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.
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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.
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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.
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It has been a troubling week in America. To remain silent on current events is to be unfaithful to the gospel of Christ.
As you likely all know, in the past few days, several executive orders were signed by President Trump. Some of them are political grandstanding. Some are more threatening, running contrary to how scripture calls us to live. Tuesday’s order to streamline and expedite pipeline projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline undermine our commitment to protect God’s creation and to honor the places our Native American brethren deem sacred. Wednesday’s order to punish any Sanctuary cities as well as the President’s statement that he believes torture works violate our Judeo-Christian duty to welcome the stranger and to treat others as we would have them treat us. And Friday’s executive order to suspend all US refugee programs for several months and to reduce the number of refugees allowed into America in 2017 causes malicious harm to the most vulnerable of all God’s children.
God is never to be confined to one nation’s borders; hence the concept of “America First” runs contrary to the heart of the gospel. That is why these recent actions and the policies surrounding them are more heretical than historical. If you support President Trump or oppose President Trump, your responsibility is the same: to remain vigilant and hold this nation’s elected leaders to Christian values of compassion, justice and peace. Let us pray, and act, and speak out until they do. For as it says in Hebrews 12: Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. To God alone be the glory. Amen.
—Rev. Dr. Randy Bush
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The noted African American theologian and pastor Howard Thurman published a short devotional book called Meditations of the Heart. In it he shared this brief anecdote:
Years ago, walking along a road outside Rangoon, I noted at intervals along the way a roadside stone with a crock of water and, occasionally, some fruit. Water and fruit were put there by Buddhist priests to comfort and bless any passerby—one’s spiritual salutation to another. The fact that I was a traveler from another part of the world, speaking a strange language and practicing a different faith, made no difference. What mattered was the fact that I was walking along the road—what my mission was, who I was—all irrelevant.
There are serendipitous moments in our life that bring us joy—finding a quarter on the sidewalk or money in a jacket pocket; having the sun break through the Pittsburgh clouds and shine all around us; seeing children playing outside or watch a dog chase a tennis ball. Lifting our eyes off the ground (and off our electronic devices!) allows us to catch glimpses of beauty and God’s grace around us. But our faith calls us to trust in something more than serendipity. We are also called to be intentional in our acts of comfort, grace and blessing.
The past year is now history. Year-end contribution appeals will likely stop appearing in your mailbox. A new year is dawning with both challenges and opportunities for all of us. It is a perfect time to practice “intentional serendipity.” Even though that phrase is an oxymoron, it is still an idea worth considering. How about sending a handwritten note telling one person you value in your life how special they are? Or what about if you notice someone behind you in the grocery store checkout line who has only a couple items and you offer to add it to your total—or if you see someone eating alone at a table beside you in a restaurant and you pick up their tab? First pray that you might be a blessing this month to someone—and then keep your eyes and heart open, trusting that God will provide the opportunity for your “intentional serendipity.”2
Thurman ended his meditation by asking: In your own way, do you keep a lantern burning by the roadside with a note saying where you may be found just in case? Do you place a jar of cool water and a bit of fruit under a tree to help the needy traveler? God knows the answer and so do you! May we each be a blessing this month.
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I’m not sure if nativity scenes on Christmas cards actually catch the moment we should be remembering as this crazy year winds to a close. Don’t get me wrong—remembering the setting where the Christ child lay humbly in a manger, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, animals and shepherds is a healing and lovely reminder of how God came to us in the form of an infant. It offers us a vision of peace in times of turmoil and comfort when so much seems to be uncertain and broken.
But there is a scene prior to the Bethlehem manger scene that needs to be pondered during Advent and Christmas. Not the scene of the Holy Family making their way from Nazareth down to Bethlehem. Not even the image of the angels appearing to the shepherds who were watching their flocks by night in the fields. In fact, it is not something that can be depicted in artwork or stained glass windows. It is the moment when this world’s reality was shattered by the in-breaking of God’s full reality through the incarnation of Christ.
We glimpsed part of that divine moment when the angel told Mary that she would bear a son. We focus on that amazing moment when the gospel of John tells us how “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” We humbly picture that miraculous moment through the hymn found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where it says “Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and was born in human likeness.” Ultimately, God broke into our world. God shattered whatever barrier we imagine exists between earth and heaven and came to us—literally right beside us, in our very midst, into human history long ago as well as our present day and age.
