Many Shining Moments

            David Barrett is a song writer. He tells of a morning 32 years ago when he wrote a song. “I wrote a song in 1986 entitled ‘One Shining Moment.’ Who knew that this seemingly ordinary morning, this song would transport me through a basketball portal which years later would land me at a Final Four host city - only to look around and think…all these people know my song that was born that strange and wonderful morning in a little farm town outside East Lansing, Michigan…!?!When I call the morning ordinary I think it draws attention to that days like this don’t arrive and say “…look here, you’re going to write this wonderful song today!” Perhaps I just really paid attention that spring morning.”

            For 30 plus years “One Shining Moment” is played at the end of the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, right after the last shot. In the 3 minutes and 10 seconds of the song, sung by Luther Vandross, highlights and lowlights from the tournament’s previous weeks are displayed culminating in the winning team celebrating their championship. This year, for the second time in two years, the Villanova Wildcats basked in their shining moment.

             This is a hokey song, no question, but I’ve been singing it all this week and not just because I’m happy that Villanova won again. Lectio Divina is a spiritual practice where one reflects or meditates on a phrase, an image or, in this instance, a song. In this week of ministry, my last week of serving as the Pastor of the Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church, it feels like one shining moment among too many to count over the course of more than twenty-two years.

         I am honored to have served as your Pastor for these long but wonderful years. I love who you are and what God is doing among you. I thank you for your love, kindness, patience and support. As I sing “One Shining Moment” over and over again this week, I know that I have many mistakes. I’ve said things that have hurt some. I’ve made decisions or been a part of decisions that have brought pain to others. I’ve missed opportunities and I’ve failed. But I will tell you that I, by God’s grace have sought to “reach deep inside” and been committed to be “willing try” and finding great joy as I “reached for the sky”. The result is that I have experienced many shining moments among you. To that end, my deepest hope is that God would be praised, thanked and known in my life and ministry and always in Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church.

The ball is tipped
and there you are
you’re running for your life
you’re a shooting star
And all the years
no one knows
just how hard you worked
but now it shows…
(in) One Shining Moment, IT’S ALL ON THE LINE
One Shining Moment, THERE FROZEN IN TIME

 But time is short
and the road is long
in the blinking of an eye
ah that moment’s gone
And when it’s done
win or lose
you always did your best
cuz inside you knew…
(that) One Shining Moment, YOU REACHED DEEP INSIDE
One Shining Momen, YOU KNEW YOU WERE ALIVE

 Feel the beat of your heart
feel the wind in your face
it’s more than a contest
it’s more than a race…

And when it’s done
win or lose
you always did your best
cuz inside you knew…
(that) One Shining Moment, YOU REACHED FOR THE SKY
One Shining Momen, YOU KNEW
One Shining Moment, YOU WERE WILLING TO TRY
One Shining Moment….

Here’s a link to the 2018 version of “One Shining Moment”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbQumI0mUs8

In Good Hands

 Here’s another statement you may trust: if anyone is seeking a position as elder in the church, he or she desires honorable and important work. 

The Voice, 1 Timothy 3

            In this season of “last things” I attended my last session meeting on Tuesday night. By my rough estimate, I have moderated somewhere around 300 session meetings in my twenty-two years of ministry here. More than one person has told me that they would never serve on session. It sounds too much like sausage-making—you don’t want to see what happens behind closed doors.

            A few evenings when I was making that drive to church for a session meeting, I wanted to stay home, but I only felt that way less than a handful of times. Most session meetings, numbering in the high two hundreds, session members did what they needed to and they did so with grace and a wish to serve our congregation. I am always aware that session members are volunteers; and most work long hours before they arrive at church for the meeting.

            When I complete my work in little more than a week, I can walk away from Thompson Church with a deep confidence that things are in good hands with our session.

            In the Voice, a contemporary Bible translation, the editors make this important point about the value of good church leaders, like our Deacons and Elders:

If the church lacks qualified, positive leaders, then it will not succeed in its mission. Paul never provides a job description for “overseers” and “deacons.” What he does offer is a list of character traits or qualifications that challenge even the most outstanding disciple. Essentially they are servant-leaders of the church. They give themselves to the church’s well-being by teaching the truth, living a life in imitation of Jesus, and defending the church from false teaching. Paul knows firsthand how important it is to discover, train, and empower capable leaders.

            Thompson Church: You've got 'em, great  leaders. 

Of Snow Plows and Serenity

            I counted a few frustrated Facebook posts early in the week as weather reports confirmed one more snow storm on the way. Faithful church folks colorfully and coarsely told winter what they thought of it. It’s now just three days until Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week and our church looks like a Christmas card.

            On my desk sits a new addition, given to me by the Foglifters, the Alcoholics Anonymous group who meet in our buildings every morning. Last Friday evening I attended their 28th anniversary meeting. I’m always permitted a few moments to speak to the group that fills Fellowship Hall. As I do every year I greet them on behalf of our congregation. I tell those good people that we’re proud of them and support them in their efforts to stay sober and help others do the same. After I made my brief comments, two members gave me a gift bag. In it I found a plaque with the words of the Serenity Prayer, the full version.

 

GOD, grant me the serenity
to accept the things
I cannot change, 

Courage to change the
things I can, and the
wisdom to know the difference. 

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as the
pathway to peace. 

Taking, as He did, this
sinful world as it is, 
not as I would have it. 

Trusting that He will make
all things right if I
surrender to His Will; 

That I may be reasonably happy
in this life, and supremely
happy with Him forever in
the next. Amen

            This prayer is attributed to the pastor and theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who first wrote the prayer for a sermon at Heath Evangelical Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts, used it widely in sermons as early as 1934 and first published it in 1951 in a magazine column. The prayer spread both through Niebuhr's sermons and church groups in the 1930s and 1940s and was later adopted and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step programs. My friends in recovery frequently pray the first two lines of the prayer, often many times each day.

