This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

It’s Advent! The season of anticipation that something’s coming. When I was a I knew what was coming! Christmas! For me it started the Friday after Thanksgiving. No – not because it was the Black Friday shopping day. It was the day my mother would stack the Christmas albums on the record player and start playing them over and over, the same songs in the same order. The tree would go up the same day. Lights in the windows, too. There was a train set when I was really young. I would get out the Sunday paper to find out when all the Christmas specials would be on TV because I didn’t want to miss any. Loads of anticipation. Then came the wait. Impatience reigned. Counting down the days. Would Christmas morning ever come? It was the longest month – ever!

Joseph was in a season of anticipation. He was engaged to Mary. He was waiting for the marriage and her move into his home. That would be in a year or two. I am sure he was counting the days. Would the wedding date ever come? She would become his helpmate. She would take care of the home while he earned the money to pay for their needs. They would be a team. Mary would also bear his children. They would become a family. The family was the core of Jewish society and a center for its religious life. In the Jewish tradition, it is said that God waits impatiently for men and women to marry and have children. Marriage was a holy institution.

But then – something unexpected. Mary became pregnant. This created quite a bit of emotional and religious turmoil for Joseph. I can only imagine the disappointment. What he anticipated was not to be. But the something else happened – and it turned out to be something better, for him and for Mary. Want to hear more? Come and hear Pastor Jeff preach “An Unexpected Responsibility” based on Matthew 1: 18-25 this Sunday at John McMillan Presbyterian Church. Services are at 8:30 and 11. Let’s get the Advent anticipation started!

Christ the King 2017: Thoughts on the hope to which we are called.

Ephesians 1: 15-23

15I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

I am binge watching the Netflix series “The Crown” these days.

It is a docudrama about the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II of England.

It is really interesting … the way the English relate to the monarchy.

The Queen, as were her predecessors on the throne, is for the most part revered and loved.

Her coronation takes place in a cathedral and she is anointed as God’s chosen.

Elizabeth is the head of state.

She is the face of Great Britain.

Yet she is bound by a constitution that gives her virtually no authority to do anything in terms of actual governing.

Elizabeth is surrounded by people who tell her what she can and cannot do.

She wants to pick her own personal secretary, but is told she cannot because ther is a protocol that requires her to keep her father’s secretary.

To do something outside protocol would demonstrate independence that the people do not want in their monarch.

They want her to be under their control.

She has virtually no control over her own life.

She certainly has no control over the lives of her “subjects”.

We in the United States often watch this and wonder why the English bother with monarchs.

We don’t get the concept of kings and queens.

Particularly ones who have no power or apparent purpose.

The days of kings and queens are long over.

Which is why “Christ the King Sunday” is a bit puzzling to us.

What does it mean that Christ is king?

King of what?

With what power or authority?

Is Jesus a king like Elizabeth is queen?

All show and no substance?

Like a human idol to be trotted out when folks want a bit of comfort and tradition?

A king that cannot act independently from the will of the people?

A king not permitted to do anything different from what has “always been done”?


Paul is clear on that point.

20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

Jesus is the supreme authority.

There are no other authorities that are superior or even equal to Jesus.



Jesus’ exalted Lordship is now and forever.

That has always been central to our faith.

The cornerstone of reformed theology.

Christ is king.

So, when we get to this point, we really should ask ourselves, “So what?”

What is required of us if Christ is king?

Do we just come to him on bended knee, proclaim our fealty and give homage?

‘You are my king, lord!’

Well, yes.

But Paul is not talking about individual fealty.

Paul is talking to us as a church.

Paul is talking about the relationship between the church and God.

A community of believers who seek to do God’s will as … well … a part of the Body of Christ!

‘You are our king, Lord!’

But is that enough?

Or are we, as a church, called to do something more by our king?

A king who is not dependent on the will of the people, but whose will is to be done?

Paul seems clear on this point.

We are called to more by Christ our King.

The church in Ephesus was.

The church in Bethel Park is.

That is Paul’s message to the Ephesians and to us.

Our scripture reading is in three parts.

It starts with a statement that Paul has heard of the Ephesians.

Paul has heard of them.

People are talking about them.

Talking enough that Paul hears about them while he is in Rome.

Think about that.

No internet.

No Ephesian website.

No Facebook.

No Twitter.

No social media at all.

The Ephesians have a reputation that spans countries and regions!


One writer has said a reputation starts.

When people come to our worship, our Bible study, our church school or our church suppers, and all the other things we do, they have to feel that special spirit.

That is what was going on in Ephesus.

What is the Ephesian’s reputation?

Paul has heard about the Ephesians’ special spirit.

He has heard of their faith in Jesus.

He has head of their love toward all the saints.

Paul is so pleased that he does not cease to give thanks for them as he remembers them in his prayers.

This is the kind of language one would expect to hear right before, “Welcome good and faithful servant, enter into your eternal reward.”

So, what do people say about us?

What is our reputation?

What is the special spirit people who visit us feel?

What we have been doing up on this hill for 50 years.



Christian Education.

Bible Study.


We live a life of faith in Jesus and love for each other.

