Good bye (finally)

March 31, 2017

The story I want to mention today is true to the extent I can remember it. I don’t recall dates or names so they will have to be fabricated.  This was actually written 7 years ago but is as fresh to me as if it were yesterday.

It was sometime in 2000 I received a call from Karen. I didn’t know her, nor did she know me.  Her unusual request that day came as a result of the following story.  It’s the story of Karen, her father Thomas and the search for her grandmother and his mother.  Thomas was the oldest of 5 children.  When he turned 10 his mother gave birth to the youngest of the clan and within a few months took her own life.  Her death (likely from post-partum-depression) took place in 1938.  Because Thomas’ father was financially unable to care for his 5 children, they were placed in orphanages.  Thomas did not see or hear from his younger siblings again until he was in his 20’s.  He was transferred from one Foster home and institution to another, while the younger children were kept together in a single orphanage.  Because of the stigma of suicide in the 1930’s and the age of the children, there was no viewing, funeral, or public burial.  As a matter of fact, Thomas was never told where his mother was interred.

Thomas married and his wife gave birth to Karen in the 1960’s. When Karen grew into adulthood she became curious about her past and began to question her father.  He told her the above story.  They made a vow together to find his mother’s grave.  Tragically, Thomas was diagnosed with cancer and died before they discovered his mothers’ resting place.  Karen continued the search.  She knew her grandmother was buried somewhere in the McKeesport PA area, but that includes many cemeteries.  Eventually she called Mt Vernon Cemetery in Elizabeth Pa and was told her grandmother was in fact buried there.  This brings us to the phone call between her and I.  She called me because our church is beside the cemetery.  She asked me if I would do a “funeral” for her grandmother who was laid to rest in 1938.  She said that it was possible that only she and her sister would attend but they would like to pay their respects to their grandmother and have some closure on a painful time in her family’s past.  We agreed to meet at the gravesite on a Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m.  I honestly had no idea how to do this service.  I arrived at 9:45 and Karen and her sister were already present.  She mentioned to me that she had told other relatives about the funeral but she did not know if any would attend.  At 9:50, a car pulled up to the site and 6 people got out.  Karen gasped.  “That’s my cousin from West Virginia.”  A few minutes later another full car arrived.  Again Karen was dumb founded.  “That’s my cousin from Erie PA.”  By 10:00 there were 20 of us gathered for the service including the last living child of the diseased woman; the daughter born in 1938, months before her mother’s death.  The part played by the minister was not particularly novel, but eventually the family was given the opportunity to share thoughts.  Karen told of her vow with her father.  But there wasn’t a dry eye when the lone remaining child of the deceased woman slowly approached the grave with tears running down her face and said, “I never really thought I had a mother, but now I know I did.”

There was nothing to be said after that. I am deeply grateful to Karen for allowing me to be a part of such a significant time in the life of her family.  Honestly if I never have to do another funeral in my entire life, I will be good with that.  I’ll be VERY good with that.  I don’t know how funeral directors do it; always surrounded by grief.  But I do know this – sometimes funerals are healing.  Sometimes they bring relief.  Sometimes they are a celebration.  And I know that pastors are deeply privileged to be a part of those moments in the lives of families.  I hope I never forget that or take it for granted.

Below is the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians written by the Apostle Paul.  Take a few moments to read it.

1 Corinthians

The Resurrection of Christ

15 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

The Resurrection of the Dead

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30 And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,     for tomorrow we die.”

33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.

The Resurrection Body

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?     Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

Celebrate Easter! He is Risen!

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Easter

March 20, 2017

Like most of us I remember many events from my childhood. Some of them related to Easter.  But before we get to that, a little background.  I spent four of the finest developmental years of my life in High School living in Hampton Township PA.  I made friends there who influenced my life forever and many of them remain close and dear to me to this day.  Across the road and up on a hill overlooking our isolated neighborhood was a large field surrounded by woods.  There were many occasions when my friends and I hung out there.  You know, doing kid things and on occasion doing things that we were not supposed to be doing.  I’ll let you imagine, but we slept out there on occasion, we played with fire there, we… oh wait I can’t tell you that….  I have no idea who owned that piece of property.  We never saw anyone up there.  It was our own somewhat private “playground.”  It is no longer accessible today that I am aware of.  The woods were bulldozed years ago and there is at least one large home where “our” field used to be.  Well, back to Easter.

