This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

One of the parenting techniques I learned from my Dad was that when I asked him why I had to do something, an appropriate answer was, “Because I told you to”. Another variation on this response was “Because I said so”. And then there was the ultimate explanation of why his answer was appropriate. “This is not a democracy!” These were all spoken in the manner of the Marine Drill Sargent my father once was. What Dad said was the way it went. The reasons he said it were not particularly relevant. My use of those phrases was more genteel. It was more of a humorous presentation and finally was summarized in my response to the “why” question with my own question. “What’s the best reason you can think of?” My kids rolled their eyes and responded with “Because you said so, Dad.” I am sure I am not alone in these musings, and I am sure that we have all heard such things and said such things as children and parents. But the “because I said so” statement is unsatisfying to our kids. They really do want to know why! If they aren’t told, they are less inclined to obey, and often rebel. Does this mean that the children are guilty of violating the Commandment that says, “Honor your father and mother”? Are we allowed to ask why? Are we allowed to say “no”? How do we work that out from a Biblical perspective? Interestingly enough, the signers of the Declaration of Independence had to make such an analysis, and what they decided might be of interest. Come and hear about Biblical rules of authority and obedience this Sunday at 9:30 when Pastor Jeff preaches God and Country based on 1 Peter 2: 13-17. We will look forward to seeing you!

Undivided: Thoughts on making changes and why we hate to do it, even when we should.

Mark 3: 20-35

20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ 33And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Every weekday morning I take my dogs to a local cemetery so they can run off leash.

There is a paved loop that I walk while listening to a podcast of a book.

Meanwhile, the dogs run and sniff to their hearts’ contents.

Interestingly, each dog has a routine of her own.

Roxy follows a particular path, to such an extent that you can see it in the grass, and Lucy just runs around through he headstones.

It is usually a lovely beginning to the day.

It is our routine.

It is comfortable.

But then … something changes.

Someone decides to walk their dog at the same time.

Roxy and Lucy have to go on their leashes.

I can’t concentrate on my podcast or book.

The lovely mood is now broken.

It is a little thing, but the three of us are irritated and the day gets off to a bad start.

Grrrrrrrr…

Here is a more universal example.

Have you ever been driving someplace very familiar and when you arrive, have no real memory of actually driving there?

Your whole being knows how to get where you are going.

No thought required.

That is routine, too.

It is comfortable.

Then one day you find out there is road construction.

A “Road Closed” sign appears with a “Detour” sign under it.

How do you feel about that?

Not only is your day ruined, but maybe the next several months, until the construction is complete.

You have to learn a different route and change the time of departure.

Grrrrrrrr…

Routine can be nice.

Even productive.

We can spend our time thinking of something else while on auto pilot.

Maybe a project at work.

Maybe our plans for the weekend.

Maybe our shopping list.

In his book, “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg talks about routine.

“Routine basically gives us the mental freedom to think about what’s actually important. That way we don’t have to think about all the mundane aspects of life. … Getting to relegate all those things to sort of an automatic thought process, we gain all the mental bandwidth we need to do the really important things in life. … Almost every single species that has survived has the ability to take routines and make them automatic. That way you have cognitive power to invent spears and fire and video games.”

The comfort and productivity of routine.

A break in the routine requires focus.

No more multi-tasking.

Those are little things, though.

So how do you feel when really big things in your life get changed?

You get a new boss and she announces, “We are going to do things differently now!”

How do we react to that?

Not particularly well, it seems.

We typically respond by saying, or thinking, “What was wrong with the old way?”

According to a 2014 article in Psychology Today, we generally resist.

Our routine is gone.

We are uncomfortable.

Many folks just flee.

Which is interesting because somewhere around 500 BCE a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus said this (or something like it):

‘The only thing that remains the same in the universe is that everything changes.’

And generally we all know that to be true, right?

We trot this idiom out to comfort those (usually ourselves) who don’t much like it when things change.

But I have to tell you, most folks don’t find those words all that comforting.

So what does this have to do with our scripture reading?

Let’s put the text in some context.

Judaism in Jesus time was very structured.

It was focused on the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Temple was managed by the High Priests and the Sanhedrin, all basically political appointees.

Their staff of subordinates were the Scribes who were students of the Torah.

The major religious function of all these folks was the maintenance of Jewish purity by the sacrificial system at the Temple.