            If you consider the prayer you might wonder why addicts are drawn to it. Isn’t the more pressing need to ask that God would help the alcoholic not pick up a drink? Maybe, but those who have been sober for years have come to understand that one of the main diabolical forces pushing them to drink are unreasonable demands they place or allow others to place on their shoulders. The essence of the Serenity Prayer, particularly the full version, is humbly accepting what one finds in life. You don’t have to like it or love  it, but you do have to accept it. You won’t find peace—not in a snow storm, not in the transitions we’re facing together, and not even on a perfect spring day—without trusting, confident, and faith-filled acceptance.

A Baptized Pastor

            I found these statics in a file recently. The findings are unsettling to me. According to a study of pastors:  

·         One thousand five hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.

·         Eighty percent of pastors and eighty-four percent of their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastors.

·         Eighty percent of seminary graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.

·         Seventy percent felt God called them to pastoral ministry before their ministry began, but after three years in ministry, only fifty percent still felt called.

·         Eighty percent of pastors surveyed spend less than fifteen minutes a day in prayer.

·         Seventy percent said the only time they spend studying the Scriptures is when they are preparing their sermons.

            I read these figures with sadness and relief. I’m sad because I have friends who are no longer in the ministry because the work was too discouraging or they flamed out morally. I know other pastors who are so bitter that I don’t want to spend much time with them. With others I hear one horror story after another about the people they serve. My older brother Scott is also a pastor. When he was newly ordained, he used to attend meetings with other new pastors. Each meeting Scott heard complaint after complaint. My brother didn’t share their frustrations. He loved his congregation; and he loved being a pastor. He still does and so do I.

           Like any job, the ministry comes with challenges. There are days that are long and seasons that have been trying for me. But I’m so grateful that I’ve never lost my sense of call to be a Pastor. And I’m especially grateful that I look forward to getting here each day, particularly when it’s Sunday.

           What has kept me in the ministry for nearly thirty years? For starters I learned early on that I had to take care of myself because no one else was going to do that for me. So I figured out early on that I need to spend time in prayer and reading the Bible each day for my own spiritual nourishment and not to write a sermon. I need to exercise about four times a week. I need to eat well and sleep well. I need to take days off regularly and enjoy vacations faithfully. I need time with my wife and children and with my friends.

          I’ve also learned that I need to receive God’s grace day by day if I am to keep on going. I know that God’s forgiveness, kindness and faithfulness to me all come as sheer gifts. God gives me these things because He loves me and not because I’ve tried to be a good pastor or a good Christian. On many days, I’m neither.

But I am baptized!

          I once heard of a daily faith practice recommended by Martin Luther. Martin Luther recommended that believers should begin and end their day reminding themselves of their baptism and then go to work joyfully or to sleep cheerfully. When Luther was beset by doubt, discouragement, guilt and frustration he would cry out: “But I am baptized!” That’s me: a baptized Christian who happens to be a man who still loves to be a pastor.

My Daily Commute

            It is 12 miles exactly from my driveway in Morrisville to the upper parking lot of Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church. I make three left-hand turns: one onto Trenton Avenue, the second onto River Road, and a third onto Aquetong Road. Along this route there are two stop signs and only one traffic light. Without other cars on River Road, I can make that drive in 20 minutes. Leslie does it in 25 minutes. I’ve done it 15; more on that later.

            For twenty-two years this has been my daily commute—12 miles along one of the prettiest roads in the country. In every season of the year, there’s beauty to enjoy. In winter I love when the snow blankets the banks of the river and the ice piles up like large hunks of layer cake. In the spring I look forward to the moment when the leaves on the trees first bud. The greens are so bright and shiny on those first days. In the summer I like to keep an eye on my fellow wave-runners. I’m happy to see others enjoying the beauty of the Delaware River from the middle of it, riding a wave runner. One of my favorite things to do is take Leslie on a ride from the Yardley boat launch north to Bowman’s Tower. In the fall, when the foliage is peaked, I anticipate a late afternoon when the sunlight hits New Jersey, bathing the trees in golden light with a dark curtain of shadows drawing across the water.

            There used to be broken yellow lines that allowed me to pass the slower drivers. Years ago, the state made the lines of commute double yellow. This means if I get stuck behind someone who is slowing to enjoy the sights I love, I have to slow down with them. I do a better job of accepting these dawdlers on some days more than others.

            My daily drive has had an overall positive effect on me. Twenty minutes gives me adequate time to make the mental transfer from home to church and from church to home. When I walk into my home, most often I feel like I am where I need to be and not bringing the concerns of the church to my family. Pastors need to put their work down too.

            I have earned a reputation of liking to move along in my car. I’ve slowed down over the course of twenty-years. Early in my ministry, I helped drive a bunch of kids up to Lake Champion for their winter weekend. Leslie was pregnant with Sam. She and I were going to drive up with the luggage, get everyone settled and then head home, leaving the young people with the Youth Advisors. I was in the lead of a caravan of vans as we drove along back roads in Pennsylvania and New York. A police officer noticed our pack and followed us, though I didn’t know he was following us. Another van driver and I got into a short race in Milford, PA. The cop was still following us and he hit his lights and pulled us over. I got a ticket, with about twenty-five kids watching eagerly. Guess what was the first thing those young people told their parents on Sunday afternoon when they returned to our church? Pastor Spencer got a speeding ticket! This wasn’t my first ticket . . .  that month. Janice Slack approached me that week and informed me that several church members were concerned about my driving habits. I got the message.

            Now when I’m stuck behind a pokey driver, I pull my car way back. I remind myself that it’s fine if my drive takes a little longer. Enjoy your commute, I tell myself. It’s the best in the country.  