My memories of Easter as a young child are all mixed together. I remember few specific moments… mostly just common events.  Things like new clothes, flowers, bonnets, pictures, candy and even church, which was a rarity by the time I came along.  With the advent of high school came some radical changes in my living arrangements, and my family (what was left of it) had no, none, nada, involvement with any church.  Sunday was just another day and Easter was just another Sunday.  That being said, several of my friends in the neighborhood and I became involved in Christian faith through a local (non-church related) youth group.  To this day, many of us remain actively involved in churches and ministry.

One year (maybe when I was a senior) a friend suggested that we go up on the hill mentioned above, into the field and have our own Easter Sunrise service. That sounded strange but fun.  For reasons that I don’t recall, I was asked to “preach.”  The morning came and we trudged up the hill.  I think there were only 5 or 6 of us.  Unbeknownst to any of us, the friend who suggested the service had gone up the day before and erected a very tall Cross in the middle of the field.  We held our service there.  It was simple, short, and ill prepared.  Sort of like my sermon that day.  But it is the finest memory of Easter that I have.  There is something about being with special friends in the shadow of the cross that’s life altering.  Even now my eyes are teary as I recall that morning all those years ago.

My friend who built the cross and who suggested the service died of a sudden and unexpected heart attack a number of years ago. I had not seen him in a long time.  If he were living, I would call him and remind him of that day.  I would also tell him that it is one of my most cherished memories and I would thank him for the part he played in making it happen.  I wonder, are there people you should call and tell about the impact they have had on your life?  Seriously.  I have never heard of anyone calling someone with that in mind and being rejected or laughed at.  Mostly their efforts are met with humility and gratitude.  I would greatly encourage you to make that call, send that email or text, or even snail mail.  You will not be disappointed.

I pray that you have an amazing Easter with those whom you love. If you are not a church goer… hey, give it a try.

In loving memory of Doug Walter

And eternal gratitude to:

Dave S.

Linda H.

Shelley C.

John C.

Nancy S.

Meagan B.

Jim T.

And of course Ellen.

Counterfeit

March 14, 2017

Let me begin with a brief update to my last rumination. I have received no phone call from the Dr’s office so I take that as a good news.  Ellen is anxious for me to call which I will do, but I was told, “No news is good news.”  Now on to more important things…

Years ago I heard a story about how folks learn to detect counterfeit money. I honestly have no idea if this is true, but it makes a great point none the less.  If you want to train people to spot fake money you have two choices:  You can either have them become experts on every deceptive practice and every fake currency.  OR, you can train them to spot authentic money so when they see something that is other than what they know to be genuine, it has to be counterfeit.  Does that make sense?  When you know the real thing it makes it possible to distinguish the false thing.

There are many things in this world for Christians to be involved in, to take a stand on, to demonstrate on behalf of. There have to be thousands of “places” where we can choose to “drive our stakes in the ground.”  Many of them are very worthwhile.  Too many of them are a waste of time or out of order in regard to priorities.  You know, like “save the cockroaches!”  Or “let’s grow better marijuana for those who can make the argument that they NEED it.”  We need more of these sorts of earth shattering kinds of things don’t you think?!

No doubt the world is a complicated place. Very much complicated because of sin.  One of the things I do know about the world is this:  Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

It’s interesting to note the difference between the words “conformity” and “transformation.” The prefix “con” means “with.”  So “conformity to the world” literally means to “be with” the world.  And let’s be honest… going back to elementary school when all of a sudden we became aware of “style,” we all wanted to “be with it.”  Right?  At the very least, we DIDN’T want to be social outcasts.  We all remember those kids… or maybe we were those kids.  Either way, it’s painful to recall.  Given a choice, most of us choose to be “with it.”  That attitude or value greatly reflects how we find ourselves adopting the worlds “ways.”  Paul says in Romans that we are clearly NOT called to “conform” to the world but in fact we are called to “be transformed.

The prefix “trans” means to be “above and beyond.” So when Paul says we are to be “transformed” it means we are “…to be above and beyond the standards of this world, not in the sense that we are to elevate ourselves in lofty status above everybody else, but that we are called to a more excellent way of life.” [i]   Why is it that so many Christians look just like others in the world?  I think it has something to do with counterfeit things.  We are caught up in the things of the world because we do not know or recognize what is real and true.  We spend our time and resources spinning our wheels on things that do not draw us closer to The Author of all Life and Truth.

No doubt we all know this verse from the Gospel of John, chapter 14, Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ I certainly do not object to folks fighting for all kinds of causes. But I am very much opposed to Christians taking positions that do not reflect the Truth of Jesus.  Or, frankly having lousy attitudes that do not reflect the grace, peace and love of our Lord!  What does that mean then?  It means that we need to become experts on The Messiah.  We need to be so familiar with Jesus that we can tell when something is contrary to Him.  We must allow the Holy Spirit to cause us to be “transformed” so that we are not walking in lock step with the world.