The spirit is present and palpable.

But it is and has been particularly palpable here in November and December.

It starts with the Christmas Affair.

Who would deny that there is a special spirit then?

Next is the Thanksgiving Service.

Kids leading worship and collecting for those who need help.

Who would deny that there is a special spirit then.

Next is Advent when we have many events that anticipate the nativity of Christ.

The Christmas Concert.

A sermons series on hospitality.

A Christmas Pageant where the kids can deliver the meaning of Christmas.

Candle lit worship on Christmas Eve to bring a bit of peace and reverence to the celebration.

People who are here will find a special spirit in all these things.

A reputation of great faith and love and outreach.

And we should pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God who has encouraged us to be this great witness.

Faith in Jesus.

Thanks be to God.

Love for each other.

Thanks be to God.

We like that because it is traditional and comfortable.

And we hope it is all that is required.

But there is more required of us by our king, according to Paul.

17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you …

Paul offers a prayer of encouraging words that the church does what God has called the church to do.

Which means that faith in Jesus and love for their fellow Ephesians is not the be all and end all for the church.

We must follow Christ our King.

Even though it takes us beyond our comfort zone.

We acknowledge Jesus power as beyond any control we might want.

The church has more responsibility.

The church has more to do.

Paul prays that God gives the church even the wisdom and revelation so they come to know what more God is calling them to do.

Which is the hope to which Jesus has called them.

Faith and love are immediate and current.

The church has that.

But we also have to have hope.

Hope is something that looks to the future.

Something to look forward to.

That is what the church needs.

Hope for the future.

A mission to fulfill.

To participate in Jesus’ continuing work.

In obedience to our king.

To be God’s called out people who live as a community in obedience to God and as a holy example of what it means to be disciples of Jesus.

Paul is saying that the reign of Jesus is ushering in his Kingdom, and he expects us to participate.

Not as individuals but as a community walking side by side with Jesus on a common journey.

The journey to the completion of God’s plan for his creation and the arrival of his kingdom.

And that is our hope.

That we are subjects of Christ the King, and he will lead us and teach us that there is even more to come.

That is what Paul says a church is to do and be.

So how do we do that?

Paul is pretty vague on the details.

How do come to know the hope of our particular calling?

Like Paul, we pray for wisdom and revelation.

That our hearts be enlightened.

Then we pay attention.

We evaluate our greatest gifts and then evaluate where our gifts can serve the greatest need!

We will know when we feel the joy.

Eric Liddell was a Scott who was made famous in the movie “Chariots of Fire”.

He says this when asked about his decision to run in the Olympics rather than accepting a call to mission in china.

“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast!
And when I run I feel his pleasure.”

It is when we feel and understand our purpose and our gifts that we become wise and understand the hope in our calling.

We will feel God’s pleasure.

It looks like this:

People in such a church have a goal, a destination, and because they know where they are going, they have hope.

We are such a church.

We have done well.

We have a good reputation.

But that there is more we are called to.

And like Paul, we must pray that we become wise and receive revelation and feel the hope that is our continued calling.

So, here is my Advent challenge.

Advent is a time of anticipation.

Anticipation of what is to come.

For us, this should be a season of anticipation of wisdom.

For us, this should be a season of anticipation of revelation.

For us this should be a season of anticipation of the hope we are called to.

What will it be?

What more can we do?

More inspired worship?

More generous mission?

More enlightening Christian Education?

More sincere fellowship?

It is this we need to pray about as Advent begins and the year ends.

What kind of prayer?

Rich Mullins, one of my favorite songwriters put how we are to approach God as king this way:

Oh God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You
Oh God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You
I will seek You in the morning
And I will learn to walk in Your ways
And step by step You’ll lead me
And I will follow You all of my days

Do that and Christ our King will give us hope for our continued calling and to participate in his work here in our world, as we follow him all of our days.

Thoughts and Prayers: Thoughts on what we should do beyond thinking and praying.

Mark 5: 1-20

5They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

It is almost time for the seasonal binge of “A Christmas Story”, the tale of Ralphie and his quest to get a Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas.

One of the characters in the movie is Ralphie’s nemesis, Scut Farkus.

The one with the yellow eyes!

Farkus is a bully who terrorizes Ralphie and his friends, twisting their arms up behind their backs until they say “uncle”.

Later in the movie, Ralphie gets hit in the face with a snowball thrown by Farkus.

Ralphie has finally had enough and does something Farkus does not expect.

He attacks.

He puts Farkus on the ground and wails away at him until Ralphie’s mother comes and pulls him off and takes him home.

My initial reaction to the scene when I watch it for the 1,000th time is:


Nice to see the bloody nose.

Farkus deserved it.

I think that is a pretty common response to bullying.

No one likes a bully.

Whether they be playground bullies or bullies of the more sinister or aberrant kind.

We have read about a lot of such bullies in the recent past.

These bullies do not twist arms, but obtain an automatic weapon and open fire.

These bullies take advantage of an imbalance of power to impose themselves on, violate, assault or humiliate another person, physically or emotionally.

We send “thoughts and prayers” to the victims.

