Practice Life: The Pastor’s Message for the June 2022 Messenger

There was a three week stretch in May when I never sat down. I know that isn’t actually true since I’m (usually) sitting when writing my sermons, crafting the weekly newsletters, or putting together The Messenger. But there was about twenty one days when I didn’t have a chance to do nothing because there was always something more to do. There were weekly meetings to plan Woodcliff Lake United, a day of service in our town. There were moments helping the amazing volunteers at Trash and Treasure clean old toys, dusty picture frames, and piles and piles of books. Worship, Sunday School, Confirmation Classes, and various committee meetings had to be prepped for and led. We also had our annual New Jersey Synod assembly which included two workshops on communications which I hosted. And, there was the spring meeting of the New Jersey Candidacy Committee where three people were granted entrance into the candidacy process and one was approved for ordination. That doesn’t include all the track practices we went to, the baseball games we saw, the playgrounds that needed to be played in, the food that needed to be bought, the lunches and snacks that needed to be made, and all the bedtime reading that comes with being a parent. I wouldn’t have traded these three weeks for anything in the world, but you know you’re busy when managing an elementary school’s 3-day scholastic book fair is the least stressful thing you do.

May is always a busy month because the signs of new life invite us to cram as much life into all that we do. But practicing life in this way can be exhausting and, if we’re not careful, can increase the burnout we feel. God didn’t design us to always keep our feet on the gas pedal. We need to rest—which is why remembering the Sabbath is on the early side of the Ten Commandments. This rest includes sleep, eating well, exercise, and connecting with your God. Yet it’s hard to rest if we don’t have enough or if we feel guilt for not doing enough. It’s easy to feel as if you’re not providing your kids with the right kind of opportunity since we act as if 4th grade is too late to pick up a new sport. It is also a reality that there are moments when God’s abundance doesn’t feel like it’s being made real in our lives. We need to feel safe, protected, loved, and valued, or else our constant “doing” becomes our “undoing.” We can’t over function our way out of a crisis nor can be, with a wave of a wand, feel loved by those who don’t love themselves.

My security allows me to living out the various vocations God has given to me. And I’m grateful we, as the body of Christ, did our part to help people gain that same kind of security. Your generosity of time, talent, and stuff will let the CLC-Women’s group fund programs all over the world for people in need. Your generosity helped families through the Tri-Boro Food Pantry use their limited resources to buy their kids a new baseball glove instead of saving it for shampoo, dish soap, and paper towels. And, your continuing faithfulness to worship, care and prayer, means that the love of Jesus is being felt through the choices you make every day. I have no idea if life will slow down over these next few months, but I do know that we, together, have each other’s back. Let’s continue to help each other and our neighbors with what they need so that we can live into the various vocations God so generously gave us.

Blessed to be the church with you,
Pastor Marc

What Does it Mean to Gather?: The Pastor’s Message for the February 2022 Messenger

A few Sundays ago, everything was cold. When I drove to church, the thermometer gauge on my car read zero, and the engine whined because it didn’t want to be working. When I walked into the sanctuary, it was a toasty sixty degrees, and I quickly got setup for worship. David Scance soon arrived and got ready to use music to share the gospel. Together, we readied ourselves to hang out with Jesus and you. When the clock hit 9:00 am, David and I were the only ones in the building. No one was in the pews, yet I noticed that roughly a dozen households were watching online.

Prior to our livestream days, worshipping in the sanctuary on cold mornings was
pretty lonely. Yet, because you made the commitment to gather using your
smartphone, TV, computer, or even by calling in – we didn’t feel alone. Instead,
we felt like the body of Christ gathering in a new way so that we can all keep
following the Way. Prior to the pandemic, I often said the easiest way to grow the church is to be at church. We connect best to a faith community when we see the life happening in that place. For a first time visitor, seeing people of all ages gathered with each other means a great deal. It isn’t always easy to share our faith, but we can show up for our faith. Yet this pandemic has shown how the idea of “gathering” has changed. We have taken care of each other while worshipping with each other in a variety of ways. I lament I didn’t do enough before this point to better engage those who have been worshipping at home for years. And I have had to grow in my own
understanding of what it means to show up for your faith. Yet, I’m hopeful we are finally putting into practice at our church a clearer expression of how expansive and inclusive is the body of Christ.

