June 23, 2009

Presbyterian Gifts

Rooted in Tradition ...

Christ alone is head of the church, and his example is one of service. Church leadership is spread around so that Christ alone is lifted up and honored in all matters.

Salvation is not an end unto itself, nor merely a matter of eternal destiny, but also a calling to humble service and loving stewardship in the here and now.

Baptism, not ordination, is the marker for ministry. All of God’s people are called to love the Lord their God, love neighbor as self, and to practice faith, hope, and love.

We ordain some to three offices needed to nourish, guide, and serve the church in its common ministry. Pastors, Elders, and Deacons exist not for their own sake, but to provide for the ministry of all God’s people in the world.

As the Jesuits have done within the Roman Catholic tradition, so Presbyterians have blessed the Protestant churches with gifts of acumen and learning, with a “faith seeking understanding.” Faith is more than intelligence, but it includes intelligence.

“The great ends of the church are the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”

Growing in faith …

We are a Christian tradition reformed from the excesses of the medieval church, and in every subsequent era we are always subject to reformation according to the word of God.

Scripture and Sacraments are the primary means by which God forms and reforms us as faithful people. These are fundamental, and all other elements of worship are in service to them.

Though there is fruit in it for us, worship is foremost about the living God.

While our officers vow to be stewards of Reformed-Presbyterian way, no one is excluded from membership in the body of believers for any other reason peripheral to faith in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, to be Presbyterian is to be ecumenical.

One generation of believers passes on to the next its better interpretations of scripture (in confessions and creeds), but those interpretations are never equated with scripture.

"In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God's new heaven and new earth.”

June 22, 2009


My father has every reason to be self-centered these days.

His legs no longer move him from here to there. He is fifty pounds less the man he was just a short season ago. His bones press outward under his dermis like knobby sticks in a pile. He cannot put on a shirt without ready assistance. He is dying, adagio.

If ever there were a time for self-absorption, for pity and loathing heaped on his own head, this would be it.

We all held hands around his hospital room -- an impromptu sanctuary consecrated amid hoses, drips, and medicinal odors. The bubbling water in the little tank on the wall provided our only prelude music—its gurgle, I suspect, a baptismal image. It seemed good and right that we pray.

I was all set to do my part as the “family preacher” -- an office as ambiguous as it is honorable. Then a sacramental query fired across my brain: What if the victim was also the host?

“Dad, will you start us off?”

No hesitation. He cleared his throat, moistened his tongue with a sip of water. The way he dropped his head to pray suggested that he would have fallen prostrate, would his body have allowed him the ancient gesture. His voice was strangely high-pitched, high up in his throat, as if suddenly he was in a different way.

Dear Lord, we just want to thank you, for your love in our lives.
Dear Lord, you have been so good to us, blessed us in so many ways.
O Lord, we thank you for our family, for being here with us now.

I broke the old rules and opened my eyes, looked up and across the room. The words came forth from his broken-down frame like a Sunday song, an artful cadence not to be expected from a man who spent his life working electrical equations and smiling upon solid facts. They were not those pious prayer-words born of denial, those praises we sling to God in order to convince ourselves. The words were more solid than that, more substantial. It was as though they had been waiting to be spoken for a little while.

Midway through the Great Prayer, he turned a corner. He began praying for his children and grandchildren, one at a time. He named each of us, even those not present, and the posture of his voice was such that one could not be sure if he was talk-ing to his family or to God. It occurred to me that this was prayer at its finest imprecision.

May God give each of you good health, good grades, and work that matters in the world. May the Lord bless you, that you might raise your own families with love and faith. May Jesus guide you in the way he would have you go, leading you always.

This went on for some time.

The length was not so much because the old man was rambling -- a mode of speech he is fond of, as we all know. No, he went on and on because he could, because there was time to take, because it was his time to take it. If not then, when? If not there, where?

It felt like a thing worth getting right, this prayer. It was fastidiousness born of love. It was one last beautiful equation to be worked out. It was his Christ-shaped shot across the bow of his stubborn demise.

It was his blessing, on the cusp of departure.

Ironic, really:
We had gathered about him in our concern;
in his courage he made it about us.

Early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he departed and returned home.
- Genesis 31:55

Goodbye, Laban. Go in peace.

