Friday, November 26, 2010

Come Home For Christmas

Come home. These two words are filled with wonderful meaning. They are an invitation. The word "home," for most of us, has warmth, welcome, and is rich with memories. Home can mean a home town. Mine is Oil City, PA, and while this little town has fallen on hard times, economically, and is a shadow of its former self, it is still "home" for me. When I go back to Oil City, I get to rehearse the stories of my childhood and the fits and foibles of high school life. I remember how eager I was to get away from there when I went off to college, but how great it was to come home over the holidays.

Home may mean the house in which you grew up, whether it is there anymore or not. Maybe you remember climbing the stairs to go off to bed on Christmas Eve so "Old Saint Nick" could make a visit? Or maybe you remember playing in the old neighborhood with those childhood "best friends"? Perhaps your parents or some of your family still live there. Homecoming takes on even greater meaning when this is so, for they, too, remember your stories and will sit with you for hours as you retell them together.

"Coming home" may mean what Jesus talked about in the parable we call "The Prodigal Son," when the younger son, who squandered his inheritance and wound up poor, homeless, and rejected, "came to himself" and humbly returned to his family--especially to his loving father. I love it when people "come home" in this way--when people return to a healthier, more "normal" time in life, leaving behind addictions, getting help with depression, and often turning to their "Higher Power" for healing. As a pastor, I pray daily for this kind of "homecoming" for the world. How much more wonderful life would be for everyone if inner healing and spiritual awakening would become widespread and people could discover "abundant living" rather than just "surviving."

As the Christmas season approaches, I pray for all of us to have a "homecoming" of whatever kind we need to restore and renew our lives. Christmas is an opportune time to renew broken relationships--with people and/or with God--and to reconcile with loved ones. Christmas is a perfect time to rediscover God's love for you as demonstrated by his Son, Jesus Christ. Why not "Come Home for Christmas" this year? If you have been out of the habit of attending church, plan to go to Christmas Eve worship at your "home" church or one near you. Take your family or a friend along. It could be the greatest Christmas present you have ever had!

The night Jesus was born, the angels spoke of "Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward all people." That continues to be my prayer for planet earth, for me and my loved ones, and for you, even the "yous" I don't personally know. Merry Christmas, friends, and Shalom to all.

Dr. Jeff

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Brokenness

In my job, I encounter many people who are just "broken." In some cases this is because they are facing difficult diseases or trying circumstances of some kind, and we in the church attempt to surround them with prayer, support, and acceptance, all tempered by genuine love. Occasionally we are in a position to provide intervention or aid in some tangible fashion, beyond emotional, moral, and spiritual support. As a pastor, it always feels "good" to be able to "do something" to help others. Sometimes people ask for help that we are not able to provide, and that feels so empty and unsatisfying.

There is another kind of brokenness, though, and it seems to be on the rise in our culture. Think: something is actually "broken." Personal and family dysfunction is everywhere. Whether it is in the police record of the daily newspaper, taking prayer requests from parishioners, or just hearing stories from the "victims" who come into my office, it seems everywhere I turn I'm seeing this kind of "brokenness." Many people just seem to be walking their lives into a buzz saw. They are abusing drugs and/or alcohol, hooking up with chronic abusers (or are abusers themselves), are bringing children into surroundings that probably wouldn't adequately support pets, and have "burned their bridges" from any kind of education or training that could result in decent employment. They are simply "broken" like an old toy, and their--or other's--attempts to "super glue" life back together are fruitless. They have become a kind of "black hole" of human suffering and need.

I so don't want to become negative or defeatist about these people, but I confess that at my age that is a threatening possibility. It is often hard to be fully available to or compassionate toward some "broken" folk when I have seen others make disciplined and systemic changes to their lifestyle, get the treatment they need, and slowly begin regaining a toe-hold on a "normal" life. There is such a desire to "fix" the problems that led to the dysfunction in the first place, but that is rarely possible or even welcomed by the person with the presenting need. So we caregivers, counselors, and clergy do our best "at the edges," offering the help we can and trying to soothe the wounds and pains of brokenness. But without the "fix," we fear we will see these same people again, with the same needs, and with the same hopeless outlook.

