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.

Play Ball!

            Years ago, my parents befriended a young couple from their church named and Mark and Ann. My Dad and Mom were empty-nesters then and they were happy to have this young couple as surrogate children. When Ann gave birth to their child, a son named Thomas, my parents quickly adopted him as their own since Mark and Ann’s parents lived on the other side of the church.

            My Mom loved to have Thomas over for visits. She also loved making meals for this family. Thomas was raised to give thanks before eating his meals. Soon after he learned how to talk, the boy took over the responsibility for saying grace. He would fold his chubby hands, bow his head and squeeze his eyes tight. He mumbled a prayer that included thanks for his parents, my parents and the food. With great clarity and force, Thomas ended his prayer with a firm, “Amen!” and then he always said with equal force, “Play ball!”

            I like the coda to the grace Thomas offered and as you prepare for service this week as the Church Leaves the Building. I say first pray and then go serve, or as Thomas said, play ball.

            Whatever work we do should begin with prayer. Go ahead; and pray to your heavenly Father before you start your work day, school day, or at home day. This is especially the case when we are on our way to serve God by serving others. As you prepare to serve this weekend, here are few things to pray for before rolling up your sleeves:

            Pray for each other: You’re going to be working with other members and friends from Thompson Church. Pray for your partners and ask God bless your conversations as well as your work. You’ll have some time to go a little deeper in your friendship or start a new one. What a payoff!

            Pray for those you are helping: I always hope that the ones we serve will know the God we serve. We’re trying to share the love and grace of Jesus Christ with others by making meals, working at a local mission or picking up trash along River Road. As such we’re pointing to the Lord Jesus with one hand as we serve with the other.

            Pray that God gets the glory: Jesus gives us these directions for service, “Let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5: 16) When the Church Leaves the Building the goal is that God gets praised not us or our church. Too often, the ways Christians act or speak cause people to curse rather than bless God. Our country needs the followers of Jesus to be a reason for the praise of God.

Let your good deeds shine . . . so that everyone will praise your Father

            Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace. So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge of and love of you, for the honor of your name. Amen.

            Play ball!

           

Ready To Give

The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.

Psalm 24: 1

            The practice of Christian stewardship is won or lost over this question: Whose is it? Is what you have yours or God’s? The Bible gives a clear answer: It’s the Lord’s. Read the first line of Psalm 24 again.

            Author Hugh Whelchel helpfully lays out this biblical truth when he writes:

In the beginning of Genesis, God creates everything and puts Adam in the Garden to work it and to take care of it. It is clear that man was created to work and that work is the stewardship of all of the creation that God has given him.

 This is the fundamental principle of biblical stewardship. God owns everything; we are simply managers or administrators acting on his behalf.

 Therefore, stewardship expresses our obedience regarding the administration of everything God has placed under our control, which is all encompassing. Stewardship is the commitment of one’s self and possessions to God’s service, recognizing that we do not have the right of control over our property or ourselves.  

 Echoing Deuteronomy 8:17, we might say: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But Deuteronomy 8:18 counsels us to think otherwise:“Remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” 

            Are you ready to give of the talents, time and treasure God has entrusted to your care? If the answer is “Yes”, then you’re ready to go. If your answer is “No” or “Not Certain”, then it’s time for some deep thinking and honest praying. What makes you believe you own what you have been given? What is keeping you from recognizing God’s loving claim on every inch or your life? Are you afraid? Are you proud? Remember this: if you are living as caretaker rather than as owner of your life then that also means that your worries, fears, and burdens are God’s, and yours. Biblical stewardship frees us.

What percentage is God calling me to give?

            I hope you are ready to give in this season when we emphasis stewardship. Starting Sunday you’ll be hearing a lot about a special Sunday in November. It’s Consecration Sunday and the date is November 12th. Our session has selected the Consecration Sunday Stewardship Program as a way to teach the biblical and spiritual principles of generous giving in our stewardship education emphasis this year.

              Consecration Sunday is based on the biblical philosophy of the need of the giver to give for his or her own spiritual development, rather than on the need of the church to receive. Instead of treating people like members of a social club who should pay dues, we will treat people like followers of Jesus Christ who want to give unselfishly as an act of discipleship. Consecration Sunday encourages people toward proportionate and systematic giving in response to the question, “What percentage of the Lord’s income is God calling me to give?”

