Yes, 2021 arrived, now a few musings for a new year

For a week, I have thought about how to look at 2021.  One challenge that showed up in my inbox was to identify one word for the new year. 

Immediately one popped up:  Resilience.  Why?  Think about the history of our country.  How many times has a challenge presented itself and the very principles that established this country sustained it for over 200 years.

Think about the history of Christianity, even it began with the resilience of the Jewish faithful who endured challenge after challenge without all the technology and global interaction or support available today.

Resilience.  

One word to guide my thinking in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of governmental change, in the midst of economic challenges, not to mention just the issue of the life challenges of growing older or recovering from a medical challenge or even loneliness we endure with the pandemic.

Resilience is essential for all of us.  Interestingly this is a trait, quality, life skill that is ignored in our educational system.  We need to teach resilience to our students, to the future generations.

There typically is not a set curriculum for teaching resilience, but it can be developed.  In literature, selections can be read and discussed using the word resilience as a connecting theme.

In all classes, resilience can be taught in how to manage difficult lessons, disappoint grades, life challenges like absences due to illness or to circumstances beyond the student’s control. Each failure becomes an opportunity to develop resilience whether in a classroom, in a personal relationship, in a family, in a neighborhood, in a community, or even in a country.

Resilience.

Personally, my belief in Jesus Christ and participating in a Christian community provides me the strength and even the skills needed to be resilient.  I just pray that my children and their families have come to know resilience in their lives, too, as they have witnessed in mine and their extended families.

We may be looking at 2021 through cracked lenses right now, but with resilience we will take the world as we see it and do whatever we can to make it better.

Isn’t that what Jesus would do?

Isn’t that what our founding fathers would do?

Isn’t that what the Greatest Generation would do?

We have an opportunity to take something that has challenged our very inner beings, our sense of safety, our sense of identity, and make a difference.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, called his faithful to love one another by doing all we can do for all we can whenever we can for as long as we can.  This is how we become resilient as individuals, as a faith community, as global citizens.

My word for 2021:  Resilience.

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Christmas Day musings 2020:

An exercise in stream of conscious writing

When I woke up at 4:30 this morning, I could not help but remember how many times as a kid that 4:30 did not seem so early for Christmas morning.  This time I did not run to the living room to see what Santa had brought.  This time I laid in vws and started thinking about a range of things.

Now it is six hours later, I have fixed a Christmas morning brunch, started sourdough bread, and am just generally relaxed.  Christmas no longer resembles the ones from my childhood.  Circumstances have forced Christmas to be refocused.

The Upper Room devotional reaffirmed this may be a natural transition in our lives as we age (at least I translated that from the narrative), but I had to remember this was written at least a year ago–before the pandemic.  Here is the final statement in this reflection:

“For a long time, Christmas was just an annual tradition with to-do lists and performances. This year, I experienced Christmas from another perspective as I let myself come as a person longing to see the Savior.”

In the midst of the pandemic, we have been called to change our patterns of behavior.  We are to stay away from our annual family gatherings–and some easily add up to over 20.  We wear masks wherever we go, even into the bank lobbies.  And we stay home.  

I cannot imagine how this year’s experience is going to transform our lives as we move forward, but it must.  We must all refocus our values; to put our faith in God first, our family next, and then we can begin developing our individual goals, passions, bucket lists, and so on.

Personally, I cannot seem to think ahead right now.  We have become fixated on the immediate situation of the pandemic with no defined end in sight.  Yes, we need to get vaccinated, but it is not yet readily available.  Instead, masks, social distancing, and washing hands become our norm–not bad but good habits, really.

Oddly, as I had to face a quarantine before Christmas, I could not help but compare it to an experience when I was in 6th grade.  I had the lead role in our elementary Christmas play, and I got German measles–my brother and myself.

Two weeks we were at home.  We had a hide-a-bed sofa in the front room.  Mom pulled it out and we stayed there most of the time.  There were some behaviors that had to change then too.

For instance, at that time the medical field thought we should not use our eyes much so the lights were dimmed, no TV watching (it was fairly new in our household and it was only on in the evenings–after supper), and no one could come around because it was so contagious.  We even had a doctor who made a house call and we lived 8 miles out of town.

For two weeks before Christmas, we were confined to the house on the farm.  Mom read us a book.  We ate meals on that hide-a-bed sofa, stayed in our pajamas, and waited for the measles to go away.  And they did.  The doctor gave us the ok on Christmas Eve to go out.

Dad took us shopping in town.  I can remember vividly going to Ben Franklin to Christmas shop.  I can’t remember what we got except for one thing–the Brach’s Christmas star chocolates from the bulk candy counter.  Odd that that stands out over any other shopping we did.

Yes, I had missed my star role in the Christmas play.  My brother and I had two weeks off school.  It was a very different Christmas, but we had the old-fashioned measles healed just in time for Christmas.

This year I got out of quarantine one week before Christmas Day.  We did not get to shop very much.  I did not get to bake like I usually do.  We did not have social gatherings.  We have not even gone to see Christmas lights.  Why I did not even put up the Christmas tree!

  • A year ago, I would never have expected our year to be transformed like it has been.  
  • A year ago, I would have never thought I would miss participating in our church’s Advent and Christmas Eve services.  
  • A year ago, I never dreamed getting COVID-19 would change my Christmas routines.
  • A year from now, I hope to have the vaccine.  
  • A year from now, I hope my values remain focused on the reason for the season–the birth of Jesus Christ who taught us how to love one another.

A year from now . . . well who can tell.  I just hope we can preserve some of the positives that can protect us from losing the focus on our values:  faith, family, and friends.

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Blue Christmas thoughts

All the world seems excited to celebrate Christmas with family and friends, holiday traditions, and the excitement of Christmas, but for others the holiday season is a struggle. 

The reasons for feeling blue in the midst of all the holiday hype ranges from the loss of a spouse, family member, empty nest syndrome, health diagnosis, distance, loneliness and the list grows.

Churches have acknowledged that Advent and Christmas can be difficult and lead to depression, therefore, a Blue Christmas worship service has developed to help those struggling.  

According to the UMC Discipleship website, “There is a growing attentiveness to the needs of people who are blue at Christmas.  Increasing numbers of churches are creating sacred space for people living through dark times.  Such services are reflective, accepting where we really are, and holding out healing and hope.”

The Blue Christmas worship is typically offered on the Winter Solstice which is Monday, December 21, the shortest day of the year.  According to the world clock, our latitude indicates that there will be only about 9 hours and 28 minutes of daylight.

Admittedly I struggle, especially after the loss of my mother and a divorce all at once–and that was almost 30 years ago.  Still, I had young kids and we powered through the life changes and celebrated as if nothing had changed.  

Life hands us challenges consistently, and we muster through.  That does not mean we honestly feel happy, we just ride the current that pushes us forward.  How do we do it?  With our faith in God.

On Monday, stop and reflect on how your faith sustains you throughout the wide range of life challenges.  Take a few moments and consider not only how you manage, but those around you who struggle during the season. 

When churches provide a Blue Christmas service, the most common reference in the Bible is to the story of Job.  Remember how he maintained his faith despite all the challenges he endured.  His friends kept thinking that he must have been doing something, sinning, that was causing God to punish him.

Yet Job lived faithfully throughout every challenge thrown at him.  He was able to fend off the negative pressure from his friends.  He trusted God.  In the end, he was restored to the wealth and the success he had experienced before the challenges.  His life was a living testimony to his friends how faith in God carries us out of the darkness and into the light.

