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.
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
Here’s an old, old story. One day a poor peasant named Gordius arrived in an ox cart in the city of Phrygia. As legend has it, an oracle had predicted that their future king would come into town riding in a wagon, and upon seeing Gordius, the people made him their king. In gratitude to Zeus, Gordius dedicated his ox-cart to the Greek god and tied it up in the temple with a highly elaborate knot. Another oracle predicted that whoever could untie this “Gordian Knot” would rule over all of Asia. None mastered this feat until Alexander the Great visited Phrygia in 333 B.C., who, upon seeing the famed Gordian Knot, drew his sword and simply cut it in half. Was this cheating? Well, the ends of the rope had been spliced back together, so there was no way to untie the knot by manipulating the cord itself. Alexander’s solution was the best and most realistic one available at the time.
In today’s contentious society, it often appears that the pressing issues facing us are tied up in unsolvable Gordian knots. How do we untangle the concerns about adequate wages for all who work, appropriate welfare safeguards for the poor and elderly, and quality education opportunities that honors the needs of both students and teachers? Why have the verbal strands of every argument been distorted and knotted up so that suddenly adequate health care or reasonable support for those who are retired is characterized as an optional, privileged “entitlement”? Why must every moral issue become so politicized that no one can untangle the ropes binding up our governmental processes?
At some point, the church needs to reclaim its “Alexandrian” voice in these debates. We need to wield the sword of common sense and compassionate faith to cut through the Gordian knots plaguing our public discourse. The current debate over gun laws is a good case-in-point. We should speak out for the common sense requirement that any household where children are present that also possesses guns must have child-safety locks and/or locked cabinets for these weapons. We should insist that a person whose gun is lost or stolen report that fact to the police in an expeditious manner. Neither of these actions are infringements on Second Amendment rights, yet both would save lives lost now to accidental gunfire or acts of suicide. In the same way, the NRA has tried to deflect reasonable gun control measures by calling for extra resources for people struggling with mental illness. It is a common tactic to defeat one “good” (e.g., gun control) by pushing for another “good,” since no one can reasonably challenge the need for offering adequate support in confronting mental disease. But like re-weaving the ends of the Gordian knot, it is a disingenuous tactic designed to maintain the status quo and stop all “unraveling” around this issue.
The church’s social justice “sword” is honed on the words of Christ, who remind us that the needs of the poor, vulnerable, abused, marginalized, and hungry always take precedence over those who seek to safeguard their privilege with tightly-knotted ropes of injustice and power. The oracles of our faith have foretold that time when all God’s children shall be free. May we be bold in wielding the sword of Christ as witnesses today for this prophetic word of hope.
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
We have just celebrated the good news of Easter – how Jesus Christ is alive, through the miracle of resurrection and the wonder of heavenly grace and power. That news is overwhelming. Think about how the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection fled from the tomb, either shocked into silence (see Mark 16:8) or dismissed as people telling an “idle tale” (see Luke 24:11). Have we gotten any better over the centuries at sharing in words the miraculous, transformative power of Easter?
Perhaps one analogy can come to us from the world of computing. According to a book by George Dyson called Turing’s Cathedral, the modern digital age dawned around 1951 in Princeton, NJ. It was there that a special machine was built – the Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer – affectionately known by its acronym “Maniac.” For the first time, numbers were no longer simple tallies used to count things. They could now be numbers or instructions; data was suddenly both a noun and a verb. The people who built “Maniac” knew that they were on the verge of an entirely new way of treating human knowledge. One engineer quoted in Dyson’s book says this: “A tidal wave of computational power was about to break and inundate everything in science and much elsewhere, and things would never be the same.”
The strength of this analogy is how it captures the sheer power and sweep of the Easter story. Like a tidal wave washing over the entire world, belief in the resurrection of Christ swept over Jerusalem, around the Mediterranean Sea, and throughout the nations of the world. Because of this news, things have never been the same. But there are two flaws with the computer analogy. First, the name is no good. Nothing about Christ’s resurrection power should be linked with the word “maniac.” Second, there is an aspect of chaotic, untamed force captured in the engineer’s description of computer power. But God’s plan is never chaotic – never untamed, wild or destructive. It is in every aspect quite intentional, focused, justice-oriented and loving. So a different analogy is needed.
Andrew Solomon, in his book Far From the Tree, commented on the miracle of child-birth with this clever reminder: “There is no such thing as reproduction, only acts of production.” Despite our tendency to describe giving birth as an act of reproduction (as if children were photocopies of one or both parents), children emerge by acts of fresh, unique “production.” We never quite know who or what they’ll be. Part of the joy of raising children is trying to trace the lineage of the different physical and emotional traits present in our sons and daughters. Parents daily recognize how their children are both related to them and yet so different from them.
Easter was ultimately an act of production, not reproduction. Jesus was not simply resuscitated. He was not brought back to life to reproduce patterns of life he’d fleshed out prior to his crucifixion. Easter was not an attempt to give the status quo a second chance to get things right. Easter was a new thing altogether – a promise of life beyond death, of healing and hope despite brokenness, and of love that is truly eternal. We glimpse aspects of our earthly life in the stories about Jesus’ resurrection appearances, and yet it is something different from daily life. Better than this life, yet offered to us in love. Maybe as we share this story in our day and age, we can capture a bit of that unique, fresh wonder of Easter and what our loving Lord has “produced” for us.