June 14, 2009

High Green

Roll on, over flatlands, foothills, and bogs
Roll on, ‘cross gulleys, creeks, and channels
Roll on, past fields, hamlets, and boroughs

Shuffle through ribbon bends in the line
Blast over road crossings where they wait
Chug away from platform-stops, siding-rests

Roll on, from the brisk rain to the arid sun
Roll on, from headwaters down to gulf lands
Roll on, past the hulks of labor’s great past

Shoot by locals, shifters, sisters in the hole
Thump over diamonds and other rows to hoe
Squeal ‘round tight changes in your course

Roll on, keeping the pace and making up time
Roll on, with the seasoned and virgins alike
Roll on, with lives aboard as varied as the run

From one high green to another
It's your time to move

Roll on

June 13, 2009

One Pneumatic Year

pneumatic |n(y)oōˈmatik| (adjective) 1. containing or operated by air under pressure, 2. of or relating to the spirit.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” – John 20:21-22

For the privilege of living and working among you these last twelve months as your latest pastor, I offer you my heartfelt thanks—even as I also raise up to God grateful songs. Albeit swift, it has been for me a rich and substantive year. Allow me a singular anniversary article in which to name three places of vocational gladness and three prayers for continued Spirit-breathed growth for our church.

I am humbled to be your Teaching Elder at such a time as this. Preaching in particular and the shaping of Sunday worship in general are the strongest burdens I feel in my ministry. So many of you have communicated to me your glad response to this emphasis, which has had the effect of confirming my sense of call here and prompting me to pray—fervent prayers for the Spirit to blow vigorously in me and in you, filling our scripture-shaped worship in the days ahead. Working with our worship staff week to week has been most stimulating for me, and I am so grateful for the competence and commitment they bring to every Lord’s Day service. Still, my most fervent prayers are for you, congregation, as we together worship week to week: Can we sense the Spirit of God in-spiring our worship? Where is the Lord sending us in scripture to grow in knowledge and wisdom? Do we know that pneumatic peace of God in the way those early disciples did? None of us can respond to Jesus if we do not know Jesus, so in every season of a church’s life its prayerful engagement with scripture is a vital concern. Pray for your preachers, even as your preachers pray for you. I am grateful to be one of them.

I am appreciative of the opportunity to be your Moderator and a Head of Staff, working with your officers and staff to equip this flock for its work. My interest in these two formal titles, and the fact that I refer to them from time to time, is not rooted in their potential for vanity but in the urgent function associated with them. Whether with officers or staff, my burden is to bring scripture and the Presbyterian way to bear on our common work of “equipping the saints (you) for the work of ministry.” Presbyterians have a wonderful tradition of spreading church leadership around, so as to avoid the personality cult or the one-person show. Elders lead the flock, Deacons serve those in need, Trustees steward our facility, Staff support and direct our ministry, and Pastors strive to imbue the entire offering with scripture and sacraments … all of this, with an eye toward blessing you to be a blessing to others. As such, it has been my privilege this year to ask all our leaders: As the Father has sent the Son, where is God sending NWPC just now? Where are we feeling the tug of the Spirit, the pneumatic push of Christ in our midst? What is the Lord up to in our ranks? I look forward to seeing how those sacred questions are met with Spirit-filled discernment.

Finally, as to relationships, I am so delighted to be your Pastor (the official title), one of your pastors (a collegial function), and your brother in Christ (a gladsome bond). You are a delightfully fascinating congregation—rich in a variety of persons and deep with spiritual gifts. The apparent simplicity of the borough in many ways belies the great breadth of your experiences, perspectives, and Christian faith. And so I might ask: Where is Christ sending you in your life? Where is the pneumatic push of the Holy Spirit for you? To what ministry within or (especially) beyond our congregation are you being called?

“Pneumatic” … filled with the Spirit … propelled into ministry by the wind of God. Grateful for small seas already crossed, I look forward to sailing with you through the next 12 months. Come Holy Spirit.


June 10, 2009

Look Back

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord, graduates. On behalf of our entire congregation, I write to convey our most fervent blessing as you make the transition into this next season of your life. Many of you have moved among this flock for many years, and beginning soon most of you will move beyond it—venturing to far-flung places for work, education, and—no doubt—much adventure along the way.

As you go out from us, we give to you this little charge: From time to time, look back and remember your baptism. Yes, we want you to remember your home church, your youth group, and the like. And surely in time you’ll find that a place like New Wilmington has a certain gravitational pull, such that you’ll be back every now and then. While we hope you do not forget us, more than anyone or anything else we want you to look back upon your own baptism. Remember who you are; remember whose you are. Your baptism is the marker of both.

To be sure, at the time of your graduation, your gaze is quite rightly fixed forward. Like a restless runner braced in a starting block, you are surely fixed upon your future and the new freedoms and opportunities that lie therein. It is a terrific time of life: looking down the long course of things now so spread out before you, this race you now run on your own two legs. What a gift, to be able to gaze out upon numerous possibilities. We know, because we’ve been in those blocks, too.

