Each month, our senior pastor, Rev. Randy Bush, writes a “Pastoral Message,” a monthly letter to the congregation in the Reaching Out newsletter. Messages may be seasonal or focused on world events, but they always offer a special word about our spiritual lives and ways that God touches us.
Leave a Comment
I still subscribe to the newspaper. I like the routine of opening up a morning edition of the paper, of glancing at the headlines, the sports page, and the comics, while I also find something to eat for breakfast. I know that this same information is available in electronic form. I know that I could use my smartphone to scan articles from several newspapers at once. But the regimen of unfolding the paper and the feel of the newsprint in my hands is something that gives me joy.
Like many paper readers, I look to see what is the contentious issue of the day in the Letters to the Editor. Some people submit only a sentence or two, making their point as concisely as possible. Others need paragraphs to unwind their argument and get their rhetorical arrows launched into the editorial battlefield. While most letters are less than compelling, they are often quite entertaining.
Many people have noted recently that “civil discourse” has almost become a contradiction in our contemporary society. On any topic in which there is disagreement, people argue in such a way that there is no room for “middle ground” or points of commonality. It is comforting to remember that this is not a new dynamic in the human realm. There have always been points of view that seem diametrically opposed and irreconcilable. This has been true both in the political arena and the religious world.
“Absolutism” is when one side believes that the opposing position has no merit whatsoever. “Relativism” is when every possible position is deemed feasible, so that in the end, no one viewpoint takes precedence over another. Too often we believe those are our only two options. We hear things with which we disagree, and through the nature of inflammatory rhetoric and social media, it seems our only response is to reject such views categorically and absolutely (“Burn all the heretics” mentality). Or we grow so weary of the arguments that we end up deciding that no right answer will ever be found and everyone is equally mistaken in their opinions (“All are wrong and none can be trusted” cynicism).
A third option is pluralism, which humbly acknowledges that diverse opinions, experiences and responses exist around us and sometimes the wisest path forward allows for more than one answer to any given problem. The disciples of Jesus were a pluralist bunch, containing fishermen, political zealots, and at least one tax collector. They found common ground in the gospel of Christ, despite their different worldviews and experiences; hence, they remind us of the power of a pluralistic faith. In the same way, there are many Christian denominations active today. Rather than asserting that Presbyterianism is the only way, we can learn a lot from the faith traditions and histories of non-Presbyterians seeking to follow Christ with integrity in today’s troubled world.
Pluralism simply acknowledges that God is a true “creator,” moving in creative ways shaped by and accommodated to the specific needs of greater humanity – whether in Pittsburgh or Patagonia. The vocabulary of faith, actions of faith, even expressions of faith will never be absolute or uniform, because that would be contrary to God’s generous and pluralistic love. So whether you read the paper or watch cable news or scroll through your social media, trust that God’s foundation of faith can sustain all of us in this diverse and ever-changing world.
Comments Off on Pastoral Message: October 2017
It is worth remembering that most of the things that rule our lives are things we cannot see. Scientists remind us that we are surrounded by magnetic fields, electric currents, radio waves, and the universal force of gravity, which are invisible yet omnipresent in this world. Psychologists point out that interior thoughts, passions, tastes, moods, morals, and decision-making processes also do their work invisibly within our human minds and souls. In so many ways, the invisible world governs the visible world like a shadow government, hidden out of sight within each of us individually and all of us collectively.
Most unseen forces do their work in the present moment. Gravity causes the apple to fall right now. Electromagnetic waves move through us each moment, just as our minds constantly process ideas, thoughts, and emotions in real time. But it is worth noting that some invisible things are focused on the future. And the most important one in this category is the invisible power of hope.
Hebrews 11:1 famously defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hope is a key component of faith. It is an assurance and conviction, a power and energy active within us as we look toward the horizon of what is yet to come. Hope energizes us now by allowing us to envision how things ought to be: if not right now, then in the immediate future. It is the invisible image of what we hope for our family and all of God’s creation—which even though unseen, gives us the clear idea of what needs to be done today for the sake of tomorrow.