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
The topic of environmental stewardship is often neglected in the church. We are mindful of being called “caretakers” for God’s good earth, and yet, like Adam and Eve standing outside the Garden of Eden, we are filled with guilt by our broken relationship with much of creation around us. The season of Lent is a time to be honest about our shortcomings in our relationships with God, with one another, and with the world in which we live. Likewise, the season of Easter is a time to remember how God acts to make amends for our wrongs and to bring healing to all parts of life broken by sin, abuse, and apathy. My hope is that when we pray for the world, we move beyond human-centered perspectives and open our hearts and souls also to pray for the well-being and loving care of the air, soil, water and living creatures who are also part of God’s creative plan. What follows is a brief essay on this subject that I was asked to submit for a Lenten devotional for the group, Presbyterians for Earth Care.
The data about how human actions affect the world in which we live is overwhelmingly negative. Sadly we read regular reports about global climate change, soil erosion, water pollution, persistent national addictions to fossil fuels, damage done to the ozone layer, and much more. Film documentaries show us the depletion of the vital polar ice caps. Meteorological statistics weary us by noting how current weather patterns are the worst in recorded history. And our mailboxes overflow with donation requests from overworked conservancy and advocacy groups, desperately fighting for eco-justice.
But all this cannot be the final word we offer on this subject. To give up or accept a defeatist position runs counter to other scientific evidence as well as our Christian faith. Other data points to how the earth can heal many of its ecological wounds, once we stop the worst forms of damage and environmental abuse. Nature does adapt, re-group, and re-claim what we have wrongly usurped. Air, water, and soil can come back through rejuvenating wonders built into God’s essential design of this world.
To make this happen requires an “Easter perspective” on nature. In between the time on the cross and the sunrise on Easter morning, the earth waited. The followers of Jesus mourned and stopped what they had been doing. The violence of the cross was over for a spell. Then came the third day – a time of life reborn, of hope renewed, and of resurrection in every sense of the word. To step away from ecological violence means we have to be still, waiting and watching and praying and believing. For to our longing eyes, a miracle is anxious to unfold.
Resurrection is not just a one-time event. It is a way of life – real life – and a walk of faith – this day and for all time. For that good news, let us say: Thanks be to God!
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
We live in an "information age." If you have cable television, you can view a wide range of news, sports and entertainment programs from around the world. If you have access to a computer, you can type in any question that pops into your head and use the Internet to find an answer. And if you have a SmartPhone, iPad or Wi-Fi tablet, you can get maps or movie reviews or just about anything imaginable from wherever you happen to be. The past 25 years have seen a tremendous explosion in the range and depth of information now accessible from our home computers and "smart" devices.
More recently, questions have begun to be raised about who might be tracking the questions we ask and the Internet searches we type. Is it an issue of concern when the same GPS device that helps us get directions from the North Hills to the Liberty Tunnel also tracks everywhere we travel the rest of the day? Is it something to worry about when the questions we ask our computer are collated in such a way as to create an online database about who we are, where we live, our age, income and shopping habits? The most common result from this collected personal data is seen when your "shopper's card" pumps out a personalized coupon at the grocery store for an item you would likely be interested in, or when the sidebar advertisements appearing on the screen, when you do a Google search, reflect causes or organizations you support. None of this may be bad, but it does raise some theological questions.
The theme for this month's newsletter is "Just Love," a combination of the Christian virtues of justice and love. Love is not simply an emotional act or a quality of compassion; its larger goal is to bless the receiver while also serving the common good. To paraphrase the end of the pledge of allegiance, love works for the justice of all. The international growth in the computing world raises two questions about love that is truly just. First, having access to information is becoming synonymous with having access to power and opportunities. Jobs are advertised online; communication occurs electronically; resources are only available to people with computers. A "just love" will work to ensure that no one is pushed to the margins because they lack access to the tools of today's information age. Second, it is possible that the electronic choices we might today (the things we search for, the ads or videos we view) subtly shape the electronic choices presented to us tomorrow (the ads we see, the rankings in Google searches). In trying to present us with personally relevant information, our cyber-profile runs the risk of narrowing defining us by our zip code, income bracket, race, gender and age.
Both of these trends run counter to the larger message of the gospel, in which extra effort should always be exerted to ensure no one is left on the margins or barred from access to life-enhancing resources. Remember how Jesus stopped the parade around him to welcome over the blind men or to offer healing words of comfort to the woman with the flow of blood. Also, no one should ever stereotype us as people permanently locked into one category of life, falsely determined by our age, race, gender, sexual orientation or wealth. For as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5: "From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view…Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!" The blessing of Christian faith is that is presents us with a new vision of life that transforms the way we live now while joyfully providing promises of future peace and eternal life. At the heart of this vision is "just love"; remember that we are called to be its disciples in our personal, spiritual and technological lives.
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
I'm notorious for tearing out pages from magazines or circling paragraphs in newspaper articles when they contain quotes I find thought-provoking. Something in print can trigger a reaction in me that makes me pause, put down the paper for a moment, and reflect on what I've read. I may agree and want to shout, "Amen, sister!" I may disagree and want to say, "Now hold on there…"
T.C. Boyle is a popular fiction writer, who has published over twenty, fairly unconventional books. In a recent interview, he happened to be asked about life and death and offered this grim assessment: "In previous generations, there was purpose [to life]: you had to die, but there was God, and literature and culture would go on. Now, of course, there is no God, and our species is imminently doomed, so there is no purpose. We get up, raise families, have bank accounts, fix our teeth and everything else. But really, there is utterly no purpose except to be alive." As you can imagine, my reaction was, "Now hold on there!"