Trying to Be Wise

            Who likes to receive their annual review at work? Not many out there. The scheduled day for hearing feedback and “constructive criticism” is not Christmas or the 4th of July. Most of us who receive such reviews get a little tense and a bit anxious. I’m no different, though I am thankful for every review I’ve received since I started my ministry in the late autumn of 1995.

            Session has conducted all of my reviews. I’m so grateful for how generous they’ve been through the years with their compliments and affirmations. I’ve also received helpful feedback on various aspects of my work that I’ve tried to take to heart and work to improve. We can get better at what we do.

            Dr. Henry Cloud once gave a brilliant talk at the Global Leadership Summit sponsored by the Willow Creek Church in Chicago. It his presentation, Dr. Cloud drew up three categories of people as found in the book of Proverbs: the wise, the foolish, and the evil. You’ll find all three in businesses, schools and churches.  Each type of person receives correction or feedback differently. Wise persons see or hear the light of truth and adjust to it. Correct a wise person, Proverbs says, and she will become wiser. The wise wear happy faces when receiving feedback and they often can change, grow, and adapt for the better. Foolish persons are frequently smart, hardworking, and even productive; but they do not wear happy faces when hearing feedback. Rather than adjust to the light, they try to adjust the light. They do so by minimizing, denying, or blaming. Fools get angry or hurt often. Evil persons, according to Dr. Cloud go after the light or the one who shines the light on their lives. Such persons have destruction and war in their heart. When confronted, the evil person promises to bring the place down; and they will try. It’s best to keep your eye on that person and your distance from him.

            I still have my first performance review I received from session. It’s from 1996 and I would have been 35 years-old at the time and a pastor for 8 years. As with every review, sessions members were overly kind to me. Looking back as a much older pastor, I think I must have been like a puppy—lots of energy! Here’s a compliment: “Stuart’s enthusiasm is infectious and a breath of fresh air in the church. He is only completing his first year but his personality and convictions can be seen throughout the church. He is very well liked and I think he is well on the way to having a rich ministry at Thompson.”  Here’s a concern: “One area Stuart needs to improve is his impulsiveness—a kind of enthusiasm gone wild. He doesn’t wait for others to get on the same page. I’m sure this will improve with maturity and experience.” In other words, he’ll stop chewing up the furniture and jumping up on the visitors one day. He’s a puppy. He’ll grow out of it.

            My favorite line from this early review is this one: “Stuart should stop thinking about his next job and just plan how to spend about 5 years building Thompson. If he does this, the future will take care of itself.” 

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Saying a Good Good-Bye

“It's important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse. That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day.” 

Yann Martel, Life of Pi

             Sometimes when cancer comes to a loved one, there may come a moment when you realize that there is no more to be done besides keeping your loved one comfortable until death arrives. In late spring of 2005 my family was at that sad moment with my Mom. She had lung cancer and it was clear to my brothers, Blake and Scott and my father that she was dying.

            My Dad had been busy caring for my Mom since her cancer re-appeared just after the first of the year. My brothers and I knew that my mother wasn’t getting better; and we sensed that she wasn’t going survive. Maybe because love continues to blind, in their case, after fifty-two years of marriage, my parents had a harder time seeing and accepting her impending death. It can’t be easy to acknowledge then end of your life or the life of your spouse.

            In those last weeks of my mother’s life, my Dad hardly ever left her. She was the natural care-giver of the two. She was a Registered Nurse; my Dad owned an office supply and furniture business. I give him lots of credit. He never shrank from fulfilling his marriage vows until his wife drew her last breath as he and I stood beside her.

            When my father did understand and accept the end, all he wanted to do was to remember the years my Mom and he shared. He wanted to review every phase of their relationship by remembering their courtship and marriage, the birth of their sons and grandchildren, vacations and holidays. My Dad wanted to talk about those memories. He wanted to laugh one more time at numerous funny stories from their half-century together. Knowing how sentimental my father is, he probably wanted to hold my Mom’s hand and weep too.

            The act of saying a good good-bye requires time for careful remembering. A good good-bye is an intentional one with much time given for memories to surface and then be shared.  

            You and I are saying good-bye. I conclude my ministry in a matter of weeks. After Sunday, April 8th, I will no longer be your pastor. I want to say a good good-bye to you.

            I hope we can remember our many years together. There are Christmas Eves and Easter Sundays to recall. We have baptisms, weddings, even funerals to recall. I know that I have loads of retreats, missions trips and youth conferences to review mentally. If saying good-bye is like a small grief, and I think in this case it is just that; then we need to lean into our farewells. Let’s promise each other that we’ll give ourselves to walk through our memory galleries, pausing to relish those great events and offer God thanks. Additionally, let’s work to say what we need to say to each other: Thank you. I forgive you. I appreciate you. I love you very much. Let’s agree to leave nothing significant unsaid.

            Is that a deal?

Happy - Sad News

            On a muggy, stormy Sunday in July 1989, I preached a sermon at the United Presbyterian Church of Manoa in Havertown, PA. I had just graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary and was now ready to be ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament. The Associate Pastor Nominating Committee of the Manoa Church presented me to the members of the congregation as their candidate for this position.

            I had flown from southern California a couple of days earlier. I was completing a chaplaincy internship at a hospital near Los Angeles. I had a flight back west for that Sunday evening so that I could resume my work as a chaplain on Monday. Once elected by the congregation, I planned to start my new ministry in September.

            The Manoa church’s large sanctuary was packed that morning. My parents came along to cheer me on. They lived less than fifteen minutes away. There was one other face I knew that morning in the sea of strangers. That was a high school friend named Laura. She was a few years younger than me. That summer, she was working as the Director of a YMCA camp in Maryland. Laura was excited to be there as a new chapter of my life was now underway.