Dr. James Tabor of the University of North Carolina is an expert on ancient Judaism and he describes the role of the Temple managers this way:

In Judaism, sin was not only a moral question; it also concerned the practice of ritual and notions of the sacred and profane, purity and impurity–distinctions that are often lost to the modern consciousness. In ancient Israel a whole system of sacrifices had arisen to atone for sin, that is, to set sinful humankind right with the one, holy God.

Think about that.

That’s a lot of power – political and religious.

You want to be in good with God?

Do what they tell you.

Follow the rules.

This had been the way of things for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

Since the time of Moses!

Routine.

Comfortable.

Then along comes Jesus.

He has been baptized and begins to preach.

He calls his disciples.

He casts out demons and heals the sick.

He eats with impure and challenges the Torah law.

Jesus’ message?

“Now is the time. Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust this good news!” (Common English Bible)

Things are about to change!

Jesus is a whirlwind of change blowing through Judah, on his way to Jerusalem.

Jesus is leading a religious revolution!

He has developed quite a following and is well known to the Temple authorities.

And the crowd that has been following them is overwhelming and demanding.

These were people formerly not welcome in God’s Kingdom as defined by the Temple authorities.

An interesting tidbit about this text.

It starts in the middle of a sentence.

What is happening here is that Jesus has finished his work for the day and has gone to the place he is staying for dinner and some rest.

That does not happen.

Jesus and his disciples don’t even have time to eat.

He has no time to rest.

And there is opposition to his ministry.

His family is worried about him.

And they wonder …

Has he lost his mind?

He is challenging the Temple authorities!

He is going to work himself to death!

Nothing good can come of this.

“We need to get him out of there!”

Then the Scribes now show up and start to undermine Jesus’ message.

“All these things this Jesus is doing are from the devil!”

“Jesus is doing all these things because he is evil!”

Resisting change indeed!

What Jesus is doing is crazy.

What Jesus is doing is evil.

When Jesus responds, he is not gentle.

First he points out to the Scribes that if he is evil, then evil is destroying evil and so evil will fail.

That is a good thing, right?

If he is not evil, they God is defeating evil, and that is good, too, right?

In either case, God wins.

It’s all good!

But the Scribes are saying that the things Jesus is doing are evil!

The things God is doing are evil.

This is different from the way they have done things.

Jesus says to ascribe evil to God is unforgivable.

Ouch!

Jesus is not particularly gentle with his mother, brothers and sisters either.

Jesus redefines his family as those who do God’s will.

Anyone, including his mother, brothers and sisters, who tries to stop him is not part of his family.

Wow.

And Jesus is saying these things to those who are not malicious or evil, themselves.

Jesus’ family is not evil.

They love him and want to protect him.

They just liked it better when he was in the carpenter’s shop.

The Scribes are not evil.

They love their religion and wat to protect it.

They just like their Temple and Torah.

And so it should not be a surprise that there is resistance.

Fervent and whole hearted resistance.

Yet despite this resistance, we ultimately see God’s will worked out – at the cross.

When everything really changed for good.

That is the message of this story.

That is why Mark included it.

Jesus came to change things.

People did not like it.

But he did.

So change can be good then.

But we all have had experiences where something was changed and it was not good.

Then how do we decide if a change in things will be good?

Pretty simple really.

We include God in the deliberations.

That is what we do here at JMPC.

Every meeting begins with a prayer.

We pray for discernment and wisdom from God to help make decisions.

Then we close in prayer to ask God’s blessing on what we decided to do.

We try to understand where God might be leading us and try and decide what is the best way to follow.

Are we always right?

No.

But that does not stop us from praying and asking God to show us the way to follow God’s call to us, even if it is a whirlwind of change.

So what are we at JMPC looking at now?

First, Session is making plans – long term plans.

What do we want JMPC to look like in 2023?

What will our building look like?

What will our vision be?

What will our mission look like?

What will our ministries look like?

Where will God be leading us and how will we be following?

Some call this a long range plan.

Maybe a capital campaign.

Ultimately, the congregation must be involved.

Everyone.

So that when we bring it all to fruition, we will be undivided.

Now there are some things that are a bit more immediate.

The Outreach Pillar, with the leadership of Pastor Matt, will be developing a mission plan for the future.

How will we spend our time and talents outside this church?

If you want to be a part of that discussion, talk to Matt.

Our Spiritual Development Pillar is looking at two issues.

The first is our Christian Education.

How can we improve the way we teach our children and adults about Jesus and our faith.

The second is the way we worship.

Worship is one of the things we do very well here at JMPC, but that does not mean we cannot improve it.

How can we present the Gospel in a way that is more engaging and culturally accessible.