Which is good, because they need it.

That is what we did last week here when we prayed for the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

We could have and should have offered our thoughts and prayers for the victims of abuse and humiliation and harassment we have heard about so many times in the past week.

Those folks need it, too.

But such responses have been criticized because of what is missing.


We need to do something, too.

Our knee jerk reaction is primitive.

We want someone to strike back, like Ralphie.

We want to see these bullies knocked down and bloody.

We praise the First Baptist Church neighbor who pulled out his own gun and shot the Sutherland Springs murderer.


He deserved to get shot.

And maybe we should applaud that neighbor.

He acted on the spur of the moment and might have saved some lives.

So that’s one response.

Here’s another.

Had the murderer survived and been arrested, we would certainly want him punished – and severely.

The problem is, that these responses alone are not enough.

It is too late.

It is reactive but not preventive.

We need to do something to prevent these bullies from doing their damage.

What can we do to prevent such things?

Does Jesus offer any advice?

Well, in today’s scripture, Jesus runs into a bully.

As Jesus gets off the boat, a man runs out of a local graveyard, rushes up to confront him.

Who is this guy?

A man who has been cast out of the community because he is dangerous.

The townspeople had unsuccessfully tried to restrain him with chains.

Then he was banished to live in the tombs.

In Matthew’s version of the story, he comes from the tombs and attacks folks passing by on the road.

He’s unsafe!

A bully.

You can feel the prospect of violence in the air.

But Jesus does something unexpected.

Jesus asks him his name.

In this context, asking someone their name is more than just for identification.

It is a request for a personal history that defines him.

And explains what he does.

The man responds that he is “legion”!

Multitudes life events that make him do what he does.

Jesus exorcizes what he does and the past events that make him do it, and leaves behind the man in his right mind.

The people are safe from him now.

Jesus prevents this man from doing any more damage to the folks in the town and on the road.

Jesus is peace making.

Jesus says this event is blessed.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

You know, the ones who don’t want to fight.

Who don’t want to retaliate.

Who want to seek solutions that prevent future bullying.

Jesus is not saying that people who “mind their own business” turn away are blessed.

He says that peace makers are blessed.

Peace makers are called children of God.

People who seek solutions!

That is life in the Kingdom.

A life that imitates Jesus.

And that is why peace making is blessed.

What does that look like?

Let me tell you a story.

A good friend of mine has a daughter who is a heroin addict.

This young woman did what addicts do.

She preyed on her parents for money and when they did not give her any, she stole it from them.

She would show up at their front door screaming for money, food, a car, any kind of support.

Her parents were afraid that she was going to end up dead.

That was her power over them.

She bullied them.

There are those who claim that the best response would be to banish her.

But that does not bring peace.

They decided on a different way.

Her mom asked me to help perform an intervention.

And we did.

We had a professional counselor help us through it.

It was something that is hard to describe.

It was very uncomfortable.

When we confronted the daughter, I felt like I was in Gerasene.

As soon as she realized what was going on, she freaked.

She screamed.

She cried.

She threatened.

She accused.

She denied.

She attacked.

She bullied.

It was like she was possessed.

She was possessed by her addiction.

Over the course of about 4 hours of this, we convinced her to go to rehab.

She left immediately with the counselor for rehab.

How did we do it?

We asked her questions.

We probed her feelings.

We tried to discover her motivations.

We confronted her misperceptions.

And we convinced her that her life would be better if she were clean.

Like Jesus, we cared for her and about her and sent her on a road to exorcize her demons, which were legion.

There was peace.

That is an intervention.

Can this work in other contexts?


But we have to ask some questions.

Why do people become bullies?

There are lots of theories.

Their parents are bullies.

They feel powerless.

They feel invisible.

They feel entitled.

They lack empathy.

These demons make them become violators of others.

What is interesting about all these things is that they can be fixed.

If we can find out their motivations, and why they feel the need to violate others, they can be taught to “exorcize” their “demons” that make them think their conduct is somehow allowed and somehow sanctioned.

With my friend’s daughter, it was a problem with a lack of self-esteem and a feeling of powerlessness.

It led to addiction.

And bullying.

Which brings us to the murders of 26 people in Sutherland, Texas.

Could this have been predicted and could there have been an intervention?


Here is a bit of interesting information.

A recent study found that of all the mass murderers in the recent past 54% were involved in domestic violence.

And the number might be higher because it does not include violence between people in relationships who are not married.

Why is this important?

If 54% of the murderers had been identified before the murders, there might have been an opportunity for intervention.

This guy in Sunderland Springs was an abuser of his wife and family.

That was well known.

For years.

An intervention years before might have made a difference.

Jailing him was appropriate, but that was a temporary fix.

What if someone had acted when his aberrant behavior first started?

How many lives could have been saved?

Find out what is going on and then do … something.

An intervention.

Like with my friend’s daughter.

And this is hard.

When Jesus intervened in Gerasene, they threw him out of town!

When Jesus intervened in humanity’s conflict with God, he got crucified!

So, what can we do?

We are struggling to find a solution.

Mental health care is inadequate.

Social services are insufficient.