A Big Impact

The 2017 Central Mexico earthquake struck at 13:14 CDT (18:14 UTC) on September 19, 2017 with an estimated magnitude of 7.1 and strong shaking for about 20 seconds. It was epicentered about 34 miles south of the city of Puebla. The earthquake caused damage in the Mexican states of Puebla and Morelos and in the Greater Mexico City area, including the collapse of more than 40 buildings. 369 people were killed by the earthquake and related building collapses, including 228 in Mexico City, and more than 6,000 were injured. The quake coincidentally occurred on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which killed around 10,000 people. (from Wikipedia)

 In 2014, we began an international missions partnership with Urban Mosaic (ConeXion Mosaic) in Mexico City. Led by Jean-Luc Krieg, Urban Mosaic serves some of the poorest people in Mexico City. In the summer of 2015, I went with four college students to lead a week-long Vacation Bible Camp in the eastern section of Mexico City. Nearly all families live in cinder-block homes without indoor plumbing.

When a natural disaster hits a well-function community like Houston, there is still a lot of work needed to rebuild homes, businesses, schools and churches, along with the lives of those affected. When a natural disaster hits a poor community with few resources the same work needs to be done but the poor community starts 10 spaces back.

Our Mission and Outreach Committee sent $4,000 to Urban Mosaic to support them as they sought to help their community. Writing shortly after the earthquake, we learned from our partner: “In catastrophes such as these, not only structures and buildings become damaged. The inhabitants suffer different degrees of psychological trauma. Urban Mosaic’s team has been articulating a holistic response.

·         Neighborhood Clean-Up and Safety Assurance. Working together with the municipality, we continue to clear the most damaged structures.

·         Community Training in Disaster Response. Over 200 people trained. In partnership with other allied organizations, we will be launching a campaign to prevent human trafficking at the shelters.

·         Psycho-Emotional and Pastoral Support for Those Experiencing Trauma. This week pastors and leaders from the slum communities in Chimalhuacan that Urban Mosaico has mentored for over a year were participating in the intensive psycho-emotional first aid campaign.

·         Empowering communities to rebuild: We are in talks with other allied organizations to design a strategy to build new homes.

·         Marisela's Story
Marisela has become dear to our team. Her house was the first one we tore down, and whenever we visit her, she stops what she is doing to offer us a cup of coffee on a table she has set up next to the rubble that was her house and to share a brief moment with us. We always listen to her, and every time she opens her heart some more, and gives us the opportunity to provide psycho-emotional counsel more effectively. Our mission is not only about demolitions and rebuilding, but also about coming alongside people and restoring them to a healthy lifestyle.

I’m so grateful that our mission dollars can have such a meaningful impact in a place and among people who need it so desperately.

For more information about the work of Urban Mosaic or to make a donation, visit their website: http://www.urbanmosaic.net/home

We're Doing Something

 My dear brothers and sisters, stay firmly planted—be unshakable—do many good works in the name of God, and know that all your labor is not for nothing when it is for God.

1 Corinthians 15: 58, The Voice

             Most pastors have weeks when we wonder about our congregations, “Is there anything happening here? Are we making a difference? Are we leaving a footprint for Jesus?” Thankfully I don’t have many days when I’m wrestling with these questions and concerns. I see that God is plenty of good through you and through me. These weekly reflections of mine are called Grace Notes because I’m continually looking for what God is doing in and through the people of Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church. Every now and then, I have to look a little harder but I always see it. I see that God is alive and well among us.

            Last Friday I was invited to attend the annual banquet for the Good News Home for Women. (See their website at https://www.goodnewshome.org/) If you don’t much about this wonderful organization, here is their statement of purpose: The Good News Home is a residential treatment center for women desiring to break the bonds of alcohol/chemical addiction and co-occurring disorders.  We offer a holistic approach to healing the total woman - mind, body, and spirit - through a comprehensive treatment program without regard to race, religion or the ability to pay.

            The main reason I was asked to be a special guest at last Friday’s banquet is that the Good News Home wanted to recognize TMPC’s twenty years of partnership. Actually, no one knows how long we’ve been helping out at the Good News Home, but it’s been at least twenty years.

            It was Dave Koppes who pulled (or pushed us or kicked us, any of those three verbs works) onto the grounds of this unique mission outside of Flemington, NJ. When Dave moved to our area, as a newly retired guy looking to keep himself out of trouble, Dave found himself spending hours at the Good News Home serving as a Board Member and overall handy man. As he did throughout the course of his life, Dave Koppes showed up at the Good News Home ready to help out in any way that he could. He did that for close to two decades.

