Wednesday, May 17, 2017

On Being a Good Neighbor

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan ...came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.”
Luke 10:30-33




Early one morning Carol and I were walking along the beach. We were on an uninhabited stretch of shoreline, and the tide had been ebbing for a couple of hours. After about a half hour, I noticed something in the sand ahead of us. As we got closer, I could tell it was a horseshoe crab, lying on its back. At first I thought it was dead, but then when I tapped it with the toe of my shoe it moved. Evidently the tide had turned the crab upside down, and now it was stuck.

Like a turtle on its back, the horseshoe crab is totally defenseless. The sun will quickly scorch the crab's body, and it will die. Plus, the seagulls and other birds would soon come and begin to peck at it mercilessly. It was a gruesome thought.

This was the first time I had ever seen a horseshoe crab, other than in places like a children's museum. In those instances, the crab was always on its belly, and all saw saw were the shell and the tail, which are harmless. But on its back, it looks kinda scary.

Part of me wanted to help the poor, defenseless thing; it would die without help. But part of me was scared—I mean, there are a lot of pointed things under the shell. Sharp-looking pointed things.



Finally, I realized that I could probably turn it over where it was, and then pick it up on the outside of the shell and position it where the water was coming up onto the beach. So that's what I did. And lo and behold, the crab started to move—ever so slowly—right into the oncoming surf. Soon it had returned to the safety of the water.



I was feeling pretty satisfied with myself, when a couple of hundred yards later I saw another horseshoe crab. This one was much larger, and it was also farther up the beach, to the highest point the tide had reached. It was going to take a lot longer for this one to reach the water, so I ended up picking it up and carrying it part of the way.


So that day I saved, not one, but TWO lives. I did it. Yep, me. Go ahead and nod approvingly—I most certainly deserve it.

But later I thought to myself, “What if I had just walked past the crabs, and did nothing?” They almost certainly would've died...


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Jesus told the story of the man who was robbed and beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. The first two people who came upon the man – the official representatives of God – passed by on the other side of the road. They looked the other way. They did nothing.

Jesus doesn't say why they don't stop to help the man. People have speculated that maybe they were afraid it was a trap, and that robbers would come as soon as they stooped over to help the man. Maybe they were in a hurry and couldn't afford the time to stop and help. Maybe they were aware that contact with blood and/or a dead body would make them ritually unclean and unable to work for at least a week. Maybe they just afraid. We really don't know why; we just know that they didn't stop to help the man.

Whenever I've read that story, I have always shaken my head and whispered, “Tsssk, Tsssk” at the priest and the Levite. “Shameful, they are,” I think to myself.

And yet, how far from them am I, really? I know that there are times when I can offer my help, but I don't. You know the excuses—too busy, not sure I'd know what to do, what if I say or do something wrong?, I'm afraid of messing up...

It turns out that I cross to the other side of the street more than I want to admit. Please don't “Tsssk, Tsssk” me. I'm not proud of it. I don't want to be the one who plays the part of the priest and the Levite. And I'm sure you don't want to be that person, either.

Believe it or not, this actually has something to do with my “heroic” rescue of the horseshoe crabs. You see, when I came across the horseshoe crabs, I was afraid. They scared me. But I took the time to confront my fears, and sought to do the right thing. I didn't let my first impression prevent me from helping one of God's creatures in need.

My encounter with the crabs reminded me how important it is to struggle past the excuses, and offer a helping hand. Compassion and care needs to overcome our fears and our hesitancy. I know this is hard, especially when it means helping a stranger. Strangers can be intimidating, simply because there is so much that we don't know about them. But Jesus reminds us that strangers are our neighbors, too. Or, to be more precise, we are to be a neighbor even to strangers.

Recently a woman came into the office at church. She is a “regular” who comes off the street just about every month. We all know her by name. My first instinct, I'll admit, was, “I'm going to send her on her way. I don't have time for her today.” But then I felt a little nudge (probably God, or the Holy Spirit, go figure): “Let her into the office; hear what she has to say.”

