Tuesday, January 27, 2015

You Are Witnesses

"You are witnesses!"  That is the take away statement for me by Ray Jones at our Presbytery retreat in September.  Ray referred to Jesus' commission to his disciples before his ascension. "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8b).  It is my job and the Presbytery's purpose to "challenge, encourage and equip worshiping communities of faith to make disciples of Jesus Christ with the gifts God gives them."  Ray reminded us that part of being a disciple is giving witness to what God has done in our lives.  How does one do that?  The lead in to that commissioning is "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you" (Acts 1:8a).  The Holy Spirit, then, will equip, empower us to recognize God's presence and activity.

My mother was gifted by the Holy Spirit to recognize God in her life and my family's life.  She was a great role model for me in how to witness to God's saving acts in ones life.  She had a way of telling and remembering family stories.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, she recognized and frequently acknowledged God's hand in the surprising twists of her life, and our family's experience. Maybe not in the moment, but as she looked back, she recognized how God had been at work transforming difficult circumstances into unexpected blessings.

With this in mind, let me give witness to the hand of God in my family's life, my life.  Many of you know that my father-in-law, I. Lee Brown, Jr. recently died.  He was a man of God and lived 93 wonderful years in Paradise, Pennsylvania.  He was a third generation funeral director there and for decades, part of his community service was as overseer of the Norman Woods Estate.  At the end of the 19th Century, Norman Woods, a successful banker, and his wife, hosted traveling Presbyterian ministers in their stately mansion along Route 30.  In their will, they set up their stately home and estate as a home for retired Presbyterian ministers.  In the 1970's, the Wood's Estate provided three rent free apartments to honorably retired Presbyterian ministers, who had served in Donegal Presbytery.

My father, a Presbyterian minister for 29 years, had to retire on disability, because of life long diabetes and heart disease in 1973 at age 52.  There were no minimum terms of call during his era of ministry.  He had served rural congregations on minimal salaries. The crisis in addition to my dad's health condition, was where would we live and how?  My oldest brother Charlie was just out of seminary.  My brother Dave was newly married with an infant, and had just landed his first professional job. They were ok, but just starting out with little means.  But my sister Jo was still in college, and I was a senior in high school!  My parents had no extra funds stored away for rent or buying a house.  We had always lived in manses.  My parents did not know what to do!

Then they thought of the Woods Home, in Paradise, Pennsylvania.  They inquired and learned that Lee Brown administered the Woods Home.  My mother called Lee, explained our need for an apartment, for not only her and my dad, but also for my sister and me, at least for summers and holidays.  It seemed like a stretch.  Would there be an available apartment?  Rent free, including utilities seemed too good to be true.  As my mother told the story, Lee's first words of response on the phone were, "Betty, I don't think that will be a problem."

You can't imagine the relief those nine words were to her, and my family!  My brother Charlie's first response to news of Lee's death, were remembering his role with the Woods Home and the relief that apartment was to us.  My parent's move to the Woods Home changed my life!  My parents moved there in March.  I stayed with a trusted church family and finished my senior year at my high school.  One weekend in May while visiting my parents, I went to the young adult Sunday School class at the Leacock Presbyterian Church in Paradise.  I was sitting there in the pastor's study, and in walked this gorgeous girl with long brown hair!  I later learned that her name was Eileen and that she was Lee Brown's daughter.  Later, when I had moved into a room in the attic of the Woods Home for the summer, Eileen invited me to a Bible Study, which she attended.  It was a group of her friends who had gown to high school together.  They were from many different churches, and had just finished their freshman year of college.  I had been involved in Sunday School and youth group.  But their discussions were filled with faith and theological inquiry at a depth and love and ease I had never experienced in my years of Sunday School, Bible School and Youth Group.  I loved it!  From that group came four Presbyterian ministers, one Episcopal priest, a Presbyterian Church Educator, and a Mennonite lay church worker.  I also fell in love with Eileen, and Lee Brown became my father-in-law.

My parents lived at the Woods Home only 15 months before my father died.   My mother, a trained nurse, spend the weeks after my dad died, visiting my Aunt Ann, my dad's sister, in the local hospital. Aunt Ann died just a few weeks later from a fast acting cancer.  My mother was only 52 at the time, and soon found employment as a nurse, and moved on with her life.  She announced to the family during Christmas break when we were all home, that she and my Uncle Harry had fallen in love, and were engaged to be married.  The first words out of my brother Charlie's mouth were, "No more overnight stays until you get married!"  They did get married the next March.  I sang at their wedding.  My mother had two successful marriages, the first with my father for 29 years, and the second with my uncle for 32 years until he died.  Some people may say this was all serendipity circumstance.  My family recognized God's fingerprints all over the blessings that emerged from trying times.  The song I sang at my mother's wedding was, "To God Be the Glory!"

