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Elie Wiesel’s short novel A Beggar in Jerusalem tells the story of a group of beggars who gather in the evening at the Wailing Wall to tell stories. They share tales of love, pain, joy, and sorrow. One night they relate stories of what they did during the recently won Six Day War. “I drove a tank.” “I flew a fighter jet.” “I was a medic on the front lines.” Their contributions were significant. The last beggar said, “I prayed.”
I read this book over 30 years ago. Since I donated my copy to the rummage sale awhile back, I can’t quote this episode exactly. I am going on memory. What struck me in this episode was the reaction of the beggars to what the last beggar said. I expected them to dismiss his contribution or at least minimize it. Just the opposite, they praised him and thanked him profusely. His gift was critically important. Prayer mattered greatly.
If you were at our 11 am Easter service or worshiping online, you saw unplanned activity in the front pews on the ramp side. Gary Collins had passed out. We later learned it was a severe reaction to dehydration. He had a kidney removed in December due to a cancer diagnosis. Gary had not drunk sufficient liquid. Thankfully this was soon diagnosed and treated. Gary was able to go home by the afternoon. He is drinking lots of liquid. 155 ounces on Tuesday!
The reaction of the people at worship was amazingly wonderful. Several nurses and doctors rushed to attend to Gary. Our ushers and greeters remained calm, called the emergency squad, and directed it on its arrival. Our video team directed attention away from Gary. Our musicians provided improvised meditative music while the squad ministered efficiently and discretely. Our congregation prayed. It was a great moment when Gary gave a “thumbs up” as he was wheeled out and the trumpet played, “All Hail the Power.” It was appropriate not only for Easter but also for what we had experienced.
I join with Gary and his family in gratitude for the quick response of the medical professionals in the church and prayers that surrounded him. In the midst of my worry, I was privileged to be in a position to see the pieces of care come together. I could see what each person contributed. I was deeply moved by it all. I was proud of our church. What did you do during the emergency? “I called the squad.” “I took Gary’s pulse.” “I made him comfortable.” “I prayed.” Each contribution mattered greatly.
We came together on Easter as beggars looking for the new life of the risen Christ. It found us. We can identify many Biblical responses to the resurrection of Jesus. One is the creation of a community of mutual care. People are drawn together in love by God’s love. That is what happened this Easter at King Avenue. Christ is Risen! We made the most of it.
Be safe and well.
I have included some photographs of life this week around the church. Work has begun on the stained glass windows, the trees in front of the rental property are in bloom, and our grandson Arlo Bean Schraibman was born today.
This coming Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. The gospel text is always an account in Matthew, Mark, or Luke of the transfiguration of Jesus. This year the text is Mark 9:2-9. To refresh our memories briefly, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John goes up a mountain. While Jesus is praying, he is transfigured (transformed); his clothes become dazzling white, and Elijah and Moses appear and talk with him. A cloud overshadows them and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” The three disciples are terrified by all this – as would we. Then the cloud evaporates, and Moses and Elijah disappear. Things return to normal. As I summarize the story, I realize how extraordinary it is, and how much it begs for clarification.
The story is appropriately placed before the beginning of Lent when we mark Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross. His transfiguration, his appearing in glory, is a foretaste of his resurrection. It must be greatly reassuring for him to know how things will end. The vision of Easter will sustain him in his suffering.
One more puzzling part of the story is what is called “the messianic secret.” “As they (Jesus and the three disciples) were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Why should the disciples not share this wonderful experience with everyone? Wouldn’t it attract followers to Jesus? Why keep it a secret that Jesus is God’s beloved Son?
Here’s my thinking on the secret. When Susan and I watch a movie, it is not uncommon for one of us to fall asleep soon after it starts. As it ends, the one who slept will ask the one who stayed awake what happened. The story will be summarized in a few words, “They got married.” Both of us know the ending, but only one of us fully experienced the movie. It is the one who didn’t skip to the end; it is the one was with it from beginning to end.
Recall the classic movie An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Yes, it ends with them re-united, but we need the first two hours of encounter, courtship, romance, separation, tragedy, rejection, suffering, rehabilitation, discovery, and forgiveness to give meaning to the ending. It is the experience of the story that draws us into the ending. To skip the story and go directly to the ending is to lessen the impact of the ending and its influence on us. I doubt that the person who watches only the last five minutes will be moved to tears as will be the one who watched the whole movie. We need the story, the whole story.
The point of the messianic secret is to ensure that we experience the whole story. If we skip to the end, the resurrection; we tell the secret ending. But we miss the story. We miss the encounters, confrontations, failure, rejection, debates, lessons, betrayals, foregiveness, healings, love, desertion, and death. It is the experience of the story that gives the ending its meaning and impact. It is the story that draws us in. It is true that both the person who skips the story and the person who follows entire story know the ending. It is, however, the latter who understands fully what is going on and has integrated it into their life.
