The Power of a Small Group

Chihuly Glass – The Garden

J.R.Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings,  tells the story of a hobbit, Frodo Baggins, who embarks on a dangerous journey to the Dark Mountain. Frodo quickly learns that he cannot do this alone. Along the way he acquires some interesting and very good friends. They include other hobbits, an elf, some humans, even a wizard. These odd companions are there for Frodo when he faces his most difficult challenges. Strange though they may be, the friendships formed will encourage Frodo to fulfill his life’s purpose. Through their combined strength they are able to defeat evil, overcome obstacles and find a path when there appeared no way to move forward.

In many aspects our lives in the community of faith fulfill those same needs. Each of us yearns for people who genuinely care about us. We ache for safe places where we can share our deepest selves. Sometimes, like Frodo, the friends who give us support and encouragement are a strange, but likeable assortment of personalities. They breathe life into our hopes, offer wise counsel and stand with us in our discouragement. In other moments we are the listeners, the encouragers and givers of support.

The power of a small group comes as friendships are formed, prayers are prayed, concern and compassion grows and our faith in nurtured. Trying to live our Christian life without other Christians is both painful and isolating. I continue to cherish the friendships formed in such small group settings where the questions of life were asked. For in those times and places I found fellowship and kindred spirits to share my life with. May you be blessed with these same gifts.

Climate Science is Not an Opinion

Melting Glacier at Hurricane Ridge in Washington’s Olympic National Park

These have been challenging times for those of us who are concerned about environmental issues. Whether it is President Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris Accord, or the removal of pages of data about Climate Change from national web sites.   I am deeply troubled by the anti-science attitude of our present Administration. Recently the Press Secretary for the Interior Department refused to allow the Park Superintendent at Glacier National Park meet with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg out of fear that Zuckerberg would get a picture of the park superintendent with a melting glacier in the background. Denying reality is not helping any of us. Ridiculing the science of climate change isn’t going to protect our shores against rising oceans.

On his  approach to  Jerusalem, Jesus must have been thinking of  the way people he knew and loved were ignoring the warnings of those who feared the destruction of the Holy City.  We read in the gospel of Matthew Jesus’s cry, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate.” – Matthew 23:37-38   These words are traditionally read around Palm Sunday, but have more than one meaning. Jesus was referring not only to his death and rejection by the people, but the destruction of Jerusalem itself. Jerusalem was looking for a savior that would restore the city to its former glory. Jesus knew that if they continued on that path, only destruction and devastation would await the city and its people. In 70 AD, after uprisings unleashed the wrath of Rome, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed. People who didn’t flee were slaughtered. The temple was obliterated. Jesus wept over a city he knew was making decisions that would only bring destruction, grief and sorrow.

We are faced with a similar decision. Will we listen to the prophets God is sending us about the danger the earth is in or will we persecute them instead? Today’s prophets are mocked by Climate Change deniers as they warn us of the dangers of Climate Change, speeded by our use of fossil fuels. Skepticism has gotten twisted into a warped religious belief that recognizing and acknowledging climate change caused by people is somehow un-Christian. It’s hard for me to comprehend the logic of that reasoning. This strange philosophy thinks that if there is a real problem, God will save us from environmental damage we do, because that is what God does.  Most often though, God acts through us.   In other moments,  deep challenges have been times when people have come together looking for solutions.  Scientists discovered cures for deadly diseases.    Nations were born.  Life saving procedures were discovered and perfected.

God must weep for us in our foolishness when we act as if  the scientists God has raised up,  to show us what we need to change,  are mocked. God must groan over us when we   blindly assume it doesn’t matter what we do.  Climate science is not an opinion to be decided by our political bent, but a conclusion based on rigorous studies. God made us stewards of the earth for a purpose – not to destroy the earth but to care for it. God gave us minds so we would search for the truth. God sends us prophets so we will pay attention to their wisdom. God gave us an intellect to use. Our role as people of faith is to listen, to respond as we able to and set a direction that will be healing to our planet.   For God wants us  to pass on to our children and grandchildren a world that is healthy . . . a world where they can live to grow old.