Christmas is filled with the symbolism of light and maybe that is why we love the candles and all the light displays inside and outside our homes during these short days.  Adam Hamilton speaks to the light of Christ in his book Incarnation:

“Darkness is most often (but not always) associated with evil, adversity, ignorance, despair, gloom, and even death.  Light, on the other hand, is usually associated in scripture with God, goodness, joy, knowledge, hope, and life.” (p. 124)

Hamilton goes on to explain two forms of darkness, which during these shortest days of the year, seem to lend towards the second form he refers to as existential or situational darkness “. . . associated with grief, sadness or despair, or the feelings of being lost or unloved.” (p.126)

As December 21 gives way to the 22nd and then Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, look to the light.  Know that God is the light and he pulls out of our darkness–even during a pandemic.

Hamilton defines Christmas as light: “Christmas is the celebration of light piercing our darkness, God’s light coming to us to enlighten our lives.” (p. 130)

The concept of the incarnation, God as human, is one of the most compelling arguments to celebrate Christmas.  God loves us so much that he walked along side of us as the man Jesus Christ.  He experienced all the life challenges we do, even the most horrific as he died on the cross so that we may believe in him and know that he is with us.

Hamilton challenges us to walk in God’s light and to share that light:

“Jesus is God’s Word to us.  In that Word, we see not only the love of God, but the light of God illuminating our moral and existential darkness.  Our task is to accept that light, to allow it to illuminate our lives, to walk in this light, and to then share this light with others.”  (p.136)

I chose light even on the shortest, darkest day of the year.  I know the challenges of darkness, but I look toward the light.  Maybe that is why the words of John speak to me:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  –John 1:1-5

Please join me in prayer, not only for yourself but for all those feeling blue during this Advent season.

Dear Lord, our father and our light, thank you for shining bright even in the darkest of days.  Guide us and enlighten our heaviness of spirit as we look to your glory and celebrate the birth of your son, Jesus Christ.  –Amen.

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Thoughts from Quarantine 2020

Waking up this morning, I feel Christmas sneaking in on me.  There are clouds and the possibility to see snowflakes in the air, and it is cold–24 degrees.  And yet, I am in quarantine.

Christmas has been central to my life forever.  Growing up on the farm, Christmas was a time we developed all those traditions that seem to make a Norman Rockwell painting–cutting the Christmas tree out in the woods, snow falling, popcorn snacks, Christmas baking.  You get the picture.

But then 2020, a year that we all suspected would be filled with clarity and hope simply based on that nice, round number and the metaphoric connection to clear vision, hit us hard.

News reports of a highly contagious virus started creeping into our psyche, and in March a shut down.  We did not understand the full ramifications of a nation-wide shutdown but what was a nation to do.  Shut down.

Then slowly, life adapted.  Fear subsided a bit, but caution was maintained.  In my world, masks stay in the car, in my purse or pocket, and they go on when I get out of the car.  Even at the office, the mask went on when someone walked into our bubble or we had a conversation–still 6 feet apart, too.

Months slid past, then we got bit by the bug.  COVID hit us both and in very different ways.  My husband coughed and coughed and coughed until he thought he had broken ribs.  He was totally wiped out.

Then just a few days later, I started questioning how I felt.  I thought it was mild sinus problem and started the sinus meds with Mucinex.  A conversation with the county health nurse pushed me to test–positive, too.

So we found ourselves in an honest, full-fledged quarantine.  Smack dab in the middle of one of the busiest seasons in my life–Advent.  For a pastor this just seemed surreal.  How was I going to contribute to the season’s worship?

Well, I can now tell you that there are ways to make things work and work well.  True I have given up the in-person element, but the months of preparation made it possible to still provide an element of input–Zoom, videotaping at home, and emailing.  I can work at home.

Still, quarantine has dramatically changed our lives in so many ways.  Working is one thing but stop and consider all the other affects that COVID-19 has created in our world.

Health:  I seriously doubt that our news channels have ever spent so much airtime explaining how to be healthy, the specifics of the coronavirus, how it spreads, how the medical field is managing, and how to know when you are sick and when to get tested.  I have to admit I would never have thought the symptoms I was experiencing were anything to be concerned about except I had been informed.  Thank you to the information flood.

Work Force:  Our economy is challenged.  We had been living in a society that could ignore the lowest economic strata convincing our middle class and affluent selves that we are privileged to live in our nation free from extreme poverty–and then the pandemic.  Our work force has been depleted.  Families are in crisis with job losses, income loss, and so many more problems.  

Our culture is being redefined.  I have witnessed one young family become one victims and then watch the church family rally around them.  As I sit here with the news on, I am watching a country learn how critical it is to provide food for the masses.  City after city is being featured for their food drives and it is shocking to see the massive lines of cars.

2020 is going to redefine the work force culture and I pray that the CEO’s and boards understand that our world can collapse if they do not value the employees as the most important component of their industries.  

Medical Services:  Because we are a democracy and capitalism is the base of our culture, we have a medical industry that has focused on profit not on service.  Then the pandemic shifted the focus to the frontline workers.  For the first time in my life, I see our country value the nurses, the doctors, the EMTs, even the nurses’ aids who clean the patients, the technicians, the custodial staff and so many, many employees essential to the wellbeing of our family and friends.

Hopefully this will force our culture to redefine their values.  Our medical industry needs to be identified as a necessity and be aligned to the utilities that are necessary for a society to function.  The profit margin needs to be monitored and the medical workers should be valued as highly as they are now on throughout history.

Education:  Teachers are frontline workers, too.  Our country guarantees a free education to all who live within our boundaries.  Why have we failed to acknowledge the critical role of our teachers?  Why are our teachers one of the lowest paid professionals?  Why do we put educational requirements on our teachers but do not support that financially?

When the pandemic shut down our world, the teachers had to keep teaching.  But the teaching shifted to an entirely different platform for which the majority of teachers were never trained.  We forced in-person teaching to turn on a dime (pardon the cliché) to teach virtually.  And some of the teachers did not even have the actual technology they needed to teach from a remote setting.

I could rant and rave about this issue even more because I know education personally having spent 35+ years in education, but I know each family knows what happened in education with the pandemic.  I know that the kiddos are suffering.  I know that the level of education with which we think or even expect our students to graduate has been severely damaged and will not be able to rebound even within a couple of years.

We have failed our students because we failed to teach them to learn, to take safe risks, and now to be resilient.  

We must teach our kids how to learn so when forced to step away from the classroom they can learn independently.  Teachers have long been forced to teach to tests and state standards; saddly we have forgotten the components on which we must build.

Maybe the pandemic will serve as a magnifying glass for our culture.  

Maybe we can stop and reassess the values that we have said we support, but failed.  

Maybe we can begin 2021 with a new mindset and go back to what our American values were just 244 years ago, when our founding fathers declared their independence and wrote a constitution that continues to be the backbone of our nation.

Therefore, to conclude, I am in quarantine with a mild case of COVID-19.  I do not feel guilty because I followed the recommendations.  I do not feel alienated because I tested positive.  But I do feel a responsibility to do all that I can for all I can in any way I can as we move into 2021.  I am Methodist after all, and John Wesley led his world to be healthy, to serve and to be the hands of feet of God.  It is one of our American values.

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Happy Thanksgiving–a little late

     Typically we would begin sharing thoughts about all the positive outcomes of the year today, but the 2020 year has certainly challenged us to find positives to share.

     When we last visited, I did share that even through this COVID season, there are some positives developing.  It is so important to use an optimistic a twist as we can put for the year.  

     Therefore, let’s look at this holiday weekend as one to rest and resolve to look for ways to reboot our lives despite the pandemic.

      Right now, I am sitting in the backseat of the car while waiting for my husband to complete another round of testing–this time a physical therapy form of testing.  Our year has been challenging since the truck wreck July 26, 2019; but the rehab is basically completed; and today’s results will guide us forward.

