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Resolutions

(a meditation for December 31, 2017, the First Sunday after Christmas and New Year’s Eve, based on Ephesians 3:14-21)

“I’ve made my New Year’s resolution this year.” Or so said the man on the radio as I was driving down the road one day about this time of year; and he went on to say, “And it’s the same one I make every year: not to make any New Year’s resolutions!”

Now that’s noble, I remember thinking.  What better way to avoid not keeping a resolution for the coming year than not to make one in the first place!   Kind of misses the whole point of the thing, but even then I had to admit I did understand his thinking!  I mean, how many of us have made all these grand commitments to self-improvement on January 1st only to find our firm resolve slipping away long before the month has passed!  At least this way you’re guaranteed success; because if you promise nothing then you’re responsible to nothing!

Of course, if you think about it for very long you discover that idea doesn’t really hold water, either.  The truth is that we’re all responsible to something or someone: our families, our friends, the people with whom and for whom we labor; and certainly, as Christians, we’re responsible to God!   Bottom line is that we have obligations of one sort or another that extend to just about every facet of our lives; and every decision we make on a day to day basis (even something as seemingly but deceptively simple as how we eat or exercise) ends up saying something not only about ourselves and our own lives, but also about how we value and relate to those around us.  So we can avoid making resolutions; but the responsibilities and the relationships that inspired those resolutions will always be there!

So what are we to do about this resolution conundrum, especially today as we literally come to the brink of a brand new year?   Maybe the answer comes in changing how we think of this idea of making resolutions.  Rather than making promises we’re not at all sure we can or that we’re even willing (!) to keep, maybe on this last day of 2017 we should be seizing the opportunity for honest assessment of where we actually are in our lives, so that we might make a “mid-course correction” for the journey that awaits us in 2018.  In other words, we need to ask ourselves, how did it go last year, anyway?  Were there things we should have done differently?  How far off track did we find ourselves wandering from where we wanted to be and where we are right now; and how do we keep that from happening in the year to come?  Because it’s one thing, friends, for us to make a list of resolutions for a new year; but it’s quite another to be purposeful in finding ways that’ll make those resolutions a reality in our lives.

I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot as of late; and perhaps it’s because it’s been such a tumultuous year in the world around us that we’ve felt a bit “blown off course,” so to speak, or maybe it’s because even as I’m getting older, I feel like I’m heading in a direction that inevitably becomes busier and busier (which is not really the direction I was expecting to go!), but it seems to me that this kind of “mid-course correction” would be most appropriate for any of us as enter into a new year!  In fact, as I’ve been thinking on this I realize I’ve come up with three “resolutions” that might just help in getting us “back on course,” not only in the walk of life but the walk of faith as well.  So in lieu of a real sermon today, I’d like to take a couple moments to share those resolutions with you.

The first resolution I want to make for 2018 is to GIVE MORE.   You know, not only in having had not one, but two hip replacements this past year and my wife Lisa having to deal with surgeries and illness of her own, but also in walking with many of you in the challenges, struggles and unwelcome transitions of life, I was reminded once again of the truth that there is so much in this life that is completely out of our control.  Though we might, in our weaker moments, fear otherwise,  I’m here to remind  us all of the truth that none of what happens to us is contingent on how “good” or “bad” we are; the bottom line, folks, is, as Christ himself said, it rains on the just and the unjust.  But… by the same token there is no way that any of us could possibly earn or be deserving of the blessings of love, joy and insight we’ve received at the hand of God and in the care of God’s people; as much as we may try, there is no way we can even begin to live up to what we’ve been given in such abundance.  In the end, all any of us really can do is to try to live our lives faithfully in the midst of all of its myriad joys and struggles.

So be it resolve that we give more of ourselves to God’s movement and purpose as life, with all its unpredictability, unfolds before us; to be more “in the moment” where faith is concerned; to be intentional in recognizing that in every happenstance and casual conversation God’s Spirit might well be moving and we would best pay attention!  Also, we need to listen better and talk a whole lot less; and to be more aware of the opportunities that will arise to show God’s love and care in what we say and in what we do. Let us resolve in 2018 to give more of ourselves to God.

