The Pastor Said, "Go to Dinner"

Asking for help and accepting directions are what bring results.

            Some folks think that church members can’t or won’t say No to me the Pastor. So strong is my ministerial presence, so weighty my authority that the poor TMPC member only has but response to any request from me: How high?

            I wish it were so, but it’s not. If I could always get a Yes from our members then our services would be standing room only every Sunday, we’d out-give our budget by April because every member would tithe and no one would carry a grudge or nurse a resentment.  Believe me: members and friends have no trouble saying No to me; and that’s fine by me. Once in a while I give some advice or direction and people actually take.

            A few times while talking with a married couple I got a sense that they could use a night out. I said to the couple, “Your Pastor wants you to go to dinner. Don’t argue with me, just go. Have a great time. And if you need some help to cover the meal or pay for babysitting, your evening is on me. Listen to your Pastor now. Do what I say.”

            I sound a little like a sponsor in those moments. A sponsor is an integral part of 12-Step recovery programs. A sponsor is someone who has been sober for a length of time. A sponsor has also spent significant time looking carefully at herself and working to change the worst aspects of her character by applying the principles of the 12 Steps. A sponsor is combination friend, counselor, and parent. One recovery writer describes this special relationship: “As we get into the Steps, we find it indispensable to rely for help on those who have gone this way before. In Twelve Step programs, the term commonly used is sponsor. What we call the person doesn’t matter; and we don’t have to call them anything. Asking for help and accepting suggestions are what bring results.”

            All of us need someone like a sponsor to help us mature as Christians. We will never grow up alone—never! Growing into our spiritual big boy pants happens as we ask for help and take direction. All of us need someone who can tell us

ü  When we’re wrong and acting like a baby

ü  When we’re being way too tough on our family

ü  When we need to let something go

ü  When we did something really well

ü  When spiritual progress can be seen in our lives

ü  When we need to hear for the millionth time that God forgives and loves us

              Chances are high that you have no one like this in your life. I do; and he is one of the greatest blessings I have. You’re fortunate because lots of our members could easily fill the bill.  I really wish you did have a sponsor.

               No, on second thought, I, the Pastor tell you: get a sponsor—now!

A Summer Stroll

If we do not regularly quit work . . ., we take ourselves far too seriously. The moral sweat pouring off our brows blinds our eyes to the action of God in and around us.

Eugene H. Peterson

            While riding the elevator in Doylestown Hospital on my way to visit a church member and I saw a poster for Walk with a Doc. In the summer of 2015, Doylestown Hospital launched this program for their patients. This national initiative simply invites people to walk with a doctor, usually a cardiologist. A news release from the hospital’s website states: “Walk With a Doc is a national non-profit organization whose mission is to encourage healthy physical activity in people of all ages, and reverse the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle in order to improve the health and well-being of the country.” When you walk with a  doc you ask your burning questions about health or how the doc thinks the Phillies are doing with their re-building efforts.  

            As a long-time walker/hiker, I love getting my long legs moving outside. One of my favorite spiritual practices is a called an Emmaus Walk. Presbyterian pastor and author Eugene Peterson has a nice description of these walks: We got the phrase "Emmaus Walks" from Douglas V. Steere, who told us the story of an old Lutheran retreat master he once knew, very Prussian, whose speech was thick with German gutturals. He specialized in men's retreats. As the men would come into the lodge, he would make them open their suitcases, from which he would confiscate all the whiskey. Then he would pair them up and send them off on what he called ee-mouse walks.

               Steere told us that for a long time he wondered what ee-mouse walks were, and then realized one day that the old Prussian drillmaster was sending his men out on Emmaus walks: two disciples walking and talking together and Jesus, unrecognized, with them. But afterward they knew: ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?’" (Luke 24:32 KJV).

                This summer, I would love to take a stroll with you for the sake of getting to hear about your life and your “heart” while enjoying the glory of God that surrounds us in Bucks County. There are three levels of walks: Easy (walking around the cemetery), Moderate (walking along the tow path), Slightly Challenging (a hike at Kinser Mountain or Ralph Stover State Park). There is also an “arm chair” option, which means instead of killing ourselves in the heat; I come to your home and we drink iced tea and talk there.

              Strolls with Stuart (how’s that for a snappy title?) begin the first week of June. To schedule a time contact Melissa Bottelier (office@tmpc.org) in the office. Our website will soon have a sign up page.

               So, check your schedule, dump your whiskey, lace up your Air Jordans and let’s make a walking date—you, me, and Jesus

A More Google Less Facebook Church

            In last Sunday’s New York Times “Week in Review” section, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz an economist and the author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are wrote a column entitled “Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable.” Stephens-Davidowitz spent five years analyzing Google searches and social media posts, primarily on Facebook. He found that what we post on Facebook tends to reveal our better sides and the parts of our lives we are most proud of.

            The author notes, for example, “that Americans spend about six times as much of their time cleaning dishes as they do golfing. But there are roughly twice as many tweets reporting golfing as there are tweets reporting doing the dishes.” Certain medical concerns like migraine headaches garner more support on Facebook than does Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The difference is that IBS sufferers are more embarrassed by their struggles that those who deal with migraines.

            Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes, “We are all dimly aware that everybody else can’t possibly be as successful, rich, attractive, relaxed, intellectual and joyous as they appear to be on Facebook. Yet we can’t help comparing our inner lives with the curated lives of our friends.”

            I know that there are some people who won’t come to Sunday morning worship because they are afraid that they will break down and start crying during a hymn or they won’t know where to find something in the Bible. Others are so deeply ashamed of their personal or familial failures that church is the last place they would go. How sad that is for me to hear. We exist because every last one of us, the Pastor especially, is struggling with something. My friends in Alcoholics Anonymous have a wise saying: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.”

Don’t compare your insides to others’ outsides.