Mr. Boyle has made a living out of being provocative, so his words have to be seen in light of his own goals of self-marketing. Clearly he and I disagree on the question of "God vs. no God." But what struck me most was his suggestion that life has no ultimate purpose. I felt sad when he suggested that life involves waking up, balancing our checkbooks, brushing our teeth, and simply staying alive. What a narrow, depressing view! I thought of so many other things that I would add to the list of "why I wake up in the morning", including (but not limited to) my wife and family, communion services at ELPC, Bach and Chopin music on the piano, snow-capped mountains seen from a distance, ocean beaches felt by bare feet, children, pets, chocolate, crossword puzzles, and ice cream "blend ins." You would likely have your own list of what brings you joy each day and adds meaning to your life.
Having said that, I know that for all of us some days (and weeks) are harder than others. There are stages in life when it takes all our effort to get up, get to work, pay our bills, and navigate the hours until we can lie down in bed again. There are times when we cannot see distant mountains or remember what summer's warmth feels like, and we find ourselves just "staying alive." The difference is that Mr. Boyle cynically suggests that there is no other option; no "Plan B" to turn to when things are hard. I would argue that a "horizon is nothing except the limit of our sight" (to borrow words from our state's founder William Penn), and as God's children, we always have another higher, spiritual horizon ever before us. Christ has promised to be with us, "even to the end of the age." The Spirit intercedes for us "with sighs too deep for words" in our moments of need. Remembering those basic truths of faith lifts our eyes unto the hills, allowing us to affirm: "From whence does our help come? It comes from the Lord."
A new year is upon us. By definition, it is a new horizon of life for each of us: twelve months waiting expectantly to be explored by us. Yes, we'll need to work, brush our teeth and check our bank accounts. But we can be and do so much more than that, and such is God's desire for each of us. Spend 2013 proving T.C. Boyle wrong. I'm sure he can handle a friendly disagreement about this, and besides, it will make a great conversation to share with faith friends now and the heavenly host in the future!
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
Long ago, God set something wonderful in motion. Into a world of economic inequality, political oppression, marginalized families, and despair for the future, God choose to give the world a special gift. It involved the movement of the Spirit, so that the hopes and dreams of past generations might sweep over the people of Palestine as a fresh breeze. It involved the willing collaboration of a young girl, who would agree to a role out of keeping with her cultural background and inclination. It involved a man stepping away from patterns of patriarchy and misogyny to welcome a bride expecting a child that wasn’t his own. And it involved a growing cast of characters--from far palaces and lonely shepherds’ fields--who would take part in both receiving and sharing God’s special gift.
God’s gift involved more than just the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It was a twofold gift: a child, born on the margins, who would be heralded as the King of Kings; an infant born under the shadow of Herod’s vengeful decree and Rome’s military might who would be honored as the Prince of Peace; a poor infant born to a poor family who became the generous giver of light, bread, water, and love for a hurting world. This is what makes the seasons of Advent and Christmas so special. The birth of Jesus Christ is a double blessing, with every aspect of his life, death and resurrection pointing to a double meaning: a gift for us as individuals, and an inspirational gift for us as communities and nations under God.
During the four Sundays of Advent, we are reminded to prepare our hearts to welcome the Christ Child born on Christmas Eve. In the sanctuary worship services, the themes for those weeks will each have a two-fold perspective that I hope you will contemplate throughout December. What does it mean to bring bread to Christ when so many hunger in the world? Is there a way that a lit candle for the infant Jesus can become a light that restores relationships broken by prison walls and violent crime? How might the teachings of the Prince of Peace change our national reliance on weapons of war? Is it possible for the simple gift of water to remind us how precious each child is in the eyes of God?
Think about the gifts you receive from God, as well as the gifts you bring to the manger for the Christ Child born on Christmas Day. See beyond the immediate appearances--wrapping paper, bows, cards, decorated trees--to something larger, deeper, wide enough to stretch to the far horizon. For when you do that, you begin to appreciate what makes God’s gift so incredibly special.
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
If I can characterize the Christian themes to remember during the month of November, I would use the phrase "conscious living." At first glance, the phrase may seem redundant, since to be conscious is one of the marks of being alive. But this type of consciousness is related to being intentional about how we live our daily lives. Read Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7). The language throughout these scriptures calls us to be conscious about how we live before God and with one another. "Let your light so shine before others...; Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume them...; Ask, and it will be given you; seek and you will find."
These themes are especially appropriate during the month of November, when we turn our attention to topics of Stewardship, Full Inclusion, and Thanksgiving. First, conscious living is closely connected with our finances: how we manage the resources God has entrusted to us and whether our spiritual priorities are intentionally reflected in our spending habits. Second, conscious living involves social justice: doing all we can to ensure that everyone is welcome and respected for the children of God they inherently are. Third, conscious living is grateful living: because failing to give thanks only shrivels our souls and stunts our growth as creatures privileged by God to live amidst real opportunity and abundance.