Over the next few months, we’re going to learn how to share the vitality of CLC even though our gathering together is more decentralized than it was in the past. I’m not exactly sure how to do that, but I know that we, together, can make the body of Christ visible in new ways. When Jesus said “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” we invested our energy in the “where.” It’s now time to focus on the “gathered” because no matter how we gather, it is Jesus himself who is uniting us as one.

Blessed to be the church with you,
Pastor Marc

A Chance to Wonder: The Pastor’s Message for the January 2022 Messenger

Most days, my route to and from the sanctuary takes me over the dam. That stretch
of roadway isn’t very long, but it is a place where people speed by. The sign
announcing how fast people are actually going rarely matches the 25 mph speed
limit. I’ve always wondered what it would take for the traffic over Church Road to
slow down. The speed limit sign, the police officer sitting in our parking lot and the
occasional flock of turkeys swarming over the road never seemed to do the trick.
Going slow over Church Road was a pipe dream for those of us who go over it almost
every day. But three weeks ago, the impossible happened. For a few strange days,
every car drove below the speed limit while on that road. No one rushed down the
road or tailgated the car in front of them. Every driver and passenger took the time to look out their window. And when they did, they slowed down because the reservoir was full of ducks.

I never thought a raft of ducks would be needed to encourage everyone to slow
down. The water by the dam is usually pretty empty, with only a handful of swans or
a heron keeping watch. Yet on those chilly December days, ducks from all over made
that part of Church Road their home. Those ducks were so unexpected that everyone
driving by had to slow down to see what they were. Instead of being focused on
where they are going, everybody stared at the ducks. Since the drive over the dam
was so quick, people couldn’t see this strange sight for very long. But everyone who
drove by saw something that caused them to wonder.

As we enter a new calendar year, I hope we all get a chance to wonder. There are still many challenges facing us that require us to always be nimble, faithful, and
innovative. That need to always be “on” is really exhausting. Yet God also provides opportunities for us to slow down. We can choose to drive a few miles per hour
below the speed of life and gaze at the grace, love and beauty that are all around us. May 2022 be a year when we can lose ourselves in wonder and notice all the
unexpected ducks swimming next to us.

Why Creativity: The Pastor’s Message for the Summer 2021 Messenger

A few months ago, I joined our local Rotary chapter as their Spiritual Representative. Rotary is a 100 year old organization helping professional and business leaders serve their wider community. It’s a worldwide organization I knew of (and even received a college scholarship from) but one that was a bit of a mystery to me. Prior to my joining, I couldn’t tell you what Rotary did or why they existed. I didn’t know their history or who was attracted to the organization. I knew they existed because their meeting times were posted on signs marking the boundaries of towns. I knew they had a physical presence but I was unaware of what went on in their meeting spaces. It wasn’t until I was invited to participate in the group that I saw their commitment to service and the different projects they support. I’m still learning more about the organization, but I’m looking forward to bringing my Lutheran Christian perspective into a group looking for new ways to nurture our wider community.

At one of their recent meetings, one of the main topics was how to grow the Rotary group. They’re looking to increase membership, and I was surprised with how similar that conversation was to every conversation about membership held in a faith community. People shared their own experiences of the group and how it changed their lives. People also were hopeful the group would grow larger because they wanted others to have the same experiences as them. They also were honest that, a few decades ago, the group was larger, younger and full of a different kind of vitality. But they were also honest that the group wasn’t always welcoming to others. And folks lamented how hard it is for people to commit to things in our modern context.