     The sun is out, the wind is whipping the car, but the temperatures are mild; and the car provides an excellent mini-office environment.  What if it is was like so many other cold, grey November days?  I would not be able to do this.

     Add to this the flexibility that a laptop computer provides.  I am a Mac user; and it works like a champ sitting here in the car.  I can even link to WiFi–either through my phone or the guest server at the facility.

     Despite all, I am happily sitting here working away.  Seems pretty good.

     Thanksgiving, itself, may look a little different for most of us this year.  I know that our entire society is considering whether or not to meet with their usual family members or if the risk of developing COVID, 

     What makes us happy?  This is what we need to remember.  Happy is family, good food, and knowing that God is with us all the time. 

     Even if we meet just as a small family group, isn’t that worth celebrating.

     Maybe our traditional Thanksgiving meal is pared down to just the basics:  turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, and pumpkin pie.  The taste is the highlight and the reduced work load makes for a happy Thanksgiving.

     How often do we ever take a day just to relax?  All too often we use the full seven days of a week.  God told us to take a sabbath each week. 

     This is a bonus day to use as a sabbath.  The best-case scenario is that you honestly get to rest from Thursday through Sunday before resuming a normal work week schedule.

     Yes, here in 2020 we can honestly wish one another a Happy Thanksgiving.  And then we move into Advent and the Christmas season.  Next thing you know, we will be saying farewell to 2020 and welcoming 2021 filled with hope for relief.

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Positive Twists COVID-19 Season

     The last seven months our comfortable American lifestyle has redefined itself.   The daily routines have shifted, schools are in crisis, economy erratic, families rattled–the list grows.

     Yet, there is an irony to the entire situation, and I pray that there are some dramatic shifts for the positive in our lifestyle that are and have been desperately needed.

     First and possibly most important, families are being forced to redefine their structure.  When the first mandates were put into place, schools closed.  Immediately, without any warning, families had to figure out how to manage the children at home.

     Certainly not every family unit had two parents working outside of the home, but many did.  Not every family had elementary kids who needed supervision at home.  But for many, the immediate decision had to be who was staying home.

     Then comes the next crisis:  how to teach all the students.  Maybe teaching elementary schools does not seem so daunting, but it is.  How one generation learned does not match the generation currently in school.  

     Add to that the teachers knew teaching as person-to-person.  In a weekend, the teachers had to transform into virtual teachers and nowhere in the college curriculum did education students learn about virtual teaching.

     Often in schools the technology teams were paid staff who installed, updated, and repaired all the district’s hardware.  Librarians were the other staff members who were often the more tech savvy in the district, but even now their job has been redefined by the need to substitute in a classroom or supervise lunch.  The library is not the first priority.

     As the months continue to roll along, families adapt and thankfully businesses do too.  A second positive developed–work at home became a viable option.  Productivity proved possible, and workers discovered that commute time became family time or productive work time.

     My brother’s work is a global company and there is some belief that the changes COVID has forced has rewritten many practices like travel, working meals, face-to-face sales calls, and even the office costs will be minimized.

     Speaking of commuting, consider the changes in driving.  Not only has commuting time and miles been dramatically reduced, COVID has lowered consumption of gas, oil, tires, and so on.  Not to mention the dramatic change in traveling for pleasure.

     That brings another major change to mind–the cost of entertainment.  Maybe the shift is really in priorities, which can be a positive considering how much emphasis and money has been spent on professional sports.

     In fact, COVID is forcing us to slow down and re-evalute our priorities.  Over the years, we have chosen to spend our money for making our lives comfortable, enjoyable, almost luxurious especially in relation to so many millions and millions of people.

     We have invested in entertainment with abandon.  We even choose to spend more money on sporting events than we tithe to the church.  We have chosen style over frugality.

     During this COVID season, I have discovered that I do not need to go shopping for clothes.  I do not need to take off for random weekend runs.  I do not need to the latest appliances.  I do not need . . . and the list continues to grow.

     What I have also learned is that I value my home much more.  I use the space more completely than I did before.  I take more pride in the yard and the small amount of vegetables I plant and harvest.  I look around and discover the fun I can have with what I do have.

     Oh, there are disappointments and losses that I can list, too.  But today, I want to see the positives that COVID has forced me to see.  I prefer looking at the good not the bad.  I see hope not despair.  I see God, not the evil.  I pray that others see the lessons we can learn and make changes that will improve the quality of our lives that will carry forward.

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A Summer with the Psalms

The Literature in the Psalms

     Two years ago, I spent a summer with books.  Notice I did not say I spent a summer with the psalms.  

     For over 12 years, I had read almost nothing except seminary resources, followed the lectionary readings at least three times which is really nine years, and of course the Bible. 

     Even as I finished up my teaching career and continued in ministry, virtually all my reading was centered on preparing for sermons and course of study assignments.  Leisure reading just did not fit into my cramped calendar.

     As I stepped away from the pulpit, I started reading again.  I think I was starved.  During that summer, I think I read something like a dozen books.  I read fiction primarily.  I was starved.

     Among my reading choices were a series about the Yada Yada Prayer Group in which one character repeatedly referenced the praying the Psalms.  I also read a fiction book about the biblical character Sarah–fascinating.  But I also added in the Chronicles of Narnia which I had never read

     C. S. Lewis captured me and after conversations with others, I read his book Mere Christianity.  I became hooked on his thinking so as we began preparing for this summer’s series on the psalms, I searched out another of his books, Reflections on the Psalms.  In his introduction, he writes: 

Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.  They must be read as poems if they are to be understood. . . “(p.3)

     As we begin today’s reflection on the Psalms, I hope you have your Bible handy and are ready to take notes.  We are students of God’s words and today we study the Psalms.  Please join me in prayer:

Dear Lord, you are our teacher, and you have gifted your faithful with words to guide us in our life journeys.  Open our minds today through the words of the psalms so we may understand your grace, your love, and your promises.  Amen.

     Throughout my own educational experience, I never understood the significance of reading the introductions, the preface, or the forwards of books.  Oddly enough, one of the first instructors in the Course of Study through St. Paul’s School of Theology, emphasized that reading these introductory words to the texts was important in order for us to begin understanding the context that follows.

     Since then, I have made an effort to do just that.  Sometimes it seems pretty tedious, other times it reveals insights that crack open the mind to a completely new concept or author’s point of view that deeply affects the understanding of the material found in the text.  

     Reading C. S. Lewis’s introductions provides a frame of reference from which he writes.  For instance, in his introductions he explains not only who he is, but how he hopes to share his understanding of scripture:

“This is not a work of scholarship.  I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.  I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. . . . (p. 1)”

What Lewis does not say about who he is can be found in the biographical information on the book’s flap:

He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. . .” 

Lewis was gifted, but he chose to write humbly in an effort to explain what many might say is unexplainable–God is real and is part of our daily lives.

     This week’s scripture readings began with Psalm 62 which is subtitled “A Song of Trust in God Alone.”  For those familiar with our hymns, that triggers a recognition of an often-repeated phrase, “God alone is . . . “  

     Even last week as we talked about Psalm 42 and how it was transformed into the contemporary hymn, “As the Deer” written by Martin Nystrom, we can find the repetition of these phrases:   

You alone are my heart’s desire. . . 

You alone are my strength, my shield. . . 

The psalms we read and learn are deep inside our memory to rely on in difficult times or when we are under stress:  

     For God alone my soul waits in silence;

         from him comes my salvation.

     He alone is my rock and my salvation,

        my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  (Psalms 62:1-2)

These words lead Katharina von Schlegel, in 1752, to write another hymn we often turn to in difficult times:  

Be still, my soul:  the Lord is on your side.