            The congregation voted unanimously to approve me as their new Associate Pastor—the first in their history. The congregation of strangers warmly greeted and welcomed me. My parents beamed with pride and relief. I had a job. Laura gave me a quick hug before heading back into the heavy rains.

            I flew back to California later that Sunday afternoon. When I reached my apartment, I heard an urgent message from my father on my answering machine. I was to call him right away. Something was wrong, I could tell by his voice. When I called, he told me the news. My friend Laura had died in a car accident that afternoon. She lost control of her car and collided with truck.

            On what was among the happiest days of my life, sudden, unexpected sadness intruded.

            I preached another candidate sermon this past Sunday, February 11th. The Pastor Nominating Committee of the First Presbyterian Church of Moorestown, NJ presented me as their candidate for Pastor. The church was packed with strangers who later welcomed me and Leslie and Miles with warmth and kindness. It was another stormy Sunday.

            Thankfully, no accidents occurred. I didn’t receive any heart-breaking phone calls. This too was a significant and happy day for me. And yet, there is another kind of loss and sadness that I feel these days. It’s the sadness of saying good-bye to a congregation I love deeply and have served for twenty-two years.

            I’ve been sharing this news with various leaders and members of our staff and the congregation this week. I continue to feel equal measures of excitement and sadness. I will always hold the congregation of Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church with great affection and in my heart I find there is room for both emotions—happiness and sadness.

____________________________________________________

            Note: if you haven’t seen a copy of Stuart’s letter to the congregation, follow this link: http://tmpc.org/other-documents  or click here

A Gathering of Men

            Try to get a grown man to go on a church Men’s Retreat. Go ahead and ask. See if you can get him to agree to go away from his family and home for a weekend. Getting the guy to agree to binge-watch a season of Housewives of New Jersey would be a much easier sell job. Give your man a choice: head to the mountains with other men from the church or spend Saturday and Sunday at middle school swim meet that’s three-hours from home.  Which way to the meet?

            I don’t really know why men are so hesitant to go on a retreat, though I would guess fear is the prime culprit. A guy away from home, on his own at a church retreat is beset by a host of anxious concerns: who will talk if my wife isn’t here, what do you do all day with a bunch of church men other than pray; and worse of all: what if I have to share a bed?!

            Fourteen men from our church braved their fears and went away last weekend. I’m so glad our fellas were able to stuff their worries at home and make the two-hour trip for the weekend. We had five first-timers attend; and I’m happy to report that each one made it home safely. Thankfully no one had to have a bed-mate for the weekend.

            I was upstairs in the beautiful mountain home we used that was across the street from Sky Top Lodge.  On Saturday evening, as I turned on the landing to head downstairs I looked out through a large opening into the living room below and this is what I saw that caused me to pause for a long minute: Clusters of men, mostly in pairs, we spread around the room in conversation with a roaring fire and several lights filling the large room with warm light.  This is a picture from our Men’s Retreat last weekend.

            I love retreats and I go on them often. Time away from the routine and demands of life is nothing short of a gift. What made this recent retreat so good was the four times we broke off into pairs following four Bible studies—three led by our guest, Rev. Stephen Henziel-Nelson and one conducted by me. We mixed the pairings so that you were always talking to someone new. Here’s a sampling of the kinds of questions we discussed on the night we arrived.

Ø  What are you feeling good about where you are in life right now? 

Ø  What prevents you from being fully present with others—family, friends?

Ø  Do you have a part of your life that you hide? Why?

Ø  Where are you in your relationship with God today? Go back 5 years: what’s better about your spiritual life, what’s not strong?

            We went deeper into our faith and life. I noticed on Sunday morning that virtually every man looked calmer and more peaceful than when he rolled in on Friday night. Every man expressed gratitude for the opportunity to begin and build stronger friendships within our congregation.

            Can you believe it? Most said they’d come back next year . . . maybe.

The Scars on My Hands

Inside the city, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool of Bethesda, with five covered porches.  Crowds of sick people—blind, lame, or paralyzed—lay on the porches. One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years.  When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?”

John 5: 3 – 6

            Two Sunday mornings ago I was preparing my pre-church breakfast. I go big before preaching. I usually cook a two-egg omelet with peppers, mushrooms, onions and cheese with toast. Sometimes, I push my pre-church meal by frying a slice of bacon—needed protein for the long morning ahead of me.

            On the morning of January 7th, I wanted scrambled eggs with vegetables, grated cheese, chipotle hot sauce and bacon. After the bacon was done, I poured the grease out to finish my meal. Rather than going in the wastebasket the liquid poured mostly on my right ring finger and middle finger. The pain was exquisite. I yelled. Our dog, Elsie scampered out of the kitchen, tail between her legs. Leslie rushed to my aid and tripped on the dog’s bowl and fell on the floor. The Spencers were having a tough morning.

            The burns blistered red and raw. The skin peeled. About a week after the mishap, a friend caught a glance of my fingers and asked, “What happened to you?”  Amid the ugliness of my hurting fingers there was healing taking place. A little more than two weeks after scorching my hand in bacon grease; my fingers are only a little rosy red and with a few tiny scabs.            

            The healing of most significant hurts is often long and slow. The pain lingers. Scars remind you of a past you’d rather forget. You’d like the pain to just go away.

            “Would you like to get well?” Jesus asked the man who had been unable to move for a lifetime. That may be where healing begins, if it is to begin—with a question. Do we want to get better? Do we want to change? Do we want to be whole? Of course the answer is yes. But is it? Healing takes time. Healing often comes with more pain. Healing changes you.

            I know a man who lives in another state. One summer, while cutting his grass, he turned his foot and broke a bone. The doctor told him that he needed surgery immediately to set the bone and begin the healing. This man balked at the surgeon’s directions. So, he got a cane and walked with a limp for two years before having the surgery.

            We all limp. We all need the healing, changing touch of Jesus. Are we ready to be healed?