The second resolution I want to make is sort of the flip side of this; for not only do I resolve to give more, I also resolve to COMPLAIN LESS.  That’s right… I said it!  Actually, I’m reminded here of the old joke you’ve probably heard me tell:  how many Congregationals does it take to change a light bulb?   And the answer is, CHANGE?   We can’t change that light bulb?  My grandfather gave that light bulb?  And besides, the old light bulb was just fine… we don’t need any new light bulbs in this church!

That’s a joke that applies in more ways than one!  I’ll make a confession here and now; sometimes change comes hard for me.  In the words of Paul Simon, “I seem to lean on old familiar ways.”   I like what’s comfortable and easy, and I don’t always want to see things move away from that; but you see, the problem with that kind of thinking is that life does not always flow in a way that’s comfortable and easy!  Life is always moving, always changing, always shifting, always creating a new landscape and offering up new challenges.   And truly, that’s now it should be; for that’s how the living God moves and works for the good.  Life is change, and in the end, we have a choice:  we can either be reluctant about change and grouse about it to the extent that we’ll miss its excitement and joy, or we can resolve to trust God’s leading us through the changes of our lives, and view it as the next good step of the adventure that the Lord is setting before us.  So be it resolved that we quit complaining about all the changes going on and… and let God lead us forward.  Let us rejoice that God is alive and moving, and has something wonderful in store for us as this new year unfolds!

And in that regard, finally, the third resolution I would make this year would be to PRAISE GOD ALWAYS.  There’s an old saying – I think it might have been C.S. Lewis who said it, I’m not sure – that “none are so unholy as those whose hands are cauterized with holy things; sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job.”   That quote has always hit close to home for me, because even as a minister, it’s very easy to lose sight of what it is I’m supposed to be doing; easy to become so consumed with the work of ministry that I get momentarily misplace, shall we say, my ultimate calling, which is to love and serve Jesus Christ our Lord as a pastor, as a husband and father, and as a man with all-too-human and occasionally quirky tendencies!

And unless I miss my guess, most of you can probably say the same thing!  Let me just say this outright:  in this year to come, we cannot let ourselves become so busy, so overwhelmed with all the minutiae of our lives that we I forget to praise God, and to do so with our words, our deeds and our very lives!  No matter what it is we say or do; no matter whether we succeed or fail in it; no matter how much we give of ourselves or how much less we complain about it, in all things the Lord needs to be acknowledged, or else it means… nothing.  Without praise and thanksgiving unto God, it’s just a job; it’s just a chore; it’s just another day.

So be it resolved that we praise God always; and in all ways!  At this time of the year more than any other, you and I must never forget that we are children of light, and that light needs to illumine everything we set out to do or to be as persons, as a people and might I add, most especially as the church.   Actually this resolution ends up the key to fulfilling the other two; for as you and I praise God with our whole hearts in the year ahead we will be moved to give more and what’s more, to complain less as we do; in the process we’ll discovering the true wisdom of life and living:  which is, as we’ve heard proclaimed this morning, “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

I really can’t think of what would make for a happier or more blessed new year… but I dare say it begins with our resolve to make it happen!

So let us pray for each other in making and keeping these resolutions and others as well, as we embark on the next part of our shared journey of life and faith.

Happy New Year, dear friends; and may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Angels Round About the Manger

(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2017, based on Luke 2:1-20)

The late Ann Weems, that wonderful Presbyterian poet and worship leader once wrote this little piece that has kept coming to my mind in this Advent and Christmas season:

“Wouldn’t it be grand to be an angel,” she wrote, “and have as your address ‘The Realms of the Glory of God’?  And swing on rainbows, and gather stars in your pockets, winging in and out of earth in a flurry of moondust with the messages of God?  Comforting the distressed, warning the righteous, delivering the just, [and] guarding little children?”