Law enforcement does not take bullying seriously or is not given the tools it needs.

Folks don’t want to get involved.

But we have to find a way.

The Jesus way.

We need to pay attention, educate ourselves and seek solutions.

We can support addiction services, like Sojourner House.

We can support social services and nonprofits that offer interventions.

We can promote action!

We need to find a way to be peace makers.

To intervene, stop the aberrant behavior and point to a better way.

We aren’t there yet, but we need to keep trying.

It is what we are called to do.

To be peacemakers.

To be blessed.

To be children of God.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to watch a PBS Frontline documentary called “The Interrupters”. It was about former Chicago gang members who try to stop gang violence by interrupting the cycle of continuous retaliation. They work with an organization called CeaseFire (which has a chapter in Pennsylvania). CeaseFire approaches at gang violence as if it were a virus that can only be stopped by interrupting the infection cycle. These folks are on call in their neighborhoods. If there is a gang shooting, they go to the scene right away and start talking to the gathered crowd. They listen for words of retaliation and hate. Then they try to interrupt the spread of infection of new violence. They start telling the vengeful folks that there are better ways to deal with the event. That there are different ways to live. Many times their interruptions work. They are peace makers.

What is interesting about these people is that they remind me of the story of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit who is wreaking havoc on the towns people. Jesu intervenes, and interrupts and brings some peace to the community. Jesus, too, acts as a peace maker. Can we do that, too? Would that help to stop or slow the seemingly increased violence in our country and our world? Maybe. Let’s talk about it Sunday at John McMillan Presbyterian Church this Sunday at 8:30 and 11 when Pastor Jeff preaches “Thoughts and Prayers” based on Mark 5: 1-20.

Practice What We Preach: Thoughts on who we exalt with our piety and also on Sutherland Springs, Tx.

Matthew 23: 1-12

23Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Several years ago, I read a book by A. J. Jacobs called “The Year of Living Biblically”.

It chronicled a year in his life where he tried to follow all the rules of the Bible, both Testaments.

Listen to this part of his introduction:

As I read [the Bible], I type into my [computer] every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice I find …When I finish, I have a very long list. It runs 72 pages. More than 700 rules. The scope is astounding. All aspects of my life will be affected – the way I talk, walk, eat, bathe, dress and hug my wife.

He points out that some rules are incomprehensible, others seemingly random, and many would be crimes today.

Like killing magicians and sacrificing oxen.

And on his first day, he realized that he is not allowed to wear clothing with mixed fabric.

He also had trouble with the admonition that unruly children be stoned … because he sort of likes his often unruly son.

So as Jacobs proceeded through the year, he found it virtually impossible to do all the things he was called to do.

You get the picture.

Following the rules is basically impossible.

We can’t be perfect.

So, are we called to be perfect?

Only if we require it from others, according to Jesus.

Let’s look at today’s scripture.

Jesus is in Jerusalem.

It’s Tuesday of what we call Holy Week.

He is in the Temple preaching.

Scribes, the Temple law interpreters, and Pharisees, the Temple morality interpreters, are looking on and listening.

Jesus points to the scribes and the Pharisees and tells the people that these are the folks who occupy “Moses’ seat”.

They are the teaching and administrative authority over the people.

Then Jesus describes a problem with them.

These scribes and Pharisees impose virtually impossible rules and requirements for holiness.

Not because they think anyone can follow them, but because they say they, themselves, follow them, but don’t.

What they do is give the appearance that they do.

They walk around literally wearing their faith with scripture boxes on their arms and foreheads, long prayer shawls with really long tassels to show off their religiosity.

Oh … but they were pious sounding and looking!

Why did they do these things?

Because they were devout?

Not according to Jesus.

Jesus said they did these things because they wanted folks to notice them and respond accordingly.

They were to be given the best seat at the table.

They wanted to be called Rabbi or Father or Teacher.

Their goal was not Godliness, but adulation and acclimation.

But then Jesus says something we have all heard or said at one time or another.

A warning.

Do what they say, not what they do.

Because they don’t practice what they preach.

Jesus says they are hypocrites.

They impose rules, clothe themselves with their religiosity, and demand undue respect for one purpose.


That is what makes them hypocrites.

As the politicians of today say:

They were all hat and no cattle.

And so, we disciples of Jesus must not be hypocrites.

But we get smacked over the head with accusations of hypocrisy, too, right?

Brennan Manning was a former Franciscan priest who became an itinerant preacher and speaker and wrote the book “The Ragamuffin Gospel”.

His fans, those who have heard him speak or read his book include U2, Eugene Peterson and … well … me.

Something he said came to mind when I read this week’s scripture.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

We proclaim rules to live by, then we don’t – or can’t.

But we don’t do this because of piety, but to claim we are better than those who don’t follow those rules.

Such folks act like scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus says, don’t do that.

So, what do we do?

Well, Jesus does describe ways his disciples should live.

But the Jesus way is more an attitude than a list of do’s and don’ts.

He says this:

11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

We can understand what this looks like in other parts of Matthews’ Gospel.

This passage is it is part of Jesus’ last sermon to the people.