Christian hope is a powerful force. It is the spirit behind our upcoming mission-oriented worship services during the month of October. We hope for an end to racism, a spirit of reconciliation and welcome for people exiting the criminal justice system, legal safeguards for children and LGBTQ people of all ages, and a renewed commitment to being an inclusive society able to navigate the needs of citizens and immigrants alike. Our hopes allow us to compare what is against what should be, ever guided by the example of Christ and the leading of the Holy Spirit. And as scripture reassures us, faith, hope, and love all abide, therefore we trust the Lord as we walk by faith, if not by sight.
Unseen powers are at work in your life. In your moments of prayer and quiet reflection, open yourself to the invisible, grace-filled activity of God. As you picture what you wish for yourself and those you love, shape your actions today around the mental image Christ has given you of what is to come. Let everything be done in a spirit of hope. For although it may be invisible, it is one of the strongest forces this world has ever seen!
Comments Off on Pastoral Message: September 2017
At a recent family gathering, I witnessed a seven year old grandson sidle up to his grandmother and ask, as nonchalantly as is possible for a seven year old, “Nana, how old do you think you’ll be when you die?” Tucked around that question were obviously a host of other questions, but for the moment something was asked that appeared only to request a straightforward, numerical answer. The grandmother, though, wisely replied, “Oh, my dear, I hope I will be a very old person before my body grows tired and I finally die.” Some negotiations then followed her answer (“Like maybe 100?” “Well, sometimes living is very hard when you’re 100 years old. But a lot older than now.”) and then the boy ran off. At the very least, he was reassured that someone he loved wasn’t leaving or dying or abandoning him any time soon.
Most questions are attempts to get answers to other questions left unspoken. “How old will you be when you die?” is an attempt to understand what it means to grow old and die, and what it means to live today if tomorrow those we love are no longer with us. A seven-year old boy may not be able to articulate a fear of being abandoned by loved ones or put into words an existential dread of dying. So he asks about things he does understand—numbers, simple math, today’s age minus a future terminal age—in order to get an answer to the secondary question of “how long will we be together?”
Questions about God and Christian faith are quite similar to my grand-nephew’s question posed to his grandmother. People will ask, “Who is God?” and “How does Jesus answer prayers?” and their questions appear to request fairly straightforward, descriptive answers. But there are always secondary questions lurking nearby, hoping to be answered at the same time. For example, secondary faith questions could be “Is the world trustworthy?” or “Do things happen blindly or is there an order to the universe?” That is why, instead of talking about God, Jesus, or prayers, a wise response is to try and address some of the unspoken, secondary questions. You can ask the questioner, “Tell me what you believe in, what you trust, what comforts you when you’re afraid or facing a hard decision.” The responses to those questions are like open doors that lead to deeper conversations, where eventually things like God and Jesus and eternity and love can be discussed together.
Jesus was regularly asked “who are you?” to which he seldom, if ever, gave a direct answer. Instead, he responded by healing those who were wounded or telling a parable about the kingdom of God. Through those secondary responses, disciples then and now come to understand the answer to the primary questions. That is why we still study those responses and read those parables, even as we pray and worship and call out to the God who is wondrous, loving, eternal and mysterious.
A new season is now beginning at ELPC. The coming weeks will have Christian Education classes for all ages, ministry information tables at the Church Life Sampler, and fellowship opportunities at the picnic. All of these are great opportunities for you to reach out and invite others to join with us. And all of them are prime opportunities to talk about secondary questions—deeper questions about faith, love, trust and grace. That’s the important stuff on people’s minds—maybe yours as well. So, come join us!
