Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Welcome to Christmas...

I can't believe my last blog entry was back in September! I'm sure I rate as one of the worst bloggers in human blogging history. After writing three sermons a week, newsletter articles for my church, and answering emails, my poor blog site gets terribly neglected. It took me so long to get back to here that we are jumping from Fall to Christmas!

Actually, in church parlance, it is the Advent Season as I write this. Advent is the "New Years" of the church liturgical calendar, and typically focuses on the predicted "return of Christ" to earth to bring about the fullness of God's Kingdom. All of the Scriptures we read during this season are apocalyptic in nature, having to do with "end time" things. Honestly, though, for most Christians, Advent becomes just the "countdown to Christmas." As a kid, I can remember reading through those little Advent calendars they gave us where you would open a little cardboard door each evening and read a little prayer or meditation. As the doors got fewer and fewer, Christmas got closer and closer. I guess we never grow tired of the excitement of the Christmas Season. Even though I have a seminary education and try to teach my congregations about the meaning of Advent, I still get pumped as we light the next Advent candle each week--Christmas is getting closer, even just around the corner! Nowadays, my personal excitement over Christmas is marked by three things: celebrating the birth of Jesus, who has really changed (and continues to change) my life; spending the season with my wonderful wife who really likes Christmas, too, and does a beautiful job decorating for the holiday; and remembering Christmases past with my children, who are both grown adults "out on their own." Christmas will always be a special time for the Sterlings, and I pray for you, too.

Typically, I would spend some time railing about the commercialism of the season and how the merchants now start promoting their Christmas goods about July, but I will not do that for it would be hypocritical. I like the stores at Christmas, and I like Christmas shopping, even though we really don't buy gifts in stores any more. Instead, for the past few years, we have purchased pigs and cows and goats through organizations like Heifer International and World Vision to send to developing nations where they will help poor villages. This year, we are also buying school supplies and recreational gear for these venues through World Vision, and we do this in honor of the people to whom we would normally give wrapped gifts. You see, none of us really needs anything anymore, and these people in developing nations do, so we think this is a better kind of gift giving. We also are "loaning" funds to budding entrepreneurs in the Third World through a great "micro credit" organization called Kiva.org. Check it out on the web.

The other reason I'm OK with the "commercialization" this year is that our economy needs stimulating, and people need jobs. If spending money can help, I'm ready to do my share!

I know that many Christians scream about "putting the Christ back in Christmas," and I know they have a point. But I'm not sure Christ ever left Christmas in the first place, nor do I believe we have the power to force him out of it. Wherever people are loving each other, buying gifts out of genuine affection and respect, attending worship services, singing the great hymns of Christmas, feeding the excitement of children, and--even if it is only once per year--are praying for peace on earth, goodwill toward all people, you will find Christ in the middle of it all. I believe Jesus has the power and the desire to change lives, even when his presence is not "obvious" or "verbalized" by a personal testimony. Christ is among us--that is what one of his names, Emmanuel, means. Jesus will be whom Jesus will be, and his work in the world goes on 24/7. Just because we "overly" celebrate his birthday, I don't believe it discourages him from touching lives.

This blog must end for now, but yunz need to keep the Spirit of Christmas alive in your hearts and the world! You and your family enjoy the season, now, and consider using the occasion to do some "random acts of kindness" for others, in the true Spirit of it. As Dickens said it so well through the character of a small child, "God bless us every one!" Shalom, people.

Dr. Jeff

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Word for Fall

Now, this blog title might make it sound like I'm going to banter about the "fall of humanity" or some other highly theological topic, but no, I'm going to comment on the season. Fall is a beautiful time of the year in Western Pennsylvania, especially here in Warren, PA. The leaves on the trees begin to change and a blue-skied, breezy Sunday afternoon drive through the woods surrounding this place can be a taste of heaven, indeed. Fall is also the time when our kids get busy with school and extra-curricular activities, forcing parents to become chauffeurs and tour guides. Grandparents succumb to being mobile spectators, chasing the grandchildren around from auditorium to soccer field.

In the church, where I work, Fall is the start-up time for programming and Christian education events. This Fall, I'm teaching a Sunday School class on the subject, "The Bible Jesus Read," using material from a book by that name by Philip Yancey. Most of us don't stop to think that Jesus' "bible" was what we Christians call the "Old Testament," or more appropriately, the Hebrew Scriptures. Parts of it can be tough sledding, especially when Israel is at battle or God is hacked at some lame-brained thing "the Chosen People" have done (or not done). Along with Yancy, I like the "realism" of the Hebrew Scriptures. It reminds us that God gets "down and dirty" with humanity and relates to the creation at a highly interactive--and at times almost sensuous--level. This is not the "unmoved, mover" or "far removed" model of divine perfection imagined by the Greeks. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures gets happy, angry, and at times even appears confused over the affairs of people here on Mother Earth. I especially like the parts where God and Moses argue, Moses wins, and the text says, "God changed his mind." I guess if we didn't believe this to be possible, why would we pray?