Many times when conversations like this are held, a lot of energy is spent on wish-casting. We wish things were different, but we’re not sure how to make it so. We feel as if we don’t have the tools, insights or even the permission to make this wish come true. We hope other people with more suitable gifts can do what is needed to make our wish a reality. Our wish is a good wish because we want others to have the same experiences we had. If we felt loved, valued and included, we want others to have the same experience. It isn’t wrong to make wishes, yet we often don’t realize that we already have the gifts needed to invite others into the place that has given us so much grace. What we need is help seeing how that grace has manifested in our lives and how we can, just as we are, invite others to see that same grace also.

That’s one of the reasons why our ongoing sermon-series on cultivating our creative spirit will continue in July. Unlike other organizations, we want to invite others into a deeper relationship with the God who created them, lived and died for them, and will sustain them through all the joys and struggles of life. We can do that by nurturing our ability to see Jesus at work in our lives. Instead of inviting people into church, we can invite them to know Jesus who loves them right now. After we practice seeing Jesus all around us, we’ll move into a short series on joy and happiness (and how they’re not the same thing). My hope is once we near the start of our programming year we’ll move into a series on vocations: what they are, how many we have and how faith is meant for our everyday life. We can, together, learn to see Jesus a little more clearly and in our own particular ways invite others to see Jesus too.

I will seeya in the many different ways we are the church!
Pastor Marc

Reflection: It’s a Mystery

When Stephen Hawking died last year, I noticed a debate surrounding depictions of him in the afterlife. Regardless of his personal beliefs, people chose to depict him walking in heaven. Since Professor Hawking used a wheelchair due to ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), he was now, in death, shown walking again. It’s a normal instinct, I think, to imagine the afterlife in this way. Even the book Heaven is for Real (which was popular a few years ago), imagined heaven being the place where we are our “best self.” This “best” is usually described as meaning we’re physically on point while in the afterlife. If we wear glasses on earth, then heaven should be a place where we all receive the best laser-eye corrective surgery. If we suffer physical ailments today, heaven is the place where those ailments no longer limit us. And if we are confined, disabled, or struggling in this life, eternal life should be the opposite of that. We imagine heaven being the place where we are physically whole and this wholeness, we say, cannot include the limitations of our human life.

Paul, in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, was addressing questions about the nature of the Resurrection. In last week’s reading, Paul wrote that our faith and hope rested in the reality of Christ’s Resurrection. Without it, the followers of Jesus might be following a great guy but they are not following a savior. Today’s reading continues by expanding on why the Resurrection should matter to each of us. Through our baptism and faith, we have been united with the new thing that God has started in the world. As I often say in funeral liturgies, we have not only been baptized into his death but we also have been united into Jesus’ Resurrection. Our experience of the human story is no longer the limit. God has another chapter planned for each of us. And that chapter is rooted in the Resurrection that involves, on some level, an actual body. No one really knows what Paul meant by “spiritual body.” Paul did not believe or teach that we have an immortal soul that is separate from our human body. Paul, instead, believed that our identity as human beings is always embodied. We are who we are because of all our thoughts and experiences. And these experiences are generated, recorded, and handled by a real body. 
The Resurrection, to Paul, wasn’t about gaining a new body that is perfect. Rather, Paul wrote that the next chapter of our story will be a brand new reality. Paul had no idea what we’ll look like in the afterlife or during the Resurrection (the only model we have is Jesus as described in the gospels who is still wounded). But Paul knew that we will be living eternally as only God can imagine us to be. Heaven, the afterlife, and the Resurrection isn’t about living as our best selves. Instead, it’s about becoming fully who we are because we will be experiencing Christ’s love fully face-to-face.

This is a reflection published in Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, 2/24/2019.

Reflection: Being Refined

Have you ever refined gold? I haven’t but our passage from Malachi 3:1-4 assumes we have. In the ancient world, there was only one way to extract gold from the rock it was found in. A worker would light a fire and place a crucible (usually a bowl made out of rock that can withstand hot temperatures) over it. Rocks containing pieces of gold would be placed into the crucible and everything would heat up. But the fire couldn’t be merely a campfire. The fire would need to be hot. The worker wanted the rocks to melt, allowing the impurities to float to the surface while the gold settled into the bottom. They would do all they could to make the fire heat up until it approached 1,800 degrees. The mixture would melt and the worker would stand there, using a special tool to scoop out anything that floated to the top. Over and over again, the rocks containing the gold would be melted until all the impurities had been removed and melted gold was all that was left. This process created the blocks of gold that would eventually be turned into statues, jewelry and coins. Gold is one of the world’s “precious” metals but the process to refine that gold was anything but.