            That’s why I hope we will become more of a “Google” congregation than a “Facebook” congregation. Stephens-Davidowitz shares what he learned from his studies of Google searches: I have actually spent the past five years peeking into people’s insides. I have been studying aggregate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to anybody else. Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram. Sometimes the contrasts in different data sources are amusing. Consider how wives speak about their husbands. On social media, the top descriptors to complete the phrase ‘My husband is …’ are ‘the best,’ ‘my best friend,’ ‘amazing,’ ‘the greatest’ and ‘so cute.’ On Google, one of the top five ways to complete that phrase is also ‘amazing.’ So that checks out. The other four: ‘a jerk,’ ‘annoying,’ . . . and ‘mean.’

            I’m not suggested that we get real by going off on one another. I’m advocating that we be more honest in sharing our doubts, our fears, our struggles and our failures. We’re the church, which means we are a community of grace, not merit; of forgiveness, not moral perfection.

            This op-ed writer encourages us to use Google as a corrective to Facebook: “Any time you are feeling down about your life after lurking on Facebook, go to Google and start typing stuff into the search box. Google’s autocomplete will tell you the searches other people are making. Type in “I always …” and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, ‘I always feel tired’ or ‘I always have diarrhea.’ This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everybody “always” seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.”

            Or, just coming to worship on any Sunday; look around and say this in your mind: “They are as messed up as me. Everyone needs Jesus Christ as much as I do. I must belong here.”

______________________________________

Here’s a like to the article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/06/opinion/sunday/dont-let-facebook-make-you-miserable.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Trash Detail

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Jesus the Anointed One . . ,

Philippians 1: 1

            Mini liquor bottles and recipe cards—that’s the primary trash I found along a stretch of River Road last Saturday morning. Along with my wife Leslie and a half-dozen folks from Thompson Church, I was participating in the Church Has Left the Building, the Spring Version. We were picking up garbage on a portion of Route 32 just north of Windy Bush Road by 7:45 a.m.

            I couldn’t help but wonder about the recipe cards when I kept finding them alongside of the road. The cards weren’t just dumped in a clump beside the highway. I kept picking recipes for pancakes and roast beef all illustrated with color photos, for at least a half mile. Who throws trash out the window of a car one or two recipe cards at a time? The liquor bottles I get. Leaving a good-time in New Hope, someone wants the party to continue on the drive home. I just hope that whoever chucked those bottles was riding shot gun and not behind the wheel of the car.

            Thompson Church keeps about two miles of River Road clear of trash; and we’ve been doing that for a number of years now. If there is anything that can ruin the incredible beauty of this area in which we live it’s some thoughtless person throwing trash out the window.

            I’ve never completely understood the need to have clean-up crews clean the ground beside the highways. Is it that hard to hold your trash and get rid of it when you get home or toss it in the trashcan when you pull into get gas?

            Christians, like the Apostle Paul, have always been quick to slap the label servant or slave on themselves. Servants sign up to do something. Servants go and do what others don’t want to go and do. Servants find joy among the trash. I might not like the garbage out there in whatever form I find it. I had better be ready to pull on my gloves and hold my back to make the world a little bit more like God had in mind.

A Good Humiliation a Day

“I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then I must watch my reaction to it.”

Richard Rohr

            I recently heard Richard Rohr interviewed on one of my favorite radio program/podcasts called “On Being”. Host Krista Tippett came across this strange prayer of Christian author Richard Rohr a few weeks before their scheduled interview and she made a point to ask him about it. Krista Tippett admitted to Father Rohr that there is nothing in her that wants to pray to be daily humiliated; and to be honest, me too. I’m not looking to start praying for this.

            Here’s what Richard Rohr had to say:

 No, and there isn’t in me either . . . Some years ago, I started recognizing that I was getting an awful lot of adulation and praise and some people treating me far more importantly than I deserved. And I realized I was growing used to it, that the ego just loves all of this admiration and projection. And a lot of it was projection. And I didn’t want fame and well-knownness and guru status to totally destroy me, and so for me, this became a necessity, that I had to watch how do I react to not getting my way, to people not agreeing with me, to people not admiring me — and there’s plenty of them — and that I actually needed that. And so I do, I still, I ask God for one good humiliation a day, and I usually get it, one hate letter or whatever it might be. And then what I have to do, Krista, is I have to watch my reaction to it. And I’ve got to be honest with you, my inner reaction — I’m not proud to tell you — is defensive, is, “That’s not true. You don’t understand me.” I can just see how well-defended my ego is. And of course, even your critics — and I have plenty of them — at least 10 to 20 percent of what they’re saying is usually true. And I’ll recognize that very thing she’s so angry at me for saying, I really could’ve said it better, and I didn’t use the right word . . . So I try to learn from my critics, and they’re often the best of teachers, frankly.

            Father Rohr’s daily prayer for a humiliation reminded me of another great religious leader who prayed in the same way. I’m talking about the Apostle Paul and he’s how he explained his need for a regular put-down. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.  Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 7b – 10)

            Do Paul and Richard Rohr need to have their heads examined? No, both men have something powerful to teach us about making friends with our critics and accepting without great angst frustrations, tough times in our relationships, and cold seasons in our spiritual lives. God never wastes anything, not even our struggles. God works on us; or more accurately, He works on our ego and our pride through a daily bring-down. You know the old saying: A humiliation a day keeps the pride away!

            Here’s a link to the Richard Rohr interview: https://onbeing.org/programs/richard-rohr-living-in-deep-time/

Jesus in the Kitchen

Note from Stuart Spencer: Pastors drag around after Holy Week and Easter. We’re as limp as a dishrag and as worn out as a middle-school teacher in June. When my dear friend Melissa Mantz shared this beautiful reflection with me this week, I asked her if I could use it for my Grace Notes. She was happy to help. With a tired yawn of appreciation, I offer you “Jesus in the Kitchen” by Melissa Mantz.

      Over the last few months, many folks at TMPC have said to me; “You’re always in the kitchen!”. And that is true, I have been spending a lot of time in the kitchen at TMPC recently: Community Meal, Coffee Hour, Soup and Bread Suppers, Maundy Thursday and Easter! Whew!