I see the messianic secret as a Spoiler Alert. Had the disciples told the secret, people would have been tempted not to follow and experience Jesus. There would have been no need to be in relationship with Jesus. If they knew the answer, why work on the solution? If the student finds the answer in the back of the book, he doesn’t need to learn the subject. Knowing the ending can be a way of not learning the subject. In the case of Jesus, it is a way to avoid discipleship. When one avoids discipleship, one misses the joy of resurrection. It is the following that integrates Jesus and the resurrection into one’s life.
Lent is the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross which ends in the resurrection. We know how the story ends. Yet Lent is our time experience the whole story. Lent is a good time to re-read the story in one of the gospels. We know how they end, but we need the whole story.
Be safe and well.
This past Tuesday night our Administrative Council voted on whether or not to continue escrowing our apportionments to the district, conference, and general church. The decision to escrow apportionments was made in March of 2019, in response to the General Conference decision to prohibit same sex marriages in the church, prohibit and penalize UM pastors who celebrated such marriages, and to prohibit the ordination of LGBT persons. King Avenue saw itself as misaligned with the denomination. The escrowed money would remain in a fund and not be used for any other purpose. Every three months the Ad Council would review this decision. At the same time our Staff Parish Relations Committee created a subcommittee – ACTS - to monitor developments in the General Church and to explore our future options for affiliation. You may find the work of ACTS on the church website, kingave.org, under General Conference response.
While I supported the decision to escrow, it has caused me much worry and many restless nights. I have wrestled with numerous internal debates, “on the one hand… on the other hand.” On the one hand, apportionments support worthwhile ministries; on the other hand, the denomination is treating almost half of our congregation as second class and not worthwhile. On the one hand, I vowed at my ordination to obey the Discipline of the Church; on the other hand, the Church was preventing me from being in full pastoral ministry to our congregation and fulfilling a dimension of my vows. On the one hand, apportionments are one expression of our connection to the larger Church; on the other hand, the denomination had chosen not to be connected to our members. I could go on. I alternated between anger, hurt, sadness, and disappointment. A statement had to be made. One of our membership vows is “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” To escrow apportionments was the resistance expected of a member of the United Methodist Church.
General Conference was to meet in May of 2020, to reconsider the mistake of the 2019 General Conference. A Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation was proposed that created a path for full inclusion of LGBT persons; hope was high. Of course, the pandemic caused the postponement of General Conference until this fall. The effect is that the Church is, unfortunately, still under the exclusionary legislation of 2019. In October of 2020, Ad Council asked ACTS to contact Bishop Palmer for evidence of progress toward inclusion. The bishop’s response is encouraging. Among the highlights are the plans to start two intentionally reconciling new churches; his work on the Protocol itself; the work of conference staff nationally and globally to influence inclusion; the use of a Lily grant to work with congregations for diversity training for inclusion of LGBTQI+ persons; the cabinet’s decision not to pursue charges and trials; the appointment of gay pastors; and the bishop’s commitment that, if the protocol is passed, he will work for the conference to be fully inclusive.
Based on this evidence ACTS made its recommendation to Ad Council Tuesday night. I shall give only the conclusion. Please read the recommendation in its entirety by clicking here. The reasons for the decision are well stated. In summary, it was decided that King Avenue hold in escrow 24 months of apportionments and then begin paying its apportionments in full. Since we have been escrowing since March of 2019, we shall begin paying apportionments in March of this year.
I want to address the ministry of the members of ACTS and Administrative Council. In I Corinthians, Paul lists administrators as members of the body of Christ. We tend not to think of administration as a spiritual gift. “It is just committee work. It is not like preaching, prophecy, or evangelism.” But I came away from these meetings with a different feeling, a feeling that I had had a spiritual experience. God can work through committees! I called their work a ministry, and it was. We wrestled some; I am sure not everyone got what they wanted. The members were treated with respect. They were listened to; they were heard. Responses were calm and thoughtful. There was true dialog. There was a strong sense of working together for the good of our church. There was unity. Unity is not unanimity. Unanimity is usually achieved through silencing or driving away opposing voices. Unity is taking all voices seriously. By so doing unity takes people seriously. Unity is not sameness or same thinking; it honors diversity. A witness a church can make at this time is to model unity.
As I said at the beginning of this musing, I have had many restless nights. I was wrestling alone. Thank God for the body of Christ. What a blessing. It is a gift of God to edify us. We are not alone not only because God is with us, but also because we are members of the body of Christ. Tuesday night I slept well.
Be safe and well.
PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 1.8.2021
This musing is truly a musing in that I am thinking out loud. These are ideas with which I have been wrestling since Wednesday’s events in Washington. I believe most of us have struggled to make sense of them and wondered how we go forward as a people.
I watched the events unfold with an increasingly sinking feeling. I shall not describe what all of us saw. I felt that our country was bottoming out. On Thursday I spoke with one of our members about what we saw and our feelings. He hoped that our country will soon get over its political addictions. He didn’t think healing could happen until we acknowledge these addictions. I had not thought of it in those terms; however, my “bottoming out” language is close to the AA step of admitting addiction had made life unmanageable. To bottom out is a wakeup call that we need healing. It is very difficult to deny. In this sense bottoming out can be the first step to wholeness. That is hopeful.
Our addictions may go either way depending which cable news station we watch. There is not much middle ground. The addiction to either adoration or loathing of a candidate, a party, a president fills the time, thoughts, and energy of almost everyone. Sometimes the addictions to adoration and loathing occur simultaneously in the same group. These addictions meet a need to love and/or hate that one cannot live without. And as with any addiction, it can destroy our lives. We saw this addiction of adoration and loathing on display Wednesday.
To understand addiction, I pulled out my notes from a class Rick Gilson and I taught on Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. We tend to think of addiction in terms substance abuse, material things, grievances, and control, to name a few. Our addictions come to define us. Rohr writes, “Stinking thinking” is the universal addiction. Substance addictions like alcohol and drugs are merely the most visible form of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially, our patterned way of thinking, or how we process our reality. The very fact we have to say this shows how much we are blinded inside of it. By definition, you can never see or handle what you are addicted to.” (page xxiii). For Rohr addictions point to a deeper need. Rohr goes on to say that this universal addiction to our own pattern of thinking is dualistic.
This description of addiction fits neatly with our current climate. We are so locked into our thought patterns, systems, and reality that we cannot understand how anyone can think otherwise. The dualistic thinking clearly divides us. We talk past each other. Actually, we don’t even talk to each other. As our country moves forward, our leaders talk of the need for healing and recovery. How does that happen?
On occasion the Keeny children have been frustrated with my seeing things in spiritual terms. “Oh, Dad, God is not always the answer”, or “Not every hero is a Christ figure.” Maybe I am speaking only from my experience; but if our lives are not filled with one thing, they will be filled with something else. If they are not filled with the things of the Spirit, they will be filled with addictions. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so our lives abhor a spiritual vacuum. Luke 11:24-26 is a great parable of this.
If we are not filled with the Spirit, we shall be addicted to stinking thinking. Where I am going with this is an opinion that our country engage in the 12 steps for the healing of our country. Although all the steps must be followed in humility, I won’t go through them here. I shall, however, highlight step 11. “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood [God], praying only for knowledge of [God’s] will for us and the power to carry that out.” Prayer moves us out of the idolatry of dualistic thinking. It moves us out of our world and into God’s. We get out of our thinking and think our way into God’s world. As we improve our conscious contact with God, we improve our contact with God’s world. This is prayer that does not reflect our hatreds and prejudices. It is prayer that humbly reflects God’s loves, reconciliation, and peacemaking. It seeks God’s world.
Prayer, the placing of our lives in God’s hands, the thinking our way into God’s world, is where the healing of the addiction starts. It is where our hope begins.
Be safe and well.
PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 1.1.2021
“Keep Christ in Christmas” We see the signs every year. I did again this year. I also received a text to buy a coffee mug that expressed the desire to “Make Christmas Great Again.” I am not fully sure what the intention of the latter was, but the former is a plea that Christmas be less commercial. It is the hope that we remember the reason for the season.
I don’t have any argument with wanting to keep Christ in Christmas. I do, however, propose that we also Don’t Keep Christ in Christmas. What I mean is that we do not keep Christ only in Christmas. We should not treat Christmas as Christ’s prison in which he is confined. We need to let him out of Christmas.
If we keep him in Christmas, he is trapped as a baby in a manger thousands of years ago in a foreign land. What good is that? He needs to grow up, teach parables, preach sermons, heal, comfort, challenge, and call disciples. He needs to live and die and be resurrected. He needs to become alive in the world to save and transform lives.
It is a religious temptation to keep God in a box so that we can control God. We try to restrict God’s freedom and activity by restricting God to only certain times and places. That keeps God from interfering in our lives. It is a way to avoid God. For example, we may keep God in the church building and not let God out of it. Then God is easy to manage and ignore. If God stays only in the church, we are free to live as we desire outside the church. There are all kinds of boxes in which God is kept. God can be confined to the past, to the future, in Galilee, in a manger, in a season, to a cross, in a tomb. A box is convenient in that we can keep God in it until God is needed. Then we can let God out to meet our needs. Keeping God in a box is a form of idolatry. God becomes our servant who caters to our agenda.