To me, that changes every conversation we have had during the past year. God has broken into our world to offer healing, hope and redemption. God has broken into our world and been beside us, as we have witnessed a year of continued fighting in Syria and terrorist attacks around the world, as we celebrated another Olympics and yet struggled to rebuild after Hurricane Matthew, as Black Lives Matter and the Standing Rock protests continue to push for justice while the recent national election appears to reflect how our country has moved in a direction of fearfulness and isolationism.
If I truly believe in the Christmas represented by nativity scene cards and the scripture proclamation of Christ’s birth, then my first response to all historical events is to reflect on God’s presence in the midst of this world—weeping alongside God in Christ who weeps over our violent ways; speaking out beside the prophetic God in Christ who knows that silence and despair have no place in this world’s unfinished incarnation of a kingdom of justice and mercy and welcome. Christmas started when God said “Enough. I will come to you that you may find your way back to me and to one another.” May we remember that heavenly promise as cards are opened, presents are exchanged, and a world around us waits—waits—waits and hopes for the peace that passes all understanding.
—Rev. Dr. Randy Bush
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When I think about Thanksgiving, there are two images that come to mind. The first is the “greeting card” image of a Thanksgiving meal—turkey, potatoes, vegetables, rolls—arrayed on a large table with family or friends around it. It’s true that some people eat alone; some can’t afford all the “fixings”; some families aren’t able to come together for a host of reasons. But that is the common image of the Thanksgiving holiday. The second image is what the kitchen looks like after one of these stereotypical Thanksgiving meals: dishes stacked up, glasses and silverware and serving platters balanced precariously on counters, a turkey carcass needing to be cleaned off and either (for turkey broth) or discarded in the trash. Though messy, this also is a part of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Since this is a season of “thanksgivings,” I want to give thanks for some of the messy realities in our world today—for the ways these less-than-ideal things still point us back to God and remind us ever to trust in Christ.
I’m thankful for this election season. It has been a powerful reminder of the fragility of democracy and the persistent need to ensure all people have the opportunity to vote for their elected officials. It’s also been a telling reminder about the lingering challenges our nation faces with sexism, xenophobia, white privilege, and maintaining a truly fair and independent press.
I’m thankful for our continued engagement in the Middle East. It has taught us that in today’s interconnected world, we cannot pretend that Christianity is the only religion that matters and that American interests will always be at the top of the global priority list. The refugee crisis and the senseless violence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere hopefully have humbled us to be mindful of the “ripple effects” of all wars and chastened us to be more compassionate toward every person in need.
I’m thankful for the Black Lives Matter movement and the forceful articulations raised in a variety of forms to challenge racism and the flaws in our criminal justice system. It has taught us how to walk beside grieving mothers and families and stirred us to seek change that heals our land. It has provoked us to ask “what should be done?” as professional athletes use their body-language to further this important discussion. I pray that the faithful, holistic solutions offered by all affected by racism will move from theory to reality soon, for the sake of all our cities and communities.
I’m thankful for mainline churches seeking to stay relevant even as their membership falls, and for a generation of people absent from churches on Sunday mornings who trust their own instincts about being “spiritual” but not “religious.” As God’s spirit moves us from passivity in our pews to engagement in our social environment, the church is alive and strong. As Christ’s story is both told creatively and lived personally, “spiritual” inclinations will have the chance to be grounded in “religious,” sacramental, healing, congregational life.
I’m thankful for ELPC—for upcoming construction dust, for people leaving and coming in, for the hustle and bustle of everyday life. May Thanksgiving mean more than a meal with nice leftovers; and may the messiness around you never keep you from trusting in the Creator who called forth life from primordial chaos and new life from an empty tomb.
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Our dog Elphie has a significant limp at the moment. She’s an 11-year old black Labrador, and midway through a romp through Frick Park she suddenly stopped, elevated her back left leg, and was clearly not able to put weight on it. We’ve taken her to the vet and it is something that will heal over time; but for now, it’s hard to watch her hobble around the house on three legs. (Don’t worry too much about her. She eats, sleeps and still occasionally tries to chase squirrels using only three legs!) As an older dog, Elphie regularly came home from long walks feeling a bit achy and anxious for a long nap. Seeing her limp now only reminds me of her age and that, try as she might, she simply can’t do everything you used to do in her puppy days.