If we were approaching a fire burning at 1800 degrees, we would do our best to stay safe. We would stand a safe distance away, put on the world’s best oven mitts, and make sure we knew where the closest air conditioned room was. We might be able to protect ourselves from the full blast of that heat. But workers in the ancient world were not so lucky. Refining gold was a hot and dangerous business. Everyone wanted the gold the workers produced but very few, I think, wanted their actual job. Yet Malachi, when he described the messenger who will announce the coming of God into the world, predicted this messenger would burn like a refiner’s fire. And this fire wouldn’t come to only those who didn’t know God. Rather, the fire would refine all of God’s people. Those who believe in God, worship God, and follow God are the ones who will be refined by God. And this refining will not be easy. We will be exposed to a spiritual heat that we cannot protect ourselves from. Unlike the worker standing next to the fire, we will be embraced by the fire itself. And that fire will refine us over and over again, helping us become the people God knows we can be.

When we talk about trying to grow our faith, we rarely talk about a refining fire. We imagine, instead, that a few minor changes in our life will help us become the people we think God wants us to be. Yet there will be moments in our life when the foundations of our world will break. There will be times when our expectations for God will be unmet. There will be moments when we will wonder if the God we grew up with is the God who is with us now. There will be times when we will feel as if we are being melted into something we don’t want to be. And it’s at those moments when we see how Jesus is already standing there with us, in the fire. We are precious to Jesus. We are worth God’s love. And when we feel as if our world is burning up, he will be beside us, helping us become something brand new.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the Second Sunday of Advent, 12/09/2018.

Reflection: Vision. Story. Promise. Now What?

We start every new church year, every Advent, with the end of the world. Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke 21:25-36 is part of a longer sermon filled with Jesus’ apocalyptic views. Like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, Jesus’ words are sprinkled with images of wars, starvation, persecution, and judgement. As we spend today lighting the first Advent candle and preparing to set out the nativity with a manger for a baby’s bed, we are surrounded by words rooted in incredible violence. This text is jarring, masking the hope at the heart of Jesus’ words. But hope is what Jesus is all about in Luke 21. And this hope is God’s vision for the world.

There’s a pattern in the text that unwraps the hope Jesus is pointing to. The text begins with a vision, describing the earth in distress. Jesus then moves from a vision into a story, using a parable to tame the violence in the vision he previous shared. At the moment when the world trembles and it feels as if it will be covered in shadow, that is when summer will be on its way. The story is rooted in a promise – a promise that Jesus’ words, ministry, and grace has a permanence that cannot be overcome. This vision, story, and promise is Jesus’ reminder that, regardless of what we can see, there is still always more going on than meets the eye. We, as human begins, cannot see everything that God sees. We, with our limited perspective, cannot see everything else that’s moving into place. And we, wrapped up in our sin, struggle to realize that we are not the center of the universe. By clinging to the promise that Jesus is truly God-with-us, we are wrapped up by a hope that does not end. Our relationship to God doesn’t depend on us. Our relationship is rooted in a God who refuses to leave us on our own. Even when the world appears like it is coming apart at the seams, Jesus is still here. And we, as followers of Christ, are to stay alert, living our lives as if Jesus is really here right now.

Dr. Michal Dinkler writes, “As we move into the Christmas season, let us not get so myopic in single-mindedly over-preparing for Christmas that we forget God’s vision for the world — a vision that is God’s to control, a vision that is far broader and more expansive than either/or thinking can allow.” Through your baptism and through your faith, you are with with God. This world, as we know, doesn’t match the vision God has for it. But because of your faith, the kingdom of God is already here. As we start this new church year, we are reminded we spend all our years living into the hope that Jesus makes a difference today, yesterday, and forever.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the First Sunday of Advent, 12/02/2018.