Hero Worship

“The godly people in the land are my true heroes! I take pleasure in them!”

Psalm 16: 3, New Living Translation

 

Ten thousand fools proclaim themselves into obscurity, while one wise man forgets himself into immortality.

Martin Luther King Jr.

            Liz Henziel-Nelson, Bruce Main, Tre Foster, Ernestine Winfrey, Gregory Boyle.

Who are they? You might recognize a couple of names, but likely not all. They are some of my heroes and I have a few more; and you probably wouldn’t know them either. That’s OK, because they fall into the category of “godly people in the land” referenced in Psalm 16. Liz, Bruce, Ernestine, Tre, and Gregory are faith-filled people who are serving others and God in mostly obscure corners of God’s world. These heroes of mine do not throw or catch footballs. They are not on the front pages of news websites or newspapers. They are living with passion and purpose. These heroes of mine are difference-makers and I love to be in their presence whenever possible.

            Here’s a quick bio on the fore-mentioned four heroes of mine:

            Liz Henziel-Nelson is the Director of Villages in Partnership (VIP) serving the people of Malawi, Africa. For more than a decade Liz has traveled back and forth from this small country that is numbered among the poorest in the world. VIP puts churches and villages together in an unusual mission friendship. Liz was also the architect of the dynamic and amazing youth program at Allentown Presbyterian Church in Allentown, NJ. She is married to one of my closest friend, Stephen, who is the Pastor of APC.

            Bruce Main is the Executive Director of Urban Promise International. Twenty-five years ago Bruce founded Urban Promise, a ministry to children, youth and their families in Camden, NJ. My hero is a gifted author and wonderful communicator. With God-inspired mixture of love and faith, Bruce has established several versions of Urban Promise, including the one we support in Trenton. Urban Promise impacts the lives of children from some of the poorest communities in our nation and world.

            Tre Foster grew up in Trenton and now is giving back to his hometown. The youngest on my hero list, Tre is under thirty but has the mature, strong faith of seventy-year-old Christian. Last September, Tre invited me to walk with around the campus of Mercer Community College and pray with him. As we walked the paths of that campus, we prayed together with our eyes open. Tre inspires me with his big trust in his big God.

            Ernestine Winfrey is the Director of the Good News Home in Flemington, NJ. TMPC has supported the Good News Home for twenty-year years. Ernestine is a four-time winner over cancer. At eighty, she has more energy than ten twenty-year-olds. Last week, Tom Barford and I sat in her office while she told us how God called her to leave a high-paying corporate job to work with addicted women. After our meeting, Tom and I were thinking the same thing: That lady is something else—for the glory of God.

            Gregory Boyle is a Catholic priest serving gang members in Los Angeles. I’ve never met him but I’ve read some of his books and heard him interviewed. Father Boyle loves gang members with a simple, compassionate and grace-filled love that makes me want to do the same.

            These are my heroes. They are the godly of the land and their witness to Jesus Christ makes the land better. They are forgetting themselves into immorality. True hero worship is to go and do likewise.

What To Do At A Funeral

           Conducting funerals is part of what I get paid to do. You generally can’t predict or plan for funerals and memorial services. They drop into my life and work without warning. Caring for the dead and their families takes precedence over anything else I have going on that week—meetings, bulletins, and sermons.

            Quite sadly, I’ve been extra busy in the last month or so with this part of my job. It’s not always easy to know what to do or find what to say when you attend funeral services. That’s true even for professionals like me. I always express my sympathy and sorrow, but to my ears, “I’m sorry for your loss” sounds hollow and shallow. If I know the person well, a big hug seems to say what I what to say. Tears say it even better.

            A favorite author of mine is Thomas Lynch. His day job is a funeral director in Michigan. He is the author of several published books of essays and poems. He was a consultant for the HBO series, “Six Feet Under”, an awarding show about a family-owned funeral home in California.

             I especially love his book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch’s father was also a funeral director, so Thomas had plenty of material to draw upon for his little book. The last chapter contains his directions to his own family for his own burial. His advice is pithy and smart and very funny sometimes. On the topic of music for the service, he advises, “Avoid, for your own sakes, anything you’ve heard in the dentist’s office or the roller rink.”

              Since I’ve been spending time leading or attending funeral and memorial services, let me share some more of Thomas Lynch’s advice with you:

             He recommends that his children plan for an open casket viewing. He writes, “Wake me. Let those who want to come and look. They have their reasons. You’ll have yours. And if someone says, ‘Doesn’t he look natural!’ take no offense. They’ve got it right.”

               I’ve always appreciated how generous Thomas Lynch is when he writes about the role of a pastor or priest at the time of a funeral: “And have the clergy take their part in it. Let them take their best shot. If they’re ever going to make sense to you, now’s the time. They’re looking, same as everyone else. The questions are more instructive than the answers. Beware of anyone who knows what to say.”

             Mr. Lynch is clearly a fan of the axiom: the more the merrier, even at a funeral. When giving direction about pallbearers, he says, “On the subject of pallbearers—my darling sons, my fierce daughter, my grandsons and granddaughters, if I’ve any. The larger muscles should be involved. The ones we use for the real burdens. If men are better at lifting, women and theirs are better at bearing. This is a job which both may be needed. So work together. It will lighten the load.”

              What are we really doing at such a sad time? I like the definition Tom Long wrote in a book he co-authored with Thomas Lynch. Here it is: "In a funeral we are carrying the body of a saint to the place of farewell.”

The Unlit Christ Candle

            We could not get the Christ Candle lit.

            It was Christmas Eve and the start of the 4:30 p.m. Children’s Christmas Eve service. Fellowship Hall was shoe-horn-full with families and children of all shapes and sizes. It was loud, it was wild, and it was wonderful.