The criticism of self-adulation contrasts to Jesus’ first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount where he describes the actions of the folks God exalts.

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Not a lot of personal exaltation there.

Just a bunch of humility and kindness and hope.

It foreshadows Jesus’ final description of the exaltation of people who care for others and so care for him.

Jesus says be servants.

Be humble.

For such these people enter God’s Kingdom.

But all this is hard, too.

  1. J. Jacobs found that out!

We want to follow Jesus all the time, right?

We try to follow Jesus, right?

But we don’t.

We can’t.

But does that make us hypocrites?

Does that make us scribes and Pharisees?

I don’t think so.

It just makes us human.

Broken folks who need a savior.

And are humble enough to realize it.

Listen to Quaker writer Brent Bill:

“When someone asks me what kind of Christian I am, I say I’m a bad one … I see myself as a pilgrim – traveling the faith path to the destination of being a good Christian – and into the eternal presence of God.”

But that does not mean that we stop trying.

Which is why we need to practice what we preach!

What does that look like?

It looks like Jacob’s book in a way.

We read the Bible, consult each other, and do the best we can.

That is what the disciples of Jesus did.

They walked with him, listened to him, learned from him.

They made many mistakes, admitting their shortcomings, but continued the journey.

They relied on God’s grace and mercy – trusting Jesus – for the rest.

That gives me comfort.

And that is what Jesus asks of us.

Over the journey of our lifetimes, to try.

To listen to Jesus and learn from him things others might not and to realize there are always new things to learn.

To make our own mistakes, and learn our own lessons from them.

To admit our own shortcomings and that we ourselves don’t deserve more acclaim than any other of God’s image bearers.

To look for God’s grace and mercy in our own life experiences along the way.

Krista Tippet in her book Becoming Wise says this:

Faith is evolutionary, in every culture, and in any life. Even a person who could proclaim “I believe in God” or “I trust in prayer” would fill those words with endlessly transforming memories, experiences, connotations. … Mystery lands in us as a humbling fullness of reality we cannot sum up or pin down. Such moments change us from the inside, if we let them.

That is practicing to be a disciple of Jesus.

That is practicing what we preach.

But now I need to digress.

This past week we encountered, again, a moment in time that sends us reeling.

I left me shaken.


Sad beyond words.

Southerland, Texas.

Twenty-six people killed while worshiping God.

Another in a long line of mass murders of innocent people.

How do we respond to that?

What would Jesus have us do?

What do we practice what we preach in this particular instant?

This, I think.

We mourn.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

What does that look like?

To Jesus, mourning is something one does at a time of death, great loss or great injustice.

When there was a death, the relatives of the dead would tear their clothing and put dirt or ashes on their head.

They would then sit Shiva a week-long period of mourning.

They would experience their mourning.

They would be mindful of it.

As painful as that was.

Jesus says there is a blessing in this.

That blessing is our community as the Body of Christ in the world.

Standing beside those mourning.

Simply being present.

Entering into the pain voluntarily as an act of solidarity.




It is humble, kind and hopeful.

That is how we should respond to the grief of the surviving members of First Baptist Church.

But when Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed because they will be comforted, he means more than the comfort of neighbors.

He means comfort from God.

God’s presence in the midst of our pain.

That is the blessing and the comfort.

Listen to Psalm 30:

1 I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

4 Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
12 so that my soul
* may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Jill Duffield, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook offered a prayer for Sutherland, Texas this week and I want to offer this as our prayer.

But before we pray, I know that many think this insufficient – mere thoughts and prayers.

Is that enough?

For today, as we sit Shiva with them, it is all we can do.

For today, it is enough.

Come next week and we will talk about what we as disciples of Jesus should do next.

But for now, let’s pray.

How long, O, Lord? How long will we keep killing each other? How long until sanctuaries are truly sanctuaries? How long until shootings stop and peace prevails? God of grace, as we rend our hearts in grief, dismay and despair, hear our cries, comfort those who mourn, galvanize us to do whatever needs to be done to bring healing, reconciliation and a loving way of life together.

Our groans mingle with those of our brothers and sisters in Sutherland Springs. We hurt with the part of the body devastated in south Texas. We reel with the reality that those who went to worship this morning were met with violence. As the congregation of First Baptist and the people of Sutherland Springs huddle in prayer, may they know that whole communion of the saints embraces them and will not leave them alone in the days, the months, the years ahead.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.


Great Cloud of Witnesses

So yesterday, November 28, 2016, I turned 60 years of age. This site, Jeff at 60, is now appropriately named. I have now lived 60 years and have many, but perhaps not enough, memories. At 60, I thought it might be a good time to reminisce.

Some time back I began to learn about and practice meditation. I even listened to one of those “Great Courses” on meditation. The instructor noted that meditation requires us to stay in the moment by focusing on our breath or some other focal point. He then said that our minds would wander in one of two directions. We will think about the past or the future. If we think about the past the default thoughts are typically regrets. If we think about the future, the default thoughts turn to “to do” list making. I found this to be true. So when I peruse my memory bank, I need some help to go to those places that give me a warm and fond recollection. Which brings me to what I experienced yesterday.