       Here is a secret. I love the kitchen at TMPC. Because, so often, I meet Jesus in the Kitchen. There He is in the eyes of friends and strangers. There He is in conversations between friends and strangers. The thing about Jesus is that he loves to serve and where better to serve than in a kitchen?

        Over the course of time I have been here at TMPC, I have met Jesus at a dirty sink of dishes, at the coffee machine, at the dishwasher and by the ovens. I have worked with Jesus long after everyone else has left the church or even, when I am alone preparing for a big event, like Easter Sunday.

          I have learned so much from Jesus in the Kitchen:

·         It always works out. This is the most important truth; no matter how flustered I am or how together I am, it always works out. People show up just when you need them. When you think there will not be enough food, food appears. “Loaves and fishes” as my friend Melissa Michael says.

·         Making coffee is not hard. Period. Hosting a Coffee Hour is easy-peasy. And if you are shy, like me, it is a great way to meet people. Being part of the congregation requires action because love is a verb. Hosting a Coffee Hour is a good way to meet Jesus in the Kitchen.

·         If someone asks, do you need help?, say YES! Maybe you don’t need help. But maybe the person asking needs to help. Folks love to feel included. Say yes!

·         This Easter I had a profound conversation which began with me sharing about a powerful work of fiction I was reading. And then Jesus in the Kitchen showed up big time! My friend and I witnessed to the struggle and hope of a young friend. We prayed together with Jesus in the Kitchen. And then I made more coffee.

·         Ask for help! Do you need help putting out the coffee or the food or the washing up? You are not alone; you do not have to do everything by yourself. Life is a “we” thing. ASK. FOR. HELP.

·         One Easter a couple of years ago, I made an egg dish that I served VERY undercooked. I was so embarrassed- I am a former chef after all. I was all over myself…how could I??? As I was bemoaning my mistake, a very wise woman said; “oh, are you perfect then?” and she smiled gently. No, I am not perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Jesus in the Kitchen is okay with my imperfection and yours, too.

            You can meet Jesus in the Kitchen. And you can meet Jesus in the Nursery, or Jesus in the Choir, Jesus in Session, or Jesus in the Sunday School Class. He is everywhere at TMPC and He loves to serve with his friends.

Easter Brings Hope

            I found a column written by my childhood pastor this week. My pastor, Bob Kesel, wrote these words for the Media Presbyterian Church newsletter in April 1990. Like all pastors, Pastor Kesel wrestled with how to preach a message of hope in a world with so few signs of it. What do you say to all those who come to church on Easter Sunday? Easter sermons don’t just preach themselves, meaning the empty tomb requires some explanation. What, exactly, is the hope that comes on Easter?

            A church layperson once said that the one thing he wants to know about a pastor is whether or not she has suffered. I think those who stand to preach good news on Easter Sunday should have some experience with weeping and heartache for nearly every person who shows up will have had plenty of experience with both.

            Bob Kesel was familiar with struggle. He was a veteran of the Korean War. I once heard him say that he didn’t sit in a chair for two years during his time serving the military in Korea. There were no chairs available to him in Korea, along with TV’s, cars and fast food. Rev. Kesel knew loss firsthand. His first child was born stillborn; and on a Christmas Eve, no less.

            Pastor Kesel was a gifted preacher, a brilliant student of the Bible, and a skilled leader of people. He visited the sick and shut-in members of his large congregation faithfully and he offered wise counsel to those who sought his help. But the greatest strength of his numerous strengths was his deep and abiding trust in Jesus Christ—a faith that carried him day by day.

            Here’s what my pastor wrote twenty-seven Easters ago in his Pastor’s Column:

“Easter is to our faith what water is the ocean, what stone is to a mountain, what blood is to our bodies. Ray Linquist, former pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, said that ‘Easter is the unique substance of redemptive reality. It is the first and final word in the dictionary of God. It says that Christ is the Author and Finisher of our faith, that He contains us because death could not contain Him . . .’

For me Easter is the only thing that makes sense out of life. Easter transforms ‘the foolishness of Christ’ into ‘the hope of the gospel.’ On an ancient Roman wall there is a cryptic scene chiseled by someone into the stone. It depicts three crosses: two men hang on the outer crosses and a jackass hangs in the middle. That is precisely what Calvary would mean, if it were not for the Resurrection. But on Sunday morning as Christians we will celebrate the triumph of Good over evil, life over death, righteousness over sin as we sing once again:

Christ, the Lord is risen today: Alleluia!

Sons of men and angels say: Alleluia!

Raise your joys and triumphs high: Alleluia!

Sing, ye heavens and earth reply: Alleluia!

Getting Ready for Holy Week

            It’s the time of the year when paper copies of worship bulletins litter my desk. Here at the church office, we’re getting ready for Holy Week. This means our church staff spends many hours writing, editing, locating people, and doing our best to stay healthy. Lesson one for church staff members and leaders for Holy Week: Don’t get sick.

            Holy Week contains the seven days before Easter Sunday, from Palm Sunday morning to Holy Saturday night. The four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—give a lot of attention to those seven days. John’s Gospel gives 8 chapters.

            As Jesus lived them, the days of Holy Week, were weighted with pressure, conflict and drama. Author Joan Chittister writes of Holy Week, “All in all, it is a week that brings us face-to-face with the great question, why must this happen? What is all this suffering about? But deep down inside of us, we already know what the life of Jesus and these first days of Holy Week confirm: there are some things worth living for, even if we find ourselves having to die for them as well.”

            I’m always sorry when folks just show up for Easter. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m glad to see all the people but I think if you walk into church on Easter and having missed the worship of Holy Week, it’s like walking into a play for the last act. I am a big advocate of building the rest of your life around the worship of Holy Week.