Now, some of you of strong faith will say, "Just trust God to transform these people, save their souls, and fix their problems." I have to say that this just doesn't work on so many levels. Barring a "Damascus Road" conversion experience, people have to open their hearts and minds to God's transforming power, and even then, most "transformations" are long, slow, and a constant work-in-progress. Each experience requires discipline on the part of the object of the transformation, and support and mentoring from those around them. Getting truly "broken" people to square-one on this is two-thirds of the "battle." And even when they try, they are just one slip from the abyss of dysfunction that constantly threatens. Overall, the problem is well described by the old adage: "You can't help someone who doesn't want to be helped." Even Jesus asked persons: "What do you want me to do for you?" They had to voice their desire to be healed.

I think I'm going to encourage the church I serve to put more time and energy into children's ministry. Maybe if we can lovingly convince these kids to not go DOWN that road in the first place, we can save them from a miserable life. I know from experience, however, that the influence of their parent(s) holds more sway with them than what we do. So I guess I would say to parents: THINK OF WHAT YOU ARE DOING when you continue in your own dysfunction or otherwise behave selfishly and foolishly--you are modeling this for your children, and they will too often follow in your footsteps. Someone, somewhere has to break the chain of dysfunction in a family. Maybe that is you!

I bet it really pains God to see the self-inflicted suffering on the part of so many of his people. I also bet God is distressed by the continual hand-wringing and lamenting on the part of those of us who want to help, but see our attempts to do so get sucked into the aforementioned abyss, thus having little impact. I think we need to pray more for the people in the police blotter, and for the adolescent victims of "broken" parents and shattered homes. Sure, we need to be ready to act when the opportunity presents itself, but a supernatural intervention is always welcome, and in some cases essential. Something to think about...Shalom, my friends.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Random Thoughts of a Pending Summer

Just saw the film "Gasland," an indy film by Josh Fox about the mad "gas rush" to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale deposits under portions of 37 of these United States. It is very, very scary. Gas exploration companies are sinking these wells EVERYWHERE they can get a public or private lease, and thanks to some act of Congress, they are exempt from the national Clean Drinking Water Act, the Superfund bill, and a host of other pieces of legislation designed to protect the environment. The EPA and local and state environmental agencies are "looking the other way," either because of declining numbers of staff, or because they are "in bed" with these guys. Another issue the film raises is that these wells use a process called hydraulic fracturing or "fracing" to extract the gas. This process utilizes a raft of chemicals that are toxic, and there is already a long history of polluted ground water and well water at homes all around these drilling and extraction sites. When the gas companies are done with a well, they just simply walk away, leaving the resulting toxicity up to us, the tax payers, to clean up, as they are exempt from the Superfund Act, as previously stated.

You will want to see "Gasland." Be watching for it on HBO. After its "grass roots" tour of the U.S., it will be featured there this Summer. By the way, one of these Marcellus Shale wells just exploded in Pennsylvania recently, spewing gas and toxic chemicals into the air for over 16 hours. Apparently a "blowout preventer" valve failed. Sound familiar? We had better do something about this stuff, friends, for--unlike the off-shore oil wells--one of these babies is headed for a pasture land or forest near you.

One this theme, I am really starting to panic about what we are doing to the environment. Yes, I know that for decades we have been sounding alarms about this: land fills, water pollution, poisoning the air, etc. But this stuff is becoming small potatoes next to the blatant disasters of late, such as the BP incident and now this rampant raping of our lands to get natural gas. Screwing in a few fluorescent bulbs won't fix this. I wish I could give you more suggestions than the standard "write your congress person" kinds of things, but we do have to do something. The big push for oil and gas is on because we Americans are energy hogs. We need to find ways to use less and trade off for other sources of energy (yes, I know--MUCH easier said than done). I saw a documentary on PBS the other night about a community that, thanks to conservation and wind generated power, has broken its dependency on oil. It still boggles my mind that, as soon as gasoline prices drop a few cents, sales of massive SUVs and gas-hogging pickup trucks soar. It is too bad that the only way to get us to buy more fuel efficient vehicles is either to price gas so high we can't afford to fill the tanks of our behemoths, or have the government force the automakers to build more efficient ones. Wouldn't it be nice if we would just simply be concerned for our world and its environmental health and do the right thing?