Even so, make sure that in every turn of the course you take a glance back over your life to see that truest of starting points: the baptismal waters, where you were first marked as belonging to God. Though you have by now outgrown most of the features of your childhood, by God’s grace there will never be a time when you will have outgrown the sign and seal of God’s claim upon you. Look back on this glorious fact from time to time—long enough for it to shape the way you run on ahead into the rest of your life. Commit yourself to engaging scripture, offering your prayers, serving those in need, loving your enemies, and rooting yourself in a fellowship of Christians wherever you may be. Do these things, not because you have to, but because you can. They are your glad response to the news that “you can do all things through him who strengthens you” (Philippians 4:13). Keep looking ahead, but also keep looking back upon the call of Christ.

Speaking for the entire congregation, I say for them: congratulations on concluding all your high school achievements. The peace of our Lord go with you in the seasons now before you.

June 7, 2009


Easter: God is always a step or two ahead
The angel’s rhetorical question to the women at the empty tomb – “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” – suggests that we serve a God who resides mostly in the future. God is neither buried in some remote past nor captive to the realities of this moment, but is always working in our future and calling God’s people to trust in his ability to make a way where there is no way. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

Because of Sunday: Sing in Doxology
If our worship is built on the notion that God is master only of the status quo, only of the world as it is now, then our singing will likely be plain and listless. But Easter morning prompts us to sing in praise of the God who trumps the status quo, by fashioning new life where before there was only death. We sing in praise to one who is not bound by the Friday-dilemmas of our lives. 1 Peter 1:3-9, Matthew 28:8-10

Because of Sunday: Live in Hope
To be caught up in the mystery of the risen Christ is to live our lives in between two resurrections: Jesus’ on Easter Sunday; ours in a time yet to come. By analogy, it as though we play the “game” of faith on a field with two end zones, with two victories—one behind us, one before us. The promise of God’s “new heavens and new earth” gives shape to a life of hope in the here and now. Acts 2:24-33, Revelation 1:4-8

Because of Sunday: Take Courage
If Christ has been raised from the dead and is alive and present to the world through the Holy Spirit, and if we are “in Christ,” sharing a living bond with him, then we can have courage in ministry precisely because he has “overcome the world.” His reality in heaven is now our reality on earth. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-4, John 16:29-33

Because of Sunday: Stand in Wonder
From the vantage point of a strictly empirical point of view, belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus could appear foolish or outdated. But it could also be possible that the bright light of Easter morning calls into question the notion that scientific scrutiny is the only mode by which we can know the living God. Like Thomas, the risen Christ invites us, not to trump our critical thinking, but to transcend it—to stand in “shock and awe” before the victorious mystery of Easter Sunday. John 20:24-31

Because of Sunday: Sense your Vocation
The risen Christ greets the earliest Easter disciples with a word of shalom, then sends them out into the world inspired – literally! – with God’s spirit. For all the ways the resurrection hope colors our view of the future, perhaps the most pressing implications of Jesus’ resurrection are for the here and now—in our being sent into the world. Our vocation is shaped not merely by what we do to earn a living but by the particular places God’s spirit sends us as resurrection-peace-people. Acts 4:23-31, John 20:19-23

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Q. 46. What do you affirm when you say that "on the third day he rose again from the dead"? That our Lord could not be held by the power of death. Having died on the cross, he appeared to his followers, triumphant from the grave, in a new, exalted kind of life. In showing them his hands and his feet, the one who was crucified revealed himself to them as the Lord and Savior of the world.

Q. 47. What do you affirm when you say that "he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father"? First, that Christ has gone to be with the Father, hidden except to the eyes of faith. Second, however, that Christ is not cut off from us in the remote past, or in some place from which he cannot reach us, but is present to us here and now by grace. He reigns with divine authority, protecting us, guiding us, and interceding for us until he returns in glory.

Q. 63. What is the mission of the church? The mission of the church is to bear witness to God's love for the world in Jesus Christ.

Q. 64. What forms does this mission take? The forms are as various as the forms of God's love, yet the center is always Jesus Christ. The church is faithful to its mission when it extends mercy and forgiveness to the needy in ways that point finally to him. For in the end it is always by Christ's mercy that the needs of the needy are met.

Q. 65. Who are the needy? The hungry need bread, the homeless need a roof, the oppressed need justice, and the lonely need fellowship. At the same time -- on another and deeper level -- the hopeless need hope, sinners need forgiveness, and the world needs the gospel. On this level no one is excluded, and all the needy are one. Our mission as the church is to bring hope to a desperate world by declaring God's undying love -- as one beggar tells another where to find bread.

— 1998 Presbyterian Study Catechism