If you want to be involved in either of these, give me a call.

The Resource Pillar is looking into making the property more environmentally friendly and efficient, potentially through the use of solar power.

We are also discussing the planting of apple trees and the building of an outdoor worship and gathering facility.

How can we use our 11 acres for something beneficial to someone other than the folks who mow it every week?

This is all pretty exciting, but to some here, it might sound like a tumultuous time of change that makes one cringe.

Yet, we, your pastors and Session, believe we are called to this.

We must move forward in our mission and ministry.

We must seek God’s call and follow.

Everyone is welcome and encouraged to participate in the planning and implementation of what we decide to do.

You might be receiving a survey or two over the summer.

Please respond!

We need your thoughts.

Let us know what you think God is doing here and how you think God is calling us to do it.

And where you fit in.

Jesus started a revolution that is still going on!

What part will we play?

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

In 2007 I was installed as the pastor of my first church. The preacher at the installation service was Rev. Dirk Lesnett, with whom I had served on a Presbytery Committee, and was (is) a good friend. After the service Dirk gave me a book called “Ministry Loves Company” by John Galloway, Jr. a Presbyterian pastor. The book is about how to survive in the first few years of a pastorate. It is a good book that I have read twice now. Galloway likens being the pastor at a church t being a guest at a family reunion. The family has been having its annual reunion for decades. The family knows how to put on a reunion. They have a plan and structure and an understanding of assignments of tasks. Aunt Bessie brings the potato salad every year (and every year no on eats it because it is awful and so is discreetly scraped into the garbage one forkful at a time). Uncle Fred is in charge of the “game”. It is a game that he played decades ago when he was a boy on the farm, when life was slow and anything that might pass the time, regardless of how boring, was worth a try. Now the game is a tradition at the reunion that all the kids must play, regardless of their screams of protest (which are unheeded by parents who were forced to play when they were kids and so have no sympathy for their kids now). Galloway’s advice is to “let it alone” (at least until you have developed sufficient good will to suggest that there might be a somewhat better way … maybe … perhaps …). That is what ministry is often like. As Rev. Graham Standish puts it, any change in what we do and how we do it should be “small and it the fall”. What is interesting is that this is not the way Jesus got started. Jesus came in like a … well the religious leaders said he came in like a “demon”. And his family thought he was nuts and was going to get himself hurt! All because Jesus changed everything! Right from the start. Jesus changed the message, the rules, the way to worship, and the criteria for church membership. Want to know how that went for Jesus? Come and hear about it on Sunday June 10 at 9:30 when Pastor Jeff preaches “Undivided” based on Mark 3: 20-35. Come and join us. We will look forward to seeing you.

I Am Always With You: Thoughts on God’s Omniscience and Omnipresence

Psalm 139

To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end*—I am still with you.

It might surprise you that I have actually watched a few romantic comedy movies in my life.

One had a scene with a profound message that resonated with me, and still does.

I have used this scene as part of my messages to couples in the wedding service over the years.

The movie is “Shall We Dance” starring Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon as husband and wife experiencing a rough patch in their marriage.

Gere is having a bit of a mid-life crisis and then discovers a new joy by taking ballroom dancing lessons from Jennifer Lopez.

Sarandon finds out about her husband’s secret hobby and though she knows that Lopez and Gere are not romantically involved, she is angry.

When asked why she is angry, Sarandon emotionally describes why marriage is important.

“Because we need a witness to our lives.

There are a billion people on this planet.

I mean, what does any one life really mean?

But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything:

the good things,

the bad things,

the terrible things,

the mundane things—all of it,

all the time, every day.

You’re saying your life will not go unnoticed,

because I will notice it.

Your life will not go unwitnessed,

because I will be your witness.”

I tell the couple to live out those words.

Celebrate such a relationship.

Revel in the promises and vows the couple make to each other that each will do what Sarandon describes.

But these are words that go beyond marriage.

Isn’t that what we all want?

Isn’t that what we all need?

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow described his “Hierarchy of Needs”.

These needs are those that must be met for each of us to reach our highest wellbeing.

Right in the middle of this hierarchy is the need for belonging, love, and esteem.

Without belonging, love, and esteem, Maslow says, we are simply not complete.

These are deep, trusting and lasting relationships that give our lives meaning and value.

Whether in a family or in a marriage or in a friendship or in a congregation, we want and need someone who will witness our lives.

Someone who will care about every aspect of our lives.

Someone who knows us.

Someone who will always be present.

Which brings us to Psalm 139.