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;        

Leave to your God to order and provide;

In every change God faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul:  your best, your heavenly friend

Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.  (UMH #534)

We need these words.  We need to know that as difficult as times can get, we are not in this journey alone.  We are accompanied by God.

     This summer we are experiencing challenges that we think no one else has ever had to experience before.  But, the parallels are there in history.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew of infectious outbreaks that changed the lives of many.  In the earliest years of the 20th century there was the Spanish Flu, during the mid-1900s there was polio, and now we have COVID-19

     Circumstances that surround the pandemic are creating additional havoc in our lives.  Families deal with the loss of their loved ones.  Jobs are lost.  Incomes are lost.  Future plans are put on hold.  And no one can predict how the effects are going to impact their lives physically, financially, emotionally or even spiritually.   We need God.  We need the words of the psalms.

     Do you remember that Lewis was a literature professor?  Well, in his introduction he shares a couple of insights into studying the psalms as literature.  One point he makes is repetition is a way to emphasize a point the author/poet wants to make.  As we read the psalms this is one truth that develops very clearly.  

      Consider the symbolism of the rock that we find in the palms as well as in other scripture.  In Psalm 62, rock is mentioned four times.  The rock is salvation and refuge.  The rock is mighty.  God is our rock.  Repetition of one word can impress on the reader/listener the value of that symbol.

     Now look at Psalm 40:2, also from this week’s readings: 

He drew me up from the desolate pit,

      out of the miry bog,

And set my feet upon a rock,

     making my steps secure.

The repetition cannot be ignored, and of course these words trigger the recognition of another favorite hymn,s My Hope Is Built: [

My hope is built on nothing less

than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand;

All other ground is sinking sand.  (UMH #368)

Even though this hymn is not based on the psalms, it is based on the same symbolism.  It is an image, a literary device, that is carried throughout scripture.  It becomes the rock foundation for our faith.

     Lewis’ second literature lesson is about parallelism.  As a language teacher, my first reaction is to think about teaching students how to write sentence with parallel structure, but Lewis is analyzing literature and defines parallelism as “. . . the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.” (p.4)

     Lewis uses other examples to explain parallelism as he continues to share:

“. . . ‘Parallelism’ is the characteristically Hebrew form [of creating a pattern as in the arts, painting, dance, music, literature.  . . . Parallelism] is either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.” (p.4-5)

Lewis saw the repetition and the parallelism that remained as a means of emphasizing God’s message through scripture–despite translations.

                  Each of the psalms we read strengthens us.  We find ourselves facing the same human challenges as those in the ancient scriptures. We hear God in the words that have translated into the words we sing even today.  The psalms are meant to be sung and/or to be prayed in as many ways as we want as we confront the reality of our earthly challenges.

                  One of the contemporary hymns that speaks to me is titled, “10,000 Reasons.”  The lyrics were written by Matt Redman and the music was written by his friend Jonas Myrin.  Redman says he takes inspiration from Psalm 103: 

Bless the Lord, oh my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul

and do not forget all his benefits–

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.(v.1-5)

Written in 2011, within one hour, the psalm echoes through the words.  The literature of the hymn keeps the listener centered on God through repetition and parallelism.  The theme of the psalms never waivers regardless of the translation: 

                  Bless the Lord, oh my soul

                  Oh my soul, worship his holy name

                  Sing like never before,

                  Oh my soul I’ll worship your holy name.

                  The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning.

                  It’s time to sing your song again

                  Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me

                  Let me be singing when the evening comes. . . . 

                  You’re rich in love and you’re slow to anger

                  Your name is great and your heart is kind

For all your goodness, I will keep on singing

Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.

And on that day when my strength is failing

The end draws near and my time has come

Still my soul will sing your praise unending

Ten thousand years and then forevermore. . . .

     Today we close with the words of the ancient psalms echoing in the lyrics of our hymns today.  We join in worship and include them in our liturgy as a way to learn, to remember, and to grow in our faith.  

     The reality is that we need the repetition the poets, the artists, the lyricists use to seal in our long-term memory and our inner soul, the words of God.  We hear the prayers for help, the hymns of praise and thanksgiving, the wisdom of the faithful guiding us to a solid foundation, a rock foundation in our faith.

     There are indeed 10,000 reasons to read the psalms this summer and then reread them in the seasons ahead.  Reread them in various translations and discover the solid, rock foundation of God’s words.

     Eugene Peterson shares two pieces of Psalm 62 in his devotional, Praying with the Psalms.  

For God alone my soul waits in silence; 

                  from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,

                  my fortress; I shall never be shaken.”  (Psalms 62:1-2, MSG)

In his second daily devotion he selects one more verse from the psalm:

Trust in him at all times, O people;

pour out your heart before him;

                  God is a refuge for us.  (Psalms 62:8, MSG)

He adds to these scriptures these two brief statements: 

Silence sinks a shaft to bedrock.  It is the soul’s means for descending through the gravel of rebellion and doubt to the solid, quiet reality of God’s word.  . . . The soul careens from side to side seeking a way to completion.  On one side is the anarchic freedom of lawless. . .on the other the secure wealth of the rich.  But the alternatives are ditches, not highways.  The Lord himself is the way to wholeness. (May 2-3)

Please join me in prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father, 

You are our rock, our foundation, our refuge.

In the words you give your faithful

We find reassurance, solace, and strength.

Thank you for all those who know you

And find ways to share your message

 So others can be strengthened

In their relationship with you,

Assuring them of salvation

And life eternal in your kingdom.  

–Selah, forever, amen.

A Summer with the Psalms:

The Literature in the Psalms

     Two years ago, I spent a summer with books.  Notice I did not say I spent a summer with the psalms.  

     For over 12 years, I had read almost nothing except seminary resources, followed the lectionary readings at least three times which is really nine years, and of course the Bible. 

     Even as I finished up my teaching career and continued in ministry, virtually all my reading was centered on preparing for sermons and course of study assignments.  Leisure reading just did not fit into my cramped calendar.

     As I stepped away from the pulpit, I started reading again.  I think I was starved.  During that summer, I think I read something like a dozen books.  I read fiction primarily.  I was starved.

     Among my reading choices were a series about the Yada Yada Prayer Group in which one character repeatedly referenced the praying the Psalms.  I also read a fiction book about the biblical character Sarah–fascinating.  But I also added in the Chronicles of Narnia which I had never read

     C. S. Lewis captured me and after conversations with others, I read his book Mere Christianity.  I became hooked on his thinking so as we began preparing for this summer’s series on the psalms, I searched out another of his books, Reflections on the Psalms.  In his introduction, he writes: 

Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.  They must be read as poems if they are to be understood. . . “(p.3)

     As we begin today’s reflection on the Psalms, I hope you have your Bible handy and are ready to take notes.  We are students of God’s words and today we study the Psalms.  Please join me in prayer:

Dear Lord, you are our teacher, and you have gifted your faithful with words to guide us in our life journeys.  Open our minds today through the words of the psalms so we may understand your grace, your love, and your promises.  Amen.

     Throughout my own educational experience, I never understood the significance of reading the introductions, the preface, or the forwards of books.  Oddly enough, one of the first instructors in the Course of Study through St. Paul’s School of Theology, emphasized that reading these introductory words to the texts was important in order for us to begin understanding the context that follows.

     Since then, I have made an effort to do just that.  Sometimes it seems pretty tedious, other times it reveals insights that crack open the mind to a completely new concept or author’s point of view that deeply affects the understanding of the material found in the text.  

     Reading C. S. Lewis’s introductions provides a frame of reference from which he writes.  For instance, in his introductions he explains not only who he is, but how he hopes to share his understanding of scripture:

“This is not a work of scholarship.  I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.  I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. . . . (p. 1)”

What Lewis does not say about who he is can be found in the biographical information on the book’s flap:

He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. . .” 