Comments Off on Pastoral Message: August 2017
Think for a moment about metronomes. If you’re not a musician or are unsure what this is, a metronome is the little machine that goes “tick, tick, tick” to tell instrumentalists how fast they are supposed to play a piece. Metronomes date back to around 1816, based on an idea first conceived by a man named Dietrik Winkel that was subsequently “borrowed” and patented by another inventor named Johann Maelzel. Metronomes are devices containing a pendulum rod with a small moveable weight mounted on it that allows musicians to hear what slow, medium and fast tempos sound like. Often we picture beginning pianists doing keyboard exercises while trying to play in time with a metronome ticking away nearby. In truth, metronomes were never meant to “tick away” and control the tempo for an entire piece of music; they were only meant to give the musician a starting speed and were to be shut off after that tempo is established.
As a musician and a pastor, I see similarities between metronomes and scripture. Scripture is important and foundational as we think about God and seek to follow the example of Jesus Christ. As you already know, there are many types of writing found in the books of the bible—from poetry to prophetic teachings to historical summaries to personal letters. Almost every passage can be studied and used as a guide for how to live our lives today, just as a metronome can be set to “tick away” at a certain speed to guide us in playing a particular piece of music. But if we keep the metronome ticking away while we play, the music we create will sound stiff and artificial and lifeless. True music has to bend, stretch and breathe; that is what makes a melody come to life. In the same way, scripture sets us in motion, but it is up to us to apply the wisdom of scripture in our daily lives—creatively putting it to use in the particularities of our daily routines so that the “melody of faith” God has given us can truly come to life.
When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus tells us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s a great starting point for a “melody of faith.” It combines aspirational language with an outward-looking focus on the world around us. But we’ll make no progress in heeding this commandment if every moment we are worried that something less than our entire heart or mind or soul is involved in the task at hand. Something more than a strict metronome is needed to evoke a “melody of faith.”
The same is true with the “thou shalt not” commandments—how we are not to lie or steal or harm others. That is our starting point, our foundational “tempo marking.” Yet we all stumble in our piety; we have bad moments and bad days, at times really hurting others. If the metronome of faith is unyielding within you, the risk is that you’ll come to believe that your sins and shortcomings disqualify you from receiving God’s loving care. Yet once again, the rules of God’s scripture are mostly guides and starting points to which we reorient ourselves (when we stray) and recommit ourselves (aware of God’s forgiving mercy) so that each new day a “melody of faith” can sing forth from our own words and deeds.
Metronomes are important. They start us off at the right tempo. But metronomes cannot make music. We are the music-makers. That is God’s desire for each of us. Scripture gets us started, but the melody—well, that comes by God’s grace and our spirit creating music together.
Comments Off on Pastoral Message: July 2017
Life is full of unintended consequences, both good and bad. We’ve all had times of serendipity and grace, in which a chance meeting bears rich fruit in the future. Think of those moments when you bump into someone at a store or on the sidewalk, and from that conversation a special blessing later comes your way—a new job opportunity, reconnecting with an old friend, a word of advice that in hindsight makes all the difference in the world. We consider those moments as “lucky breaks” or “chance encounters,” yet it is always appropriate to look for God’s fingerprints in the seemingly mundane events of daily life.
In the same way, we sometimes make decisions today that end up unleashing a host of negative, unintended consequences tomorrow. We give in to an impulse purchase that unknowingly leads to a serious string of bank overdrafts and financial problems. We jump to a conclusion based on incomplete information and set in motion unfortunate events like broken friendships or lost jobs. I recently read how in 1958 Chairman Mao was concerned about the infestation of rats in Chinese granaries. So he encouraged people nationwide over a two-day period to kill every fly, rat and sparrow they could find. The campaign celebrated the death of almost 1 million rats and 1.4 million sparrows. Unfortunately, the sparrows didn’t just eat grain; they also ate a wide range of pests. With their predators removed, these pests ended up destroying the next year’s grain harvest, which led to the death by starvation of millions of people.