So I spent a little time with her. She has to live off of $735 in disability, and $30 in food stamps each month. She has to pay her own rent and utilities with that money, and feed herself and buy basic necessities like clothing and toilet paper and laundry. She broke down into tears, “Steve, I actually begged for money from a stranger in the parking lot at the store today. I can't do that—the police will arrest me if I do that.”

I gave her a little bit of money. She won't spend it on alcohol or tobacco; I think I know her well enough for that. It's not enough even for her to get what she needs for the rest of the month. But it was something. As she left, I gave her hand a little squeeze, put my arm on my shoulder, and assured her that she would be okay.

She was one for whom Jesus says I am to be a neighbor. I hope that she left with something of a sense of God's love for her. She is struggling to find God's love in her life, so I hope that just to spend a few minutes with her was a way to let her know that she is loved.

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Here's an interesting tidbit about the horseshoe crab: I learned later on that medical equipment is tested for contamination with a product made from the blood of the horseshoe crab. There are people who catch the crabs, gently extract a little bit of their blood, and then return the crabs to the ocean. And then they make a serum that is used to detect impurities and contaminants on medical equipment.

It turns out that maybe I helped someone else when I put those two crabs back into the ocean.


It just goes to show, you never know how far down your good deed will go. So, be a good neighbor to those in need. It's probably going to do a lot more good than you think.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Closing the doors

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”
- Ecclesiastes 3:1



Death is one of those things that, by virtue of my vocation, I encounter on a fairly regular basis. Of course, it is inevitable for us all; but not everybody faces the death of others intentionally. Sometimes death comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Sometimes death comes tragically early in life. Sometimes death comes in very peacefully after a long and fulfilling life. No matter how death comes, I always feel a sense that I am not completely prepared. Maybe that's because everybody encounters death differently.

So, I do the best I can. I hope that when I accompany someone through that “valley of the shadow of death” – whether it is the person who is dying, or family members and friends – I can offer something of the grace and peace of God.

Recently, I experienced a first in my 23+ years of ordained ministry in regard to death. I participated in a worship service to close the doors of a church. 

I officiated the funeral of a church.

It was a small congregation of about 20 members on the rolls, in a small rural community. The young people of the community had mostly left in order to pursue jobs and opportunities in other cities and towns. Realistically there was no potential for growth, and most of the current members were pushing 80 or older.

It wasn't that the church hadn't tried. It was simply a case of a season coming to an end.

The author of Ecclesiastes is right. 

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born, and a time to die...A time to weep, and a time to laugh...A time to mourn, and a time to dance...A time to seek, and a time to lose...A time to hold on, and a time to let go...



And so at the closing service we reflected on the seasons that God gives to us. We gave thanks for the faithful witness that every generation of that church had given to the community. We thanked God for the way God used the ministry of that congregation to influence the community with the grace and love of Jesus Christ. We expressed our gratitude for the harvest of faith that grew through the common life of the people as they gathered together through the generations for worship and study and fellowship.

We shared communion one last time, affirming our hope in Christ, and our common bond to one another. Our union with one another and with Christ did not end when the doors were closed for the last time—nothing can ever take that away from us.

Whenever I officiate a funeral or memorial service, I do more than thank God for the life of the one we are remembering. The most important thing I can do at any such service is to remind all who gather of the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ, and sharing in his resurrection.



I believe that the same goes for a church's own funeral. And so we affirmed that it is not death which defines us; it is life—eternal life. For God is about making all things new. God is about making a new creation. God is the one who says, “Behold, the former things have taken place” (i.e., they're in our past now, behind us), “and new things I declare.” And God is the one who says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare... and to give you a future with hope.”

I know it sounds trite—almost like what you see on some church signs—but the saying really is true: When God closes one door, God opens another one. We closed the doors of a church the other day, but not before the congregation itself had opened a new door for the larger church. You see, they would've closed shop a year ago, but they saw an opportunity that God gave them. The person who had been supplying their pulpit was a person who had just graduated from seminary, and needing a call in order to be ordained. So this small congregation worked with the Presbytery to have this woman ordained in their church.