Fall is a time for watching others who like Fall. My wife is a Fall person, and it delights me just to watch her take it all in. I like Fall too, but honestly, it is more out of the joy of watching HER enjoy it. Really, I like all of the seasons here in Western PA; I think I really mean that, and that it is not just a rationalization of the fact that I must LIVE here to ply my calling. But, of course, I could be wrong. When the snow flies--and it DOES fly here--I have been heard to be less than enthusiastic. Do you have a Fall person in your household?

On a completely different note: something HAS to be done with our health care system in the good ol' U.S.A. As a pastor, I have heard countless horror stories about its crushing machinations and confusing paradoxes. Quite a number of my parishioners over the years have been denied coverage for stupid reasons. One colleague moved from PA to Ohio and was told by her company--Blue Cross/Blue Shield--that she would have no problem transferring her coverage to BC/BS in Ohio. After giving the go-ahead for this to happen, the PA branch cancelled her coverage, and then Ohio's denied her insurance because she had a pre-existing condition! She went months without coverage and wound up with a "boilerplate" plan that, basically, provides a broom and a dustpan if you get hit by a bus. I have BC/BS coverage myself, and after having required procedure back in February of this year, thought I had paid all of my co-pays and deductibles. A couple of weeks ago I received a bill for over $600 from a Pittsburgh hospital involved in the procedure. Instead of calling them, I called BC/BS, and their case manager put me on hold and called the hospital. When she rejoined our conversation, she told me the bill was a "computer error" and that I did not owe the money. I wonder how many others might have just paid that "bill"? These are just two of hundreds of examples I could give to show that, in our current system, the "left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," as they say.

I don't have a solution for health care, but somehow I believe the answer will not come until there is a single payer system. I'm not excited about that being "the government," but am intrigued at the suggestion posited by some that a non-profit coalition of some sort be employed. I have to also say that I do NOT believe medicine should be a profit-driven field. There are just some things that capitalism doesn't enhance, and health care is one of them.

Well, after several weeks off of posting for vacation and Fall "start up" activities, this turned out to be a long rant. Now that it is off my chest, let me wish you all grace and peace. Enjoy this great season, people! Shalom.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The "King David" Incident

As I'm working on my sermon for this weekend, I've been studying the story of King David and his "indiscretion" (is that what we're calling it now?) with Bathsheba, which led to a series of cover up attempts and eventually, the death of her husband, Uriah the Hittite, on the battlefront. To quote Sir Walter Scott, "O what a tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive..." If you don't believe it, ask Governor Sanford of South Carolina. For that matter, ask ANY of us who, at some point in our lives, worked hard to get away with something! How fast the web is spun; and even if we seem to have gotten away with whatever it was, we still have to live with ourselves, and we don't make very good neighbors, at that point.

When we screw up (the Bible calls it "sin," but that is kind of out-of-vogue), we almost immediately enter the world of religion. Let me explain. First of all, we have to deal with the question of whether what we did is actually wrong. How is this decided? We search our "built in" library of family values or moral laws deposited there by the people who raised us. If that is a fairly extensive library, we might decide that we have done something "wrong" or that violates our programmed values, and something needs to be done about it. We must decided either to seek forgiveness and restitution, or try to sweep the whole thing under the rug. Either way, we move rather rapidly into the religious realm. If we seek forgiveness, psychology only takes us so far. Usually, we feel a need for "cleansing," and the science of the mind often leaves us "fixed" but still dirty, in a manner of speaking. No, many of us reach out to God (or our "Higher Power") for absolution and a dose of grace, Spirit, or whatever it is that might keep us for doing it again. When God forgives--which God has shown a willingness to do--this cleaning process begins.

[I have had parishioners tell me, from time to time, that they didn't "feel" forgiven. I usually ask them if there is someone THEY are carrying a grudge against for some past real or perceived aggrievances. Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us." If God really answers this prayer, we will have a hard time feeling forgiven until we make sure our own "offense slate" is clear. Don't' miss this step, as it has a profound bearing on any hopes we have for spiritual growth.]