            Once Hank and Sandy Langknecht found TMPC a few years later Hank heard about the Good News Home from Dave. Hank drove over once a week to a lead a Bible study with the women. His two most popular studies were “Bad Girls of the Bible” and “More Bad Girls of the Bible.” Through Hank’s loving leadership a number of women who considered themselves “bad” discovered Jesus Christ who loved no matter where they had been or what they had done.

            Dave Koppes joined the Church Triumphant a few years ago. Hank and Sandy Langknecht now live in Lancaster County. These days, TMPC supports the Good News Home through Marcia Koppes and Amy Brewer as well financially through our Missions Committee. We always send a team each fall for Church Has Left the Building.

            On Friday night, Marcia Koppes and I watched several videos testimonies of women from the Good News Home. We heard stories of women who had lost family, jobs, and self-respect from their drug addiction. After a stay the Good News Home, these women are now sober and living lives that can only be described as new and blessed. As I listened to those testimonies I thanked God that we get the chance to do something wonderful for His sake and His glory alone.

22045800_1434545983265721_3870901172301707804_n.jpg

Your Invitation to A 300th Birthday Party

            For many of us the Presbytery of Philadelphia is not much more than a name of some kind of organization that relates to us somehow, someway. Well, you’d get a C- on a quiz but if that’s all you know, let me educate you today.

            Founded in 1717, the Presbytery of Philadelphia is the oldest Presbyterian corporate entity in the United States and home to some of the oldest Presbyterian churches in our nation. Our story is deeply rooted in both American and Presbyterian history, illustrating faithfulness and courage throughout our 300-year heritage.

             From 1946 until 2011, the Presbytery of Philadelphia was housed in a downtown historical building at the corner of 22nd and Locust. The Presbytery of Philadelphia, after a period of prayer and discernment, sold the long-time office to build a new building in the middle of the historic Mt. Airy neighborhood. I chaired the committee who oversaw the move. This intentional relocation of the Presbytery office has enhanced our ability to serve congregational leadership and host gatherings that empower our churches throughout the Greater Philadelphia area.

              There are some 130 churches in the presbytery. Thompson Memorial has been a member of the presbytery since our founding in 1811.

               This year marks the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. We are the oldest presbytery in the United States. I am personally grateful for this presbytery.  Using the geographic boundaries of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, I can tell my life’s story. I was born in Chester and raised in Media. I was baptized at the Wallingford Presbyterian Church, beneath the Rose Window that was dedicated to my grandmother. My grandfather, Elder Howard Spencer held the font that day. When I was ten years old, my parents moved to the Media Presbyterian Church, which I still consider my home church. There I met Jesus Christ through a newly hired Youth Minister. Through the faithful sharing of the truth and love of Jesus Christ, I came to a place of trusting faith in Jesus Christ as a sophomore at Penncrest High School. Within weeks of my conversion I felt a calling to the ministry. After college, I came under care of the session of the Media church and later our presbytery. I traveled all the way to southern California to attend Fuller Theological Seminary and then traveled all the way back to Delaware County to accept my first call as the first Associate Pastor of the United Presbyterian Church of Manoa, where I served for six wonderful years. It was at Kirkwood Camp that I met my wife, Leslie. She was a member of the Woodland Presbyterian Church in West Philadelphia, where we were married in 1994. In 1995, I accepted the call to become the Pastor of the Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church. For nearly twenty-years, it has been my honor to serve you. My two sons, Miles and Sam have only known this church. You are a part of their family.

                 You are invited to a 300th birthday celebration for the Presbytery of Philadelphia. What should you bring to the party? I have good news: you only need to bring yourself. The party happens on Saturday, October 7th at the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church at 10:00 a.m. It will be a barn-burner of a worship service with a large combined choir, a message from Dr. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary and the Lord’s Supper. If you would like to carpool, there is a signup sheet on the Table of Well Wishing or call the church office.

 

300th Celebration: October 7, 2017 Worship Event

Our culminating worship celebration will take place on Saturday, October 7, 2017 beginning at 10:00 am

Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, 2800 West Cheltenham Ave.

The Art of Burden-Bearing

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.

Galatians 6: 1 – 3, New Living Translation

Brother Joseph: Burden-bearer 

Brother Joseph: Burden-bearer 

             Brother Joseph Wallace-Williams called me not long ago. He is the monk from Holy Cross Monastery who preached during our Renewal Weekend this past March. He is the most extroverted, exuberant monk you’ll ever meet. I had emailed him a prayer request and he was calling me back to check in on me. We spoke for about 15 minutes.