I have a Facebook page and have entered my birth date. As a result, I received a remarkable number of birthday good wishes. Too many to thank personally. What caught my attention as I looked at each (and I did) was that there were greetings from people from every phase of my life. I got greetings from people I knew in elementary school, middle school, high school, college, law school, my legal career, seminary, and my now 9 year ministry.

What was even more profound was that I had a specific memory of each person, and a particular event that made me smile. No regrets. Fond memories. This is significant.

When I perform marriage ceremonies I often quote the movie “Shall We Dance”. It is a movie about a married man (Richard Gere) who secretly takes ballroom dancing lessons from a young woman (Jennifer Lopez). His wife (Susan Sarandon) suspects an affair and hires a private investigator to see what’s going on. The PI reports back that … well … her husband is taking dancing lessons … period. The PI believes this is good news but the wife does not think so. There is something about her husband she does not know. Why is this a big deal?

The wife says this about 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 thought about that yesterday. I have been witnessed — by each and every one of you who sent me greetings! And each and every one of you who sent me greetings (and many who did not) have been witnessed — by me! We have not gone unnoticed. None of us. And while the movie quote talks of marriage, it also talks of community. Our lives are a community event. Or a series of community events. Good times, bad times, mundane times in each. And they are our times. Given to us by God to be … well … lived. And enjoyed. And to be memorable.

And let me say  this. When those regrets surge to the front? People of my faith believe God has forgiven us for the times when we miss-stepped. I think that is true of most other faith traditions as well. And so we can just let those regrets go. Knowing that we are human, and flawed, yet still loved, by God and those who have witnessed our lives.

So yesterday I got to take a walk down 60 years of a life, and a bunch of other lives (even if just moments in them) and know that I have lived.

Thanks for the birthday wishes. And thanks for the memories.

Thoughts on Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas!

As I prepare for departure for a trip to Mexico to help a local Presbyterian congregation in a building project there and to teach VBS to their children, I am overwhelmed by the events these past few days in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas. Such tragedy. Such violence. Such fear (which generates hate). I have spent the morning praying while packing and trying to put into words how horrible these killings are. I am struck by a couple things.

First, anyone who tries to suggest that any of the victims somehow deserved to die because of who they were or what they or others had done in the past is simply wrong. These comments in my view seek to excuse the inexcusable. Demonizing the victim to justify a killing is only necessary when the killing itself is so horrifying that we need to invent a reason for it because to believe it was a malicious act of hate or discrimination is just too disturbing to contemplate. We don’t want to believe we live in such a world. But it seems we do.

Second, we have lived this way since the fall. We just have IPhones that let us see it more clearly now. I remember growing up in the 60s. The Vietnam war was at it’s height. It was an unpopular war in part because we were seeing it on TV. Graphic pictures of war were more than many could bear. The pressure increased to bring the war to an end. So when we went to war in later years, while there were impressive pictures of bombs going off and destroyed enemy locations, there were no pictures or videos of bloody carnage that I recall. Why? My recollection is that there was an effort to screen such things from us by the military because many believed pictures of the horrors of war would be counterproductive to the war effort. We are less disturbed when there are no pictures. So now we have videos of people being killed for reasons that are – well there appear to be no reasons. Such pictures and videos are becoming more and more common. It will be interesting to see how we respond to these pictures and videos. Perhaps they will create a moment when we actually talk about how the events depicted can be eliminated. Even the President says that might still take several lifetimes. How sad.

How are we to respond as disciples of Jesus today? Is there anything we can do to make a difference today?

Jesus says that the peacemakers are blessed. So we must do what is necessary to bring peace. Even if it is just a little peace. A moment of peace. Because while we can’t stop all violence, conflict, fear and hate, we can do something. Something for the Kingdom of God. Something. Maybe just a small thing. Because when we do that small thing, we bring God’s Kingdom just a bit closer.

Some time ago I read a book by Leonard Sweet. I can’t think of which one it was but in it he talked about how we live in a universe where everything is connected. Quantum theory. He said that if that is true, when we do something good for just one person, we do it for every person. And maybe now is the time to do something good for someone else. Because everyone will be touched, even if just for a moment. Use these events, and those like them, to do something that creates a moment of peace between two people, or more.

But it is a bit harder than it sounds. It is easy to have a peaceful moment with a group of friends, doing good things for each other, and sharing some fellowship. Good stuff, really! But the kind of peace I am talking about is a moment with someone who does not look, act or speak like us and does not live where or like we live. How do we do that?

Some years ago at seminary I had many conversations with my friend Reggie, who is black. I am a white Anglo-Saxon protestant. I have never – ever – had to deal with the kinds of things Reggie has. Over our conversations I learned that I could no more sympathize or empathize with him than I could with an alien being. His live and issues were so foreign to me. Anything I said sounded condescending, self serving of just stupid. Cultural cross communication is often beyond our capability.

Then there is the issue of location. How can I try to reach out peacefully to someone of another race, nationality or religion when they don’t live anywhere near me?

There are no easy answers. And I have few.