Stained glass panel from the
McDowell Presbyterian Church
Greeleyville, SC
It was, I truly believe, an act that declared their hope that, though the season of their own congregation had come to an end, God was doing a new thing in them and through them. Because of their faithfulness and love for the gospel, their last act is to send forth a minister to a new congregation in a new town.

The McDowell Presbyterian Church may have closed its doors, but their faith continues.


Thanks be to God for faithful saints!


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Sabbath

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work...” - Deuteronomy 5:12-14

Me, on a normal day. Kinda busy, right?



I have a confession to make. Actually, it's probably not much of a confession, because I think most people already know this. But anyway, it turns out that maybe I'm a workaholic.

Just maybe.

The truth is, I tend to spend a lot of time at my office, at the church, at the hospital. Meetings, sermons, Bible studies and classes, administrative stuff (yes, even pastors have to shuffle papers and organize things), visits both planned and unplanned.

There are lots of reasons (or excuses) for my work habits. I'm not the best time manager, so I probably am not as efficient in my use of time as I should be. Also, the nature of my work lends itself to unscheduled conversations—people stopping by to say “hi,” or phone calls, or someone needing prayer. The truth is, you can't put people's feelings and needs into a tidy schedule. I'm also a poor delegator, so I end up doing things that others could share.

If I'm honest, the most compelling reason behind my workaholic tendencies is a fear of ever being labeled as “lazy.” It's a fear that arises from dealings I have had with other churches in my role as a conflict mediator for the presbytery. When I have had conversations with people in other churches, sometimes they have complained that they never see their pastor doing anything. So I have been driven by the desire to avoid that accusation.

Anyway, all this serves as background to let you know that I feel ill-equipped—and yet also convicted and compelled—to write about Sabbath.

Sabbath. You know, rest. Ceasing to work, for a little bit. It's been something that I have wanted to write about, but I've been too busy.

After Easter, my wife surprised me with a week at the beach. The season of Lent had been a busy one, culminating with five worship services in four days. So Carol thought I needed some time off. She didn't ask me; she told me, “We're going to the beach. Pack your bags.”

I'm glad she did. Very glad.


It was a “forced Sabbath.” I started out the week feeling a little guilty. I had put some things off until after Easter, and now I was going to have to put them off another week. But the feeling of guilt gave way to feeling refreshed and renewed. We really had no agenda. We took early morning walks along the beach. I took a lot of pictures. We took walks along the marsh. I went running. I read something for pleasure, not because I had to. And we took more walks at the end of the day, taking in beautiful sunsets.

At the end of the week, I felt like a new person. It turns out, God knows what he's telling us when he commands us to take a day off. Every week. This Sabbath thing is a really good idea. I highly recommend it.

I discovered a couple of things in my week of “forced Sabbath,” that I would like to share with you.
One foggy morning. Eerily beautiful
For one thing, I got an opportunity to notice a whole new world outside of work. There's so much beauty in our world—right where we live. We don't have to go a long way away; we just have to open our eyes to what is all around us all the time. The world is teeming with beautiful and fascinating things, if we just stop to take time and open our eyes.


One of the coolest things Carol and I saw when I let life slow down for a few days, was a rookery of heron nests in a pine grove across a pond, with a half-dozen or so baby herons. If I had not been forced to slow down, I would've missed one of the highlights of my spring. That, and the leatherback turtles swimming offshore.



I think—actually, I'm pretty sure—that Sabbath time makes me a better husband. Carol and I easily logged 20 miles that week, walking together. We actually sat out on the beach, which is something that we have only done three or four times in the 12 years we've been on the coast. It was a gift of time, this Sabbath was.