Well, that was some rant, wasn't it? I am serious about these concerns, but am I serious enough to do more than blog? I hope so. It is just that I feel a bit helpless against Goliaths like BP and Halliburton (they make all of the fracing equipment for the gas industry). Still, someone has to start slinging the small stones...

Hope you have a great Summer, people. Again, don't forget to see "Gasland." You will love the part where Fox pits footage of industry spokesmen (and yes, they are all men) saying that "there is no evidence of well pollution in our process" against shots of land owners near the gas wells literally lighting their well water on fire at the kitchen tap!

Still, I wish you Shalom, my friends!

Dr. Jeff

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Spirits Are Lifting!

While we had a very moderate Winter here in good ol' Warren, PA, I'm really getting excited about the Spring weather and all of the sunshine we have been having lately. WOW, does this begin to lift the spirits! Now, I enjoy gray, rainy days more than the average "Joe." I like to walk and drive in the rain. But sunshine really charges the emotional batteries. Know what I mean? Summer will be here before we know it, and since we had a fairly lousy one last year, I think we're in for a beaut in 2010. (Yes, I'm one of those "the glass is half full" people.)

The church has just celebrated a glorious Easter is now into the countdown to Pentecost, the time when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the early believers. We often think of this as the "birthday" of the Christian Church. We United Methodists are trying harder to seek the Holy Spirit's guidance in our individual Christian lives and in the goals and affairs of the church. While it make sense to trust God's Spirit to lead and guide us, and to impart wisdom to us as we live and act, we, far too often, don't consult the Spirit until we've made all of the plans and are getting ready to launch. Then we say something like, "God bless our efforts and send your Spirit upon our endeavors..." I bet our lives--and the church--would be hitting on more cylinders if we started with seeking the Spirit's guidance.

Well, the new health care plan passed the congress. Whether you were in favor of it or not, changes will begin to take place in this important element of the human community as early as this year, but some of the major ones won't kick in until 2014. In discussions with many of my church members, some are optimistic about the new plan, while others are really discouraged or even angry about it. Most of these discussions occurred because Nancy Pelosi cited the support of "The United Methodist Church" when calling for the vote the night of the bill's passage. What did she mean? Well, this denomination has, for many, many years, through its legislation at General Conferences every four years, supported "universal" health care, even going so far as to call for a "single payer" system. This basically means we have lobbied for a government-run health care plan. This is not new news; as I said, we have been "on the record" as calling for this for years. What Pelosi was most likely referring to was our United Methodist Board of Church and Society, which probably advocated for this current plan, believing it was at least a step in the "right direction." From what I have read, I don't think anyone in the denomination believes this plan was a great thing, as the plan was presented. Since it is now law, we should all pray that it gets some serious tweaking and perfecting as it unfolds so that it helps to close the gap between those who have insurance and those who need it (a justice issue), and that it doesn't create an undue burden on anyone's shoulders. That may be praying for a miracle, but I believe in miracles.

Hey, as a good United Methodist, I realize I should have rooted for Duke (a United Methodist school) in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. I didn't. I was hoping little Butler University could pull off the upset. They almost did. Chalk one up for the "Davids" again! How amazing. Still, Duke did what they needed to do to win. If only that last, desperation fling had gone through the hoop...can anyone say "Hoosiers"?

Get out; get some sun; go to church soon, if you haven't been there in some time. Surprise your pastor or priest--show up AFTER Easter Sunday! Shalom, my friends.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Two "Olympic" Weeks!

Late nights...lots of excitement...some real fast living--no, I've not lost my senses nor my religion; I'm talking about the Winter Olympics and my near addiction to same. Addiction to watching them on television, that is. Any other sleepy-eyed fans out there?

I have always been enthralled by the Winter Olympics. The exotic locations well-profiled by the television crews and commentators, the "beauty" of the falling snow (as long as it isn't being replicated here), and the profound talent of the sliding, skiing, snow boarding, skating, jumping, and sweeping (for those curling fans--all five or six of you) athletes all make for riveting viewing. My thrill this year was heightened by being able to watch in "HD," which really made it feel like we were watching through a newly "Windexed" window! I think another lure for me to these games is the regret I feel for never having learned to ski. I know, "it's never too late," but at this age, I fear breaking something that I'm going to need for at least another 25 or 30 years. If I had life to live over again, though, I'd learn to ski (and play piano). That's about it, the rest has been great, really.