            I’ve been a pastor for 28 years, and I know how to do pastoral care. When I ended my phone conversation with Brother Joseph, I thought to myself, “He’s good.” To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul and the verses from Galatians 6 that I included above, Joseph was sharing, therefore bearing my burden with me. Of the many benefits from having a Church Family, burden-sharing might be at the top of the list. A burden shared, goes the saying, is a burden halved. The more I share with concerned, praying sisters and brothers in Christ, the smaller and lighter the burden becomes. The weight of the burden on my shoulders is much less when others bear it with me.

            Let me share with you Brother Joseph’s burden-bearing artistry with you. His brilliance in giving pastoral care to me a pastor centered around two statements and two questions.

Statement #1: This burden isn’t your fault.

            Joseph knew the details of my burden before talked together. His reading of my problem was that I was not the cause of it. He pointed out a few things—some of which I knew and other stuff I hadn’t thought about—that revealed that I was not at fault. Sometimes I’m a lot at fault and sometimes I’m not; and most times it’s somewhere in-between. This is why having someone near you to help with the burden is so crucial. There are times when I take took much blame and there are times when I don’t take enough blame. I need a good friend I can trust to help me gauge how much fault is mine.

Question #1: Are you taking care of yourself?

            He wanted to know if I was exercising, eating properly and getting enough rest. I appreciated the question because sometimes in the course of carrying a burden I can stop taking care of my body. I can’t carry the extra weight of a burden if I’m not doing the things I know I need to do to stay in good health. I can forget about my health and that’s when I need a friend to ask me about it, just in case.

Questions #2: Are you able to pray?

            This is another great question to ask as we bear someone else’s burden. The old hymn tells us about the great friend we have in Jesus. The hymn reminds us about the great privilege it is to carry everything to Him in prayer. Peace gets forfeited, needless pain increases all because do not carry everything to God in prayer. And the preacher needs to be asked that question too.

Statement #2: I love you and I’m praying for you all the time.

            This one brought tears to my eyes and lump in my throat. I don’t have the words to express how meaningful it is to me to know that others pray for me. In this case, I have a whole bunch of monks, who do nothing but pray, praying for me and for my burden. And while, Brother Joseph didn’t have to tell me that he loved me because of what he was doing; I can’t hear that enough.

The Night Shift

            I used to take the 2:00 a.m. feedings a long time ago. I thought of it as my Night Shift. My wife, Leslie and I had a deal when our sons were babies. I went to bed early while she put either Sam or Miles to bed. Early in morning around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., when the boys cried to be fed, I got up while Leslie slept. Then she would let me get some extra rest in the morning by handling breakfast duties.

            I started drinking coffee when Sam was born. I made it through five years of college, three years of seminary and ten years of pastoral ministry without caffeine. Those way-early mornings made a coffee addict out of me. Still, I didn’t much mind those night shifts. The world was dark and quiet. The boys had their bottles and quickly fell back to sleep. I often found myself praying.

            A week ago, I dropped off my oldest son, Sam at Trinity College in Hartford. My wife, my Dad and I got his stuff into his dorm room. Leslie helped him get unpacked while my Dad sat in the courtyard talking to pretty co-eds. We said good-bye to him in the afternoon.

            How did you feel? I’ve been asked that question a lot. I can’t say that I felt sad and I didn’t weep, though there is no shame if I did. I’m excited for Sam because I think college will be a good season for him. I’m delighted that he is a student at Trinity College.

            Yet I must admit that I thought about him a lot over the next couple of days. I was hoping that he was meeting people and making friends. I especially hoped that he wasn’t overwhelmed by loneliness.

            On Sunday, Frank Bruni, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece entitled, “The Real Campus Scourge”. What is it? It is the experience of being all alone. Bruni wrote, “In a sea of people, they find themselves adrift. The technology that keeps them connected to parents and high school friends only reminds them of their physical separation from just about everyone they know best. That estrangement can be a gateway to binge drinking and other self-destructive behavior. And it’s as likely to derail their ambitions as almost anything else.

Brett Epstein felt it. ‘I spent my first night in the dorm and it hit me like a pile of bricks: It’s just me here,’ Epstein, a 21-year-old senior at the College of Charleston, told me about his start there three years ago. ‘I was completely freaked out.’”

            I’m thankful to report that Sam is off to a great start at Trinity. He has made some friends. He checked out and didn’t care for a frat party. He will be a part of the crew team.