I also know that Sabbath is good for me as a servant of God. I didn't realize how tired I was after Easter. I thought I would just take a day off, and then back to work. But this extended “forced Sabbath” was needed, because I had neglected a regular Sabbath for weeks. Even the days I had not gone to the office, I hadn't totally disconnected from my work.

I now know why God commands us to observe Sabbath. God commands it because we need it, and we might not take it if it weren't something that God says we HAVE to do. But don't look at it as a duty you have to fulfill, because that kind of makes Sabbath-taking, you know, a form of work. Instead, look at Sabbath as a gift, even if it is a mandatory gift.

When Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath,” he was reminding us that God has a great purpose in this command: It is to make us better people, in every way.

So, here's the deal: I hope you will find Sabbath time every week. God desires the very best for you. And in order for you to be an amazing child of God, you need to take time to tend to you every once in a while; and take time to focus on other things than work.

I also hope you will hold me to Sabbath-keeping, as well. Because I want to be the best pastor, best husband, best father, best child of God I can be.

As I write this, it's Friday evening, and the sun has gone down. You know what that means.

It's Sabbath. I gotta rest. God says so, and I agree.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

All Day, Every Day, Total Praise

“From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised.”Psalm 113:3



People who see my pictures on Instagram (@RevSHW) or Facebook know that I love to take pictures of sunrises and sunsets. Even though the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west, no two sunrises or sunsets are ever the same. Each sunrise and sunset is a unique creation given to us by God, specific to the day and where we live.

I think that is pretty amazing.

One day recently, I took a picture of the sunrise, and then later on that same day I took a picture of the sunset. Both pictures were taken from within a few hundred yards of each other, just in opposite directions at the beginning and end of that day.




At the end of the day, I thought of the verse from the psalm, “From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised.” (Note: “From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets is an ancient Hebrew way of saying 24/7)

Two things came to mind for me. First, on a personal level it means that my life should be dedicated to praising God from the moment I awaken until I go to bed at night. All day, every day, I should make it my goal to praise God in what I say and by the way I live my life.

The other thing is that it should be our prayer that the earth is immersed in praise for God, from the farthest point east, to the farthest point west, and every point in between. It makes sense, when you think about it, especially in light of the verse that says, “The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1)

Praise should be our default. Praise doesn't necessarily mean we're always happy or glad. It just means that we give God the very best our heart can offer. Praise means we should be in awe and wonder at God's mysterious ways. Praise means giving glory to God in all things. Praise means saying, “Isn't God amazing?!” even when we don't fully comprehend all of God's ways. Praise means we acknowledge all that we have and all that we are comes from God alone.

A favorite song that our late music director loved to use in choral performances was “Total Praise,” by Richard Smallwood. The refrain goes like this:
You are the source of my strength.
You are the strength of my life.
I lift my hands in total praise to you.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism opens with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Assuming we can get past the archaic language and its propensity to state everything with masculine pronouns, don't you think that is a wonderful vision and mission statement for us all?

Glorify God, and enjoy God forever.


From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised!


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Benediction


"Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 
John 20:21



I cannot finish these Lenten devotions without expressing my joy and gratitude for the experience. When I decided to write a daily devotion as my Lenten discipline, I had no idea what I had really committed to do. I thought, "Heck, I'm a pastor. It should be no big deal to put together a few thoughts every day."

It turns out, I was mistaken. That's nothing new, though.

There were days when I wasn't sure what I would write. There were times when my vision for what the devotion would be was nothing like the end product. Sometimes I wondered if what I had written would mean anything to you. There were also days when the words flowed so naturally, I can only attribute it to divine inspiration.

Actually, it was all divine inspiration. God provided the words and the thoughts; I was simply a willing participant.

It was sheer joy to witness how God used these devotions to speak to you -- and to me. I am so deeply moved and humbled by the feedback that you, the faithful readers of this blog, gave to me. When I doubted the impact of what I was doing, someone would share something that let me know that God was saying something to you. I appreciate that so many of you took time to "share" these blog posts on your own Facebook wall, thus inviting others into my faith perspectives.