            Palm Sunday sets the drama of Holy Week. The crowds cheer their praises to God when Jesus enters Jerusalem. Then, on Friday, the crowds scream at Pilate to crucify Him. Anyone who has seriously sought to follow Jesus knows what it is like to be in either or both crowds.

Palm Sunday Worship: 8:30 Traditional in the sanctuary, 11:00 Contemporary in Fellowship Hall, Educational Hour for all ages at 9:45

            Maundy Thursday marks the last meal Jesus had with His disciples. That meal began with Jesus washing the feet of His friends, including Judas who would betray Him and Peter who would deny Him. We gather for a Soup & Bread Supper at 6:00 p.m. in Fellowship Hall. Worship at evening begins at 7:00 p.m. in Fellowship Hall. Grant Farmer, our Contemporary Music Director has organized a musical narration of the events of this night called, “I Know What Love is Now” featuring a number of vocalists from Westminster Choir College. The Lord’s Supper is shared on this evening.

Maundy Thursday: Soup & Bread Supper at 6:00 p.m., worship at 7:00 p.m. in Fellowship Hall

            Good Friday is the day Jesus gave His life for us. We gather in the sanctuary for worship with Tenebrae, the service of shadows. Seven readers read from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ betrayal, trials, sentence, death and burial. When we leave church that night, the sanctuary is dark and we depart in silence.

Good Friday: 7:00 p.m. worship in the Sanctuary

            Easter Sunday Now, having walked through all of these other services in Holy Week, you enter church. The rooms are full of light and the smell of flowers. We greet each other with the impossible good news: Christ the Lord is risen, He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Easter Sunday: 6:30 a.m. Sunrise service in the courtyard; 8:30 Children’s Service in Fellowship Hall; 9:45 Children’s Program in the sanctuary; 11:00 a.m. Celebration Service in Fellowship Hall. Breakfast served in the Music Room after the sunrise service, with Coffee Hour following the second and third service

March 1977

You have put gladness in my heart

    more than when their grain and wine abound.

Psalm 4:7

 “We have a finite numbers of ways to sin; God has an infinite number of ways to forgive. After observing the human condition for a few years, we find that in regard to sin we’re mostly watching reruns . . . Sinning doesn’t take much imagination. But forgiveness and salvation? That’s a different story: every time it happens, it’s fresh, original, catching us by surprise.”

Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall

            Sometime in Mid-March of 1977 I became a Christian. I don’t know the exact date but I do know the exact month. For me, meeting Jesus Christ was an encounter I’ve never forgotten. That unknown day in a known month was forty years ago. I am who I am because of what happened all those years ago.

            I was a sophomore at Penncrest High School on the day I met Christ. It was a lousy day, I remember that much. I think I blew a test and I’m pretty sure that a girl I liked blew me off. I remember weeping as I went to sleep that night. I wept from a place of brokenness and emptiness. In the previous months, I had been attending the youth group at our church and like a sponge; I was soaking up all I could about the Christian faith. Sure, I had been raised in Sunday school and church but it was as if I was hearing the good news for the first time.

            I heard that Christianity is less a religion than a relationship. I heard that the Bible was more than a bunch of made-up stories. I heard that I could be forgiven and that forgiveness makes everything new. I wanted to be new even though I only 16-years old. Through my tears and out of great pain, I cried out to my Savior, “Jesus, would you come and take over my life.” And He did.

Two weeks after I gave my life to Jesus, I felt that I was supposed to be minister. That came as a surprise to me and to just about everyone I knew. Since fourth grade, I had been working with speech therapists to help me with a severe stuttering problem. So this stutterer, named Stuart Spencer (which is a tough name to have when you stammered like me) was called by the Lord God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, to stand and speak in front of people.

The verse from Psalm 4: 7 has always meant a lot to me. The writer says that God has given more gladness or joy than when their grain and new wine abound. Pile up what you want—things, money, pleasure. Those things will never come close to delivering me the gladness that I have known for forty years.

The Puppy in Me

            She is a nine-pound bundle of off-the-chart puppy cuteness. Her name is Elsie. She is the newest member of our family. She may be killing me. Now when you look at the picture of Elsie you could say to yourself: That puppy couldn’t hurt a flea. How is she going to ruin a 6’6” pastor? Let me tell how she will do it.

            From the moment she wakes up early in the morning, she has a simple mission. Elsie wants to chew up the whole house; every part of it. She chews the flowers, she chews the rug, she chews the furniture. Then, after chewing, she bites. Her little puppy teeth easily pierce skin as well as clothing of most thickness. I push her away with a strong and firm, “NO!” She wiggles her tail and returns to chewing down our house. Soon she will urinate and/or defecate anywhere she pleases. This little bundle of puppy chews, bites, and relieves herself—that’s what she does morning, noon, and night.

            I try working out in our living room. I can’t do any exercise that lasts longer than five seconds for I have to get Elsie from the chewing, the biting or doing her business. Cooking or working on my computer isn’t any easier.

            My family and I are doing our best to train her to go outside and get comfortable in her crate. I see little progress after a week of having Elsie in our home.

            She reminds me of me sometimes, this sweet, little puppy dog. Like a puppy, I get fixated on doing something destructive to myself or others. I don’t like hearing a firm No either. I’m slow to learn the kinds of practices that could really help me; things like patience and letting go of grudges. I’m like a puppy but not as cute.

            The Bible is full of encouragement for us in our puppy-struggles. We find that we are to leave the darkness and head into the light. Once we were spiritually dead; now we’re alive. We were like children and with God’s help we strive towards becoming spiritual grownups. Some days, we can see that we’re well down the road of maturity. On other hands, we’re chewing, biting, and going the bathroom, in a manner of speaking.

            This morning, I heard myself say something that I know and believe about Elsie, and also about me: She’s going to make it.

This is Elsie.

This is Elsie.