            Frank Bruni ended his column on the loneliness so many students find at college with a suggestion that we talk with our children or grandchildren about this common experience. “We also need to tell them that what’s often behind all that drinking and eating isn’t celebration but sadness, which is normal, survivable and shared by many of the people around them . . .”

            I hold my sons differently now than I did during my years on the Night Shift. In daily prayer, I hold them. Through a text message here or a phone call there, I hold them. My sons are also held with great attention and care by their church family. You hold them too. You do so by joining me in prayer; through sending care packages regularly and by fussing over them (including all of our young people and not just my boys).

             The Night Shift never seems to end.             

I Locked My Father in the Shower

            Yes, I did. I locked my father in the outdoor shower of the manse we use when we visit Avalon, New Jersey. You ask me: Why did you lock your Dad in the shower? I will tell you: I have no idea but I did.

            Here’s the story. My older brother Scott and my Dad came for an overnight visit to Avalon during our recent vacation. In the afternoon, all of us had gone for a swim in the pool of friends of ours in Stone Harbor. We returned to the beach house and my father wanted to clean up in the outdoor shower set in the back of the house. I made sure that he a towel and then I remember that he closed the door and I slide the lock across. I can recall a vague thought that I had that I was somehow keeping him safe. I went inside and changed my clothes. My brother and I sat on the front porch and started talking. In the back of my mind I wondered where my Dad was, but I figured that he was taking his time. He is 90 years-old after all. About 30 minutes later, my father opened the front door, peered down at me and asked, “Can you tell me why you locked me in the shower?”

            Some people can hold a pie in each hand and resentment at the same time. Thankfully, my Dad has never been someone who clings to hard feelings. I felt terrible all the same. He told me that he called out for help. No one heard him. So he sat on the bench for a while, waiting for rescue. Finally, he kicked the door open. My son Sam reminded me that I did the same thing to him in the same shower when he was 9 years-old.

            Grace, mercy, kindness and forgiveness are needed in abundance in all of our families and for all of our relationships. We are mistake-making people which mean that we also have to be forgiveness-giving people. I’m so glad that my Dad and I could quickly laugh about my odd action. Soon after his great escape, we had a delicious dinner and then walked to the ocean to body-surf. My Dad got in the surf too. The day wasn’t ruined and life rolled on like waves.

            You would think that I would have learned a lesson from my father’s mercy and kindness to me. I regret to tell you that I didn’t. We came home on Tuesday and I asked my youngest son, Miles to cut the grass. He did but he failed to put the lawnmower back in the crawl space. When Miles got around to putting everything anyway, he didn’t close and lock the doors. When I saw the open and unlocked doors, I heatedly told him to go and lock them. He tried to tell that he was having trouble closing the doors, but I wasn’t listening. For a guy who locked the wrong door at the wrong time you would think that I might be a little more understanding of my son who was trying to lock the right doors at the right time. The next morning, I told Miles I was wrong and asked him to not lock me in the shower the next time we’re in Avalon.

I Am

            Last night my youngest son, Miles and I went to New York City to see a magic show that was much, much more than a dazzling display of how-did-he-do—that tricks. The magician is Derrick Delgaudio. Since July his show In and Of Itself has been playing in a small theatre near Union Square.

            Derrick is a world-class magician. Twice he was voted by his peers to be the top magician. In his current show, Derrick doesn’t do a trick until about ten minutes into his performance. He begins the show by standing alone beneath a single spotlight on an otherwise darkened stage. His first words are “I am”. In the course of about 90 minutes, Derrick tells six stories that are all in some way about him. He relates an amazing tale he heard in a bar many years earlier about a man that played Russian Roulette more than once and survived. He shared deeply about his childhood with a story about his Mom. Interspersed between his stories he did magic tricks that left Miles and I staring at each other in wonder and with broad smiles on our faces. Wearing a blindfold, he did a card trick where he ended up dealing cards face up, in order from the Ace to the Two card right up to the King by suit—diamonds first, then spades, then hearts and finally clubs.

            As Miles and I entered the theatre, we found a wall of cards. The cards were white with black lettering at the top reading “I am”. Beneath each card were words like: a baker, a chemist, a good Christian, the life of the party, or the black sheep of the family. There were a thousand cards on display. Every person was asked to select a card; first search carefully for the card that best captured your identity. I walked the length of wall before I found one. When I saw I thought, “That’s me.” I grabbed it and walked into the theatre. An usher took my card, as she did with all the cards, handed back the top of the card with the words “I am” on it and kept the part with words that captured me.