If some type of restitution is needed, this is step two. Don't short-change this step either, friends.

Now, this whole thing can take a different direction. We can decide that what we did isn't really wrong. Some people have a stunted moral library because they were raised in a home where the parents themselves provided a poor example. If your parents felt it was OK to smoke dope (regardless of what the law says) then it will be OK for you to smoke dope. If you grew up in a home where your dad bragged to his buddies about how much he screwed the government over on his taxes, they you, too may well look for these "exceptional" deductions at tax time. You get the picture. The other thing that sometimes happens is that we reject our parents' moral teachings and rebel by substituting our own. Often we do this in a subconscious effort to "hurt" our parents in retaliation for their rules or strictness. My observation is that we are the ones who get burned in the end. Oh, our parents may grieve over it, but we wind up empty, shallow, and cut off, ultimately.

Then, of course, there is the King David approach--try to cover up the infraction. One wonders in reading David's story whether he first tried to rationalize his affair: "After all, I'm a King and I deserve a pretty, young wife" or "I've worked hard for these people; I should get a little pleasurable payback." Regardless, Bathsheba winds up pregnant. David first calls her husband, Uriah, back from the battlefield, and sets up a romantic evening for him and his wife. He figures if they spend the night, Bathsheba could say the baby is his. Doesn't work. Uriah won't accept a night of leisure when his troops are at war. Eventually, David's cover up schemes result in Uriah's being sent to the front where he is killed in battle. David marries Bathsheba, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Not quite. In Scripture we are told, "What you sow, you reap." There is a negative consequence for our wrongful acts. Yes, God will forgive us when we confess, and restitution may be good for the soul, but when we sow weed seeds, we get a crop of weeds. God rarely removes the consequences of our screw ups. David and Bathsheba lose a child, and later, David ends up in a death struggle with his son, Absalom. His life is forever different because of his negative behavior.

There is good news in the story. Even in spite of David's wrong-doing, God forgives him and blesses his leadership of Israel. It is encouraging to know that God rarely ever gives up on us! Hope is such an important word, isn't it? And how vital it is that we don't usurp God's judgment role and condemn people ourselves.

Sorry for the sermon on this post, but this whole topic is so pertinent in our day. Parents, raise your kids with a decent library of moral and family values! Find a family-oriented, "reasonable" local Christian Church (or Synagogue, if you are Jewish) to help. (I say "reasonable" meaning the Bible is taught, but not JUST as a collection of highly defined "do's and don't's," but as a resource that helps us understand the human condition and God's efforts to love and redeem us, and provide purpose and meaning for our lives.)

Don't pull a "King David" when you do mess up; 'fess up, get clean, and be reconciled to any parties you offended. Cover ups make great books, movies, and conspiracies, but make for lousy real life.

Still working for Shalom, my friends...Dr. Jeff

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Celebrities Passing

Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Ed McMahon...the past few weeks have seen a host of "celebrities" passing from this life. These deaths--in several cases untimely--remind us that when it comes to mortality and the "sands of time," we are all equal, regardless of our acclaim. At my age, I find that I now read each day's obituaries in the daily newspaper rather religiously. I find in interesting to read the stories of "common" folk who didn't know the spotlight of popular fame; many of them were heroes in his or her own right, but all were children of God and beloved of family and friends.

Speaking of fame, I read a national column recently wherein the author suggested that our most recent generations have been producing more "celebrities" than "famous" persons. His distinction was that a celebrity is anyone who finds his or her "fifteen minutes of fame," as Andy Warhol put it. One can be a celebrity simply by landing in the limelight, even by accident. "Famous" persons, however, are those whose recognition comes by way of true and sustained accomplishments, whether in the arts, academics, literature, sports, or national/international affairs. Again, the columnist suggests that we aren't producing many "famous" persons, just celebrities. Others have observed that neither are we producing "statesmen" in the political realm. Why is this, one wonders?

Maybe it is because we have lost a sense of personal "mission" or destiny. There was a time when young men or women would ruminate endlessly over the question, "What is my purpose?" or "What mark can I make in this world?" as they chose their paths. Today, the questions seem to have de-evolved to: "How can I become a celebrity?" or "What do I have to do to make the most money in the shortest amount of time?" The goal of many today is to make their first million by age 30 so they can settle down to a life of leisure at an early age. This doesn't bode well for a society and a culture BEGGING for leaders and visionaries.