Finally Free

          Brother Joseph Wallace-Williams, a monk at Holy Cross Monastery, basically invited himself to Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church. Last spring, when I was there for a prayer retreat, I ran into Brother Joseph in the gift shop of the monastery and he said to me, “We’ve got to come visit your church sometime.” Great idea, I thought. I have always wanted to bring a taste of the beauty and holiness of Holy Cross back to 1680 Aquetong Road. Next weekend March 25 and 26, the date of our Renewal Weekend; the blessing of this monastic community comes in the form of Brother Joseph.

          In November when I last visited Holy Cross Monastery, I sat with Joseph to plan out the weekend. He and I considered some topics for the half-day prayer retreat on Saturday, March 25th. Joseph reeled through a couple of suggestions before he said, “How about forgiveness?” I guess I reacted noticeably—maybe falling off my chair gave it away. Watching me, Joseph said, “I think forgiveness is our theme.”

          I know so many people who struggle with the idea of forgiveness; and that includes me. Pastor Don Mackintosh offers this open-ended statement to identify and understand a person’s emotional pain: “Once upon a time something happened that really upset me, and to this day I have not let it go. This is how that decision has impacted my life . . .” Oh the stories of pain, hurt, disappointment and bitterness that could flow from that statement! My concern as a pastor is to help others, and again including me, to move beyond the imprisoning pain of the past and to walk free from the prison cell of resentment and anger. I think forgiveness is the only way out of that cell.

          Don Mackintosh, author of a wonderful article on forgiveness called, “The Role of Forgiveness in the Recovery of Physical and Mental Health”, wrote the following: “True Christian ministry must involve forgiveness, and those who embrace true forgiveness experience lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.” This pastor cites a study conducted of female incest survivors who attended weekly sessions on forgiveness for fourteen months. “Compared to control group, they showed gains in forgiveness and hope together with significant decreases in anxiety and depression.”

          So what is forgiveness? We have to start with what it is: “Forgiveness is a process that takes time, it involves letting go of . . . a negative response following an offense. Through forgiveness, a positive response towards the offender emerges.”

          Next Saturday, Brother Joseph Wallace-Williams offers a retreat on forgiveness. To register, sign up on the Table of Well Wishing this Sunday morning or register through our website: http://tmpc.org/retreats/. Join us and watch the door of that terrible prison cell open.

Here is a link to the article by Don Mackintosh:

https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2017/01/The-role-of-forgiveness-in-the-recovery-of-physical-and-mental-health1

Sitting Next to a Pilot

            In these days of Kayak, Expedia, and Travelocity, you can select your seat for your flights. You want a window seat? Buy early and pick your view. Like me, you’d like some extra legroom? Keep your fingers crossed and see if there’s an open seat on the bulkhead. We can pick our seats, but unless we’re traveling with our family or a large group, we usually don’t know who will end up next to us. That’s where God comes in. I think the Lord likes to get involved in the process of selecting seats for us.

            Bill is a friend from my childhood. His father was my pastor. Bill is a pilot for Delta airlines. Earlier this week, he shared on Facebook a story from a recent flight he took, not flying the plane but sitting in a seat with the other souls.

Commuting is mostly drudgery. Today, however, was not. I usually board near the end of the process. I was about to take my aisle seat and a young lady was standing behind me looking around nervously. I asked her if she had the window seat and she said yes, but asked if I would please take it. I said sure! (I like to control the shade). Then she told me that it was her first time flying. I thought, oh boy. This can mean one million questions or even fingernail marks through your sleeve. This is not an unusual occurrence going in and out of Roanoke, due to the high concentration of country folk who have never been on an airplane. She was very respectful and polite, and since I was in uniform, she said that it was an answer to prayer that she got to sit next to a pilot. I decided that it was best not to tell her about that time I got all iced up and almost fell out of the sky, or discuss the Sully movie. We rolled down the runway, lifted off and began climbing. I was thinking "Thank God, it's a smooth day". A few minutes in, I looked over and saw that she had tears rolling down her cheeks and I asked her if everything was okay. She smiled and said that she was fine. Phew. Then she told me that flying was on her bucket list; that she probably had about six months left, and that she was very sad that she hadn't done this before. Jeez. Now I had tears welling up, so I decided to look out the window until I felt I was able to carry on a normal conversation.

A few take-aways here: You never know who the Lord will cross into your path. She was waiting for a liver transplant, but the due to her condition, the docs aren't holding out for a lot of success. So I will remember to pray for her. Secondly, it's nice to be reminded of how something that has become rather routine to me; is a still a thrill to another. It's also sobering to cross paths with someone who is gracefully facing her own mortality.

I asked her if she had anything else on that bucket list, and she said that she'd like to go sky diving. I said, 'Wow! It took you this long to get into an airplane, and now you want to jump out of a perfectly good one???'

            I trust and believe in a God who arranges the seating for pilots to sit next to anxious, first-time flyers. I think God likes to put us next to people who need us, even when we don’t know it or they don’t know it. God knows who needs to go where. So be ready to be seated next to someone who needs: a person of prayer, a parent with some experience, someone who is good with a checkbook or investments, a listener who can listen well, a light reflecting the greatest Light of Jesus.

Faith & Flying by the Seat of Our Pants

            The title for this week’s Grace Notes comes from our new Office Administrator, Melissa Bottelier. She suggested this: Flying by the Seat of Our Pants. That works for me.

            Take a young, newly married young couple you know and love: Peter and Bailey Heckman. On Monday, Bailey and PJ were just a few short weeks away from the birth of their first child. A year ago, they were weeks away from their wedding. A lot has happened to these two in the last twelve months.

            On Tuesday evening, PJ and Bailey drove to the ER of St. Mary Medical Center because PJ had a pain in his leg that wasn’t going away. Tests revealed that PJ had a whopper of a blot clot in his leg with smaller clots in his chest. He was admitted to the hospital and hooked up an IV to relieve him of his clots.  