            At the end of the performance, Derrick asked everyone who selected a card and who did so with some thought to stand up. About 40 people stood, out of a crowd of nearly 150. I stood; while my son Miles stayed seated.  As a joke, he had selected “I am a meteorologist”. Walking up the center aisle, Derrick turned to each standing person and looked them right in the eyes and told them what they were. “You’re a rock star,” he said to one. To a man, he nodded, “Congratulations, you’re a good Dad.” Pointing at a middle-age lady, Derrick called, “Hey everyone! Here’s the Master of the Universe.” I was standing at the end of the row, about halfway back from the stage. Derrick paused and looked at me for second or two longer than the rest. I’m sure it was for dramatic effect.

            Let me tell what I that day before Derrick told me who I was. Early in the morning I met with a very close friend of mine to talk with him about several deep and personal problems he is facing. Mostly I listened, though I did offer some suggestions and I prayed for him. Later, I had lunch with Chuck Wilson, the Pastor of the New Hope Community Church. Chuck and I have been trying to get together for months. You may remember that Chuck and his wife, Kim, lost one of their children named Ryan to an alcohol and drug overdose two days before their oldest son’s wedding. I’ve been praying for my friend and I wanted to see how he was doing. After those two good meetings, I was looking forward to go spending the afternoon and evening with one of my sons. My day was filled with time spent with men—two friends, and one of my sons. There are a lot of men in my life who care about me and for whom I care deeply. So when I saw this one card hanging on the wall of the Daryl Roth Theatre, my hand went straight for it. Sure enough, after that long, pregnant pause, Derrick Delgaudio, looked me in the eye and said, “You’re your brother’s keeper.” With a grin, I nodded and sat down.

            So I can’t figure out the real trick. Was it that Derrick guessed right or that I knew it?

Holy Ground

4 When the Lord saw Moses coming to take a closer look, God called to him from the middle of the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

“Here I am!” Moses replied.

5 “Do not come any closer,” the Lord warned. “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground. 6 I am the God of your father[—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” When Moses heard this, he covered his face because he was afraid to look at God.

Exodus 3: 4 – 6

            Due to an unsettled stomach, my youngest son Miles wasn’t able to ride up to Kirkwood Camp on Sunday with the rest of the Middle School Mission Team. He and I rode up together on Monday afternoon.

            We parked near the camp office and then walked towards Meadowside cabin where Miles would be living this week. On our way, we passed the pond and volleyball court where nearly all the campers were hanging out that afternoon. It was a postcard-perfect summer’s day: low humidity, dark blue skies, and vibrant green everywhere you turned. A wonderful, warm feeling overcame me. I knew I was standing on holy ground because I felt as I used to feel when I would turn down Dogwood Road in Media, Pennsylvania, the street where my childhood home was found.

            I went to Kirkwood Camp for the first time as a camper when I was a bit younger than Miles. Kirkwood has always been the property of the Presbytery of Philadelphia though when I went there as a teenager, the camp was fairly new to us. A few years earlier, my older brothers, Blake and Scott went to summer camp on an island in the middle of the Delaware River a few miles north of New Hope.

            My home church, the Media Presbyterian Church, used to “take over” all of Kirkwood Camp for a week-long summer camp for the congregation in August. The church offered a full program for elementary-aged children, middle school students and high school kids, as well as adults. For meals, we all gathered together in the dining hall to eat and to sing. One night each week, all of the counselors—a mix of college students and parents—were given 20 minutes to go and hide. All of the campers, from the youngest children to the oldest high school student carefully watched the clock and when time was up, kids came pouring out of the dinning to track down their hidden counselors. If you found one, you were allowed to pelt them with water balloons. The pastors hid too and were subject to the same sentence if caught. One year, the Senior Pastor and the Assistant Pastor dove into the dumpster. No one came close to finding them and they said they had a wonderful staff meeting amid the trash.

            On Monday afternoon, some of those happy summer memories came to my mind. But, as I’ve written already, I was standing ground that is holy to me. Summer after summer, year after year, God met me at Kirkwood Camp. I call it a “thin place” too for the line between heaven and earth is very thin there.

            As I greeted our young people from TMPC at Kirkwood this week, I know sounded like an old man: “I came here when I was a kid.” The young people looked with wonderment at me. Who knew they had summer camps back in dinosaur days? As for me, I have prayed all this week that our young people would realize that they too are standing on holy ground.