Sometimes it is hard to be intentional about our spiritual lives. The demands of the day, especially when money is short or health is failing or depression comes upon us, can muddy our thinking so that it feels we are already doing all we can just to get by. That is why it is important to remember that conscious living is not something else we add onto our full "to do" lists. Rather it is the foundation that makes it possible for us to get through our days with a measure of joy and inner peace. It happens when we take time for a moment of prayer; quieting our souls and giving thanks, or when we make the effort to really notice the people around us--our neighbors, those who serve you by driving the bus, or ringing up your purchase--or when we remember that we are loved by Christ, who has promised never to leave or forsake us.
I read a humorous short story by the playwright Anton Chekhov in which an abbot decided that it was wrong to stay sequestered in his monastery, so he took off to preach in the nearby city. Upon arriving there, he was horrified by all the vices he saw around him, the sins and temptations which he described in great detail to the other monks when he returned later to the abbey. Unfortunately, he described the temptations too well, for when the abbot awoke the next morning, all the monks had abandoned him for the city life!
We chuckle at the ironic turn of events in Chekhov's story, and yet the tale could be told from the opposite perspective. It could describe how many people lead lives of "quiet desperation," searching for meaning and hope amidst the ceaseless labors of their days. So they travel outside their sequestered "walls" and encounter the virtues of conscious, faithful living, giving thanks, valuing justice, practicing generosity. And after joyfully telling their story to others, the "walls" of their old life are abandoned and a new communal life begins. My prayer is that we use the coming month, as a church and individuals, for precisely this type of conscious living.
by The Rev. Heather T. Schoenewolf
Come sing, O church, in joy! Come join O church, in song!
The words to this familiar hymn (Come Sing, O Church, in Joy! -- #430 in our Blue Hymnal), resonate for me as the cool evenings and dark mornings confirm that it is, indeed, fall.
Fall has always been my favorite season. I have always loved the anticipation of a new year of school, the fall holidays that came along with festive decorations, the color of the autumn leaves...For me, fall is punctuated with celebrations - my wedding anniversary, birthday, and ELPC anniversary to name a few - that cause me to look both forward and backward, while savoring, with gratitude, the present moment. These landmarks allow me to pause and realize that there is so much along my life's journey for which I can rejoice - people, places, opportunities that have shaped and added meaning to my life.
We all can point to seasons of our lives that hold great meaning for us. Perhaps you note a season of the calendar year (winter, spring, summer, fall) which seems to carry within it cherished memories triggered by smells and sights and tastes that flood your heart with a rush of nostalgia. Perhaps the season you call to mind is one of study at an educational institution, or one of parenting small children who were still young enough to climb on your lap at the end of a long day. Perhaps the season you call to mind is a season of creativity or travel, of years lived with your Grandparents were nearby, of prosperity - materially or relationally. Perhaps the season you recall is one of loss or fear, of struggle overcome. Such a reflection can often spark a spiritual insight, where, with the gift of hindsight, we can see clearly that in good times and in difficult times, God was with us: comforting us, challenging us, inspiring us, caring for us - along each stretch of our journey.
Within the life of our faith, we have cause to celebrate together - giving thanks for the assurance that in each and every season of our lives, God is with us still. We celebrate the rich promise of our faith - that "in life and in death we belong to God" (A Brief Statement of Faith) and that Jesus meant it when he said, "And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20b).
Throughout the month of October we have an opportunity to celebrate the journey together. From World Communion Sunday (October 7) to Reformation Sunday (October 28th) we celebrate the rich, millennia's-long season of being the church together - filled with the Spirit, reformed and always being reformed. We celebrate the community that God has called here to worship - in four different worship services, in 12 different Sunday School classes, in music and dance and mission opportunities and witness.
Mid-October, we also mark the end of a Sabbatical season in the life of Pastor Randy and his family, as Randy, Beth, Ian and Charlotte return from their three-month stay in New Zealand. On October 15th, Pastor Randy formally returns to the office, and he will preach at Journey and our Sanctuary service on October 21. Following worship on October 21, Personnel is hosting a Welcome Back reception to honor Pastor Randy, Beth, Ian and Charlotte and so that we can hear about this Sabbath season in their lives - please join us for this celebration! As we prepare for Pastor Randy's return, I would like to offer a word of deep gratitude - to the Staff of this church, to the Session and Board of Deacons, and to each member of ELPC - for everyone's hard work, wise insights, and joyful care of one another during Randy's absence. It continues to be a privilege to serve among such gifted colleagues and such dedicated members and leaders of ELPC. This sense of gratitude for each of you has been magnified during Pastor Randy's Sabbatical - I praise God for you!
As we settle into the fall, and welcome all that this season in our life brings, may we find moments to truly celebrate the journey - the journey of our own lives, and the journey which we share with others. Let us try, this month: to pause in prayer at the end of the day and give thanks that which has held special meaning; to cherish time with loved ones, noting the gifts tucked within the unique relationship you share together; to maintain a Sabbath-keeping practice of rest and restoration to sustain you through dark, chilly winter days; to try something new, remembering that there are - no matter what stage of our life's journey we are on - opportunities for new beginnings and fresh starts.