            On Thursday morning, Bailey stopped by the church for a few hours before her weekly check-up with her doctor. I thought Bailey looked tired and stressed—for good reason. Late Thursday afternoon, PJ called me to tell me that Bailey’s blood pressure was high and her doctor had her admitted to St. Mary Hospital. Bailey and PJ are in separate units but on the same floor of the hospital—how romantic!

            Today, Friday morning, Bailey will be induced to deliver her daughter.

            This is not how Bailey and PJ planned it. But then life pays little attention to our plans.

            We plan and God laughs. Maybe a year from now, when a first birthday and a second anniversary are being celebrated comfortably at home, this young couple will laugh. Now, they rest secure in God’s loving hands. Using those everlasting, loving hands He unfolds His plans for us. I’d like to share the first of two quotes by Pastor Tim Keller of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. “No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career — something will inevitably ruin it.”

            Here’s the second quote from Pastor Keller: “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”

Positive in Purple

            Lent begins next Wednesday, March 1st. What will you give up? Will it be chocolate, Facebook, or for the courageous, coffee, as I did for a few years. If you aren’t sure what to give up for the season of Lent, let me make a suggestion for you. Give up criticism.

            A few weeks ago a friend of the church handed me a devotional from Guideposts written by Jan Weeks. Jan told of a challenge made by her pastor. In a sermon, Pastor Patty wondered to her people, “Wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where no one complained or criticized or gossiped?” That sounds like a better world to me.

            In worship that particular Sunday the church ushers passed around baskets filled with purple rubber-band bracelets. Pastor Patty invited the congregation to wear a band and to switch it to the other wrist anytime the bracelet-wearer said something negative. The goal was to make it 21 days with the bracelet on the same wrist; for it takes about three weeks to form a habit, like the habit of not complaining or criticizing.

            I was reminded of something that the late Catherine Marshall wrote years ago. She too was convicted by the Holy Spirit to work on her negative attitude. She wrote, “The Lord continues to deal with me about my critical spirit, convicting me that I have been wrong to judge any person or situation. One morning He [meaning the Lord God Almighty] gave me an assignment: for one day I was to go on a ‘fast’ from criticism. I was not to criticize anybody or anything.”

            Catherine wasn’t crazy about this little assignment from the Lord. She was certain that the world in general and her family members in particular would miss the insights of her judgments. God told her to put a sock in it: Just obey Me without questioning; an absolute fast on any critical statements for this day.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words . . .

            Certain that she would die or the world would end, Catherine entered her fast from criticism on shaky legs. She discovered that no one in her family missed her criticism and the world continuing turning nicely. It wasn’t until later in the day that Catherine discovered what God had in store for her. “Ideas began to flow in a way I had not experienced in years. . . My critical nature had not corrected a single one of the multitudinous things I found fault with. What it had done was to stifle my own creativity—in prayer, in relationships, perhaps even in writing—ideas that He [meaning the Lord God Almighty] wanted to give me.”

            That night Catherine attended her weekly Bible study and shared her fast with her friends. She was amazed by their response as many admitted that a critical spirit was the number one problem in their offices, marriages, churches and with their teenaged children.

            We have a purple band for you if you can make it to worship this Sunday. Wear it and while it’s one your wrist, ask God for His help in conquering criticism. The world, your family, our church will be better for it.

Yes!

Whatever God has promised gets stamped with the Yes of Jesus. In him, this is what we preach and pray, the great Amen, God’s Yes and our Yes together, gloriously evident. God affirms us, making us a sure thing in Christ, putting his Yes within us. By his Spirit he has stamped us with his eternal pledge—a sure beginning of what he is destined to complete.

2 Corinthians 1: 20 – 22, The Message

         Last Friday evening, Sam was at his high school taking part in the Science Fair. He is a senior and like many of his peers, his mind has been occupied with where he will go to college next year. He received an email notification from his number one choice of colleges: Trinity College in Hartford. There was a message: check your application status. Taking a deep breath, Sam clicked open his file and found this:

Yes!

            Yes! You are accepted.

            Yes! We want you.      

            Yes! There is a place for you at Trinity College.

            Yes! Your parents are going to spend a lot of their money here. (Trinity didn’t really say that but it’s true nonetheless.)

            I actually didn’t hear the good news until the following morning when Leslie told me. I must tell you that the verses from 2 Corinthians 1 starting rolling around in my mind as I wept a little. Call it the power of yes. Sure, it’s good that Sam is going to college but it’s really good to be accepted, wanted, and included.

            Sometimes during a funeral service I like to talk about the amazing grace of God. I quote a favorite professor of mine who taught me at Fuller Theological Seminary. His name was Lewis Smedes. He died a few years ago. Lewis Smedes prayed like no one I ever heard. He spoke to God personally, honestly and beautifully. Professor Smedes knew God’s grace at depth. This is what he said about it once. Pay careful attention: “But most of us have an underground trembling anxiety that, if people could see us for what we really are, they would not accept us. And we are also anxious that God, who does see us for what we really are will look at us and say: ‘You are not acceptable.’ But God comes with another word. Whether you’re acceptable or not doesn’t matter. What matters is this: ‘You are accepted no matter what.’ Grace means that God says Yes to us even when we say No to ourselves. His Yes is so strong that our No about ourselves does not have a chance. I do not know what faith you have or what religion you follow. I do know this: If your religion only clobbers you for not living up to God’s standards or your Mother’s or your own, your religion has no grace in it. But grace, in my experience, is especially for people who feel, not that things on the outside are all wrong, but that they are all wrong on the inside. When we have gummed up our own lives, and we can’t seem to find a good word to say for ourselves, grace says that God will accept us and never reject us. Acceptance, you see, is what grace is really all about. I believe that the deepest need that any of us have is to know that we are accepted and we will never be rejected. Let me say it again: Grace is God’s resounding Yes to you while you are saying No to yourself. And his yes to you is so resounding that it drowns out your no that you say to yourself.

God’s Yes is so strong your No doesn’t stand a chance.

         It’s just a college acceptance letter, I know; but it has taught me and my family just how powerful and good Yes can be.