A Heart for the City

            One of happiest memories of my youth happened one summer Sunday when I was 11 or 12-years-old. For reasons I forgotten, my Dad and I skipped worship that morning at my home church, Media Presbyterian Church. And for more reasons I’ve lost, he and I went together to worship at the Old Pine Presbyterian Church in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia. The old sanctuary of that congregation is among the most beautiful of many lovely Presbyterian sanctuaries in and around Philadelphia. I remember worshipping God there that morning. Afterwards, my Dad and walked towards Second Street. We found an ethic food festival in Head House Square. We had lunch. I don’t remember much more than that but that time with my Dad has always stayed with me and I actually point to it as a birthplace of my concern for cities.

            According to one of our mission partners, Urban Mosaic, “Over the past decades hundreds of millions of people have moved to cities in hope of a better future. Yet, every single day, over 100,000 of them end up in an urban slum. By now, 1.3 billion people live in urban poor communities. In 2050 close to 40% of the world's population will live in a slum.” Most of those billion plus people live on less than $2 a day. By 2050 nearly 75% of the world’s population will live in cities. The needs and the suffering found in cities are great; and Christians belong in the city.

            My visit to Philadelphia with my father many summers ago planted something within me. I’ve always been comfortable in cities and love the vibrancy that fills the streets of cities. I love the culture and the beauty and the food of cities. I am drawn to the countless stories one finds among the people of cities.

            Last week I spent a week in Philadelphia as a member of the High School Mission Team. We lived last week in a small, crowded house in North Broad Street. Two other church youth groups shared quarters with us. There were two showers for 40 people. We had minimal air conditioning and we slept in narrow bunk rooms with a few fans. It was a mission trip.

            And yet . . . it was the best week of the year for me. Our group made our way all over the city from southwest Philadelphia, where we helped with a week-long summer camp to Northern Liberties where we did landscaping and cooked a meal for another mission team. I was in parts of Philadelphia where I don’t often go, like the depressed neighbors of Kennsington and Hunting Park. We also found several lovely parks, previously unknown to me.

            When I was leading summer youth mission trips, I planned for our kids to go to cities every other year. On off years we would travel to more rural places in Appalachia. While the poverty in rural America is alarming and in need of lots of help, I know that our young people will more likely live in or near an American city. I want our young people to have a heart for the city. For as we heard this past Sunday, God loves cities: But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4: 12)

For a good summary of the challenges of urban poverty follow this link to the website of Urban Mosaic: http://www.urbanmosaic.net/global-urban-poverty

Whenever I See Your Smiling Face

“And what a relief to see your friendly smile. It is like seeing the face of God!”

Genesis 33:10

            I got a new smartphone recently. We are now a four-phone family. Research conducted by my oldest son Sam revealed that we would do best by purchasing a certain brand of phone, which we did through Amazon. The only drawback to obtaining our phones this way is that I couldn’t transfer all my contacts from my old phone to my new one. This meant that I spent hours creating new contact information: name and phone numbers.

            One feature I like on my phone is a feature that allows me to download the picture of my contact. Now, when I receive a call or a text, with it I see the smiling faces of my loved ones, work colleagues and friends.

            The words at the top of this page were spoken by Jacob to his brother Esau. They might not be the most sincere words ever spoken, but I like them all the same. Jacob and Esau were twins. They were night and day different and they never got along. Jacob, with plenty of help from his Mom, cheated Esau out of a sizeable inheritance. Esau was a big, burly mountain man who could kill you in 30 seconds. Esau, when he discovered what his younger brother did to him, promised to do all sorts of nasty things when he got his hairy hands on him. If you could say nothing else positive about Jacob, you could say that he was smart enough to run away.

            Time passed and now the brothers are about to meet face to face. I can see Jacob sweating as he sees his brother for the first. Jacob piles it on, double-high. He compliments Esau about everything: You look terrific! Your wife and children all look like fashion models! I love your car and your house! Did I tell you how good you look? Jacob’s best line was this: “And what a relief to see your friendly smile. It is like seeing the face of God!”

            Maybe Jacob only said that because he was hoping his brother wouldn’t crush him there and then. And maybe out of his fear and dread Jacob was saying something deeply significant. The face of friend or one you love does bring relief, doesn’t it? And that small sense of relief is nothing compared with seeing the smiling face of God. And I believe that when we face God we find a friendly, smiling, loving face.