            I had invited a young couple who were new to the church to light the Advent and Christ Candles. I watched as the husband carefully ignited the three purple candles and one pink, all representing the four Sundays of Advent. The center white candle was the last to be lit on Christmas Eve, but the wick didn’t take. The young man kept trying and finally gave up. I thought to myself that I would be able to do what he couldn’t.

            So, during the first carol, I walked up to the wreath and looked down. The wick of the Christ Candle was just a fraction of an inch above the wax. Maybe the wax just needed to be melted down a bit. So I stood there, trying to melt the wax like you’d melt the ice on your front steps. That didn’t work either and the first carol was over as we moved deeper into the worship service.

            You could have Christmas Eve without a Christ Candle, I suppose, but it didn’t seem right to me. I gave up trying to light that candle. I left Fellowship Hall and walked to the atrium between the sanctuary and Education Building. I knew there was a large white candle there. I lit that candle and set it on the floor near the lectern but not close enough to light the cloth vestment hanging from the front. I was smart enough to realize that a major fire was not the solution to a dark Christ Candle. The service concluded with everyone holding a candle in the dark and all the candles were first fired by the replacement Christ Candle.

              An unlit Christ Candle is for me an apt picture of December 2017. It was the saddest December of my life. In the course of the 31 days of the twelfth month of this past year I attended one service for a TMPC member whose mother was hit by a car and killed on her birthday. I conducted a funeral for close friends of mine from my previous church whose son died from a drug overdose at the age of 23. On New Year’s Eve I walked into the home of a dear friend because her oldest nephew had died suddenly that afternoon. I include in my December encounters with friends who are suffering with numerous medical issues or unanticipated surgeries. I know of families and individuals who are breaking into pieces and all of it adds up the worst December ever.

             At the Children’s Service, after all the candles were lit and the lights extinguished, after I prayed the Christmas prayer and we sang “Silent Night, Holy Night” I told the congregation the story of the unlit Christ Candle. It challenges of lighting the candle reminded me of the challenges that so many have igniting their Christian faith. For it seems like heart-break, disappointment, addiction, divorce, death all conspire to make it hard to get a flame going. All my efforts in getting a candle going made me think of the work that Bailey and I do as pastors. We try to help light the fire in your lives. It’s not always the easiest job.

Love must act as a fire must burn.

              The brothers at Holy Cross Monastery have a wonderful saying: Love must act as a fire must burn. My candle-lighting efforts are feeble at best. But Jesus, who called Himself the Light of World, burns brightly in and through the darkness and sadness of December. You just can’t put out that Light even if it takes a while to get burning.

A Christmas No

“Grammatically, the negative, our capacity to say No, is one of the most impressive features of our language. The negative is our access to freedom. Only humans can say No. Animals can’t say No . . .No is a freedom word. I don’t have to do what either my glands or my culture tells me to do. The . . . well-placed No frees us from many a blind alley, many rough detour, frees us from debilitating distractions and seductive sacrilege. The art of saying No sets us free to follow Jesus.”

Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality

            I’ve been unsubscribing a lot recently. Like the happy owner of newly replaced knees, I wish I started this practice much earlier. I wish I hadn’t waited.

            My email inbox gathers emails from organizations that I’m not interested in hearing from regularly. Or, to put it this way: If I want to hear from you, I’ll let you know. Even if I simply wanted to ignore the unwanted email, it still fills my box and adds time to review and delete. It’s easier to take ten seconds to tell the sender that I no longer want to receive their emails. I do that by clicking the “unsubscribe” link and the senders have to honor my request and send me their messages no more.

            I think we need to unsubscribe from unwanted messages our cultures sends us at Christmas. Of course, American culture hasn’t a clue what Christmas means or how it should be celebrated. I don’t look to our news media, popular culture or politicians for useful spiritual direction. Here are some messages we’re getting that we’d be better to ignore, delete and pay no more attention.

It has to be perfect.

            Many of us are driven to exhaustion by a vague sense that we haven’t done enough to make our family’s celebration of Christmas perfect. Please stop! There’s no perfection to be found on Christmas Day. Enjoy your family, as you are able to gather together. Be grateful for whatever gifts you receive. Focus on persons, not some impossible ideal of perfection.

Everyone has to be happy.

            No they don’t. Happiness is illusive enough for you to find let alone trying to find it for your surly teenager. Give them their unhappiness and find your own. I know the adage that you’re only as happy as your least-happiest family member. Say No to the crazy-making task of keeping everyone happy.

Stop comparing.

            This is a deadly message you need to delete today: someone’s life or family looks better than your own. This easy to do as you look around the sanctuary or the neighborhood or, worst of all, on Facebook. When you look around everyone looks happier and healthier than you or your family. Unsubscribe from all comparisons. Instead, deepen your gratitude for the life you have, and the people God gives you.

            Greg McKeown is the author of a wonderful book called, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. McKeown insists that learning the power of a graceful No is critical for finding self-respect. He writes, “Essentialists accept they cannot be popular with everyone all of the time. Yes, saying No respectfully, reasonably, and gracefully can come at a short-term social cost. But part of living the way of the Essentialist is realizing respect is far more valuable than popularity in the long run.”

            There you go: Learn to say No, find some self-respect and by all means have a Merry Christmas!

No frees us to follow Jesus.

Some Meeting

2 We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. 3 As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Thessalonians 1: 2, 3 New Living Translation

            Last Saturday morning our Deacons and Elders met together for their final meeting of 2017. Long ago I learned that since no one wants to meet close to Christmas, it’s better to conclude of the work of the church by the second Saturday of December. It’s one of my favorite meetings of the year.

            We first gathered for coffee and breakfast. Picture thirty happy leaders sitting around tables in Fellowship Hall and hear the room filling with joyful sounds of folks sharing their lives with one another. Snow was in the forecast for the day; and the weather people were right that day. Small flakes fell as we moved into our work. There is nothing like snow to keep meetings moving and focused.