Another possible reason for this leadership deficit is the proliferation of "instant" and intense means of communication. One must deliberate over a letter, writing in complete thoughts and reflecting on personal philosophy. Email began the erosion of thought by allowing instant transmission upon completion of a thought or two, which gave birth to the tacky electronic shorthand such as LOL and :-). Now we have "Twitter," which limits expression to 140 characters. I am reminded of an episode of "Cheers" in which Diane, the erudite protagonist, inquired in the bar: "Who would like to go to the back room and have an intelligent discussion about this issue?" Seeing no takers, she queried a second time: "Alright then, everyone then with a two-bit opinion...", to which the throngs responded. Modern technology is possibly giving undue bandwidth to the two-bit opinion instead of the forty-minute address of a statesman?
Well, this posting wouldn't fit on "Twitter," and I'm not even sure it will fit on Blogger.com when I hit the "post" button! Remember what one writer of Scripture stated: "Without a vision the people perish." Shalom, friends.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Summer Break

Well, friends, Annual Conference is over, and we are "back home" in Warren, PA. It is still not natural to call Warren "home," but it is getting easier the more we use the term. I guess what makes it a bit tough is that, all through High School, my "home town" Oil City High was a rival school, athletically speaking, with the Dragons of Warren. Now I'm rooting for the Dragons! This year's high school girls' softball team was excellent, and was worth rooting for. Several of our church's young women played on the team, and one of "our own" was their star pitcher. Yes, the Sterlings are, for this time in our lives, officially "Warren Dragons."

That "dragon" thing reminds me of Harry Potter, and that reminds me of some of the strange legislation with which we dealt at Annual Conference. Some folk who proclaim themselves Christians spend in inordinate amount of time fearing things. Paul said, "God has not given you a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and of a sound mind." One piece of legislation merely asked churches to consider having a study of the tricky question (at least in the religious world) of homosexuality, using our denomination's study resources. The motion was defeated in the legislative section, and again on the floor of the Annual Conference! Weren't we just being asked to CONSIDER studying the matter to gain insight? Why do so many folk FEAR knowledge? Are they afraid their opinions might be altered slightly by new information? It boggles the mind.

If you would have told me ten years ago that I would be earning what I am now (thanks to the generosity of the churches I have served) and still living payday to payday, hand-to-mouth, I wouldn't have believed it. Between paying my kids' educations off, the price of gasoline, and the other "trivialities" of life, that's what is happening. However, we are still maintaining our "tithing-plus" stand toward giving. I don't understand people of faith who, when the going gets a bit tough financially, refuse to make a few personal sacrifices in order to keep up their church and charitable giving. It CAN be done, friends. We just have to decide these things are important, and therefore a priority. Again, check out my website on "personal philanthropy" called www.tenfortheworld.org

A large group from our church, and representatives of a few others here in Warren, are doing mission projects this week with The Pittsburgh Project. Pray they have a great week of service and experience, especially life-changing ones for the youth involved.

Did I mention that it is "Summer Break" time? I hope you will find some time to wind down a bit and enjoy the few nice days that will come our way. Be good to yourself. Shalom!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Off to "Conference"

For United Methodists, "Annual Conference" is a study in contrasts. The annual meeting of clergy and lay delegates (in Western PA, we hold it at historic Grove City College) has its beginnings in the days of Mr. Wesley himself. In his day, pastors (there were no lay representatives then) walked or rode in on horseback to the gathering, where much time was spent in prayer, worship, and fellowship with one another, and, of course, ordinations of new pastors occurred. Today, we motor in, park far enough away from the meeting hall that we SHOULD have brought a horse, and the meeting--while still embodying all of the above elements during its four days--now includes debates over budgets and myriad legislation. Large video screens and "rock and roll" sound systems now substitute for preachers shouting from crude platforms.

I like some of the worship, but much of it is too long. Now, I know that Christians should be willing to praise God and not be governed by the clock, but the "seat of endurance" can only handle so much, and the eclectic nature of Conference worship often juxtaposes differing expressions, images, and activities that, to me, seem forced. I guess when you only meet once a year, every group has to find a way to parade something around. Anyway, the music is stirring and the preachers--especially the guest ones such as Will Willimon--are quite good.

It is always good to see one's colleagues and friends, and our Bishop, Thomas Bickerton, always finds a way to liven things up, even during the most tedious of moments, such as during legislative debates.

What do we legislate? A few important things, such as the annual ministry budget of the organization, for example. But we sometimes we beat to death resolutions or petitions embellished with sweeping language about halting all abortions or bringing peace to the Middle East, which, honestly is mostly rhetoric forgotten beyond the doors of the meeting hall. Some folks just like to have their "day in court," so to speak, and I guess one never knows when the Spirit will show up and empower one of these paper tigers to really change the world.

