrament of Holy Communion: from the passing of trays of bread and wine from one to another, to communion shared by intinction where the bread is dipped into the cup (as we do during our services at Havenwood, and also here on Maundy Thursday); and so many other types of liturgy besides. The styles of worship vary widely from church to church, and tradition to tradition: and it all basically all comes down to the deep desire we have that this Eucharist, this deep and holy communion we’re to have with the Lord and one another be done right, and be done well!  After all, if there’s 50 proper ways of doing communion, who knows how many wrong ways there are of doing it?  Like someone holding a dinner party for an honored guest, we wouldn’t want to inadvertently dishonor that guest, especially when that guest is the Lord himself!

That’s the problem, you see, with our trying to wholly grasp the meaning and the practice of communion; because so much of what we’re trying to figure out about this “Lord’s Supper” ends up distracting us from what has drawn us to the table in the first place!  But the good news is that we are not the first to struggle with this, and that there is a simple way to approach this table of grace.

Our scripture reading this morning comes from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, a group of Christians dealing with (or more accurately, not dealing with) a great many divisions among their people.  Apparently these divisions were reflected in how the Lord’s Supper was being celebrated; for some, sharing the bread and wine had become little more than an excuse for eating and drinking to excess, and moreover, excluding others from the meal by virtue of their own gluttony!  For all their talk of faith in Jesus Christ, there was precious little consideration for the meaning of the sacrament, and even less acknowledgement of the Lord’s presence in the midst of it: this was just a party with food and wine!

So Paul comes down rather hard in his condemnation of this behavior:  “What should I say to you?” he asks.  “Should I commend you?  In this matter, I do not commend you… [for] whoever… eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”

Have you all forgotten, he asks them.  Don’t you remember what this meal is all about?  “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’”   You do this in remembrance of me!  You do this because Jesus did it first; you do this because it represents what Jesus did for us, which was to give his life as a ransom for ours so that we might know life abundant and eternal!  It’s not something to be taken lightly, or done casually or as an afterthought amidst everything else; likewise, it’s not to be considered some sort of technical or liturgical requirement of faith. You do it as a way to remember Jesus: who he is and what he’s done for you.  And you do it because “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

A friend of mine from years ago used to tell the story of how one of his professors taught him the “meaning of communion” by handing to him and everyone else in the class a “buckeye,” which, if you’re not from Ohio, you might not know happens to be the large brown seed that comes from a horse chestnut tree.  And as all the students wondered what buckeyes could possibly have do with communion, the professor reached into his own pocket and pulled out a buckeye of his own; or at least a small, brown, shriveled-up version of one.

The professor explained that he’d been carrying that particular buckeye since 1942.  It had been given to him by his son who was going off to fight the Second World War, and he explained that his son had told him to put it in his pocket and keep it there until he came home.  That way, the professor said, “each time I reached in my pocket I would always remember him.  Well,” he went on, “I have been carrying that buckeye in my pocket [ever since], and I am still waiting…” waiting for that time someday when I will see my son again.  But for now, “each time that I reach in my pocket I remember my son.”

Friends, when we take away all the theological discourse and debate over how, when, where and how often, in the end our sharing communion in this place is simply about waiting and remembering. Every time we, as a family of faith, gather around this table to share in the bread and the cup we are remembering our Lord Jesus, and proclaiming to ourselves, each other and the world that we are waiting for our Lord to return: as we say every time we come to this table, we proclaim the mystery and wonder of our faith: that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.” But there’s a miracle in that waiting, friends; and it’s in the discovery – a divine reminder – that in the sharing of this holy meal, Christ is in fact with us as we wait for that time to come!

I dare say it’s a reminder we all need.

If you’re like me, I’m sure that there have been moments when you’ve been caught dreaming while waiting for the light to change: maybe you’re listening to a song on the radio; perhaps you’re lost in thought or in the midst of a conversation (and hopefully NOT texting or playing on your phone!); but suddenly the light’s turned green and immediately horns are blaring at you to get moving!

Well, think of that as a parable for our spiritual life; so often are times and situations in our lives when we find ourselves distracted and pulled away from who we are, what we believe and how we live as persons of faith!  It’s all too easy, even in the midst of our life together as the church, to let ourselves become somehow isolated from the core of our faith.  That’s why it’s so for us to have this incredible meal set here before us; because in the simple sharing of a little piece of bread and small swallow of juice, there is the sound of a trumpet awakening us from the daydreams of daily life unto to the way, truth and life of Jesus Christ; and of who we are as God’s own children: the recipients of salvation and renewal at the hands of a crucified and risen Lord, and the people of a sure and certain promise of a kingdom anchored in eternity and blossoming even now in our very midst.