I don't believe that God causes bad things to happen and causes the sorrows in my life or anyone's life.  But I do believe God transforms lives, and brings good out of difficult situations.  My family and I are witnesses to these acts of God in our lives!

As you claim your role as witness and fulfill your commission as a disciple of Jesus Christ, how have you recognized God's acts of love, grace, deliverance, and redemption in your life?  How might you authentically give witness to it?  With the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, it's that simple!


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Winter Storms

The 193 vehicle pile up on I 94 caught national attention!  Likely yours, too!  It occurred at the 90 mile marker just 12 miles east of the Presbytery office in Portage.  Those of us who live here, know it is a dangerous stretch of highway.  My daughter drives that route on her work commute to teach in Marshall. The video images captured by stopped travelers on smart phones causes us all to pause and reflect.

Storms happen!  They are far beyond our control.  Winter storms are normal here in Michigan, and we've learned to motor on, accustomed to winter weather, or we might never get anything done.  Well...thank God, common sense prevailed and schools closed that day and my daughter stayed home!  The drivers of those 193 cars and trucks for at least a brief moment motored on through white out conditions...to a harsh surprise!

Storms provide an opportunity to slow down, call them spiritual opportunities to surrender our agendas.  During such times, we have the opportunity to yield and acknowledge our humble place in the broader scheme of things, or forge ahead as if we are in charge.  There can be consequences for speeding on as if all is normal and we are in control.  The images of fireworks, burned and crumbled semis and cars, and scorched roadway are harsh reminders to think again.

There are all sorts of storms in our lives, not just winter storms, which disrupt our agendas.  I remember a postponed return flight from Cuba when visiting a sister church there with a group of church folk.  One fellow traveler was a federal judge, who had a full day of cases scheduled the next day at court.  I thought he was going to have a stroke in his anger and frustration.  Then when he realized there was nothing he could do about it, we had a great two day extended visit in Havana at the expense of the airline!

Last week in the devotional book, Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word, Year B, on the days before the tragic pile up, Richard Boyce, (a Phd. student at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, when I was a student there, and whose father was pastor of the Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Richmond, which I attended my second year there), for Tuesday wrote reflecting on Genesis 1:1-5, "This creation story is a way of holding onto hope when all signs of order in our lives have been destroyed and we must look out for signs of the creative work of God beyond our control.  If God is still creating order out of chaos in the succession of day and night, maybe God will one day create order once more out of chaos in the lives of God's people.  Hold on, and do not lose hope." 

For Wednesday, reflecting on Psalm 29, Marshal Wilfong, (a Phd, student at UTS I knew when I was a student there), writes, "There is no clue in this psalm why God's people need 'strength' and 'peace.'  Their predicament could be a natural disaster (flood, famine, drought, etc.)--or it could just as easily be political oppression, war, or exile.  The point is, it does not matter what the predicament might be.  At any time, under any circumstances when 'storm clouds' roll, God's sovereign power is available to bless and deliver God's people, to give them peace even in the midst of storms.  The same God who rules over the universe, whose 'voice' sends forth the thunderstorm, is the God of Israel--the One in whom they can trust and to whom their prayers ascend."

For Thursday, Douglas Ottati, (my theology professor at Union Theological Seminary), reflecting on Acts 19:1-7 wrote, "Baptism in the name of Jesus entails a divinely given reality, but this reality both empowers and disposes people to witness to God's deeds of power (Acts 2:11).  The gift of the Spirit in baptism sweeps people up into the dynamic of the Spirit and its expansive Way.  It drives believers to participate in the church's expansive mission.  It empowers them to witness in word and in deed to a universally inclusive reality."

Then for Friday, the day of the accident, Lee Barrett, (my wife's theology profession when a student at P.S.C.E.), wrote reflecting on Mark 1:4-11, "John, the epitome of the prophets, also points forward to God's imminent intervention in human history to confer a new hope to humanity.  Into the wilderness of our own broken lives and our own bleeding world erupts the promise of a baptism of new life."

How pleasant it was for me to be met by these voices of colleagues of my formative theological education via this devotional material!  How comforting to hear scripture's witness and the witness of those carrying forth our religious tradition!  How awesome to look up from the midst of our storms and believe God rides above them, redeeming them.  Hold on!  Trust God when waiting out a storm, whatever that storm may be!