We will always act on incomplete information and our actions will always have unintended consequences, both good and bad. We never have absolute certainty before making any decision, nor can we foresee the “ripple effect” that will flow out from the individual choices we make this day. An important daily discipline is to remind yourself that God is near at all times. That awareness can help you keep your “spiritual senses” sharp, so that you can perceive both the times God is moving you in a faithful direction or when God is sending you warnings about a dangerous path you’re on. God’s grace is manifest both in unexpected joys and in hints and “spirit whispers” that redirect you from bad inclinations. But to be aware of both the positive nudges and the warning intimations, you need to follow the advice of Psalm 46:10—“Be still and know that I am God!”
Each of us is a special child of God, beloved by our Lord and Savior. Learning to listen to the still, small voice of God is an important spiritual discipline. Take time to look around each day, giving thanks to the God who is ever near. Hopefully, prayerfully, all the unintended consequences in your life will be positive ones—fruits of a spirit open to the providential leading of our loving God.
Comments Off on Pastoral Message, June 2017
I have too many books. Maybe the trouble is that I have too many bookcases. Having so many places to put books—at home, in my office, in our living room, on my bedside table—means that I have no reason to restrict the number of books I accumulate over the years. Most of them I’ve read, so there have been both functional and pleasurable aspects associated with owning all these books. But in the end, there are simply too many of them.
In an interview with a British author (with the wonderful name of Penelope Lively) it was noted that she has lots of books, lined up in shelves and stacked on tables, and that she can’t bear to part with any of them. She said, “Your books tell you where you’ve been—they’re the story of your own mind. Getting rid of them would be like getting rid of that [story].” There is truth in this remark. By looking at the bindings of books squeezed into my shelves, I remember a bit of what it felt like to read each of them—what they taught me. It’s true; they are a representation of the story of my mind.
I find this topic analogous to why we go to church regularly and why we still enfold our life story in the story of scripture, even when it speaks to us from 2000 year old texts. If you attend church regularly, over the course of a year you will move through a range of stories each highlighting different life lessons. There’s Advent (anticipation), Christmas (humility and surprises), Lent (confession), Easter (God’s persistent Yes to the world’s No), Pentecost (spiritual gifts and creative fires), and then the long-stretch of Ordinary Time (grace-tinged routines, the persistence of life and hope and love). The seasons of the church year “tell you where you’ve been,” tell you who you are, and remind you of much you might have forgotten.
The same is true with scripture—the 66 books of the bible lined up neatly as if on a library reference shelf, offering a wide range of reading and learning options. There are the creation stories in Genesis, the tales of Abraham, Moses and desert wanderings totally dependent on God, the wonders of judges, the stern lectures of prophets, the honest poetry of the Psalms, the wonderful stories of Ruth, Esther, Jonah and others. Then we move into the condensed historical record of the New Testament—gospel accounts of Jesus, full of parables and passion, epistolary exhortations by Paul to toddler-aged Christian communities, apostle Acts, sermons from James and in Hebrews, expansive visions in Revelation. They all are reference points for the stages of our life—stories of redemption, grace and power that give order to our ever-changing days.
I need to give away some of my books, and I promise to do so someday. But some things I’ll hold onto, just as I’ll hold on to the rhythm of the church year. The saga of Genesis to Revelation. The Word made flesh in Christ and (in some pale way) in me, by God’s grace and timeless scripture. May the same be said of all of us.
Comments Off on Pastoral Message, May 2017
On Staten Island, there’s an Italian restaurant called “Enoteca Maria.” Actually, it is only half an Italian restaurant, because the other half of the menu changes daily. The fixed half is Italian, but the rest features different cuisines from around the world. And best of all, these specialty menu offerings are not prepared by professional chefs; they’re cooked by grandmothers. This “international house of grandmothers” is wildly popular. People have to make reservations weeks in advance.