As a daily discipline, this blog kept my heart focused and attuned to God; it made me listen to God every day, so I could discern what God would have me write. And so on a personal level, I have experienced something wonderfully spiritual through this journey.

People have encouraged me to continue doing this, and that is my plan. I love capturing inspiration through the lens of my camera, and I love coupling that inspiration with God's word. This blog is something I want to continue.

It won't be every day, though. Probably once or twice a week is what I will be able to sustain on a long-term basis. I will share the posts on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) as I write them, so I hope you will keep an eye on your accounts. Also, in the top right hand side of this blog page, there is a space for you to put your email address, and the devotion will be sent to you via email whenever I publish a new blog entry. (Note: if you are viewing this on a phone or similar device, you might need to click on "view web version" in order to see the place to enter your email address)

I would like to leave you with a benediction written by Ann Weems, from her book, From Advent's Alleluia to Easter's Morning Light. Carol showed it to me, and I think it is a fitting way to end this initial Lenten series (By the way, Carol has been a HUGE inspiration and support throughout these past 40 days. I couldn't have done this without her).

"Benediction"
by Ann Weems

Go now with faithful stamina into your courtyards
to answer whether you know him or not.
Go knowing that he who said, Follow me, will stand up with you.
Go knowing that when you falter, he will hold you up.
Go knowing that when you fail, he will forgive you.
Go knowing that when you say I know this Jesus,
you will dance with the angels on Easter morning.

May you know the peace of faithfulness,
the joy of community,
and the love of grace.
In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.


Thank you for accompanying me on this journey.

Easter

"The angel said to the women, 'Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, he has risen..."  
Matthew 28:5-6



Only three words are necessary:


He has risen!

Nothing else need be added to that.

Have a blessed Easter.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Darkness

“For the wages of sin is death...” 
Romans 6:23

Saturday.

For Jesus' friends, this is the Sabbath. It's supposed to be a day of rest, a gift from God. But today, not so much. This Sabbath day certainly doesn't feel like a gift.

Because Jesus is dead. Sealed in a tomb.

No matter how beautiful the day may be, it will be a day of darkness for Jesus' friends.



Darkness is the appropriate metaphor for the day. In the tomb, there is nothing but darkness, deep darkness. And for Jesus' friends, it is a dark night of the soul, a time of profound grief.

And for people everywhere, darkness is an all-too-familiar reality:

For the person whose spouse has just said, “I don't think I love you anymore, and I don't know if I ever did,” there is darkness.

For the person whose pay envelope this week contained a pink slip, there is darkness. 

For the person who is losing the fight against cancer, there is darkness. 

For the person struggling with mental illness, there is darkness. 

For the person laying flowers at the grave of a loved one, there is darkness. 

For you and for me, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, there may be darkness.

Darkness is a terrifying reality. Nobody wants to be in the darkness. In the darkness we feel all alone. In the darkness we can't see our way through, and we feel lost.

In the midst of your darkness, though, you should know this: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Jesus is right there in the darkness, with you. Jesus knows exactly what you're going through, because he, too, has descended into the deepest darkness the human soul can experience.

You see, it was necessary for Jesus to suffer all the consequences of human sin—including abandonment by God, and death; it was necessary, because only humans have sinned and therefore a human must pay the price. Jesus, who had no sin, took our sin upon himself. Jesus, who had no sin, took our entire range of human experience so that he could redeem every single bit of brokenness in us. In order to redeem us from all our troubles, from all our darkness, Jesus had to experience it all himself.

Jesus knows what your darkness is like, because he's been there.

Jesus knows what your darkness is like, because he's there with you right now.

I'm going to resist the temptation to jump ahead to Easter. If I were to offer a “don't worry be happy” word, or a “God works all things for the good” word to you, that would fail to acknowledge how very real your darkness is. And so today, Saturday, I'm going to have us remain in the darkness. Darkness is too serious to take lightly.

But know that you are not alone. Because Jesus is in the darkness with you.


And he will bring you light.