Let’s remember today, friends!  Let’s remember Christ who has died for us and who gives us life!  Let’s remember the new life that is ours as his disciples!  Let us remember and, in his love and mercy, break bread, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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The Lessons We Share

10471158_814195258599841_7719467859240146499_nIn what I suppose could easily be described as a pastor’s version of a “busman’s holiday,” while on my recent summer vacation I was asked if I might step in and lead a graveside memorial service at the cemetery in my home town.  In the interest of full disclosure (and proper pastoral ethics), I should add here that I wouldn’t have ordinarily been asked to do this; but as it happened, the family’s pastor had concluded her ministry at their church just a few days before and had already left the state; the funeral director, a long-time friend and neighbor on the lake, was in dire need of clergy and knew I was available (!); and, as it turned out, this service would include a great many people from that town and congregation where I grew up, some of whom I hadn’t seen in well over 30 years.

So how could I say “no” to that?

It ended up a rather moving experience for me, as before and after the service I was greeted with smiles and tears by old friends who, each in their own way, were instrumental in the nurturing of my Christian faith as a youth, as well as in the discernment and cultivation of my own call to ministry:  the Sunday School teacher who brought scripture to life by coming to our classroom dressed as biblical figures; the Deacon and “Deaconess” (as they were known then!) who recommended that I be granted “in-care” status (as that used to be known) by the Aroostook Association of the United Church of Christ; the woman with whom I once sang in the choir and who, as a UCC lay minister in her own right, in my early years of ministry became a valued colleague in many a wedding, funeral and worship service; and so many others – old neighbors, former classmates and family friends – people who opened up a floodgate of memories for me; and who, whether they knew it or not, shared a great many lessons of life, faith and ministry that I still carry with me all these many years later.

This past week at East Church was “Homecoming Sunday,” which traditionally marks the beginning of a new year of Sunday School; and so, much of our service on Sunday was purposefully and joyfully “child friendly.”  Our opening hymn was “It Is Good,” an epic children’s song about God’s Creation with a chorus that will, I promise you, stay in your head forever (!); and the Children’s Message for the day had to do with “imitating God” in all things, and featured truly horrendous animal imitations on the part of this pastor (the highlight was when one of the kids asked me, “How do you even keep a straight face when you do that?”). Afterward, the children met with their teachers, and together they developed a classroom covenant in which they promised, among other things, to “treat other people how they’d like to be treated.”  There were stories, games and even an after-church pizza luncheon with the whole church family.

And all through the day there was laughter, and love, and above all, faith shared and nurtured.

As of late there has been much written on the so-called “blogosphere” and elsewhere about Christian Education and Children’s Ministry in this current age; the gist of these articles being that the traditional model of Sunday School is long since outmoded.  These articles inevitably speak of how much the world, culture and the family dynamic has changed over the last 25 years (which is true); how stressed-out and time-poor today’s average family has become (also true); how churches need to minister to families as they are today, not how they were (or at least how we perceived them to be) years ago when Sunday School classrooms were usually filled to overflowing (sadly, yes).

Granted, these ministries have fallen on hard times in our churches; but the answer is not, as some have opined, that we simply let go of the idea of Sunday School altogether.  On the contrary; it seems to me that now is the time for broadening our understanding of Christian Education; for churches to embrace the idea that to truly nurture the faith of the next generation of believers requires a holistic approach; in which we welcome our children, youth and seeking adults into the whole life and experience of the church: a ministry that certainly includes Sunday School, yes; but also involves worship and fellowship as an experience that involves the whole congregation, that includes shared mission and outreach as a caring community, and which ever and always emphasizes the mutual care and support that comes in being part of a family of faith.

More simply stated, the lessons we’ve learned as Christians and as the church are the very lessons we need to teach to our children. Sometimes those lessons do come in the form of goofball songs, bible stories and arts and crafts that happen in an hour on a Sunday morning; it might happen in a moment of prayer and reflection at a worship service; or else it’ll be found in the warm smile and loving embrace of the person sitting next to at the pot-luck dinner.  But make no mistake, these will be the lessons that our kids will remember, and which will take root in their hearts as they grow in faith…

…and years later, whether they know it or not, these will be lessons they will share with their own children.

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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