And then let us bring our stories and questions, our hopes and our inspiration to this diverse and dynamic community of faith - so that we can bear witness to the good news all around us in the life of faith that we share together. In bold accord, come celebrate the journey and praise the Lord!
by The Rev. Heather T. Schoenewolf
Have you ever exclaimed “You learn something new every day!”? Whether your teenager taught you how to set up your own Facebook profile, or NPR news offered an enlightening insight into a legislative debate, there are opportunities for new learning in our midst every day. The recent landing of the Mars rover Curiosity reminds us that we live in an age of discovery. Technology has equipped us with an opportunity to explore neighboring planets (while watching the live-stream video of this exploration), and to find answers to our many questions with a quick Google search of our iPhones. With so many resources at our fingertips, 24 hours of every day, information is infinitely accessible, and the opportunity to engage in a virtual world to investigate virtually every aspect of our lives is constant.
The practices of our faith affirm that we are called to be a people of discovery. As we trust that God is continually at work in our lives and in the world, we humbly acknowledge that there are always new lessons to learn, new insights to gain, new invitations of the Spirit to discern. These same practices redefine discovery for us, reminding us that our exploration is not limited to that which is new or even to that which is external.
Discovery includes the thoughtful, honest exploration of ancient texts; candid evaluation of history and culture; opportunities for internal, quiet reflection; intentional engagement in community. Discovery includes reading and listening and sharing and acting, praying and helping and worshipping--with a spirit of openness. Learning something new may simply, and radically, mean discovering something that is new to us: a new teaching in a familiar biblical passage; a new awareness to a neighbor’s need; a new aspect of our personal or corporate identity. Embarking on a path of discovery affirms that the God who created us is continually creating new things: around us, within us, through us.
We know that within our church life, September marks a time of new beginnings. As the church school year and regular worship schedule resume, we have an opportunity to enter into a journey of discovery together. This edition of the Reaching Out is full of opportunities for discovery together in study, in worship, in fellowship and in mission. These pages will point you toward the stories of partners on our faith journey: of delegates from our sister church in Malawi, of a missionary from our congregation serving in Bolivia, of the witness of a faith leader in our community sharing God’s word in worship. As you read more about these opportunities, prayerfully consider which experiences will enable you to learn new things on your journey of faith. Join us on this path of discovery so that together we might, with new awareness and intention, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”
by The Rev. Heather T. Schoenewolf
As I write this letter for Reaching Out, it is now just over 24 hours since Randy, Beth, Ian and Charlotte landed in New Zealand. Facebook updates confirmed their family’s safe arrival, and shared news of settling into their three-month home. As is to be expected, their first 24 hours in New Zealand was full of the kind of up front work that will allow them to rest in New Zealand: things like renting a car, buying school uniforms, and figuring out the Wi-Fi in their house.
As Randy and his family settle into this sabbatical time, we also are settling in to a new, temporary routine of church life without Randy immediately present. But, this time of “settling in” for us is not just a time of responding and adjusting to a sabbath time in our pastor’s life. There also is an opportunity for each of us to settle into a space where, together, we can explore the biblical notion of Sabbath, and individually and collectively discern the potential for Sabbath to hold meaning in our lives.
For many of us, Sabbath is a word we’ve heard from the time we first learned the Ten Commandments in Church School. Yet it is a word that in reality takes on little meaning in our contemporary lives. Modern amenities, such as 24-hour grocery stores and smart phones, make sabbath more of a sought-after hope than a daily, weekly, or even monthly reality. Expectation is ever before us: to be available, to be connected, to be busy. With tasks and responsibilities, and even opportunities, before us, we simply cannot stop. In his book Sabbath Wayne Muller writes: “In the relentless busyness of modern life, we have lost the rhythm between work and rest.”
My prayer is that we join Randy, Beth, Ian and Charlotte in the pursuit of recapturing this essential rhythm to life, that we might explore a biblical mandate so essential to wholeness that it was enjoyed by even God.
So, what does this look like? While there are no prescriptive answers, there are a range of traditional practices that might help us open a space in our lives for holy rest, to “a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity.”
In the coming months, the Spiritual Life Committee will offer a range of opportunities at ELPC for us to engage in an exploration of these practices together. There will be two book groups that will meet (one in August and one in September) to read, study and discuss two contemporary books on Sabbath. There will be opportunities for prayer, opportunities for retreat, and opportunities for Spiritual Direction. Additionally, there will be opportunities to rest from the routine of your life through mission, as well as through fellowship and worship together.
We are reminded that we are companions on this journey together, and we share the need for Sabbath-keeping in our lives. So let us share this time together. Let us encourage one another in the reclamation of sabbath space in our lives as we continue to encourage one another in faith, hope and love. Let us share our insights that we might learn from one another: with joy, with creativity. And with gratitude, let us remember the Sabbath.
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
The fourth commandment is one of the longer ones. It says this: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son or your daughter, your manservant or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.” We tend to shorten this commandment down to a few words—Honor the sabbath—but that misses out on the emphatic character of this word of the Lord.
As most of you know, a few days after this newsletter arrives in your mailbox (or computer inbox), my family and I will be on a plane heading for a three-month sabbatical in New Zealand. It will be a time of travel and seeing a new country. It will be a time for music study for both Beth and me, finally having the opportunity to learn new repertoire and daily practice on the piano (me) and voice (Beth). It will be a time of study for the children, as they are graciously forgoing a good chunk of their summer vacation to be enrolled in an intermediate school in Auckland for 10 weeks. It will be a time to see new things, visit other church congregations, learn about the multicultural nature of New Zealand society, and make contacts at the University of Auckland. Mostly, it will be an important time to be together as a family, sharing unique experiences in this precious period before the kids enter high school and the “merry-go-round of life” picks up the pace considerably.