God Calls Us to a Higher Standard – that of Loving Our Neighbor as Ourselves

Hobson’s Resort Lake Jefferson MN 1950’s

My brother was eleven and I was nine, the hot sticky Sunday afternoon, when we decided to run away. Our plan was never to be gone long. Just long enough for the cabin we were suppose to clean to be cleaned without us. Life on a small mom and pop fishing resort demanded that each of us, from the time we were quite young, would be doing our part. My parents grew up in the era when a family would work together in a small business, whether it was the farm of my mother’s heritage or the hotel of my dads. Throughout the afternoon, we had waited for that cabin to be emptied. All plans for the afternoon were on hold until we were done with our jobs. While we sat outside waiting for it to empty. we stewed. The later it got the more we complained.

About five P.M,  we saw the people who had rented the cabin were packing up. By then, our steaming had reached its limit. We decided to take off. We ran along the lakeshore planning to hide in some nearby woods. But first, we needed to get past our neighbor’s home and the corn field between us and the woods. I don’t know that we ever thought about what might happen when our parents discovered we were not around. We simply figured that our mother would clean the cabin without us. When we got back, the work would be done. The plan might have succeeded  if someone hadn’t spotted us running along the shoreline. We were about half way to our goal when we could hear the distinctive sounds of our dad’s ancient muffler-less pickup truck. We watched in dismay as he backed up through the dirt road in the middle of the corn field. We knew we were doomed.

Most of all I remember my mother’s anger that day. It was a hot muggy and long day for her too. The help she had anticipated had disappeared. Expectations of children have changed a lot since my growing up years. What I think of today is how our running away created more work for my mother, who was already tired and worn out herself. She wasn’t any happier than we were with that very late check out time. For her, there was another cabin that needed cleaning and more wash to be done. I think how disappointed she must have been in us.

I don’t know that my parents ever thought about the appropriateness of the tasks they gave us  or the ages we started them. I do know, I learned to value teamwork and working together for a common goal. Often, the resort schedule interfered with what I wanted to do. Most often my parents made sure I was able to participate in school and 4H activities throughout the summer. There were the less busy days when we went fishing or swimming. I wouldn’t have changed where I grew up. I treasure the memories of working together and having a share in the success of my parents business. Working together for the common good became not only a family value, but one carried into life.

Isn’t that what we need more of in our country today? Working together for the common good . . . Not beating each other up over who we voted or didn’t vote for, but finding common solutions that work for everyone. Isn’t that what our nation’s founders dreamed of when they created this country? It will take all of us, working together to heal the wounds and division  that  separate us.

We moved on from that moment at the resort. I carry with me memories of my father’s hidden laughter as he yelled at us to get into the truck. I think of my mother’s genuine anger and something of remorse that we caused a difficult day for her to get worse. We tend toward self-centeredness. We ask ourselves what is best for me and mine, forgetting how our wants can impact others. God calls us to a higher standard – that of loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Families – Hanging on to the Precious

Just like there are no perfect people, there are no perfect families.  Even the best of families have their moments of insensitivity,  missed cues,  self-absorption and blind spots.    Each of us, goes through this life making mistakes, wishing we could change things in our past, feeling regret for words said or not said. At times we are wrong. We do and say what we will later wish we had not. Disagreements flare up.  People who should know better hurt us. What we do with those moments of hurting and of being hurt can shape the rest of our lives. Our response can turn a life around, or bury one in resentment.

One of the saddest stories I hear as a pastor, are stories of adult siblings who simply do not and will not try to get along with each other. In one of the first churches I served there was a woman in her mid seventies who continued to hang on to a grudge against a brother that started when they were teens. Worst of all, her anger was based on a simple misunderstanding. Her children and her other siblings begged her to see her brother. The brother so wanted to make peace with his sister. No appeal could reach her stubborn heart. Her grudge and the anger she carried had become a way of life.