            The combined boards heard the statements of faith from our newly elected officers. Several of those new deacons and elders referred to their statements of faith they drafted when they joined Thompson Memorial in the past. One man said that when he looked at what he wrote eleven years ago, he ripped up his old one and wrote a whole new statement of faith. This new statement was brilliant, full of faith in Jesus Christ and a passion to serve Him. Afterwards the man told me that he felt embarrassed by what he wrote so long ago. You shouldn’t be embarrassed, I told him, it’s a great thing that you have grown so much in your Christian faith. I like the way Joyce Meyer puts it: “I'm not where I need to be, but thank God I'm not where I used to be.” And you can add that you can trust God for what you are going to be, by His grace one day.

            The parking lot was turning whiter with every passing minute. The Deacons headed to the Conference Room for their business as the session headed towards the Music Room for theirs. While I needed to be in both places at the same time, I had to start with the session. We had three items on our agenda: thanking those who had finished their work on session, call a meeting of the congregation and vote on the 2018 budget. I’ve sat in budget discussions through the years that lasted hours. I smile as I tell you this that our entire session meeting lasted twenty minutes. I ran back to the Conference Room in time for the last five minutes of the Deacons meeting.

             Our budget discussion took ten minutes. The budget for next year is slightly more than this year and includes $10,000 of additional monies for the Mission & Outreach budget. There are reasons why our budget sailed through including excellent work by our Finance Committee. You deserve some credit too. You are a generous congregation; and I am grateful that you are, especially as I heard a pastor tell me about a three-hour budget meeting.  

We always thank God for all of you . . .

            The Apostle Paul almost always started his letters to various young churches with an expression of authentic and heart-felt thanks. I know how my old friend felt.

Defanging Fear

“Drifting in through cracks in the floorboards or filtering down like a chilling mist, the fog called Fear whispers omens of the unknown and the unseen. Surrounding individuals with its blinding, billowy robe, the creature hisses, ‘What if . . .what if . . .?’ One blast of its awful breath transforms saints into atheists, reversing a person’s entire mind-set. Its bite releases paralyzing venom in its victims, and it isn’t long before doubt begins to dull the vision. To one who falls prey to this attack, the creature displays no mercy.”

 Charles R. Swindoll, Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life

 The angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.

Luke 2: 10, New Living Translation

             Did you realize that the first message of Christmas as it was announced to the shepherds by the angel was: stop being afraid! Fear not, for I bring good tidings of joy . . . Christ the Lord is born. This means that the holiday of Christmas is a fear-ending celebration. The good news of our Savior’s birth is greater and thus, overcomes whatever fears hold us. This good news, or gospel, defangs the fears that haunt us. We no longer have to cower in fear; we face our fears and strip their power over us.

            Here’s how: start by personifying fear. I imagine fear to look like a sharply-dressed, super-slick salesman. He knows all the smooth lines. He has all the comebacks. He is as convincing as anything. Fear makes a compelling case that the worst is yet to come. Fear whispers that this awful thing will happen to you, for sure. Yes, fear is convincing, but fear is ultimately unreliable and just wrong.

            So the next time fear shows us, keep a record of what fear promises will happen. Then, track what actually does take place and hold fear accountable. Imagine that smooth-talking salesman slinking off to his high-end luxury sedan for his get-away. Fear never sticks around, he just returns later with more bad-news predictions of the future. Before you let fear drive away, ask fear: “Hey pal, you said that this, this, and this would happen. None of it happened. Why not?” The more you see how unreliable fear is, the less you trust fear when it starts whispering.

            Replace fear with gratitude; for when we thank God we’re going on record for the faithful and good news that have happened to us. If fear traffics in the unknown; gratitude roots me in the known goodness of my God.  I picture gratitude like my Aunt Hazel. Aunt Hazel was the first woman I knew who had blue hair. She was a big woman with a warm heart. It was a tradition among my brothers and cousins that when you got your driver’s license, the first place you went was to take Aunt Hazel for a ride. She said the same thing about every one of her grandnephews and nieces, “He is the best driver I’ve ever seen!” Gratitude is much like that wise woman.

           

Living While Waiting

“A deliberate tension must be built into our practice of the Advent season. Christ has come and yet not all things have reached completion. While we remember Israel’s waiting and hoping and we give thanks for Christ’s birth, we also anticipate his second coming at the end of time. For this reason Advent began as a penitential season, a time for discipline and intentional repentance in the confident expectation and hope of Christ’s second coming.”

The Worship Sourcebook

“The point is clear: it is not simply a matter of waiting and rejoicing in what Advent promises us. It is about learning how to live while we wait.”

Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year

            The Advent season is so out of step with the way our society prepares for Christmas. I think that’s a reason why I love the four weeks before Christmas so much. The season of Advent deliberately calls us to a simpler way, the way of less, instead of more. And if I need anything, I need a time that invites me to live while I wait.

            What are you waiting for? And how are you doing as you wait? I’m waiting, like all of us, and I notice that waiting seems to grow worry and anxiety like a field produces corn and tomatoes. Learning how to live while waiting for me means seeking the Lord and increasing my trust in His love.

            Advent assures us that God is working while we are waiting. I love how God shows up to when we wait on Him. It can actually happen quite quickly at times. This week, I received a phone call from a couple who was in need of help. Before I even had a chance to return the call, a TMPC member called me to say that he wanted to provide help to someone in this Advent season. The needs of this couple and the generosity of this member met each wonderfully and surprisingly.

            You probably don’t like waiting very much. I can assure you that God won’t fail you as you keep on living while waiting.

Notes from the Tow Path

By the time the turkey comes out of the oven I will have concluded my summer project: Strolls with Stuart. You may remember that at the start of the summer I invited you to join me for a walk in one of a few gorgeous places in this stunning place we call home. My last walk was this week.