No Solid Doors

            The recent news from our neighboring Solebury School is both heart-wrenching and heart-breaking. Here’s what was written in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

At first it was just a rumor at the prestigious boarding school: A 15-year-old sophomore was having a sexual affair with the 25-year-old music teacher.

Both denied a relationship, and administrators could prove nothing.

Months later, the girl's mother found evidence of the affair, including letters from the teacher to her daughter.

What happened next could offer a glimpse into the past culture at the Solebury School, now the subject of a criminal investigation, accused of tolerating sexual abuse of students or misconduct by staff over decades.

After hearing the rumor in the mid-1990s, administrators never called the police. The teacher . . . was allowed to move quietly from the school's rural campus near New Hope and resume teaching elsewhere. The girl left the school, too. And when her parents asked for their deposit back for the next academic year, Solebury refused.

Two years passed before the teenager and her mother contacted Solebury Township police, and Chadwick was arrested. He was later convicted and jailed.

The grand jury report paints a picture of an elite boarding school -- tuition now costs $35,000 a year for day students and $52,000 for residents -- where rules were loose and relationships were informal

"No boundaries existed between students and teachers," it said, creating an environment that ‘paved the way for abuse of students.’"

             Any news of the abuse of children and youth is almost too much to hear. This is the reason why I wept when I first watched “Spotlight” the Academy Award-winning film from last year that told the wretched story of the Roman Catholic clergy abuse scandal as first reported by the Boston Globe in the early 2000’s. I wept because of the hundreds, probably thousands of individuals who have had their faith in God shattered because of secrets and cover-ups.  

            It is for this reason that I asked to have a window put in my study door. I requested the Property Committee to install a pane that makes my workplace private but visible. There should be no place in our church where someone can hide from the eyes of others. This small window protects me but much more importantly protects children, youth people and adults. The gospel is the power of God to change lives eternally. Those, like me, who speak it and try to live the gospel, are called to do so with complete integrity. Let the good news never be about me, and may my weakness never compromise or distract others from seeing Jesus Christ alone

Carried by Four

While he was preaching God’s word to them, four men arrived carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. They couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, so they dug a hole through the roof above his head. Then they lowered the man on his mat, right down in front of Jesus. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “My child, your sins are forgiven.”

Mark 2: 1 – 5, New Living Translation

 

          Twelve men from Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church stole away last weekend for our annual Men’s Retreat. Most of us were rooting for some snow so we could properly call it a Winter Retreat. By the time we crossed Route 84 in central Pennsylvania, we saw some snow on the ground—slick with a slippery, frozen coat. It was cold enough to freeze a millpond behind Tim Sager’s house.

          It was a very good weekend and the reason that it was is that we experienced fellowship. What is fellowship? It is hanging together while hanging out over meals, a hike, and a field trip to Sky Top Lodge and watching the film “Hacksaw Ridge”. Fellowship was found around the tables as we feasted on delicious, rich, guy-food: lots of protein and carbs. Fellowship was discovered as we sat and read God’s Word together.

          On Saturday evening, we read the whole story from Mark 2. I’ve included a few verses above. This incident occurred early in Jesus’ ministry. He had just started preaching, teaching and healing. Almost immediately the crowds noticed Him. In a small house in Capernaum, a tiny fishing village on the north shore of the Lake of Galilee, Jesus taught one morning and kept on going all day. The house was packed. Imagine 100 people wedged into a space the size of a garage.

          A group of guys heard that Jesus is in town. They had a friend who was paralyzed and these friends figured that Jesus could help their buddy. They threw their immovable friend on a make-shift stretcher and carry him to the house. They never got closer than twenty yards before they ran into all the people who couldn’t fit in the house but were straining to hear whatever they can from Jesus. The four friends were fisherman: big, strong, and young. With a “pardon me, excuse me” they pushed through the people to the outside staircase. They marched right up to the flat roof. Figuring Jesus had to be somewhere down there; they opened a hole in the roof. Branches and bits of dried mud fell down into the living room where Jesus sat and taught. Flecks of earth covered His hair. Then He stopped speaking, looked up and watched with a growing smile, a man get lowered in front of him. I like to imagine that the paralyzed guy looked over and got a face-full of Jesus. The Son of God looked up at his buddies holding the rope, saw their crazy faith and then healed the man, first on the inside and then on the outside.

          Four men were holding him. Don’t you need at least four people to “hold” you? Are there at least four friends who hold you in prayer; hold you accountable and carry you when you have lost strength? This account suggests that we can even carry someone with a faith that they don’t have. I am convinced that we surely need at least four people to help us carry the stuff we tend to carry along. Robert Benson makes this point when he writes, “The things we carry around with us—unsaid, unacknowledged, unconfessed—the amount of stuff we insist on carrying around with us in that little sack on our shoulders is killing us. It is killing us literally and figuratively, spiritually and emotionally, quietly and surely.”

 

          In Lent this year, we’re offering opportunities for everyone in our congregation to join a small group for the six weeks leading up to Easter. We’re going to use a study called Finding Your Way Back to God. Starting Sunday, February 12th, stop by the Lenten Small Group table in Fellowship Hall during both coffee hours and join a group to find your four. 

What C.S. Lewis Said and Didn't Say About Politics

            In the middle of the Second World War, English author C. S. Lewis wrote a small book called Screwtape Letters. You can consider this a Christian book but not in the conventional sense. The Screwtape Letters are a collection of letters written by a high-level devil named Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice demon.

            Uncle Screwtape, sometimes patiently and often without patience, through his letters guides, counsels and rebukes his young nephew in the finer arts of distracting and discouraging a new Christian who is the charge of Wormwood. When you read the book, and you should if you haven’t, you have to remember that the “Enemy” in the book is the Lord God.