Limping through life is not a condition limited to older household pets. There are times when all of us feel under the weather, or when many of us hobble around due to arthritis, bad joints, and neuropathy. But limping is not restricted to physical ailments. There are emotional “limps” caused by grief and loss, by anxiety and depression, by hidden secrets and broken hearts. Just as there is the famous bible story of Jacob wrestling with an angel (Genesis 32) that ends with Jacob limping from a damaged hip, there are other bible stories with more metaphorical “limps,” such as the grief and despair afflicting the disciples hiding in the Upper Room after Jesus’ crucifixion.
The church (like the world at large) is full of people who limp. It might not be obvious when we see folks come walking down the aisle, but almost everyone in the pews is carrying some sort of burden, worry or pain. It is possible to diminish these limps by “counting one’s blessings” and handing our cares to the Lord in prayer. But it is just as important not to pretend that everyone in church is free of scars or limps. For it is only by allowing our faith life to honestly acknowledge both the joys and the sorrows we carry within us that we can live into our calling as followers of Jesus Christ—our crucified, scarred, yet resurrected Savior.
Why is this so important? Too often some people believe that their limps bar them from Christian fellowship. Too often some people tell themselves that their life situation and personal pain are marks of disfavor either from God or God’s people. Yet it is in naming our own scars and revealing our own limps that we can boldly testify to the ways God has brought hope to us—a hope that sustains us on the bad days and gives us peace and joy on the good days. The Christian writer Henri Nouwen called this perspective being a “wounded healer.” That is a role all of us can fill, since we’ve all had times of woundedness and yet also had moments of grace and Easter hope that have been stronger than our pain.
Our limping dog reminds me that I can limp too when I must. The Lord of dogs and Presbyterians works wonders of healing every day, as tendons strengthen and aches eventually recede. I’m grateful that a beloved pet can be a sign of God’s promise to be with us always, particularly when the joints are stiff and the journey seems hard.
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I stumbled onto a short article in which an 80-year old, Klezmer music-playing clarinetist was asked about the importance of breathing. She said, “Relax. Inhale deeply. Sit up straight. Appreciate your lungs.” Then she went on to add this pearl of wisdom: “When you know how to breathe, the word ‘stress’ is not in your dictionary.” Given how commonly so many of us deal with stress, it is certainly good news to hear how we can remove stress from our lives if we will simply remember how to breathe. Take a moment right now to pause, to inhale and exhale three slow, long breaths, and see if you feel a measure of physical improvement and inner quiet.
“Stress” as a noun describing hardship and affliction dates back to the early 14th century, with specific references to it in religious writings from the middle of the 16th century. But despite its ancient lineage, it is a word that feels modern—as if it is a peculiar quality of life in contemporary society. Rather than offer a diagnosis for stress, I want to build on what the clarinetist said regarding getting rid of stress. Exercise—moments of quiet breathing and meditation—these things can definitely reduce stress.
Another option is to do a short reading in conjunction with a time of stress-reducing meditation. Back when books were only beginning to be mass-produced and still very expensive to own, people would save up to purchase a family bible as well as some sort of religious devotional. It might have been John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress or Thomas á Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ (both worth reading today, by the way). British and American 20th-century authors of this type of material include C. S. Lewis, Harry Emerson Fosdick, or G. K. Chesterton, who have lots of devotional works whose short chapters can be read in small, daily doses. This category of writing can expose you to thinkers from other denominations, such as African American Baptist preacher Howard Thurman (Meditations of the Heart), Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cost of Discipleship), Catholic priest Henri Nouwen (The Genesee Diary), or Trappist monk Thomas Merton (Thoughts in Solitude). They can introduce you to wonderful people, such as in G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi or reading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love.
My point is this: Too often we allow the richness of Christian faith to be condensed into bumper-sticker quotes and fortune-cookie words of inspiration. But the stress of life can never be reduced by micro-doses of spirituality, taken like a couple Advils with a sip of water. First, relax. Inhale deeply. Sit up straight. Appreciate your lungs, your heart, your health in general. Then allow yourself to dip into Christian writings that can sustain your soul and quiet your spirit. Read only a page or two at a time. This is not a “self-help regimen” you have to add to your “To Do” list. Instead it is taking a moment to care for yourself by listening to other Christians whose life-stress was eased by faithful reflection, prayer, and trust in God. This month find a book you can slowly read. Put it on your nightstand or download it to your smartphone. And let me know what books you enjoyed. I’m always looking for new spiritual-literary friends!