Even while I’m on this sabbatical (a time of sabbath rest and study), I will need to be careful about honoring the fourth commandment. It is possible to be even busier away from home than we are in our regular routines. How many times have you returned from a vacation feeling like you need a vacation?! There will be the temptation to take advantage of every possible moment to see all there is to see in New Zealand, since it is doubtful trips of this distance will occur more than once in a lifetime. Fortunately, the kids being in school will keep us grounded in the “mundane,” even as we carve out moments for the “exceptional” and keep our eyes open for the “surprises of God.”
In truth, that is part of the formula for honoring the sabbath and keeping the fourth commandment in all our daily lives. To be “grounded in the mundane” does not mean that we are stuck in ruts and frazzled from trying to maintain impossible work schedules. It means that we are “grounded,” standing on firm foundations that are related to the spiritual and personal priorities in life, which allows us to do the mundane details, confident that our words and deeds are making a difference. And to carve our sabbath “moments for the exceptional” means that we take care to truly notice what is happening around us, to look people in the eye, to listen when they speak of pain or joy from their hearts, as well as to find time to breathe, to walk around, to listen, to “be still and know that God is God.” When those two things happen, then we are able to glimpse the “surprises of God”: the providential way things come together for the good, the transformative way we are able to see people around us as women and men with real stories, real passions, real humanity as sibling children of God with us.
“Surprises of God” happen when we drive through the Fort Pitt tunnel and see our hometown skyline with renewed appreciation--or when a dolphin leaps in a harbor outside Auckland. “Surprises of God” happen when we remember how enriched we are to have friendships that cross racial-ethnic-economic barriers, whether here or overseas. “Surprises of God” happen when a prayer is offered for someone else, whom we trust enough to ask them to pray for something in our lives as well, whether that involves Pittsburghers or New Zealanders.
While I’m away, I will send back some dispatches from abroad to let you know how things are going, even as I will receive occasional e-mail dispatches from Gloria and the staff. Heather, Patrice, Christiane and Mary Lynn will be leading worship and providing pastoral care, and you will continue to be a caring, active, God-directed congregation. My family flies back home on October 6 and I will resume work on October 15. My sincere prayer is that this upcoming season will provide many opportunities for all of us to re-learn how to honor the Sabbath, to rest and be renewed, and to be uplifted by the grace and “surprises” of our loving God.
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
As the summer fast approaches, people are busy considering vacations and travel plans. There are lots of logistics involved in picking up from one place and visiting another: Who will care for the house when we’re gone? What should be done with the pets? Will I have the right clothing packed? How long should we stay away and what will we see along the way? As my family prepares for our time overseas, these questions are frequent topics of conversation around the dinner table.
The theme of travel is a common one throughout the bible. Abraham and Sarah left their ancient home to follow God’s call into a new land. Joseph and his family moved to Egypt during a long season of drought. Moses and the Hebrew people wandered for forty years in the wilderness before settling into their new tribal homeland. The Israelites were forced into exile in far away Babylon and later were allowed to travel back home. Jesus was an itinerant rabbi, of whom it was said “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Paul’s missionary life was spent spreading the gospel among the cities along the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea.
We may long for lives spent quietly at home, enjoying the routines and comforts of well-worn paths and familiar surroundings. But lives of faith almost always involve movement and travel--for reasons both practical and theological. The practical reason is that we are meant to live out our faith in community. It is through our interactions with others in church, on the street, in the stores, or during times of travel outside our home area that our faith becomes part of our public testimony in a hurting world. Just as Jesus walked the streets, talked to those on the margins of life, and took time to comfort the ailing and bless the children, we are to walk the streets as living ambassadors of Christ’s love.
The theological reason that travel is important relates to our belief that God is present in all the world. Psalm 139: If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me ... and hold me fast. By going out into the world, we are moving in places where God is already active. And by looking for God’s “fingerprints” in foreign lands or listening for God’s “voice” as it is spoken through words delivered with a different accent, we live into the fullness and richness of our global faith.
One last point: I recently read a comment from a returning Iraq war veteran, who said this: “I have been welcomed home many times, but I have never come all the way back from the places I have been.” The veteran was speaking how the experience of war never fully leaves those who travel abroad on military or humanitarian missions. Alternately, the impact on our souls from mission trips or visiting foreign places stays with us long after our suitcases are unpacked and stored away. We never come all the way back from those places we visit that are outside our comfort zones or immediate neighborhoods. The good news is that God is with us both here and there, and whatever we bring back from our travels is something that bears the loving “fingerprints” of our global, eternal, wayfaring God.
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
If we spent March and early April in the season of Lent, thinking about how our broken lives were part of the reason Christ went to the cross, the goal now is for us to spend April and most of May considering how we can let the Easter good news shine forth from our lives for all the world to see.
Last month I wrote about Easter in terms of “movement”; this month I want to speak about Easter in terms of “location.” First, when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away, her main question was, What have they done to my Lord? (John 20:13,15). In those first moments of Easter, location was the key to everything. Where was Jesus’ body? The answer to that held the central message of Easter, for Jesus’ body was no longer in a tomb because he was alive! Jesus was out in the world, appearing to the disciples and then united in Spirit with the faithful of all times and places as the resurrected Lord.