But I do have one. When the opportunity presents itself, listen to those unlike you. Hear what they are saying. What are their concerns, fears, goals, desires? And then repeat what they say back to them so they know you heard and understood (while not necessarily agreeing, which is not required). Then ask that they do the same for you. You might get to know them, even when not agreeing, and its hard to be afraid of someone you know. Its hard to hate someone who took the time to listen to what you had to say.

I know there is a good deal of anger over these events. I am angry, too. But rather than just venting anger and vitriol, maybe do something good for someone in honor of those who died, in an attempt to make a bit of peace. Stop and listen. Bring the Kingdom a mite closer.

For me, I will go to Mexico and try to do something good for those who travel with me and those I meet there. I hope to spend most of the time listening to and learning from people who are not like me. In this way I (we) might be peacemakers for a time.


Orlando: The Joker Laughs

Orlando: The Joker laughs as we enter into the chaos of accusation and retaliation.

The tragedy in Orlando has compelled me to put into writing my observations on the responses and reactions of those who look for someone to blame and punish for this terrible event.

Whose fault is it?  How can we retaliate?  There is plenty of finger pointing and denunciation to go around.  If this poor angry, hate-filled, and perhaps mentally ill mass murderer had any thought of the conflict his terrible act would cause, I think he would have considered it a bonus.  Or maybe it was part of his plan.

It reminds me of the second Batman movie.  The Dark Knight.  The villain is the Joker, played brilliantly by Heath Ledger.  What does the Joker get out of his villainy?  This is what he says:

Introduce a little anarchy.

Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.

I’m an agent of chaos.

…  You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke.

Dropped at the first sign of trouble.

They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.

I’ll show you.

When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.

See, I’m not a monster.

I’m just ahead of the curve.

He just enjoys the show.  And I look at this mass murderer as Joker-like.  I have this image of him laughing at our rage.  He has created chaos, and now watches us eat each other.  He proves that we fear each other more than anything else.  We look at each other as potential threats.

So what does all this mean?  It means, to me, that statements that “we need to get rid of all the guns” and “we need to get rid of all the Muslims” create the kind of internal conflict and chaos that plays into the hands of the radical terrorists and anarchists—wherever they come from.

The mass murderer, a man full of anger and hate for whatever reason, buys a couple of guns, enters a LGBT bar and opens fire. A bar dedicated to and specifically for the LGBT community.  He could have picked another club to attack, but he picked a bar that he knew was full of LGBT people.  People he hates.  For who they are. (A bar that reports say he frequented.) This mass murderer apparently believed that LGBT people are somehow inherently inferior and not deserving of the same rights and protections as other Americans, or other people generally.  So the choice of targets was not random. Looking at this as an act of terror against Americans by an Islamic extremist is thus only partially right.  This was an act of terror by a homophobic man against American members of the LGBT community.  He is not the first.  Viewing what happened as only an act of terror by an Islamic extremist is erasing the inherent homophobia of his actions.

Horrible.  Certain to create anger and hate.  Certain to get the political juices flowing.  A desire to take retaliation … against anyone and everyone who might have some responsibility.  Against Muslims.  Against gun rights advocates.  Against the anti-gay movement.  Whoever you choose.  And they then return the favor by retaliating back.  And it never ends.

Why do we give this mass murderer that power over us?

It reminds me a bit of the movie The Kingdom.  A bombing takes place at an American base in Saudi Arabia.  An FBI agent is killed.  Another agent learns of his death and begins sobbing.  One of her co-workers consoles her by whispering something in her ear.  The agents ultimately find the bomb maker and shoot him.  Before he dies, the bomb maker whispers something in the ear of his 15-year-old grandson who has witnessed the shooting.  As the movie winds down these scenes take place in overlapping frames.

US Agent: Fleury. Tell me what you whispered to Janet, in the briefing, to get her to stop crying about Fran, you know, before all this, before we even got airborne. What’d you say to her? You remember?

[Scene shifts to bomb maker’s apartment]

Daughter of bomb maker to 15-year-old grandson: Tell me, what did your grandfather whisper in your ear before he died?

[Scene shifts to US team]

Fleury: I told her we were gonna kill ’em all.

[Scene shifts to bomb maker’s apartment]

15-Year-Old Grandson: Don’t fear them, my child. We are going to kill them all.

Escalation.  Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  Until there is no body—or nobody—left.  Assured mutual destruction.  Globally and personally.

Jesus says—stop it!

There might be a better way.  The Jesus way, or if you’re not a Christian, the Gandhi way or the MLK way or the way of the Buddha.  This is what Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. … You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Violence is stopped when retaliation is stopped.  It takes two to fight.  If we don’t fight, there is no fight.

I want to make a quick point about what Jesus is not talking about.  He is not talking about a government’s obligation to keep order and protect its citizens.  Where there is a wrong, there must be justice.  When Jesus initially refers to an eye for an eye and tooth for tooth, he is referring to the Levitical law that gave the government the power to maintain order and protect the people.  There was a penalty for a particular act that, once administered, ended the dispute.  And because everyone knew what the penalty was, there was no need for revenge or violence.  This is the way matters were settled in ancient Israel and the way peace was maintained.  Kind of like our courts today.  Once the result is in, whether you like it or not, the dispute is over.  Time to move on and live in peace.