Now there you go!  Now isn’t that the perfect image of a Christmas angel?  Granted, it is a bit childlike in its description; but I don’t know about you, but I’m realizing that so much of how I think about the story of the first Christmas and those who were a part of it comes down to how I envisioned it when I was child!  For instance, I remember when I was very little having a picture book (it might well have been the “Little Golden Book” edition of The Littlest Angel, I’m not sure, because one of the angels in the story had a slingshot sticking out of his robe, which even then I thought was very impressive!); and I remember this one drawing in the book of all the angels in heaven gathering together to sing their alleluias to the newborn king.  And here they were, all the cherubim and seraphim singing and dancing, and holding; jumping and leaping from cloud to cloud and over one another leap frog style!  Basically what it was was the multitude of the heavenly host transformed into an elementary school playground!  Just a childhood fantasy, I know, but the thing is that image has always stuck with me even as an adult.  And by the way, why wouldn’t that wonderful moment of annunciation be filled with such ethereal joy and singing, and might I add, such a whole lot of fun as well?

That’s how I wanted to see it, anyway!

However… when you read the story from scripture,  what’s the first thing the angels say?  It’s “Do not be afraid!”   And understand, they say this not just on the hillside with the shepherds, but also in the moment when the angel comes to tell Mary that God had chosen her to bear the Christ child, and also when the angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him that this child of Mary’s was of the Holy Spirit; it’s always the same thing:  “Do not be afraid,” as though the angels’ presence had not inspired joy and celebration as much as fear and dread!

And that’s an interesting thing to think about!  For instance, it’s hard to imagine how these shepherds, who by virtue of their profession and their very nature had to have been quite tough and rough around the edges, could have been afraid of anything; and yet we’re told specifically that they were “terrified,” or in the language of the old King James translation, “sore afraid.” Perhaps the angels’ presence was so mysterious and overpowering that they might well have fled or panicked; maybe the bright radiance that suddenly cut through the night was such that for a time they were both blinded and bewildered by what was happening; or perhaps they sensed that this was a sign of some judgment, and like criminals who fear getting caught in the act, they suddenly felt the need to hide from sight!  Whatever the reason, there was fear in their hearts; for what was immediately clear, to the shepherds, as it had been to Mary and Joseph before them, was that this was no less than an appearance from a messenger of God!

So the first words of the angel needed to be one of assurance, to keep them from running away, something to help them to open their ears and their hearts to what God wanted to tell them; this amazing good news of a great joy which was for all the people, “born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord;” a baby, of all things, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger!   And then, as if to emphasize the the greatness of this news, there was a multitude of angels singing their praises to God, saying “Glory to God in the highest!” And as that was happening, something even more incredible than the angels’ singing began to take place: the shepherds’ fear was gone, and in its place there was wonder, and joy, and the power of God’s intervening love for his people!

And when it was all over and the angels had returned to heaven, remember that the shepherds did not take the time to think about how scared they had been, nor to reflect on what had happened to them.  No… the shepherds went, and with haste, “to see this thing which [had] happened,” that the Lord had made known to them.  Fear was gone, replaced by need to see the child and tell the good news to everyone, everywhere!

The truth is, of course, that like the shepherds, you and I are scared too.   If we’re honest, then we know that fear is all-too-much a part of our daily lives; fear over a great many things in life and death: the kind of fear that holds us back, the fear that keeps us from giving of ourselves, the fear that keeps us from loving others and offering forgiveness.  Indeed, fear paralyzes us, imprisons us and often haunts us.  But here’s the good news; just as the angels appeared to shepherds on that holy night, we too are given that truly blessed assurance that we do not have to fear.  For you see, that loving, forgiving and redeeming presence of God is always with us in the person of Jesus Christ born in the manger of Bethlehem!  He’s there with us and for us, waiting to erase our guilt, to replace our shame with joy, and to warm our hearts so that we might truly love our neighbors as ourselves and to do our own part bring peace on earth.  The glory of God that is Christmas is  always that God comes, and intervenes, and in the face of fear truly gives us tidings of comfort and joy!

Yes, beloved, the angels who were round about the manger on that holy night long ago are still with us today, telling us the good news of God’s love and urging us on this night to faith; faith in a God who loves us and walks with us in whatever we face in life, giving us the assurance of his peace that the world can neither give nor take away.

So watch the skies tonight, dear friends; keep your eyes cast toward the stars, and listen for the songs of heaven playing even now in your heart.  Have no fear; do not be afraid, for on this holy night divine, Christ is born in Bethlehem and good news is ours!

Thanks be to God for that perfect love that casts out fear . . .