Here’s how it works: Every night a “nonna” (Italian for “grandmother”) from a different country puts together a menu honoring her native cuisine. During a week, you may see food from Sri Lanka, Armenia, the Philippines, Russia, or Japan. Everything’s made fresh and is literally “home-cooked” by a grandmother. There are also one-on-one cooking classes pairing guests alongside these “nonnas.” The beauty of this restaurant is that, whether you are working back in the kitchen and enjoying a meal seated in the restaurant, there is an overall, vibrant exchange of culture, stories and recipes.
I really like several aspects of this creative New York City restaurant. I love the idea of literal grandmothers working side-by-side in the kitchen, preparing home-cooked meals from vastly different cultures. I love the idea of sitting down at a table and finding out I could have lasagna or Japanese gyoza and shrimp dumplings; and that if I came back two days later, I could try Polish food.
We just celebrated Easter a few weeks ago. Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled his prophetic role through death on a cross and then being resurrected from the grave. He is now revered as Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. If we are to appreciate this good news at all, it has to be on Jesus’ terms, not our own. This is not an event we can pick and choose the details we like or the theological assertions we approve of. The Easter resurrection is part of our Christian heritage, codified in the four gospels, delineated through various confessions and creeds, and reaffirmed in annual celebrations and Sunday services in churches the world over. This is not to say that the resurrection is easily understood by our rational minds. It’s not. It is meant to be mysterious, awe-inspiring, troubling-amazing-challenging-comforting all at once.
So how can we best approach the wonder of Easter and the promise of resurrection hope that it announces to the world? There are lots of ways to do this, but without getting too academic or technical, here’s one option: Easter is like a meal served at a restaurant whose menu you didn’t choose, but whose offerings you trust as if they come from a loving grandmother’s kitchen. It is a “letting go” of the normal way of doing things—demanding service from waiters, itemizing precisely what we want to eat, calculating the costs and paying bills down to the necessary pennies—and instead, simply enjoying a meal provided out of love and guaranteed to expand our perspective beyond the limits of our own little cultural setting.
God loves lasagna and pierogis and gyoza. Christ has been raised as Lord of all. Shouldn’t our meals and our lives better reflect this rich, diverse perspective? For of such, is the Kingdom of God.
Comments Off on Pastoral Message, April 2017
After Ash Wednesday services, I always walk away with a darkly smudged thumb on my right hand. That is because I have pressed that finger into the ashes several dozen times—and then wiped the ashes on people’s foreheads while reminding them that they are of dust and to dust they shall return. There is something wonderfully vulnerable and personal about applying ashes on Ash Wednesday—literally touching the foreheads of friends and strangers alike and doing so out of a shared commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Seeing my smudged thumb later reminds me of that faith connection. It is a mark of honor, stubbornly ground into the literal whorls and lines of my thumbprint.
After Palm Sunday, there are invariably palm branches lying around the church. Before that special day, palm branches are mailed to the church in packaging awaiting someone to patiently separate them and prepare them for distribution. You can picture the children waving them; you can imagine the adults carefully folding the leaves into crosses. Palm branches serve as lingering reminders of that day when people cried out to Jesus as their Savior, seeking his help. Every year a few branches make it into my office. Others are kept by our housekeeping staff to be burnt for next year’s Ash Wednesday ashes. They all remind me of how we are part of the Palm Sunday story—part of the crowd calling out to Jesus, seeking to find our place in the larger story of faith with Christ at its center.
By contrast, there isn’t anything tangible that I take away from the Easter services. Yes, there are lilies and spring flowers that decorate the sanctuary, but they are somewhat tangential to the larger message of resurrection. There are Easter eggs and jelly beans and chocolate bunnies, but they are obvious secular appropriations of the religious holiday and more of a distraction than a spiritual discipline. There is the Easter service itself—with communion that is shared, with uplifting hymns and music and fellowship. As wonderful as that all is, it doesn’t linger as long as one might hope. We move past Easter Sunday to regular ol’ Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and soon enough find ourselves simply living out our mid-April, uneventful routines.