Lewis was gifted, but he chose to write humbly in an effort to explain what many might say is unexplainable–God is real and is part of our daily lives.

     This week’s scripture readings began with Psalm 62 which is subtitled “A Song of Trust in God Alone.”  For those familiar with our hymns, that triggers a recognition of an often-repeated phrase, “God alone is . . . “  

     Even last week as we talked about Psalm 42 and how it was transformed into the contemporary hymn, “As the Deer” written by Martin Nystrom, we can find the repetition of these phrases:   

You alone are my heart’s desire. . . 

You alone are my strength, my shield. . . 

The psalms we read and learn are deep inside our memory to rely on in difficult times or when we are under stress:  

     For God alone my soul waits in silence;

         from him comes my salvation.

     He alone is my rock and my salvation,

        my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  (Psalms 62:1-2)

These words lead Katharina von Schlegel, in 1752, to write another hymn we often turn to in difficult times:  

Be still, my soul:  the Lord is on your side.

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;        

Leave to your God to order and provide;

In every change God faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul:  your best, your heavenly friend

Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.  (UMH #534)

We need these words.  We need to know that as difficult as times can get, we are not in this journey alone.  We are accompanied by God.

     This summer we are experiencing challenges that we think no one else has ever had to experience before.  But, the parallels are there in history.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew of infectious outbreaks that changed the lives of many.  In the earliest years of the 20th century there was the Spanish Flu, during the mid-1900s there was polio, and now we have COVID-19

     Circumstances that surround the pandemic are creating additional havoc in our lives.  Families deal with the loss of their loved ones.  Jobs are lost.  Incomes are lost.  Future plans are put on hold.  And no one can predict how the effects are going to impact their lives physically, financially, emotionally or even spiritually.   We need God.  We need the words of the psalms.

     Do you remember that Lewis was a literature professor?  Well, in his introduction he shares a couple of insights into studying the psalms as literature.  One point he makes is repetition is a way to emphasize a point the author/poet wants to make.  As we read the psalms this is one truth that develops very clearly.  

      Consider the symbolism of the rock that we find in the palms as well as in other scripture.  In Psalm 62, rock is mentioned four times.  The rock is salvation and refuge.  The rock is mighty.  God is our rock.  Repetition of one word can impress on the reader/listener the value of that symbol.

     Now look at Psalm 40:2, also from this week’s readings: 

He drew me up from the desolate pit,

      out of the miry bog,

And set my feet upon a rock,

     making my steps secure.

The repetition cannot be ignored, and of course these words trigger the recognition of another favorite hymn,s My Hope Is Built: [

My hope is built on nothing less

than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand;

All other ground is sinking sand.  (UMH #368)

Even though this hymn is not based on the psalms, it is based on the same symbolism.  It is an image, a literary device, that is carried throughout scripture.  It becomes the rock foundation for our faith.

     Lewis’ second literature lesson is about parallelism.  As a language teacher, my first reaction is to think about teaching students how to write sentence with parallel structure, but Lewis is analyzing literature and defines parallelism as “. . . the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.” (p.4)

     Lewis uses other examples to explain parallelism as he continues to share:

“. . . ‘Parallelism’ is the characteristically Hebrew form [of creating a pattern as in the arts, painting, dance, music, literature.  . . . Parallelism] is either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.” (p.4-5)

Lewis saw the repetition and the parallelism that remained as a means of emphasizing God’s message through scripture–despite translations.

                  Each of the psalms we read strengthens us.  We find ourselves facing the same human challenges as those in the ancient scriptures. We hear God in the words that have translated into the words we sing even today.  The psalms are meant to be sung and/or to be prayed in as many ways as we want as we confront the reality of our earthly challenges.

                  One of the contemporary hymns that speaks to me is titled, “10,000 Reasons.”  The lyrics were written by Matt Redman and the music was written by his friend Jonas Myrin.  Redman says he takes inspiration from Psalm 103: 

Bless the Lord, oh my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul

and do not forget all his benefits–

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.(v.1-5)

Written in 2011, within one hour, the psalm echoes through the words.  The literature of the hymn keeps the listener centered on God through repetition and parallelism.  The theme of the psalms never waivers regardless of the translation: 

                  Bless the Lord, oh my soul

                  Oh my soul, worship his holy name

                  Sing like never before,

                  Oh my soul I’ll worship your holy name.

                  The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning.

                  It’s time to sing your song again

                  Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me

                  Let me be singing when the evening comes. . . . 

                  You’re rich in love and you’re slow to anger

                  Your name is great and your heart is kind

For all your goodness, I will keep on singing

Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.

And on that day when my strength is failing

The end draws near and my time has come

Still my soul will sing your praise unending

Ten thousand years and then forevermore. . . .

     Today we close with the words of the ancient psalms echoing in the lyrics of our hymns today.  We join in worship and include them in our liturgy as a way to learn, to remember, and to grow in our faith.  

     The reality is that we need the repetition the poets, the artists, the lyricists use to seal in our long-term memory and our inner soul, the words of God.  We hear the prayers for help, the hymns of praise and thanksgiving, the wisdom of the faithful guiding us to a solid foundation, a rock foundation in our faith.

     There are indeed 10,000 reasons to read the psalms this summer and then reread them in the seasons ahead.  Reread them in various translations and discover the solid, rock foundation of God’s words.

     Eugene Peterson shares two pieces of Psalm 62 in his devotional, Praying with the Psalms.  

For God alone my soul waits in silence; 

                  from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,

                  my fortress; I shall never be shaken.”  (Psalms 62:1-2, MSG)

In his second daily devotion he selects one more verse from the psalm:

Trust in him at all times, O people;

pour out your heart before him;

                  God is a refuge for us.  (Psalms 62:8, MSG)

He adds to these scriptures these two brief statements: 

Silence sinks a shaft to bedrock.  It is the soul’s means for descending through the gravel of rebellion and doubt to the solid, quiet reality of God’s word.  . . . The soul careens from side to side seeking a way to completion.  On one side is the anarchic freedom of lawless. . .on the other the secure wealth of the rich.  But the alternatives are ditches, not highways.  The Lord himself is the way to wholeness. (May 2-3)

Please join me in prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father, 

You are our rock, our foundation, our refuge.

In the words you give your faithful

We find reassurance, solace, and strength.

Thank you for all those who know you

And find ways to share your message

 So others can be strengthened

In their relationship with you,

Assuring them of salvation

And life eternal in your kingdom.  

–Selah, forever, amen.

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Psalm 42: Prayers for help

Hello, Friends,

     I know I am way behind sharing with you, but these past months have greatly altered our daily lives.  After I started working with the local UMC, my time use has shifted.  Anyway, I will continue to share whenever I can, and today is the sermon I gave on July 19.  Hope you are all well and know you are in my prayers even when I do not connect every week.

                                                      Susan

Summer with the Psalms:

Psalm 42–Prayers for help

     Growing up in the 1960s, music seemed to fill my world.  Mom and Dad sang in the church choir, so my brother and I sang in the choirs throughout our school years.  We wore those little white robes, too.  

     We also took piano lessons from Mrs. Updyke, who lived in Wellsville.  My cousins and I would even carpool from our Buell farms and have to sit on the front porch while we would wait through the half hour lessons one at a time.

     This was the time when the world seemed filled with strife–Vietnam and race riots filled the evening news.  And we farmed, so we had the typical ups and downs of drought, Army worms, weeds, and the flies that seemed to swarm the cattle constantly.

     Troubles are simply part of our life and music seemed to soothe the days.  And music changed a great deal during those years between World War II and the 1970s:  from big band music to the advent of rock and roll, from steel guitars of country to electric guitars of heavy metal.