To keep Christ in Christmas is to miss the point of Christmas which is that God is free to show up in the least expected places and times. Christmas is over, but that does not mean God is done showing up in our lives and in the world. Christ can show up in a hospital in January, in a homeless camp, in February, in a neighborhood zoom call in March, in a family argument in April, in a courtroom in May. Christ can show up in devotions, in the woods, at the beach, in the nursing home, in a board meeting, on the street. Christ is neither static nor predictable. He keeps popping up. He keeps interjecting himself. That is our hope. Just as he cannot be kept in a manger, so he cannot be kept in a tomb. That is the Good News. Christ is going to be Christ.
We are still in the Christmas season; it is twelve days. Let’s not leave Christ behind us when it ends. Let’s look forward to meeting him throughout 2021 where and when we least expect him. Let’s not keep Christ in Christmas.
Be safe and healthy.
Happy New Year.
Pastor John's Musing 12.23.2020
I hope you have been participating in King Avenue's online Advent and Christmas experiences. The Heartsong concert is spirited and joyful. The Lessons and Carols service is spiritual and inspiring. Blue Christmas is comforting and profoundly peaceful. Christmas Eve is hopeful and uplifting. The Christmas Word Cloud is edifying and full of grace. All of these opportunities are the truth of the Light shining in the darkness.
If you have not experienced these services, please give yourself the gift of time to participate in these events and have new life born in you.
King Avenue Christmas Links
December 13 - Heartsong Concert
December 20 - Lessons & Carols Service
December 21 - Blue Christmas Worship
December 24 - Prelude for Organ and Piano
December 24 - Family Worship Service
December 24 - Christmas Eve Traditional Worship
Have a blessed Christmas.
Be safe and healthy.
PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 12.4.2020
One night this week our four-year-old granddaughter Clementine who lives in Johnstown woke up in the middle of the night and called out into the darkness,
“Mommy” …… No answer.
“Daddy” …. No answer.
“Is anyone out there?” …… No answer.
“Penelope” …. No answer. (Her sister.)
“Grandma” …. No answer.
“Grandpa” …. No answer.
“Marya” …. No answer. (Her aunt)
“Elena” …. No answer. (Her other aunt)
“Is anyone out there?”
She had run out of people. I don’t think she called out to the cats. It is not a bad question, “Is anyone out there?” It is a good question during the pandemic. For the last two Sundays we have worshiped in an empty Fellowship Hall and an empty sanctuary. I cannot speak for the other participants in the service, but I found preaching to a void to be an unsettling, lonely experience. While preaching may seem to be a one-way lecture, it is a conversation between the preacher and the congregation. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to preach. In short, I, like Clementine, need to know there is someone out there listening. I need to know there is life out there. Your coughs, leaning, silence, deep stares, laughs, sneezes, yawns, neck and arm stretches, cries, nods, claps let me know of life out there. I suppose the lack of feedback leads one to feel the words are not so much falling on deaf ears as they are falling on no ears. Why speak if there is no one to hear? I our speaking and listening we confirm each other’s existence.
I mentioned this unnerving sense of loneliness to a retired teacher. She understood immediately what I was talking about. My guess is that we have had that sense of “Is anyone out there?” in our relationships.
Partners, parents, neighbors, children, employers, employees, doctors, nurses, elected officials, “Is anyone out there?” When we believe that no one is out there, we believe that we are insignificant and small. If we are not heard, we think our existence doesn’t matter. The isolation we experience in the pandemic contributes to wondering if anyone is out there. After a while, Netflex, zoom, and cable TV are not great confirmations of our existence.
Of course, this is a spiritual concern. Is anyone out there? If so, are you listening? Psalm 88 profoundly poses this question. The psalmist prays all night without a response. “God, are you out there?” No answer. The psalmist asks repeatedly. No answer. The prayer ends with darkness as the psalmist’s only companion. No answer. We may not admit it publicly, but we have had prayers and doubts like that.
Psalm 88 is not a happy psalm, but it is a faithful one. And it is faith that is needed more than happiness. The psalmist will keep praying, keep believing, keep speaking. He/she will continue to stay rooted and grounded in God. The psalmist will keep the channel of communication open to God. That is what faith does. Sometimes that is all faith can do. Keep talking. Keep praying. Keep listening.
Advent is the season to ask, “Is anyone out there?” Zechariah and Elizabeth asked. It’s the human question. Joseph and the shepherds had to ask it. I bet Mary had her moments also. We too. With them we wait for the answer. We wait to be heard. We wait for the confirmation of our lives. Come, Lord Jesus.
BTW, Clementine’s parents were out there and did come to her. She knew she mattered.
Be safe and well.
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