            The book created a sensation when it was published. Numerous clergymen of the time condemned it as diabolical. I am guessing that they never read it—too bad. For to read Screwtape Letters is to get a pretty fair sense of the unseen world of principalities and powers, as Paul calls them in Ephesians 6:12: “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” C.S. Lewis pulls back the cover of this reality and helps us see what we’re up against.

            In the last week, a quote attributed to this author and this book appeared on various social media sites. I read it and without really thinking too much about it, liked the sentiment of it. Here it is:

My Dear Wormwood,

Be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control. Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing. Ensure that the patient continues to believe that the problem is “out there” in the “broken system” rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.

Keep up the good work,

Uncle Screwtape

             Nice quote, but Lewis didn’t write it and you won’t find it in Screwtape.

            Lewis did say something about the political arena and the Christian life. This is what he wrote in Screwtape:

 

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilizations”. You see the little rift? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game,
Your affectionate uncle

             Both quotes are helpful to me in these days of heated political discourse amid great division within our culture. I think Christians should be a part of bringing the good news of the Gospel into all areas of our lives. This means participation by voting, becoming informed, discussing, even arguing and marching. I can never be effective though if I am full of rage, resentment, and superiority -- something Uncle Screwtape knows. 

 

My Dad

            My father, Philip Spencer, turns 90 next Tuesday, January 24th. Many of you know him from his years of visiting Thompson Church. When my mother was alive, she and my Dad counted three churches as their own—Media Presbyterian Church, where they were most Sundays; the Rehoboth United Church of Christ, where my brother Scott was then the pastor; and Thompson Memorial, where I am. They loved all three congregations but my parents were adamant about this: TMPC had the best covered-dish dinners, by a wide margin.

            At 90 years old my Dad is a wonder. He still drives, and apart from rolling through the occasional stop sign that he deems unnecessary, he handles his Ford well. He is a great walker. His ideal day would be to take the train to Philadelphia and walk all over the city from City Hall to the Art Museum to South Street. I don’t think he is on any medications—if he is, maybe a pill here and there. He doesn’t have an artificial limb in his body, neither do his surviving siblings. His mind is quick and alert, kept sharp by cross-word puzzles, Sudoku, and bridge. My brothers and I all desperately hope that we have all of his genes.

            As vital as my father is physically, he is also alive relationally and spiritually. A natural salesman, he can make friends and spark a conversation anywhere he goes. He is adored by his grandchildren. His three granddaughters all cherish the days they spend with him, as do my sons. Pop Pop, the name is known and loved by, does not sit in a corner like a potted plant. My Dad is always in the thick of any conversation. By turns funny and insightful, my one niece, Annik, once celebrated my Dad this way: “Thanks for being the coolest, funniest, kindest and hippest grandfather of all time!”

            This weekend my family gathers to honor my Dad on his birthday. What a gift he is! What a blessing! What a gift he has been to me and my family and all his church families too.

 

            Years ago in my twenties when I was single and a bit lonely I told a former college roommate of mine that I envied the relationship he had with a young woman, whom he later married. One of things that envy takes from us is perspective, for my friend answered me: Well I’m envious of your relationship with your Dad. I had never thought that someone could want what I had taken for granted. Since then, I have tried to never think that way again.  

As the Snow Comes Down from Heaven

            A friend from church wanted to show me his favorite Christmas card he received this year. Full disclosure: I like Christmas cards but not so much that I want to see ones sent from strangers. I’m not itching to see families I don’t know modeling their ugly Christmas sweaters.

            This card featured an original watercolor of a snow scene. The artist and author of the card is 90-year-old, retired minister. A picture of this pastor and his wife is on the back and, I must say, they look at least twenty-years younger and they weren’t wearing ugly Christmas sweaters. This past September, they celebrated their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. As I held the card and heard about this couple, they impressed me more and more.

            They spend a part of their winters in Canada, where the husband snow-shoes into the woods and paints. Keep in mind, this man is 90. Last March, as the winter started fading and the hint of spring could be felt in the air, the pastor quickly sketched a stream with snow on the banks and on the trees standing by the waters. In his Christmas card, the pastor preached a little as he wrote of his painting:

You might call this scene, ‘Preparation for Spring.’ The snow was continuing the wonderful purpose for which God sent the snow. One of the few references to snow in God’s Word, Isaiah 55:10, echoes what we see in this snow painting. God, through the changing seasons, sends the snow with purpose. As the snow comes down from heaven and does not return without watering the earth . . . so shall my word be. It shall not return . . . without accomplishing what I desire, and without accomplishing that for which I sent it.” In every season of your life, God has a purpose. He wants to accomplish that for which he called you through his gifts to you. Even as the snow carries out God’s purpose in changing ways, so God is working in and through your life and ours in changing ways . . . Look for the ways he is seeking to accomplish his purpose through your life.

 Preachers . . . can’t stop preaching—even at 90!

On Tuesday I attended the funeral of Mary Miller, the mother of one of my closest friends, Jonathan Miller. Mary produced, not one, but two pastors—her other son, Jim, is also a Presbyterian minister. Mary also gave birth to two amazing daughters, one a nurse and the other a journalist. All four children spoke beautifully at Mary’s service. Her son, Jim, the other pastor, spoke of a blessing that happened at the end of his mother’s life.  

Mary had been suffering from dementia for a number of years. In recent years, she did not know the names of her children. Mary was ready to go home, and her family was ready to release her. But Mary didn’t go home; she lingered and lingered for weeks.

 

 Jim is the Pastor of a large church in Tulsa and he made the trip east, in the middle of Advent just to sit with his Mom. He wondered why the delay. As Jim sat in Mary’s room, usually with one or both of his sisters and often with his brother, he realized that God was accomplishing his purpose in the last weeks of Mary’s life. Jim said, “It was a blessing to sit in a room and look at someone you love so much. And that blessing was extended as in those long hours, I had deep and wonderful conversations with those I love—conversations that likely would not have happened.” Jim learned that while Jesus sometimes seems late, He is always on time when it comes to accomplishing God’s purpose in our lives.