     What did I pick?  Even though my very first cassette was Jimi Hendrix, I quickly settled into easy listening; and Simon & Garfunkel rose to the top of my listening.  Music lifts our spirits and are our prayers for help.  The psalms, with which we are spending our summer, are the ancient hymns filled with praise and prayers.  Please join me in prayer: 

Dear God, 

     When time gets tough and we seem lost,

     You are there.  

     When we feel alone, 

     You are there.  

     Open our hearts to your words,

    Knowing you are always there.  –Amen

                  Spending the summer with the psalms is spending the summer with music.  If there was ever a time we need to sing, it is now–and ironically that is one of the very things we are asked not to do during public worship for fear of spreading COVID-19.  That puts us in a bit of a predicament as the psalms were the earliest hymns of the Israelites, but we read them today and can ‘hear’ the lyrics in our minds.

     Therefore, since we can’t even reach out and pick up a hymnal while sitting in our pews, let me share words from one of its introductory pages which lists the directions for singing written by John Wesley in 1761.  The first one reads, “Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.” 

     That line reflects what we know about Jesus and his knowledge of the psalms.  Even as a pre-teen, when he stayed behind in the temple “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”  (Luke 2:46) 

     Jesus learned and used the psalms in his ministry.  We need to follow his example and know the psalms well enough that we can turn to them when we face difficult times.  As Pastor Peter began this sermon series, he provided the daily scripture readings aligned to the six themes found in the psalms.

     Our first week focused on the wisdom psalms and the second week centered on the hymns of praise.  This week’s theme is prayers for help.  The human condition, as explained through various sources, simply means dealing with the positives and the negatives which are experienced throughout one’s life.  Knowing the psalms, provides us the words we need to manage the positives and negatives that pop up in our lives.  

     Just like when we were kids and we fell and scraped our knees, we turn to our parents for comfort, for wiping away the tears, for cleaning up the torn skin, and for assurance that we are going to be ok.  Turning to the psalms is going to our Father for comfort.  

As a deer longs for flowing streams,

     so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

    for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2)

Words comfort us and for me these first two verses make my heart sing, because I am immediately taken back to my childhood on the farm.  The words trigger connections to my mom who loved the deer, the birds, the trees, the wildflowers and all nature.  These are my comfort images, so to speak.

     Throughout history, psalms have provided God’s people the words to express what ails them.  Psalm 42 was transformed into a hymn that is now included in numerous hymnals of various denominations including the Faith We Sing hymnal usually found in our pews–number 2025 to be exact.

     Marty Nystrom, a music graduate from Oral Roberts University, transformed this psalm in 1984 into the modern hymn we now use.  The opening words:

                  As the deer pants for the water

                  So my soul longs after You

                  You alone are my heart’s desire

                  And I long to worship You . . . 

This hymn and Psalm 42 have become connected to my own spiritual life because it takes me close to my own family experiences and Mom’s passion for the deer.  I see deer, and I hear these opening words of the psalm and the hymn.  I know the meaning of God’s presence in my life just like the deer turn to water for their sustenance.

      We must deal with the reality of life and it can exhaust us, physically and mentally.  Using the psalms can direct our energies to stay focused on God, to talk with God, and to trust God.  Psalm 3 tells us this:  

                  But you, O Lord, are a shield around me,

     My glory, and the one who lifts up my head. . . 

                  I lie down and sleep;

      I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.

When we are challenged with an ongoing issue, the days can be drained of any joy that we typically experience.  The sunshine can be clouded when we are facing a long-term problem.

     On the farm, there is always the looming concern of a drought.  The days, the weeks, and the months without rain can drain a farmer’s resolve and even love for nature.  Watching the crops struggle, wither, and fail makes an entire lifestyle difficult as it effects the land, the livestock, and even the soil itself. 

     Getting up each morning, knowing that there is nothing one can do to effect a positive change can destroy not just the farmer, but his entire family and even a community.  Trusting God is the shield. Does not that trigger another familiar hymn?  

“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus,

But to trust and obey.” ( UMH #467) 

Trusting God makes it possible to lie down, sleep and wake again happy.

     Turning to the psalms guides us to find comfort and assurance in challenging times.  Even as a drought looms ahead of us even today, we know that the cycles of life continue.  The dry days may seem to last forever, but rain will once again soften the soil:

                  O God, you are my God, I seek you,

                       My soul thirsts for you;

                  My flesh faints for you,

                        As in a dry and wary land where

there is no water.

                  So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,

                       Beholding your power and glory.

                  Because your steadfast love is better than life,

                       My lips will praise you.

                  . . . for you have been my help,

                       And in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.  

[Psalm 63:1, 3 & 7]

These are the words David wrote while in the wilderness.  The trials of the ancient world are the same as those today.  The words build us up, give us confidence as we continue to manage the daily challenges.  

     In more recent history, but not specifically the last century, the challenges of the American slaves reflects how the psalms provided them the spiritual prayers and the comfort of a relationship with God.  Do you recognize these words?  

                  Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen;

                  Nobody knows but Jesus.

                  Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; 

                  Glory hallelujah.

                  Sometimes I’m up; sometimes I’m down;

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  Sometimes I’m almost to the ground; 

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  Although You see me goin’ along,

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  I have my troubles here below;

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  What makes old Satan hate me so?

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  He got me once and let me go;

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen;

                  Nobody knows but Jesus.

                  Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; 

                  Glory hallelujah.

How many times have you thought the very same thing?  How many times have you turned to this hymn in your soul and sang it out loud?

     Turning to Psalm 34, we hear David teach us how to use the psalms and even how to teach the psalms as a way to deliver or to keep us from trouble

                  Come, O children, listen to me;

                       I will teach you the fear [respect] of the Lord.

                  Which of you desires life,

                       and covers many days to enjoy good?

                  Keep your tongue from evil,

                       and your lips from speaking deceit.

                  Depart from evil, and do good;

                       seek peace, and pursue it. (Psalms 34:11-14)

The psalms we study are filled hymns of praise and prayers for deliverance.  We are the 2020 version of humanity and there is the common reality of the human condition that exists since the beginning of humanity.  We experience the positives and the negatives of our earthly experience, and we can rely on these ancient words to keep us grounded in faith.

     Just as the American slaves lived through trying times, we all live through trying times.  Rely on the words of the psalms to guide us.  Rely on the lyrics of the hymns to deliver us from troubles and from our enemies.  David knew how difficult it is to defend one’s self:  

                  How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

                       How long will you hide your face from me?

                  How long must I bear pain in my soul,

                       And have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  

(Psalm 13:1-2)

Yet his words continue to show that remaining faithful will lead to triumph over the troubles and even over one’s enemies:  [

                  But I trusted in your steadfast love;

                       my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

                  I will sing to the Lord,

                       Because he has dealt bountifully with me. 

(Psalm 13:5-6)

     Spend time with the psalms, look up your favorite hymns, and listen to the music of our times knowing that we are never alone.  This is the final direction for singing that Wesley shared

Above all sing spiritually.  Have an eye to God in every word you sing.  Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature.  In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven. (UMH p. vii)

Today our troubles and our enemies are looming all around us.  Spending time with the psalms and with our hymns lifts us up and keeps us grounded.

     In closing, I cannot ignore another set of lyrics that surface

                  When you’re weary, feeling small

                  When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all, all

                  I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough

                  And friends just can’t be found

                  Like a bridge over troubled water

                  I will lay me down. . . 

                  I will comfort you.

These words from Simon and Garfunkel may never have been written in our ancient psalms or be found in our pew hymnals, but the lyrics are a prayer and God will be our bridge over troubled waters.  We long for God, especially when we are down and out, when we are on the street, when darkness closes in on us.