It is a model for such a relationship.

So let’s take a look at this Psalm.

First, it’s one of the “biggies”.

It is said to describe the attributes of God.

Omniscience – all knowing.

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me. …
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You … are acquainted with all my ways.

Omnipresence – always there.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?

Let’s take a look at Omniscience first.

If God is God, God knows everything.

But the Psalmist points out that if God knows everything, God knows the Psalmist.

In the same way, if God knows everything, God knows “me”.

What exactly does God know?

Patrick Miler in his book “Interpreting the Psalms” puts it this way:

Whatever there is in our minds or hearts, bury it as deep as we can, and God will still know it.

And let’s admit it, that God knows “me” that intimately, can be a bit alarming.

I mean we all have skeletons in our closets, right?

Things about our lives that we would rather keep to ourselves?

Yeah, but God knows all that, too.

Such intimacy can be overwhelming.

Sometimes we want to just get away.

How many here like, or even crave, periods of solitude from time to time?

There are times when we just like to be alone.

All you introverts know exactly what I am talking about, right?

Which brings us to omnipresence.

There is no place we can go where God is not.

As Miller puts it:

… [T]o those who because of word or deed would flee from God, there is a truly unsettling aspect to God’s inescapable presence.

Unsettling indeed!

And yet, despite this sometimes unnerving knowledge and presence of God, I find Psalm 139 entirely comforting.

So does the Psalmist.

And he sings this beautiful song of praise.

A song about a deep, trusting, personal, intimate relationship with God.

How does it go?

God has examined him.

Searched his soul and knows him intimately.

God knows what the Psalmist does and says.

God surrounds him and lays a hand on him maybe the way a friend puts a hand on a shoulder in comfort.

And God is always there!

It is all beyond the Psalmist’s ability to comprehend.

It is so overwhelming there is an urge to flee.

It makes me think of one of my favorite children’s books.

Margaret Wise Brown’s, The Runaway Bunny.

A little bunny tells his mother that he is going to run away, becoming variously a fish, a rock on the mountain, a crocus in a hidden garden, a bird, a sailboat, a circus acrobat, and finally a little boy.

Each time, his mother says that she will go and get him, whatever it takes.

Finally, the little bunny resigns himself to stay where he is and remain her little bunny.

That is what the Psalmist is saying.

Wherever I go, and for whatever reason, God will be there beside me.

God creates us, knows us, is present with us, always and forever.

Which brings us to the end of our text.

I come to the end*—I am still with you.

Even at the time of our death, God is with us.

Miller again:

Here is faith affirming that in our death we are caught up in the memory of God, remembered by God, held forever in the hand and mind and heart of God.

Karl Barth, perhaps the premier theologian of the 20th century put it this way:

… [T]here is no corner where [we do] not exist for God, in which [we are] not enclosed by the hand of God behind and before. There is no heaven or hell in which [we are] out of the reach of God’s Spirit or away from [God’s] countenance. There is no change or destruction in which [our being] before God and coexistence with [God] are brought to an end …

This is how God knows me and is present with me always.

That’s why I get a great deal of comfort from Psalm 139.

It’s about intimacy and presence.

How we need it and how God gives it.

And I rejoice, just like the Psalmist.

The words joyfully proclaim the wonder and awe that the God of all creation knows us intimately, is a witness to our lives, and who will always be present.

No matter what.

When I get to this point reading this Psalm, it occurs to me that God’s intimacy and presence causes us to praise God.

I mean what better friend is there than that.

Intimacy and presence, no matter what.

God loves us and we love God back, even when it’s hard.

Isn’t that a good model for the communities we live in?

In our relationships with others?

What if we tried to get to know each other in a way that allows us to understand each other?

To understand each other in a way that allows us to remain present with each other even when it’s hard?

Know each other.

Care for each other.

Become present to each other.

And we remain with each other even when the end comes.

If we do these things, people will probably respond positively.

There will be mutual presence, respect and esteem.

Maybe the polarization we are currently experiencing in our families and communities might be lessened.

This table is a symbol of such a relationship.

At this table God promises that he will love us and be present with us for all eternity.

And we can rejoice.

“Because [God will be] a witness to our lives.

There are a billion people on this planet.

… [W]hat does any one life really mean?

But [God is] promising to care about everything:

the good things,

the bad things,

the terrible things,

the mundane things—all of it,

all the time, every day.

… [Your] life will not go unnoticed,

because [God] will notice it.

Your life will not go unwitnessed,

because [God] will be your witness.”

Thanks be to God!