This resurrection miracle means that Jesus is no longer limited in terms of location. Jesus the risen Christ is one with God the Creator, and therefore available in every place through the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. No one place is privileged over another; all are equi-distant from God as well as equally accessible to God. No place is beyond God’s realm of love and justice, which also means that the Easter message links us to all people near and far. We, like Mary Magdalene, are to tell the good news of Easter to all the world. And wherever others struggle or are treated unjustly, we are to still ask the question Mary asked at the tomb: What have they done to my sister in the Lord? What have they done to my brother in Christ? As the apostle Paul wrote, “If one member [of the body of Christ] suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (I Corinthians 12:26). Thanks to the Easter resurrection, this injunction about suffering and honor is no longer bound to any one location.
Second, I want to share an old Jewish legend. Long ago, a man named Isaac lived in Cracow. He was very poor, but he dreamed three times about a great treasure buried under a bridge in the distant city of Prague. So he journeyed there to find it, but discovered that the bridge he had seen in his dream was patrolled day and night by the king’s guards. He circled the spot from a distance, when one of the guards noticed him and called him forward. When asked what he was doing, Isaac quickly told him about his dream. The captain laughed at the idea of believing in such night visions. “If I believed in dreams, I would have to go all the way to Cracow and find some man named Isaac, because I have dreamed that a great treasure lies buried beneath his bed!” Isaac thanks the captain, returned home, pushed aside his bed, and dug up the treasure that had been there all along.
Rabbi Harold Kushner told this story, and his closing words are true for both Jewish and Christian listeners. “What we are seeking is not in the past or in the future. It is not far away or in the possession of others. It is exactly where we are.” For each of us, remember that the location of the Easter good news ultimately is right where we are. This month start with yourself, then share the good news with others in word and deed!
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
In reading through the Easter stories in the gospels, I was struck by how much movement is associated with this special day: The women made their way to the cemetery in the early morning light and then ran back to the others with the news that Christ was alive! Two disciples hurried to examine the empty tomb and rushed back to share what they discovered. Two other disciples encountered Jesus while walking on the road to Emmaus and then retraced their steps back to Jerusalem with the news of their experience. And Simon Peter leapt from his boat and excitedly swam to shore when he spotted the risen Christ waiting for him near the water’s edge. Walking, running, swimming, racing out of breath to tell the good news of life conquering death: all these action verbs are at the heart of the Easter message.
And yet when we gather to remember Easter nowadays, we enter into church sanctuaries and respectfully, quietly, sit in our pew as the gospel is read to us…
Of course there are times of movement on Easter morning. In our church services, we greet one another with a hug and the invigorating greeting, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” We stand to sing our Easter hymns of praise; we move around throughout the day to come to church, to return home, to follow after kids on Easter egg hunts, to gather together at shared meals with family and friends. But all those examples are movements that happen simply because it is Easter, as opposed to “Easter movements.” Let me explain the difference.
Living a life of Christian faith involves a certain number of necessary movements. For example, we move from one place to another to attend church; we make our way to different classrooms for Adult Education classes; we bow our heads at meal times to offer a prayer; we take a walk outdoors and offer thanks to God for life, health, and the beauty of creation. Those are nice “movements,” but they are more functional than exceptional.
Christian faith also involves distinctive movements, special movements, and “Easter movements.” A distinctive movement may be one that turns us off our normal path and takes us down a new road in which we serve others or care for someone on life’s margins. A special movement could be one that follows a time of reconciliation that we didn’t expect or earn, or comes as a heart-warming consequence of hearing words of love and compassion spoken to us by others. Lastly, an Easter movement is best compared to the actions of the Easter cast of characters: It is the fresh awareness that death is neither this world’s dominant reality nor the final word in our relationships with God and one another (like the women at the tomb). It is the mind-changing revelation that our version of reality pales in comparison to God’s version of this created order (like the disciples on Easter day). It is that spirit that causes us to dance, to leap into the water (like Simon Peter of old), to step out by faith, feeling in that act more alive than ever before. Easter movements involve engagement, peacemaking with our heart and soul, justice expressed through little deeds and grand visions, and hope that cannot be dissuaded or deterred at all.
We gather in church on Easter to remember the story. But we get up, move and leave the church to be the Easter story. By God’s grace, may you be moved in distinctive, special, faithful ways this day and every day!
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
Science fiction writer William Gibson is credited with making the following comment: "The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." I find this to be a fascinating remark, which can be read as a strong word of hope for all people of faith.
Evidence that the future is here can be seen in the incredible advances in technology that have re-shaped much of world in just the past decade. Given how prevalent "smartphones" now are, how ubiquitous the practice of texting one another now is, and how casually we buy something through the Internet or download a book onto our electronic devices, the future has become commonplace in our present lives. Yet such "smart" technology is not uniformly available in our country, much less around the world. Nor are the benefits from it evenly and fairly distributed to all people.
Within the Presbyterian Church, there is much talk about our new openness to ordaining church leaders and ministers regardless of marital status or sexual orientation. This long-awaited "future" position of inclusivity toward gays and lesbians is finally here. Yet there are still many churches who reject that God's call is so generously distributed, and who preach that God's love does not extend to people in same-gender relationships. Clearly more work remains to be done to ensure that the biblical commitment to full inclusion is more evenly distributed in our own denomination.