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In January 1945, my father, Richard Bush, enlisted in the Navy halfway through his senior year in high school. He was 17, so his parents had to sign for him when he registered. He eventually became a signalman on an old Liberty ship called the USS Rotanin. (Dad said they called her the “Rotten Annie.”) Dad used to talk about standing watch at night and seeing the dim outline of a ship in the distance. He’d been taught not to stare at it directly, because if you looked just above the ship, the rods in your eyes will help bring the ship’s silhouette into focus so that you can identify it as a friend or a foe.
As I write this essay, there are a lot of different topics I could focus on. There are the political conventions, the Olympics in Rio, the continued aftershocks from the Orlando shootings in a gay nightclub, the sad details of more police killings of black men plus the sniper attack in Dallas, and a host of global issues from Brexit to bombings in Bangladesh. Any one of those topics merits our direct attention. Many of them should evoke in us prayers of confession, spirits of contrition, and a spiritual re-commitment to work for justice for all.
The news media and social media remind us of all the things we should focus on and seek to make right in our troubled world. But at some point we need to lift our gaze just slightly higher—above the horizon, heavenward—so that we can see farther and clearer. We are to look at what’s before us against the backdrop of what is yet to come—allowing our gaze to extend toward the horizon of God’s realm of peace and justice. We do this, not to avoid the hard reality of today, but to compare it against the promised kingdom of God’s righteousness, so that we can clearly understand what still needs to be done today. Doing so helps us remember that black lives matter, that justice delayed is justice denied, and that as we have done to the least of these in Christ’s family, we have done it to Him.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth”—Psalm 121. In our trouble world, there is much we need to look at directly, so that we can repent of what must no longer be allowed to continue. But by lifting our gaze slightly, seeking the One who is our strength and our salvation, we will see more clearly what must be done in this life, even as we prepare for the life to come. Thanks be to God!
It is important to speak a word about the recent grand jury decision in Ferguson, MO. First, it is sad to think how few congregations are likely commenting in worship on the recent events in Ferguson. It is a big part of the problem if people of faith are not talking honestly about the lingering sin of racism in America. Second, the strategy of releasing all the data and testimony after the Ferguson trial served its purpose of deflecting the country from the real issues at stake. The appearance of legality is not the same thing as the presence of justice. The fundamental issue had less to do with Michael Brown and Darren Wilson and much more to do with a persistent pattern of socially accepted violence against people of color, and whether or not the criminal justice system can be trusted. Using lethal force against unarmed African Americans must stop being the default response of police officers.
Lastly, the riots and anger over the flawed non-decision against Darren Wilson are symptoms of a larger dissatisfaction – of mothers tired of fearing for their sons’ safety or grieving over their untimely deaths, and of families caught in the modern Jim Crowism of unfair educational systems, unfair employment opportunities, and prejudicial criminal justice laws ensuring that people of color remain shackled and hamstrung generation after generation. Protectors of white privilege will always find reasons to blame the victim. People of faith need to find the courage to say “No more” as part of our faith in Jesus Christ, a man of color executed after a flawed grand jury trial long ago.
In seeking that courage, let us now join together in a time of prayer. Let us pray.
Merciful God, you call us to goodness and open our eyes to see the paths of righteousness we should walk by faith. You encourage us to look for the signs of your coming and to keep watch. As we wait, we pray for this world that needs your saving power.
We pray for people living in nations at war – and we pray against those who choose to profit through supplying weapons or spreading messages of hatred.
We pray for people who suffer from violence in the streets or in their homes – and we pray against laws that intentionally discriminate, policies that are unjust and oppressive, and social complacency that shrugs off mothers weeping over their dead sons.
We pray for those who are ill, captive to disease or despair – and we pray against barriers to compassionate health care for all, and against advertisers hawking products that only lead to bodily harm or corrupting the image of God in each person.
We pray for those who have never heard of your rescuing love and those who have lost hope – even as we pray against the practices within the church that distort the gospel you entrusted to us and against the gospel of Mammon outside the church that sacrifices bodies and souls on the altar of the pursuit of wealth.
We pray for ourselves, for our children, our parents, our families, friends and neighbors – both here and around the world. May we work in confidence for your coming reign, living Lord, that we may greet you with joy on the great day of your healing of the world. Through Christ, we pray. Amen.