     As we close today, let us return to Psalm 42, but this time from Eugene Peterson’s 

                  A white-tailed deer drinks from the creek;

                  I want to drink God, deep draughts of God.

                  I’m thirsty for God alive. . . . 

                  “Why am I walking around in tears,

                       harassed by enemies?”  

                  They’re out for the kill, these

                       tormentors with their obscenities,

                  Taunting day after day,

                       “Where is this God of yours?”

                  Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?

                       Why are you crying the blues?

                  Fix my eyes on God–

                       Soon I’ll be praising again.

                  He puts a smile on my face.

                       He’s my God.

Let us close with this as our prayer:

                  Dear Lord, our God,

                  Thank you for the words of the psalms

                  Thank you for the words of the hymns

                       we sing today.

                  Thank you for these bridges

                      that carry us over troubled waters.

                  Let us sing out loud,

                       fixing our eyes on you.

                  Let our words be your words

                       so others may hear you speak.  –Amen.

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Learning from the New Testament couple Priscilla & Aquilla

Growing up in the Methodist Church in Montgomery City, my world was expanded by the people with whom our family worshiped.  I would like to introduce you to Burt and Beth.  My mental picture of them is watching Burt open the car door outside the church, reach in for Beth as she stood up.  He then walked her into church with his hand cupped around her elbow.

[Insert slide of Burt and Beth.]

            Beth had polio as a young woman in the 1950s.  She was left with a limp, but she always stood up straight as an arrow with the brightest eyes penetrating you with her smile.  He was a dairy farmer, so his mornings began very early, even before church on Sundays, but he never missed church and he was always there beside Beth.  

            This strong couple demonstrated love of God, love of family, and love of neighbors throughout their life of personal challenges.  They were among my personal role models much like Pricilla and Aquilla were role models in the churches Paul established during his missionary trips around the Mediterranean Sea.

            I am Susan Smith, the associate pastor of the Warrensburg First United Methodist Church, and I invite you to make sure you have a Bible, a pen or pencil and paper handy so you can follow along with the scriptures, make notes or even jot down a reminder to share questions or stories of your own later on as a comment or post to our Facebook page.  Please join me in prayer.

            Dear Lord,

                 As we take this moment to pause and clear our minds,

                 We ask that you open our hearts and minds 

                 To the lessons we learn from your servants Priscilla and Aquilla.

                 May we, too, grow in our faith and our love for each other

     So our lives reflect your love for one another.  –Amen

            Then Paul arrives in their community.  

A group of people on a bed

Description automatically generated            Let’s meet Pricilla and Aquilla by stepping back into those first years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Life was so very different without all the technology we now have.  The business of living was labor intensive, and the needs of the community were met by skilled craftsmen.  Aquilla was trained as a tentmaker, and where he lived along the Mediterranean Sea, he filled a demand as people needed his skill to make and to repair the sails for the boats or the tents for their homes.  Priscilla joined him working as a tentmaker, too.

[Insert slide of the three working on tents]

The couple were faithful Jews, and they listened to Paul.  They heard the good news.  Soon they were devoted new Christians.  They quickly developed a special bond with Paul because he too was a trained tent maker, which we learn in Acts 18:1-3: [Insert slide of verses.]

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers.

            Even as a missionary, Paul would work in the community in which he was preaching.  The three of them became co-workers with Paul even living with them while in Corinth.  Can you imagine how close they became working, living and worshiping together?

A picture containing text, map

Description automatically generated            The book of Acts, written by Luke, shares the story of Paul meeting Priscilla and Aquilla on his second missionary journey.  

[Insert slide of Paul’s second journey.]

During Paul’s year and a half in Corinth, the Jewish people became upset over his teachings causing problems in the temple, so much so that the Jewish leaders took the issue to the Roman proconsul Gallio.  Gallio dismissed it saying it was an internal problem.  The turmoil becomes unsafe, so Paul decides to leave for Ephesus–Priscilla and Aquilla go with him.

            Consider this.  You are well-established in a community where there is plenty of work providing a good income.  Why would you suddenly decide to get up and leave it?  Priscilla and Aquilla were called to continue in ministry with Paul and they had protected him in the midst of the Jewish riots.  He no longer taught in the synagogue but began a house church next door to Priscilla and Aquilla.

A sculpture of a person

Description automatically generated            When Paul decided to leave Corinth, the couple decided to follow Paul to Ephesus.  What a decision to make!   But Priscilla and Aquilla, partners in life, did just that.  This decision exemplifies the qualities of the couple not only as disciples, but as a Christian couple who follow God’s call to serve.

[Insert slide of the busts.]

            Following Paul reminds me of today’s missionaries.  As I shared about Beth and Burt, we also had members of our community that went to India to serve as missionaries.  Even though I am struggling to remember their names, I remember wondering how in the world could they get up and leave for India.  Their boys were basically my age, they were residents in my hometown, and they were fellow church members.  But they, like Priscilla and Aquilla, left to serve God in ministry.

            And then there is Priscilla herself, one of the strong women listed in the New Testament as disciples of Christ.  The references to her always place her first and always with Aquilla.  Based on how she is always listed first, scholars believed she was from a higher social status than Aquilla which was out of the ordinary for ancient times; and another difference for the couple was that they had no children.  Priscilla does not follow the stereotypical roles for ancient women.  Yet Priscilla worked and worshipped alongside her husband as an equal, not in a subservient role.  She became a leading teacher in Christianity, a strong woman serving as a disciple.  Priscilla broke the stereotypes of her culture.

            Finally, consider Priscilla and Aquilla as teachers.  Reading in Romans 12:6-8: [Insert slide of verses.] 

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

we know that Paul must have identified the skills that these two had, and especially Priscilla as indicated by the placement of her name in relation to Aquilla’s.  When the couple followed Paul to Ephesus, they resumed their trade as tentmakers and as faithful disciples.  Their home became a church meeting place.  They were leaders in the faith community, and there they met Apollos.

            Apollos was a gifted speaker and was spreading the news that he learned from John the Baptist’s preaching and prophesying, but he did not know of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Therefore Apolloa, while developing a following, did not know the fulfillment of John’s prophecy.  

            Luke shares the story of Apollos’ ministry and how it developed through the mentoring of Priscilla and Aquilla in Acts 18:24-26: [Insert slide of verses.]

24 Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.

            Priscilla and Aquilla were able to take Apollos and teach him the about Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection.  Their gifts transformed one man’s ministry and the growth of the church continued as is recorded in Acts 18:28: [Insert slide with verse.]

28 for he [Apollos] powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.

            Priscilla and Aquilla are a team.  They demonstrate to us today that faith can bind us together enriching our lives, especially our daily lives working together.  Luke refers to strong women in his gospel and in Acts, emphasizing their strength for leadership in ministry.  The fact that this married couple are referenced repeatedly in Paul’s letters indicates the level of his friendship with them and that the different churches also recognized their leadership.

            Priscilla defied the stereotypical role of women in the ancient culture, but her strength and her spiritual gifts placed her in a leadership role within the early church.  Today’s culture may have lifted the social barriers for women leaders in faith, but Priscilla’s story is one for us to preserve and model.

            Consider the image I have of Beth and Burt growing up.  I can add others to the list of strong women of faith in my life; and when I do, I realize their spouses were important to their leadership, too.  I can add my own mom and dad to models of spiritually-focused leaders.  I can stop and look around me today, too, and know that here in Warrensburg I have been blessed with other models of faith:  Mary Belle and Paul, June and Tom, Ruth and Harold, Nan and Bill are just a few to mention.