In our own congregation, the last several New Member classes have been predominantly attended by young adults in their 20's and 30's. They speak about wanting to find a church home that is diverse in membership, committed to mutual prayer and study, and active in social witness in the community. One person in the recent class was amazed that more of Pittsburgh had not yet found their way inside our doors, given the combination of the above qualities present at ELPC. The young adult presence in all our worship services reflects the "future" the Presbyterian Church sorely needs. By living our faith openly through our outreach to people of all ages and our connections with other churches and places of worship, we are doing our part to make sure this future is more evenly distributed.
Christ has said, "The kingdom of God is in your midst." The good news of Christ's healing, justice-seeking, redeeming message is at the heart of what we remember during the season of Lent. When that message is combined with the hope captured in the "resurrection joy" of Easter, then the gospel aspect of Gibson's quote becomes quite clear. The future promise of God's realm is in our midst, but it needs to be more evenly distributed. May we join with God's Spirit in distributing this good news in the days and weeks to come.
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
In grammar, an ellipsis is the intentional omission of a word or sentence, done either for emphasis or because the repetition of the word(s) would be redundant. A witty example of this can be found in an apocryphal story about a reporter who needed to know the age of the movie star Cary Grant. So he sent him the following brief telegraph: "How old Cary Grant?" To which the actor replied, "Old Cary Grant fine. How you?" The omitted verb may have saved the reporter a nickel, but the snappy comeback is priceless.
Leaving out the verb in the question above is an example of an ellipsis. In writing, such omissions are marked by a series of three dots, like this ... Sometimes, though, an ellipsis is found at the end of a sentence, when the speaker's voice trails off and some final thoughts are left unspoken. The singer Judy Collins has written autobiographical books describing her career, her struggles with addiction, and family tragedies. At one point she was blunt in her remarks, saying "Each day I chose not to drink. And I chose not to take my own life." If I were in a room with her and heard her say that, I would want to hear more--for Judy to break the silence, the ellipsis, at the end of her statements. I'd ask her to finish the sentence: "Each day I chose not to drink and not take my own life because..."
In the ellipsis, in the space marked by three little dots, faith resides. It is there that people finish their sentences and say why they choose not to drink, why they work so hard every day, why they are hopeful for tomorrow. It is there that you and I say out loud to our children or our friends what are the spiritual foundations upon which we stand. These need not be dramatic statements. They may only be mini statements of faith: I do this, because I believe this world is the Lord's and we're here to take care of it. I do this, because I believe that love is stronger than hate, and Christ's Easter resurrection gives me hope for a brighter future. I do this, because I trust that God is in control, not me, and God's grace will hold me up when all else fails. I do this, because . . .
In many of our conversations, we are not bold enough to finish those sentences, to complete what the silence of the ellipsis is meant to leave unspoken. Which is why the church wisely moves from the Christmas season into Lent. These forty days prior to Easter are times for self-reflection; they are opportunities to ask "What do I truly value in this life? What is God's spirit urging me to do (or stop doing)? Where is hope seeking to be born in my own life?"
Is there an unfinished question waiting to be spoken in your life? Is there an ellipsis waiting to be fleshed out by words and deeds in one of your relationships? One place to start is the hymn that goes like this: Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. That is all that needs to be said, because . . .
by The Rev. Dr. Randall K. Bush
A visitor to the United States wrote the following words: “In America I saw the freest and most enlightened [people] placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; yet it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures ... It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.” It is a fascinating critique of contemporary culture: the cloud hanging over us even in our times of pleasure, and the vague dread that we have not chosen the shortest, easiest path to our personal goals of happiness. It is an astute comment on life today, and even more intriguing in that it was written 170 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America, vol. 2; 1840).
The first month of the year is traditionally a time for self-reflection and goal-setting. (Also, because the weather is generally cold and miserable, there’s not much to distract us outdoors!) One feature of contemporary life is that the “restless temper” noted by de Tocqueville long ago is still alive and active in life today. We have a tendency to move from place to place, from city to city, sometimes from church to church. The recent period of high unemployment has made us less prone to “job hopping”; however, that has not fully stopped the restless impulses in our lifestyle and shopping habits. We buy; we discard; we buy again: cars, television sets, clothes, furniture, iPhones, Droids, you name it. We exist in what some have called a “market turnover culture,” searching for new things (new products, new relationships, new locations) as if that will bring us true happiness.
Sometimes the healthiest spiritual path to follow is not to move anywhere or do anything. After the initial burst of evangelistic fervor spread the gospel out from Jerusalem into the bustling towns and cities of the known world, a few centuries later the inclination was to found monasteries as quiet places of prayer and study for people of faith. From the fifth century into the middle ages, monks, nuns, and people of faith regularly stopped what they were doing to offer prayer at specific times of the day. This was to help remind themselves that God’s time takes precedence over human time, and seeking to follow Christ takes precedence over following the relentless demands of this world. Committing to be in a community (monastery, church, a marriage or relationship or family) involves a faithful determination to stick around, to “be still and know that God is God” (Psalm 46); to quiet the restlessness within us that we might find peace in the living, sustaining embrace of the Lord.
If we begin there, then the next step is usually easier. After spending time in silence, in prayer, in quieting the roar of the maddening crowds, we are able to discern where God is leading us. Our ELPC church leaders are actively seeking to do this as we consider ministry directions and options for the coming year. May you also walk this same path as you set your own goals and make decisions for the year unfolding before you.