But there are two things that do linger from Easter and remind us of Christ’s resurrection long after Easter services are done. The first is sunshine itself, especially when seen near the horizon just after sunrise. The primary image for Easter is that of sunlight breaking over a cemetery landscape—breaking into the darkness and despair of grieving women disciples—and illuminating a wonderful, unimagined, bright new reality. The one who was dead is now alive! That reminder should not be limited to Easter mornings. It is one that should come to mind every time we marvel at a bright, sunny day or pause to reflect on the colors and beauty of an early morning sunrise.
The second persistent reminder is Sunday morning. We gather to worship on Sundays, as opposed to other days or evenings of the week, solely because of Easter. Because Christ was raised on that day, we gather each Sunday to remember that good news and look for him in the faces around us, the sacraments we share, and the worship we offer. Each Sunday is Easter Sunday. By holding onto that perspective, every week becomes one inaugurated and invigorated by the Easter good news. So hold onto these Easter reminders for the weeks ahead: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!
Comments Off on Pastoral Message, March 2017
This year the month of March rests firmly in the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday literally occurs on the first day of the month, and when we turn over our calendars, we still have 16 days to go until Easter. Lent is a time for us to focus on ourselves and our world in relation to God—the One who knows us completely, calls us to live justly and compassionately, and loves us enough to redeem us by the sacrificial grace of Jesus Christ. It is a season for asking “God, how are we doing?” as well as “What could I do better?”
Given that the good news of Jesus has been with us almost 2,000 years, are we doing a better job today of putting the Gospel into practice than we did yesterday? In many ways, we can answer that question in the affirmative. We have a greater sense of the universal nature of God’s realm and the church of Jesus Christ than we did in centuries past. We are doing better at seeing our missionary work as “service with co-workers of the faith” instead of “converting the heathen masses.” And the nature of the global internet means that people in distant lands can read the same devotional books, listen to the same sermons, and discuss aspects of faith with Christians here in America and around the world.
But are we progressing as a human species as well as people of faith? Robert Gordon recently wrote an interesting book called The Rise and Fall of American Growth, in which he argued that the advances from 1870–1970 far overshadow the inventions and advances of the last half century. The late 19th century brought amazing improvements to the quality of life through inventions such as electricity, urban sanitation, and the internal combustion engine. The early 20th century continued this trend through the development of chemicals, medicines, and modern communications. Suddenly electric lights replaced oil lamps, flush toilets replaced outhouses, cars and electric trains replaced horses, and prescription medicine ended the risk of death from common infections.
But in many ways, the great age of inventions is behind us. Air travel and computer technology have connected us more nationally and globally, but it can be argued that, in and of themselves, these advances have not dramatically improved our quality of life. While life expectancies have risen, they have not been evenly distributed across race, gender, and nationality. Surely the investments into wrinkle creams, male baldness cures, and sexual potency drugs could have been better utilized in battling cancer, malaria, and AIDS. Infant mortality remains a troubling issue in both developed and developing nations. Educational standards and workplace improvements are not where we might have hoped, given the great strides made in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Lent is when we recommit ourselves to walk beside Christ in his ministry of healing, protecting, and loving God’s creation. It is done with “Easter” hope, even as we recognize how far we still have to travel to reach the “promised land.” Be prayerful in asking, “Lord, what can we do now as your people in the 21st century to offer good news to this world?” Be it through actions or activism, prayers or moral progress, I am very sure God wants both to hear this question and offer us an answer we can take to heart.
Comments Off on Pastoral Message, February 2017
Fill in the blank: When I think of my body right now, I’m not very fond of my (blank). The answer to this question should not be influenced by America’s flawed obsession with perfect physiques. This shouldn’t be about your measurements, weight or six-pack abs. Rather it should identify one part of your physical body. For example, at this moment I’m not very fond of my hamstrings. While being relatively tall, I seem to have short hamstrings, which cause my lower-back muscles to work too hard and thus provoke periodic back spasms. When that happens, I think very unkind thoughts about my hamstrings.