These Winter Olympians are a blast: Apollo Anton Ono--WOW, how amazing; Shawn "The Flying Tomato" White--the smiling blur; and Steve Holcomb and his "Night Train" crew--it just doesn't get any better! I don't mean to leave out all of our other outstanding athletes, but these are the ones that I would rearrange my schedule to watch. This year, watching the ice skating with my roomie and in "HD," I learned a new appreciation for the sport. I got so caught up in it, in fact, that while at Wesley Woods on a Confirmation Retreat a couple of weeks ago I did my own "single lutz" on a patch of ice. I think I got a deduction for the instantaneous keister landing at the conclusion of the move. And while I enjoyed the medals the U.S. won in the various skiing events (especially the Nordic Combined), I did get miffed when so many of our standouts "skiied out" in subsequent events after winning a medal. It just reminded me they are human--SUPER-human, but human, none-the-same.

Don't you wish you had even a smidgen of the discipline these Olympians display? I don't know if any of the "prizes" (crowns?) the Bible talks about for the well-lived Christian life are like Olympic medals, but if so, how are we doing? Boy, I'm shooting for a bronze, but most of the time, I'm fighting just to keep from skiing off the course. God is good, though, and I'm learning. How about you?

Well, it's a long wait until the next Winter Olympics, but I'm so happy the powers-that-be haven't given in to the media-driven "culture of immediacy" by scheduling them any closer. I think a little anticipation is good for the soul. Shalom, yunz!

Dr. Jeff

Friday, January 15, 2010

Of Tragedies and Triumphs...

When word came from Haiti this week, the world stopped for a brief second and cried. A city lay in ruin and countless people are dead or injured. Others will starve, die of exposure, or of infection. The poorest nation on the planet had been dealt a blow inadequately described "severe." What do we do?

First, for many of us, we begin to pray. We pray for help; we pray for the victims; we pray for the brave volunteers already "on the ground"; we pray for a world to do more than just stop for a shocked moment--we pray for action, globally, from governments and money people, from armies to health care workers.

Secondly, we can send money. If you are part of a faith community, you can send contributions through your relief agency. For United Methodists, that is the United Methodist Committee on Relief, or UMCOR. Their website is at www.umcor.org . Catholic Charities, Lutheran Service Society--they will all be mobilizing to help Haiti over the coming weeks. The Red Cross is already present. Many mission societies and organizations such as World Vision International (www.worldvision.com) are responsible groups available to receive your sacrificial contribution to speed aid on the way.

Thirdly, we encourage persons to consider joining a short-term mission or aid team, which will be needed when the dust settles. If this interests you, start now to get your passport activated if you haven't traveled internationally for awhile. Check to see what immunizations you will need--get ready. Your local church or judicatory will be sending teams, as will many other secular organizations. If you have the kind of skills that could be helpful, get yourself ready. Also, your church may be collecting supplies for "health kits" or the like to send through relief agencies. Get on board with that, if you are not the kind to jump on a plane.

Finally, stay informed. Know what the needs are as they emerge over the coming weeks and see if you, your family, or the organizations with which you are affiliated can do anything to help.

If, as a person of faith or just spiritually curious, you are tempted to ask the "why" question, visit Dr. Eric Park's blog at www.ericpark.org . He has a wonderful and theologically sound posting there to help you work through the rough spots. Bottom line: ask less about "why?" and more about "what can we do?" It will do your soul good.

Where is the triumph in this? It will only be what we can put together by pulling together to help these poor souls who are our brothers and sisters in the human family. If you have ever been tempted to ask, like the guy in the gospel asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?", here's your answer. We, with God's help and the deep-reaching love of neighbors helping neighbors, may be able to build a triumph out of tragedy. It will take time, it will require much prayer, sacrifice, and action. But it can happen. And after Haiti has been rebuilt, shored-up, and strengthened, let us not again turn our backs on a poverty-stricken neighbor until disaster strikes.

May God's mercy and grace be with the people of Haiti. Shalom, beloved.

Dr. Jeff

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