In this case we can seek to change the homophobia that is pervasive in our country and the part of our culture that supports it.  We need to demand safety for minorities, and enact sensible laws to make it more difficult for an angry man to shoot up a bar full of people who were members of a group that he didn’t like.  But we can do none of these things as long as we are screaming at each other.

What else is Jesus not talking about?  Jesus is not talking about passivism.  We are not called to be doormats.  We are permitted to defend ourselves so that we are not harmed by the actions of others.  We are just supposed to act in a way protects, but does not escalate.  Kind of like the “just war.”  Augustine, an early Christian Bishop, put it this way.  Our response to an affront must be:

  • It must be permissible under the law.
  • It must be warranted.
  • It must right the wrong and no more.
  • The last resort. It must be the only choice.

What is interesting about the just war determination is that it always requires thoughtful discernment.  It cannot be knee-jerk.  It is not retaliation and vengeance-oriented.  It does not call for an immediate invasion of our children whose lives are forfeit just so we can demonstrate we are not to be messed with.

Our response is to be justice-oriented.  And when we take a moment to think about these things, we de-escalate.  We stop – take a breath – and think.

Jesus tells us we are obligated to short circuit the escalation of the conflict by simply refusing to respond in kind.  We short circuit the escalation by refusing to respond to real or perceived evil with evil.

But that is where we are right now, I think.  We are responding to evil with evil, even though we do not really know what the evil is.  So we set up straw men.  Muslims and gun rights advocates are two in particular.

The mass murderer was a Muslim.  So what?  Did he believe what Islam stood for or did he project what he wanted Islam to be on it?  Sure, he “pledged” allegiance to ISIS, but it seems likely that they never heard of him.  He was a hater looking for justification for his hate.  He was looking for a cause that allowed him to kill.  There have been plenty of people claiming to be Christians who have done such things.  But making that claim does not make one a Christian.  And for all of us who think Islam blesses such things, I would ask for the source of your belief.  I, for one, have never read the Koran.  Nor have I ever sat down with an Islamic scholar to discuss the issue.  And just because some purported Islamic preacher claims that Islam stands for such a thing does not make it Muslim doctrine.  It is little different than saying David Koresh’s reported pedophilia was standard and accepted Christian doctrine simply because he held himself out as a Christian leader.

The mass murderer had guns, bought legally.  If he wanted to commit this terrible act, he could have done it a different way.  He could have set a fire.  He could have built a bomb.  Should we have gun control?  I think so, and I agree with President Obama when he spoke to the issue of gun rights on PBS [].  This just makes sense to me, though I know many disagree.  But remember, this mass murderer was not a representative of the NRA or any other group that supports gun rights.  He was just a hate filled guy.

We must not demonize Muslims or the folks who support gun rights just because this guy was a Muslim who had guns.

This mass murderer had mental health issues according to reports.  He was a spouse abuser according to reports.  He was a steroid user according to reports.  He was angry and violent, proclaiming animosity toward blacks, Jews, gays and women.  He also told people he was a dangerous man and was in contact with terrorists.  From the sound of it, this mass murderer was a man struggling with issues of self-image, anger, isolation and mental health.  He acted on all these things, in a terrible way, Sunday morning.

But it’s hard to not just retaliate!  That is the way of things in our broken world.  It always has been.  Cain killed Abel because God rejected Cain’s offering and accepted Abel’s.  Cain was hurt and so lashed out in anger against his competitor.  And we have continued to do the same.  Strike down the competition, physically, economically or verbally, and there will be peace.  How is that working?  Jesus says—stop it!  Stop the cycle of conflict.  Seek peace.

Here is what I mean.  Remember the illustration from the movie The Kingdom?  Here is a real life alternative.  This is from the website for Terror Free Tomorrow [].

According to a poll conducted in January 2006 by the Terror Free Tomorrow organization, humanitarian aid is a very effective way to improve how Muslim countries view the United States of America.  In May of 2003, research indicated that only 15 percent of people in Indonesia—the world’s most populous Muslim nation—had a favorable view of the U.S.  However, the country was later devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami, which struck in December of 2004.  In the year that followed, humanitarian aid poured into the affected areas from the U.S. and other Western nations.  As a result, a January 2006 poll showed that Indonesian people with a favorable view of the U.S. had nearly tripled, jumping to 44 percent.  In addition, information from the well-respected Indonesian Survey Institute showed that “support for terrorism has dropped to its lowest level since 9/11.”  Finally, it was reported that Indonesians with a “very unfavorable” view of the U.S. had fallen to just 13 percent—down from 48 percent prior to the tsunami.

Such polling results are many.  It seems offering aid and assistance changes people’s perceptions and opinions far more than bullets and bombs.

Isn’t that the goal?  I think so.  That is what we are called to do.  Perhaps we cannot love, or even like, those not of our tribe, but we can act like it by caring about and for them.  If that is our response, we will have a bit more peace.

But we can do none of it while we are screaming at each other.