And may God bless you on this Christmas night.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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Out Beyond the Big Rock

“The Big Rock,” just off to the right…

Beneath the waters just offshore of our summer home in Maine lies a rather sizeable boulder, placed there (or so I presume) by glacial movement eons ago and which remains as a prominent feature of an already rocky lakebed.  But given its large flat surface and the fact that it is also perched just so at the “dropoff” to deeper water, for at least a couple of generations of children in our family it’s always been “The Big Rock,” a great place to play and a natural boundary between swimming in relative safety and “going out over your head.”

I remember well as kids how we’d always use the Big Rock as our own underwater diving platform; as this was the one place where, if we dared, we could push out to swim out beyond where our toes could touch the bottom.  Of course, when we were very young and still depending on something akin to a “doggie paddle,” it was more than enough to keep our feet firmly planted on that stone precipice.  After all, venturing out that far from shore was hard, not to mention potentially dangerous; much better, we reasoned, to experience the beauty and wonder of the lake from a safe distance! On the other hand, however (and we all figured this out pretty quick), there were a whole lot of fun, exciting and even important things awaiting us if only we’d take the risk and simply learn to swim!

Fast forward a “goodly” number of years but still headed “uptacamp” every summer, this year I found myself looking out at the Big Rock with gratitude for the countless dreams and adventures that it had inspired in me over the years; glad that whatever fears or doubt I might have had at the time, eventually I’d made the decision to be bold enough to dive into those deeper waters…

…which, come to think of it, isn’t all that bad of a parable about what it means to live a life of faith.

All through what’s been, to say the very least, a very tumultuous summer we’ve nonetheless been given some wonderful glimpses of what can happen when people of faith dare to go out beyond their own safe places into the deeper water. I stand in admiration, for instance, of my clergy colleagues and the committed laity who bravely linked arms to stare down white supremacists in Charlottesville to show that love and equality are more than simply words.  Or consider the willingness of church people across the nation and beyond to gather up resources and immediately go and join the ranks of “first responders” in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, or to leave home and family so to travel to Mexico to assist in recovery efforts following the tragic earthquakes there. This kind of faith-inspired outreach requires courage and more than a little boldness, and yet it’s clear that such an effort yields a harvest of love and mercy that our world sorely needs about now.

Even back in our own little corner of Christianity here on Mountain Road, again and again I’ve witnessed the same kind of boldness in the ways our people are living out their calling as disciples and as the Church.  It’s so interesting – and very gratifying to me as pastor – that whether the concern is one of stewardship, mission and outreach or simply doing what it takes to be a truly welcoming and inclusive congregation, hardly a week goes by around here without someone coming up with some new and creative way for us to be about the work of Jesus Christ in our life together. As a result, wonderful things happen; in the process challenging us to boldly move beyond the false assumptions that we’re too small, too old, too budget-crunched, or too set in our ways (!) to ever accomplish great things – or at least to accomplish small things in a great way – for the sake of God’s kingdom. And it’s all because someone, in faith, decided that it’s better to go deeper than to cling to the safety of shallow waters.

I’m actually reminded here of the words to a Vacation Bible School song from some years ago (for those who remember those VBS days, this one was from the year of “S.C.U.B.A.” which, by the way, stands for “Super Cool Underwater Bible Adventure!”): “I wanna go deep; I wanna obey;I wanna love God more every day.  (“I Wanna Go Deep” by Carol Smith)  Back then, it served as a tuneful reminder to our kids that when we trust God and love God, life becomes an adventure filled with many opportunities for bringing joy to others.  But the kicker, so to speak, and the part I always remember, came in the middle verse: “Faith’s not supposed to be ankle deep! Ready to swim? It’s time to leap! I’m not wadin’ in… instead, I want to be in over my head!”

It seems to me that this is one message that’s as applicable to us grown-ups as it is our children!  Now more than ever, in fact; as I have been fond of saying to the congregation as of late, in times like these – where tragedy, violence and division have become sadly commonplace – the first and best thing the church can do is to truly be the church.  But for that to become our reality requires from each of us the readiness to leap out from all of “the Big Rocks” of our lives, so to swim out over our heads into the deeper waters.

For the sake of the world in which we live, as well for the realm to come, may God grant each one of us the courage to take the risk.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 
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