I wanted to report to you about my walks. I believe more than thirty folks walked, strolled, or hiked with me. I had a few repeat customers, including my wife. I learned a lot about you from walking beside you. Some of you can really move! In the heat of July and August, I needed a shower after I returned to my car. Others like a slower pace, which was also fine by me. The slower we went, the more I took in: an overlook of the Delaware River near the bridge that crosses the canal by the bend in the river, the numerous neat houses that dot the tow path, and several peeks at God’s furry creatures going about their business.

One thing that pleased me was the depth of conservations I enjoyed on my walks with you. In many instances, I walked beside people I’ve known, in some cases, for more than two decades and I heard things I never knew before about my friends. There is something powerful happens when you take an hour, outside, to talk without interference of cellphones, laptops, TV’s or work.

I am reminded of an earthy but great line by the late poet and author and funeral home director, Thomas Lynch. His award-winning book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, was distributed to the cast of television series Six Feet Under by writer-director Alan Ball as a reference point for how they should view the funeral profession.  Thomas Lynch spoke of his friendship with Alan Ball, "We had a little correspondence when Six Feet Under was coming out. He [Alan Ball] wrote to me at one point that he had landed on the formula for his filming. He said, 'I know you know of this, I think I may have stolen it. Once you put a dead guy in the room, you can talk about anything'. Which is exactly the way it works.”

Deep listening expands the spirit.

There were no dead guys along the tow path this summer, but I experienced lots of good listening. Author Sue Patton Thoele wrote this, “Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.” A beautiful, quiet setting plus time with good people adds up to a spirit expanding experience.

Strolls with Stuart are suspended for the winter months. There’s always next spring!

Keep on Giving

During the 8:30 service this past Sunday, Consecration Sunday, I noticed a man sitting by himself in a pew towards the back of the sanctuary. I didn’t recognize him, so I assumed he was visiting us for the first time. I made a mental note to seek him out after the service to greet him.

I always hope and often pray that God brings us visitors every Sunday. Though this Sunday, was not our usual worship experience. As a Church Family, we were dedicating our financial pledges for the coming year. It could have been a little awkward for the first-time guest.

While running back and forth from my study to the Choir Room for the Adult Forum, I ran into this man in front of the tiles across from the chapel. He asked if I recognized him. I didn’t. Apparently, I married him and his wife twenty years ago. As he recounted the details of his marriage and wife, their story came back to me. This couple appeared one day at the church wondering if they could get married here. The woman was Roman Catholic and because she was divorced she was not welcome to be married in her church. I told them then that I would be happy to help them.

I tied the knot and the knot has held beautifully for two decades. They have two teenagers and they are still happy and in love with each other. Like a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a hunk of apple pie, the man shared more good news: he and his wife are deeply involved in a strong church in our area. The couple and their children worship God each Sunday. This man is deeply and meaningfully involved and their lives are different and blessed.

I thanked my long-lost friend for the report for it came on the perfect day. His story is a major reason why Leslie and I are committed to giving to the work and mission of Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church. In ways that no one fully knows or appreciates, God is working among us and through us. Thank you for your generosity and all I can say is: Keep on giving!

______________________________________________

Here is the statistical report on Consecration Sunday, November 12, 2017

            A total of 61 giving units (couples or a single person) completed Estimate of Giving cards this year. Those who weren’t able to attend this Sunday will have a chance to complete their cards this week.

            A total of 46 of these givers increased their financial commitment above their last year’s amount.

            A total of 61 givers present on Consecration Sunday committed a total of $296, 124.

            Based on last year’s giving records, we can expect to receive $292.180 during the coming year from people who have consistent giving patterns during the past twelve months but were not present this past Sunday.

            Based on the average of loose offerings (non-pledged gifts) during the past three years, we can expect to receive $181.230.

            Church income from non-donor sources such as interest, rentals, and fees: $8,000.

            This gives us a grand total of $773.534 anticipated income for the next twelve months.

            The total income for our general operating budget during the last twelve months was $717, 568.

            Next year, in 2018, we can expect our operating budget income to increase by $59, 966.

            This is a 8.36% increase in total giving above last year.

Lucky Us

            For about six weeks posters plastered around the church have proclaimed in 72-point font size:

It’s Coming

November 12th

            What’s about to arrive in a few days? Consecration Sunday, that’s what. I genuinely hope that this isn’t news to you because we’ve done everything to announce this special Sunday except hiring a plane to pull a message, putting a billboard on 95 or hanging a giant sign on Bowman’s Tower.

            Hopefully you’ve taken a moment to let us know if you can make to either worship service on Sunday and, best of all, join us for our Celebration Luncheon in Fellowship Hall at 12:30 p.m. Rev. Chris Miller, (aka the Preaching Panda), Pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Springfield, MO, is our special guest preacher for both worship services. I am also delighted to welcome another friend of mine named Jean-Luc Krieg, the CEO and Director of Urban Mosaic in Mexico City. Jean-Luc speaks at both worship services as well as leads a special Adult Forum on his unique and wonderful mission serving the poorest of the poor in Mexico City.

            It is no secret that this coming Sunday, November 12th, is a giving Sunday. You are smart to understand the Consecration Sunday means that we’re about to give something. We are; and that makes us fortunate indeed. We get to give to support the special work God is doing right here at Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church. I recently met someone who checked out our website in preparation for visiting us some Sunday. My new friend marveled at the amount of mission we’re doing all over our area. We get to give this Sunday, lucky us. We get to support this amazing congregation so many of us consider as our Church Family. Visualize the faces of your closest friends and hear their voices. Make sure you’re here this Sunday even if you didn’t get a chance to RSVP. Just come, don’t worry, you’re so lucky.