Reflection: Is/Was/To Come

God has many different names. In the Jewish tradition, there’s a saying that God has 72 of them. Lord, Eternal One, and YHWH are just a few. These names, of course, are ones we give to God and we use them to describe God’s divinity and immortality. These names help us understand who God is and also how different God is from us. While standing before the burning bush, Moses is told that God is called “I-Am” or “I-Am-Who-I-Am.” As Christians, we use Jesus as one of God’s names because Jesus is God incarnate. But even these names don’t seem to be able to hold everything that makes God, God.

In the ancient world, a formula was developed to flesh out a god’s characteristics. The author Pausanias, for example, said that “Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus will be.” Like the words Lord and Eternal One, these descriptions of Zeus point to Zeus’ supposed eternal identity. In our reading today from the book of Revelation 1:4b-8, this same formula is used describe God as the One “who is and who was and who is to come.” But the formula isn’t an exact match and there’s an important difference that we should notice. The author of Revelation isn’t only interested in God’s eternal nature. God is much more than just something that lasts forever. Our God is also an everlasting being that acts. (Revelation: Interpretation Commentary, page 75). God moves and chooses to come into our world. God is not only something “up there.” God also is here, right now. We are invited to know this God who, through Jesus Christ, chose to live with us. Through prayer, baptism, and the gifts served at the Lord’s table, we meet a God who is already moving towards us. In Christ, God takes the initiative to enter into our lives because God already knows our names. And God will put God’s holy name of love, mercy, and action into our hearts, souls, and minds.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Christ the King Sunday, 11/25/2018.

Reflection: the Apocalypse

When we hear the word apocalypse, we usually think about the end of the world. We imagine massive wars, incredible natural disasters, and an unbelievable amount of destruction and anguish. The apocalypse is good for comic books and action movies but it’s not, typically, something we want to live through. One of the ways we anticipate the apocalypse is by asking the question: “what will the end look like?” But that wasn’t a question the bible really spent a lot of time talking about. Instead, the communities who wrote, read, and shared these biblical words wanted to know: “what is the meaning of our suffering?” Those who contributed apocalypse stories to the Bible (Daniel, Revelation, and even bits of the gospel according to Mark) were trying to find meaning in “their own struggle and suffering” (Revelation: Interpretation Commentary, page 43).

Today’s reading from the book of Daniel 12:1-3 is an attempt to find meaning. Daniel is the youngest book in the Old Testament section of our scriptures. The book was set in the years after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians (in the aftermath of the year 586 BCE) but it was probably written 400 years after that. Daniel was composed at a time when the Jewish community faced severe persecutions from the ruling authorities. Judaism was outlawed and Torah scrolls were burned. Religious rites were abolished and children were discouraged from gaining the marks that defined them as part of the Jewish community. Rabbis and students were persecuted and killed. The Jewish community, especially the one centered in Jerusalem, tried to make sense of their suffering. The book of Daniel was a response to that suffering and today’s text is the beginning of the final scene of Daniel’s four visions of the apocalypse. But it’s not a vision of the end. It’s a vision of a new beginning.

Daniel’s vision of the afterlife is less about details of “what” happens and, instead, is centered in hope. Daniel doesn’t try to mask the seriousness of suffering, pain, sadness, and fear. He doesn’t say that what we experience in our life is, somehow, “less real” than it is. Instead, Daniel acknowledges that life can be hard and that following God is not always easy. Our faith requires us to sometimes say “no” to the ways the world try to turn us from God, each other, or call to love the world. There can be a deadly consequence for that “no.” But the world doesn’t define our value or worth; only God can. And through the Spirit and our relationship with Jesus, we are defined by that connection to the divine. This connection is what gives us a new sense of purpose, love, and hope. This connection is what, today and always, gives us life.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/18/2018.