            The Gospel of John starts by describing the Word of God, whom we know as Jesus. The Word, John says, was with God from the beginning. The word “with” means “face-to-face”; and I think that’s a clue for us that the best way to look at those we love is face to face, with nothing between us—no phones, laptops, magazines or TV’s. Let’s look at each other that way. You will find relief in that friendly smile. You’ll find the face of God.

A Promise Worth the Effort

            Next Friday, June 30th, I will get up early in the morning to join dozens of friends for a day on the Delaware River. We will not be lazing in the summer sun. No, we will take turns paddling in out-rigger canoes traveling from Trenton, NJ to Camden, NJ. That’s about 25 miles, or a 40-minute car ride. In an out-rigger canoe that means about a five-hour paddle. Two years ago I took part in this amazing event. Half the seats were always filled by members of the Philadelphia Outrigger Canoe Club. These women and men are serious paddlers. They row 15-mile races at a pace of 60 strokes per minute. We rookies were paddling an hour at a time at a leisurely 50 strokes per minutes for a solid hour. One crazy woman who paddled like broken machine stuck in high gear, shouted over her shoulder, “Are you feeling the burn?” Oh, yes, our shoulders and back were on fire.

            I’m happy, really honored actually, to sweat under the sun for the sake of raising money for Urban Promise Trenton. This is a favorite mission of mine; and I’m proud that since 2010, Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church has been a key supporting church. Melissa Mantz is now serving as the Executive Director of Urban Promise Trenton. Melissa loves the young people she serves. She brings great faith, wisdom and an extraordinary sense of humor to her work. A number of Thompson members volunteer on the Advisory Board. Others show up each week to tutor or help with other programs. Many of us have contributed generously to support this mission.

            The City of Trenton is a part of our “backyard”. In the name of Jesus, we belong on the streets of this city. The website for Urban Promise Trenton declares that, “The need for UrbanPromise in Trenton is without question. The city of Trenton ranks among the poorest cities in the state and has one of the country’s highest crime rates. Nearly a third of Trenton’s residents live below the poverty level, and the city’s high school graduation rate is under 50 percent and the lowest in the entire state. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Trenton’s population was about 85,000 and nearly 28% were under eighteen. This translates to over 23,000 kids with few alternatives to gangs and crime. With gangs recruiting children as young as eight years old, Trenton’s children are at risk. Our free programs not only take young children off the streets but also employ area teens, providing valuable life skills and a safe haven for these young people. UrbanPromise Trenton opens up a new world and allows city youth and teens to choose a better path for their future.”

            Joining me in the boats on June 30 are TMPC members Sam Spencer, Frederic Haubrich and Mark Tomkovicz. Please remember to pray for us and for all who paddle.

           If you would like to support me, please follow this link: https://www.commitchange.com/nj/trenton/urbanpromise-trenton/campaigns/stuart-spencer-paddle-for-promise-2017

It's Not a Hard Decision

            Number me among the fans of golfer Phil Mickelson. Faced with the decision to play in the U.S. Open—the only major tournament he hasn’t captured in long career—or attend his daughter’s high school graduation, Phil Mickelson said he would skip the tournament to attend the ceremony. “I love the [U.S.] Open, but this is a special moment for us,” Mickelson told reporters from the FedEx St. Jude Classic about missing the golf tournament to attend the high school graduation of his daughter, Amanda. “I mean, my daughter’s speaking, she’s giving the speech there at graduation. It’s one of those things you just need to be there, so it wasn’t a hard decision.”

            Yeah Phil Mickelson! Yeah Amanda Mickelson! Here’s guessing that when Amanda stands by Phil’s deathbed both will look into the other’s eyes and agree that it was the right decision and it wasn’t even that hard. It’s not hard to choose to celebrate the big moments in the lives of our loved ones. It’s not hard to put work in its proper place if you have the rest of the priorities in their proper places. In face of deep and meaningful time, in the light of what matters most, you would make that choice every single time.

            Keep your priorities clear and straight and your life will be a little less hard. You need to work but watch that your work doesn’t push out marriage and children. If you are married, honor your marriage vows and you will steer around the wreckage on unfaithfulness. Seek God first and let go of the debate of whether or not this is the Sunday to go to church. Worship God! There’s nothing more important you’ll do this week.

            Make sure you are keeping one eye on your death bed. You’re getting closer to it every day. What do you want to remember on that day? Attending your daughter’s high school graduation or winning the U. S. Open? It’s not a hard decision.

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!