Monday, February 24, 2014

An Encouraging Word

Bill Pinches was invited to be chaplain for an Iron Man event in Tuscan last week.  He posted a photo of a mountain on Facebook and these words. "Heading up this mountain today.  Any words of encouragement are appreciated."  To some of us this time of year, just getting out of bed can be like climbing a mountain.  I had just received a Facebook message from my mentor, Tom Castlin, who reminded me that he includes me in his prayer cycle and that day was my day.  He concluded his brief message with this scripture, which I subsequently posted for Bill.  "Be astonished!  Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told." (Habakkuk 1:5)

"The mission of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan is to challenge, encourage and equip worshiping communities of faith to make disciples of Jesus Christ."  Consider this a word of encouragement.  Some days, weeks, months, years, are more challenging than others.  Discouragement comes particularly easy in February.  This harsh winter has sapped our energy and frustrated us with postponed meetings.  Discussing this with Dick Cushnie, the interim pastor at our congregation in Paw Paw this weekend, he confirmed, "a lethargy has set in."  It's hard to get anything done, let along build any momentum.

So where do you find encouragement?  Who encourages you?  What lifts your spirit?  Gets you out of bed? I think of the encouragers in my life.  A long list of them comes to mind and I am grateful.  Those from my childhood, youth, college years, time in Brazil, seminary, the congregations and presbyteries where I have served.  I would not be here without their impact on my life.  Mostly, they helped me broaden my perspective when I was mired in tough situation and could see only the dark cloud. "This too, shall pass," they would say. They helped me to see God at work in unexpected ways, and demonstrated unconditional love to me focusing on my strengths and loved me in spite of my weaknesses.

One of my favorite Biblical characters is Barnabas.  We are introduced to Barnabas in Acts 4:36.  His given name was Joseph, but "the Apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means "son of encouragement").  In the next verse we learn that Barnabas sold a field and brought the money to the Apostles.  He was the example given of those who sold their possessions to meet the needs so that "there was not a needy person among them." (4:34).  Later in Acts 15: 36-41 he advocates for John Mark, my Biblical name sake, standing up to Paul when Paul does not want to take John Mark on their second missionary journey.

The dictionary definition of the word encourage is "to give courage, confidence, to inspire with courage, spirit, or strength of mind, to help, to give support to."  The root of the word courage is "cor" Latin for "heart". Courage is "the response of facing and dealing with things recognized as dangerous, difficult, or painful instead of withdrawing from it, the quality of being fearless."

Disciples of Jesus are not immune from fear.  But we can and must face our fears to take steps toward our greater purpose, the call of God.  Jesus in preparing his disciples for the time when he would no longer walk by their side, promised them the comforter/advocate Holy Spirit, the "paraclete" in Greek (John 14:26).  That same Greek word is used for Barnabas, "son of "paraclete'").  The Holy Spirit emboldens our hearts, helps us face our fears and do what God is calling us to be and do.  AND it is our privilege and call to join the Holy Spirit in encouraging one another in love. 

The polar vortex is returning this week.  Still more snow is falling as I write.  As harsh and long as winter may be, it won't last forever.  Spring comes after winter as surely as dawn after the dark night.

 "Be astonished!  Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told." (Habakkuk 1:5)


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Lake Effect

Ministry is contextual.  Ministry in the Presbytery of Lake Michigan in Southwest Michigan means we deal with snow! 

Thanks to a lake effect.  Water vapor gets picked up from Lake Michigan by the wind, which carries it and dumps it on my driveway! Likely on yours, too!  Another lake effect is that although it may be cold here, it's normally colder in Wisconsin.  Thanks to Lake Michigan!  It has a warming effect.

Hey, we are the Presbytery of Lake Michigan!  This is where God has called us to serve.  If we stopped work because of snow, nothing would get done during the winter months.  Michiganders are toughened winter road warriors!  We are not easily deterred.  Then again, common sense prevails when wind chill temperatures dip dangerously low. Meetings get delayed and postponed, worship services canceled.  Like school students and teachers, we enjoy a free day!  This winter the local schools have already used up all their allotted snow days and we are just into February!!!   There was no normal January thaw this year, and the snow keeps piling up.  The piles standing guard at the end of my driveway are taller than me!  

I have served the Lord in the rain forest of Brazil, in the mountains of Pennsylvania, by a finger lake in upstate New York, and by the Atlantic ocean on Long Island.  I have learned that getting the right clothing and equipment are key to functioning in a particular place.  There is a local cultural knowledge, skill set and wisdom, that the locals have acquired to adapt to the locale and its requirements.  The new comer missionary/outsider pastor is wise to learn quickly.  Eileen and I bought wicker furniture in Brazil, down comforters in Cooperstown, and hooded windbreakers in Montauk.  In Kalamazoo, we bought a snow wolf!

The normal Michigander owns a snow blower.  Smart choice!, I've chosen a more environmental friendly tool.  A snow wolf is a simple machine consisting of a bar with a big wheel in the middle, a large shovel on the front, and a handle in the back.  A simple machine, it provides leverage to push and throw snow more easily and faster than a shovel.  It provides a cost free aerobic exercise without a gym membership!  It is twice as fast as shoveling, and it saves the strain on one's back and heart.  AND it does not use fossil fuel or give off toxic emissions.  I've been a happy user for seven Michigan winters. However, this winter, I am experiencing its limits, my limits.  I need more horsepower!  When accumulated snow piles grow deep and high, it takes more and more horse (this man) power to move the mountains of snow up and over the mountainous snow piles.  How depressingly defeating it is to heave a shovel full up and watch in roll back down to where it started.   (Kind of like ministry.)  AND it keeps snowing.  I find myself standing in my driveway, while paused to catch my breath and allow my heart rate to slow, lusting over my neighbors' snow blowers.  That's a confession.  The 10th commandment warns against that type of thing, wanting what your neighbors have.  Until I get a whiff of smelly exhaust spoiling the fresh air of my outdoor adventure!  This reminds me of my environmental stewardship values, and I arrogantly steel my resolve to press forward with my environmental stewardship and witness to my neighbors. They sometimes stop and ask me, like Bill Cosby imagined Noah's neighbors asking him when building the ark, "What's that?"  "It's a snow wolf, a simple machine.  It's faster and easier on the back and heart than shoveling."

I could have chosen to live in a condominium, or pay someone else to do this winter chore.  I'm not ready and too cheap for that.  Nor am I ready to flee to somewhere warmer to escape the long winter.   Perhaps some day I will be forced to turn over this chore to another, and be free to retreat to a warmer place for the season.  In the meantime, I love it.  And I am grateful for the time or two my neighbor has had pity on me, during an extra heavy storm, and cleared my driveway with his nifty snow blower. And I will continue to give witness to the love of God in this place where it snows a lot.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon, "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters,....Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." (Jeremiah 29:5-7).  In other words, settle in and make a life for yourself in this snowy place! Make yourselves useful.  Have an effect on your community.  Incarnate the love of God where you are. So my challenge to the members of Lake Michigan Presbytery is this--what is your lake effect?  How are you giving witness to the love and grace and justice of God which we know in Jesus Christ?  What is the effect of the Spirit's wind, the effect of your congregation's ministry of presence upon your snowed upon neighborhood?

Blessed are those who shovel snow and on those who trust spring will come!