In another church there was a man who refused to see his very ill mother, not because he was mad at her . . . No, that wasn’t the problem. He was angry at his brother. Harsh words had been spoken by both. After the argument, he had decided he would stay away from his family. When his mother because seriously ill, he refused to visit her, lest his brother be there.  I spent forty-five minutes one day  pleading with him  to visit his mom, who had only been given days to live.   Still her son refused.  But, sometimes God gives us the gift of extra time. His mother rallied. Then three months later, she was once again near death. I never knew just how God got through to her son. A  couple of days before his mother died, he came to see her that one last time.   Still simmering with anger towards his brother though, he would not attend his mother’s funeral.

One of the joys in my life is to have siblings who know and understand my growing up years. Shared memories bring peals of laughter and nods of understanding as a story begins. I think siblings are the only people who can fully appreciate your childhood. The know both the gifts and the flaws of your parents. There is a shared memory of what it was like to live in a particular family in  a specific time of  life. I know families that are terribly dysfunctional with a legacy of trauma, abuse and heartache.  It can be necessary to leave the family of origin behind for one’s emotional health. But, the families I’ve mentioned here were not ripped apart by addiction or dysfunction. They were just ordinary people who made a couple of mistakes.

For most of us, the arguments would have been over in a few days or we would have found a way to get around the disagreements. Someone would have apologized,  or made a phone call to break the ice.  But for others . . . Well grudges can lodge in the hearts of some very good people. This is what makes me the most sad. I see families where siblings are upset with  other siblings. Grudges are hung on to. Experiences which ought to have been left behind, forgiven or resolved years before have been carried into the present. I think of the joy that is being missed.  The shared journey which is unique to ones sibling. I listen to those who have never had a brother or a sister and how they envy those of us who do.  I think of how the person carrying a grudge is hurting themselves, denying themselves companionship, friendship and the joy of shared memories.

What I hope and pray for my children is that they always have each other and that they are wise enough to let go of the inconsequential to hang on to the precious  in their relationships with one another.  The psalmist says, “ How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head . . . It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life for evermore.” Psalm 133:1-2a & 3)

In the Era of the Urgent – Clinging to the Important

My kids and I were early adapters to email. We had this little Tandy 1000 that my oldest son left behind when he headed back to the Navy. We discovered that when all the stars were aligned just right, we could access a younger son’s college email account hundreds of miles away. It was 1993 and I was just becoming aware of a thing called the “Internet.” Shortly after that, we moved to a community where the city was on the cutting edge of public internet service. What I know to be true is that having that much access to the internet, not just email . . . but the vast knowledge base of the world, radically changed how I used time.

Along the way I discovered that I wasn’t reading as much as I used to. Instead of phone calls to kids it was easier to send a mass email to all seven at one time, then contact each individually. Email replaced voices . . . Internet searches the comfort of a book . . . thoughtful reflection was lost to the noise and intrigue of learning more and more and more about the world.

As much as I love the internet with all the connections and information available there, I began to recognize with the ancient writer of scripture who said in Ecclesiastes, 3:1, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” –  There is even a time for turning off electronic devices. Having that much access to electronic media with its constant contact adds noise to our lives. Our minds get cluttered by the dissonance of competing news streams flooding our brains. Beeps, rings, buzzes and dings distract us with their demand for attention. We let ourselves  be pulled away from the important to what appears more urgent.

What I’ve learned in our digital age is that we need space and time to process the massive amount of information we are consuming, with all of its contradictory truths. We need time to compare what we are reading in our social media and news sources with the heart of God, revealed in Jesus. We need to let the words and wisdom of Jesus guide our thoughts, expand our minds and then live those words out in compassionate action in our world. And there are times when we just need to unplug our devises, so we can spend quality time, minus distractions – with the people we love.  In the era of the urgent, we need to cling to the important.