            And what about today’s generations?  They are present, too.  Look around and spot the faith leaders you know.  I recognize several:  Beth and Bryan, Kim and Dan, Krystle and Brain are just three faith-filled couples.  The church continues thanks to the leaders of our church.  The couples gain strength together and we see the future of God in their lives.

Amanda, Kaylie, Neal, and Alyssa            In closing, today, I would like to share one more story of a strong couple leading in discipleship.  Just like I watched Beth and Burt growing up managing to put aside the trials of a pandemic, I am watching a new generation.  My cousin Neal married a young woman who also is a teacher.  They are living in quarantine just like the rest of us, but they have a vulnerable daughter who was born with Downs Syndrome just a few years ago.  Meet Amanda, Kaylee, Neal and Alyssa.  [Insert picture of family.]  

            Despite the challenges that all of us face in our lifetime, without faith we falter.  With faith, we strengthen.  Amanda has grown in faith and uses the platform of Facebook to chronicle the life of her daughter and her big sister growing in faith.  She testifies how God supports her and the family through all the medical and educational challenges they face.  She is Priscilla.  Neal is Aquilla.  

            Are you living your life in a manner that shares the good news?  Are you modeling your faith life and your daily life after Priscilla and Aquila?  Are others watching you and seeing that God has been with you, is with you, and will always be with you?

A close up of a sign

Description automatically generated            Just remember–you are strong.  During this pandemic, we live with uncertainty, but we turn to those strong teachers in our lives to discover our own strength.  My cousin sent a message through Facebook that I want to share with you: [Insert sidewalk chalk screen.]  Her daughter Alyssa is the artist: “God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.”

Let us close in prayer:

Dear Lord, 

Thank you for all the strong women

     you have shared with us through scripture

     and throughout our lives.  

Thank you for all the disciples,

     both men and women,

     who worked to teach us about Jesus.

Thank you for all the Priscilla and Aquilla couples

      you have placed in our lives

     so we may know you personally.  –Amen

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Surprising times challenge faith, Redefine today’s lifestyle, goals

How many times do we experience something in our lives and we cannot believe what just happened?  Maybe it was a near accident, maybe it was a health issue, maybe it was a work achievement.  Afterwards, we just walk away and marvel at the outcome.

Maybe we are in the midst of another amazing experience.  I know that the coronavirus has forced our daily lives to come grinding to a halt, wait a bit, and now we are trying to restart.  And that restarting process is almost more frightening than the shutdown has been.

None of us can predict what the future will look like, but one thing for sure it is will never be the same.  And I am not sure, but I am betting we have learned valuable lessons and should not even consider returning to life as usual.

As an observer, I am witnessing major lifestyle changes that I believe demonstrate a hunger for healthier balances in our priorities.  In my neighborhood, I watch families out walking together.  Not just one family, but a variety of families, some walking through the neighborhood just to add more steps in their walk.   I see pets with their owners that I never recognized before.  

Having been an at-risk teacher, I knew broken family units and the resulting damage more than I saw family units who supported one another in all types of endeavors.  Watching the family units join together for time outdoors without all the fanfare associated with sports is a heart-warming experience.

This pandemic is forcing family units to redefine themselves.  The stay-at-home orders have made the decision for many that society seemed to want but battled against due to the cultural expectations of two adults working away from the home while the kids were in school or in a day-care setting.

A spinoff adjustment has been to the work force.  Maybe the first evidence of needed/forced change was in education.  All the sudden schools closed their doors.  With many schools that literally closed down the school year after just three quarters, not the typical four.

This abrupt change not only forced the students to stay home, but it forced schools to rethink how to teach.  It placed the onus on the parents to see that their children continued in their studies while the teachers scrambled to find ways to provide instruction away from the classroom.

Education must place the needs of the students before anything else.  I will never forget attending an ASCD regional meeting and listening to the head of Iowa’s state education department.  Instead of worrying about how to hold teachers and districts accountable to a process or a set of standards, he said they had only one guideline:  What is best for the student?

Notice, it is student, not studentS.  Education as we know it is education for the masses.  If a student could not fit into the norm, then they failed.  If they were excelling and failing, they likely were bored with school and needed to accelerate rather than ‘fit into the norm.’  

The stay-at-home directive has shifted the methods of education to one-on-one instruction.  The Zoom meetings can be refined to individual tutorials or small groups or to a full class.  The younger students seem to be adapting well as they sit in front of the camera and talk one-to-one with the teacher.  They are learning.

And between the Zoom sessions, the parents are there tutoring the kids.  They are providing the encouragement, connecting with the teachers right alongside their children.  Many parents are learning their students interests and talents for the first time and discovering ways to enrich their educational experience on their own.

Granted, for many young people, the stay-at-home directive has had the complete opposite.  They are forced into a home where abuse, addictions, and hunger exist.  For these students, there is no education, there is only fear and danger.

How does our culture handle the pandemic crisis for these at-risk students?  These are the students who need the daily sanctuary of school so now is the time to redesign the educational system to meet the critical needs of the at-risk who cannot depend on a family structure to nurture them into adulthood.

Where does a society turn to find new direction?  

The pandemic protocols are forcing all institutions to reassess their basic foundational beliefs.  The hospitals are rewriting how they treat patients–and they are treating them in solitude without the very critical emotional support of family and friends. 

Business are learning that work can be more productive if workers are at home, away from the office.  Work weeks are being redefined by work production.  Priorities are readjusted to support the families with children in the home.

Hopefully businesses are learning that the almighty dollar is no longer the guiding principle.  Now the guiding principle is protecting the human assets of the company.  Valuing the employees above the profit margin will lead to a healthier society.

Our society was at-risk when the coronavirus started its race around the world.  Our sense of elitism blinded us to the reality and the risks that were stretching across the oceans to reach us.  We were so busy finding the easiest way to amass wealth.  We were sacrificing the foundational principles that created our culture.

The one constant in my life, and I expect in many lives is my faith.  I know that the history of mankind has experienced pandemics before.  I know that change is a guarantee.  But as I have lived, experienced, and studied history, the one common thread throughout all cultures is faith.

My faith system is based on the principles of Jesus Christ who as the son of man and the son of God walked among the human race demonstrating and teaching how to live in harmony with one another.

One simple rule:  Love on another as we want to be loved.

Now, in the midst of stay-at-home directives, of social distancing, of economic crisis, this one principle can guide us through the storm.  Love one another as you want to be loved.

True, the sudden changes in our society even affect the way we do church.  We cannot open the sanctuaries to host a worship service in the same manner we were accustomed to doing.  We cannot sing our hymns together; now we must don a mask.  We cannot pass the communion cup or break off a piece from the main loaf of bread.  We cannot find our favorite seat next a dear friend.  

What the church can do is to teach, to worship, to serve one another in any way that it can so all may know Jesus.  We can give whatever we can to assure that others have the basic necessities in life–food, clothing and shelter.  We can reach out to one another through phone calls, hand-written notes, texts, emails, or any other viral means of communication.

We do not know what tomorrow will look like, but I am confident that with faith in God and in living the life Jesus modeled for us, we will discover that life does not have to be what always has been.  We will find that being the church is doing all the good we can in any way we can for whomever we can, whenever we can.

Let’s keep the focus on the positives this pandemic can provide.  Let’s follow the recommendations of the scientists, the specialists, and the doctors.  Let’s allow families to be families first.  Let’s redesign our world so put God first, then we put loving one another like we want to be loved.

Schools will continue, but education will be different.  

Businesses will continue, but the design and the workforce will be different.

Government will remember that it is for the people and by the people.

And churches will be an active force meeting the needs of one another through one principle:  Love one another as you want to be loved.  

Let’s leave the past in the past and surge forward to a new and better world.

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