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 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!

A Summer Stroll

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

Eugene H. Peterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

A More Google Less Facebook Church

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

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

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

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

Don’t compare your insides to others’ outsides.

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

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

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

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


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

Trash Detail

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

Philippians 1: 1

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

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

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

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

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

A Good Humiliation a Day

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

Richard Rohr

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

            Here’s what Richard Rohr had to say:

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

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

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

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

Jesus in the Kitchen

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

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

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

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

          I have learned so much from Jesus in the Kitchen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter Brings Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ, the Lord is risen today: Alleluia!

Sons of men and angels say: Alleluia!

Raise your joys and triumphs high: Alleluia!

Sing, ye heavens and earth reply: Alleluia!

Getting Ready for Holy Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 1977

You have put gladness in my heart

    more than when their grain and wine abound.

Psalm 4:7

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

Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall

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

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

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

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

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

The Puppy in Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Elsie.

This is Elsie.

Finally Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a link to the article by Don Mackintosh:


Sitting Next to a Pilot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith & Flying by the Seat of Our Pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive in Purple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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