Annual Conference ends with an impressive Ordination Service which has become a "command performance" for all clergy. I really like what this Bishop has done with it, but honestly, wouldn't it be really cool if we could make it three hours rather than four? I'm one of those people with a three-hour bladder, and getting up in the middle of a crowd jammed elbow to elbow, trying to slither out through tightly-packed rows, and saunter unnoticed while wearing a preaching robe and bright red stole is a challenge, to say the least. Where is Harry Potter's "invisibility cloak" when needed?

Still, we come from all over Western PA to this tiny town just off Interstate 79, to do our duty as United Methodists. We will get sunburned in long lines waiting to eat college food. We will listen as some passionate petitioner argues for yet another "special Sunday" to be added to the calendar of our churches. We will laugh together, and maybe shed a tear or two for friends remembered during the Memorial Service. And we will go home to report the happenings to our congregations, who really don't have a clue about it all. As they say, "You had to be there." Shalom, friends.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Finally, an ENDING to the Winter of Our Discontent!

Greetings, friends. Now that the Sterlings have gotten fully moved into Warren, PA and have begun to get our spiritual feet wet at Warren First United Methodist Church, I have a few minutes to get back to this blog thing. Sorry--again--for the long hiatus. I guess that at almost 55 years of age, I'm just beyond the "I blog regularly" habit. As my half-a-new-year's resolution (those made in June, of course), I vow to blog more, but the keep my entries shorter!

Winter is finally over in Warren, PA. I say this as a matter of faith, as the natives say we are really not "out of the woods" until July or August. Actually, we have seen some beautiful weather here in the past couple of weeks, and when the wind is not icy and gusting to 80, this area is a true natural wonder. God is indeed good.

Hey, don't forget to go to church this Summer, friends. Your pastors, priests (and Rabbis, if you are Jewish) really appreciate it when you don't forget them just because the weather looks more like picnic or boat weather than prayer, praise, and preaching weather. I bet God is please, too, when we don't take the Summer off. After all, God does not; God is 24/7, as they say.

Have a great Summer, friends. Enjoy the fabulous out-of-doors, your family, your faith, and your friends. Life is good; enjoy the journey. Shalom!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sorry for the long break...

Greetings, sports fans. I'm sorry for the huge gap in my postings. You see, two major events have occupied my attention: The United Methodist Church appointed me to a new church, resulting in an unusual January move; and the Steelers made a successful run at the Super Bowl! Both of these things are exciting, but the move thing really takes a lot out of you. I am thankful for many praying, supportive friends and colleagues in both my former congregation and in the new one.

The Sterlings are now the parsonage family at First United Methodist Church in Warren, PA. Warren is a beautiful little town plunked down in the middle of the Alleghany National Forest. First UMC is an historic church designed after a 13th Century cathedral, located in the historic district of the community. We are both honored and pleased to have been deemed worthy of this appointment. But still, moving in January to a venue far north of I-80 is an adventure. Living and working among boxes of one's own accumulated "stuff" is never treat, but in sub-zero weather, it is even more of a challenge. Warren First is a large, bustling congregation with many programs and ministries. Walking into the senior minister's position in the middle of the program year has made life interesting, too. Many denominations--or independent churches--"hire" their pastors after a series of interviews and getting to hear them preach. We United Methodists are appointed by a Bishop, and are simply "swapped out" on a single date. What this means, in my case for instance, is that a beloved pastor who served this church for almost eleven years is just suddenly "not there" on Sunday, and the "new guy" (that's me) is standing in front of a room full of grieving strangers. I will never cease to be amazed at how well this sudden transition often goes. It truly makes one believe more deeply in the grace of God and in the tolerance of God's people!

If you are a steeler fan, you are probably still clutching your heart, or trying to get it back down your throat into your chest. The Super Bowl was awesome--now that they won--but during that last five minutes, I was about ready to give up football for knitting. Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers' quarterback, was like Moses leading his people to the promised land after that late Cardinal touchdown that sure seemed like the final, crushing blow to fans of the black and gold. Yup, January was eventful--a new job, a new community, and a Lombardi Trophy.

I want to thank all of my dear friends and former parishioners in Sharon, PA who made our sojourn there such a blessing. We truly had a ball. I hope we did some effective ministry together; I think we did. We will miss the Shenango Valley. Now, we are looking forward to seeing what Warren looks like without being covered with snow, which the natives here say we will see about August(!). I'll try to do something with my Blog more often, friends. But until then, Grace and Peace!

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