This is not a process that occurs on one occasion. It is a spiritual reality that comes with maturity, study, vulnerability and hard work.  Do you know the Real Thing well enough to distinguish it from pretenders?  The New Testament is filled with references to people falling for deceptions and false teachings.  You and I are not immune.  If you think you cannot be deceived… you already have been!

No Jesus… no truth.

Know Jesus… Know Truth.

Blessings.

[i] http://www.ligonier.org/blog/how-should-we-be-world-not-it/

Of Colonoscopies and prime numbers…

This past week I went for my once-every-decade colonoscopy.  I could say much about this process, but I will attempt to maintain my dignity (what’s left of it) and refrain from giving you the details.  For those who have gone down this road… in reverse I might add…, I don’t need to tell you.  For those who have not… ah… one more thing in life to which you can look forward.  Anyway, when the procedure was “accompli” (that’s French meaning “done” for you Yinzers reading this) the doctor came to give me his report.  He breezed into my cubicle and said, “You had 17 polyps!”  My insightful first words were, “Wow, that’s a prime number.”  He went on to explain that 17 was a lot.  Actually 17 was 17 more than I was supposed to have.  He then said that he sent half of them out to be tested.  Now assuming they were not sent out for an I.Q. test, or the S.A.T. tests, I’m guessing we’re talking about cancer testing.  But here is what really troubled me.  I mean, if I remember correctly, prime numbers are only divisible by themselves and 1.  So when he said he sent “half” of them out for testing… well, how do I interpret that? Is there something he’s not telling me?  Do you know what I mean?  He has to know what a prime number is, right?  It’s all rather troubling.  The good news is this… he concluded by telling me that I get to do this again in 365 days.  Whoo, whoo!

I’m sure you can tell by now that this rumination is about math.  I don’t really know much about math.  It’s not something that we spent a lot of time on in Seminary.  Well actually, it’s something we spent no time on in seminary.  I suspect it’s related to the fact that the Bible doesn’t have much math in it.  Outside of page numbers, chapter numbers, verse numbers, (none of which were placed there by the original authors) and a few other “holy numbers,” there just aren’t many digits to speak of.  My underwhelming “love” of math goes back to my teen years.  In high school I liked Algebra 2 so much that I took it twice.  After completing the second go around I figured I knew so much about Algebra that there was no need to go on to Algebra 3-Trig.  Well and I graduated that year… so…

I should say that there is a field of study in the context of the Faith (both Jewish and Christian) called “Numerology.”  This “discipline” is practiced by folks who believe that there is a complex numbering code in the Bible that holds hidden clues to the future and secret messages from God.  And it’s practiced by those who have NOTHING in the world to do of importance but count words and letters.  These are likely the same people who get a yearly subscription to “The World News magazine” and “The Inquirer.”  I don’t want to be disparaging but… um… these folks are crackpots!  They can tell you what the very middle word in the Bible is, what the middle letter is, what the central verse is.  They can even tell you which chapters in the Bible speak of the assassination of President Kennedy.  (Seriously, look it up.)  I was going to convey all that information, but honestly it’s so complicated, convoluted and moronic that our time would be better spent emptying the lint traps in our dryers.  Oh… right… back to math.

Ellen and I went to see “Hidden Figures” at the movies a few weeks ago.  If you don’t go to the theater much this film is well worth a special trip.  It’s about many important things… math being one of them.  I can’t help but hear about these complex math equations and wonder where God is in all of it.  I mean, God created this universe and somehow He factored math in.  (Get it… “factored.”)  Complex math; mind boggling math; no doubt above Algebra 2 math.  There are some brilliant people walking around who could astound us with their understanding of math and yet…

1 Corinthians 1:25  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 3:19  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”

Romans 11:  33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
36 For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.       

I gather from those verses that even the wisest and “smartest” of us are but babies when compared to the Author of all math… even those of us who completed Algebra 2… twice.

I say all of that as a reminder that we worship an amazing and complex God.  One who continues to be faithful to His unfaithful creation and One who does not cease to surprise us daily.  If you are inclined to think that you sort of have a handle on God… I would suggest you think again.  We’re all going to be surprised on the far side of the Pearly Gates.

In closing… I would appreciate your prayers related to that prime number thing I mentioned.  Like I said… math is not my strong suit, but I can count off the 7-10 days before I hear if my polyps got a passing grade.

Blessings.