Category Archives: Strong By ’17

A Thursday Reflection 3.9.17

For this week’s reflection, I am passing on a brief spiritual reflection that I read last week as the season of Lent began.  I do not know the author except to note that he is an Episcopal priest serving somewhere in the USA.  Let me know what you think.

Fr Joe

Being Spiritual Is Not Enough

  Daily Devotional • February 28   By the Rev. David Baumann

Often today one can find people who talk about being “spiritual but not religious.” What “being spiritual” means is hard to define, mostly because it can mean so many different things, and there are no specifics — which also means that there is nothing personal, intimate, or engaging. What most people probably mean is that they have a sense of an unseen reality behind what is material. They are definitely right, but without specifics it is unclear just what that means or what they want to do about it. A Satan worshiper can be “spiritual.” Those to whom today’s lesson was first addressed apparently were impressed with angels, but the writer urges them to remember that angels are merely “messengers.”

“Being spiritual” can be a very basic beginning to the Christian life, but it is no more than a first step that can also lead to many other spiritualities, some of which can be deceptive and dangerous. “Not being religious” usually means not having any commitment to any particular religion. And this means having only a vague sense of moral obligations, if any, and rarely any kind of other costly commitment such as in time, relationships, or money.

Christianity offers, promises, provides, and requires much more than that! So as our lesson for today says, “We must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” As we begin Lent tomorrow, let us be sure that “we do see Jesus … now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” As the writer of the epistle says elsewhere, “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.”

A Thursday Reflection 3.2.17

This coming Sunday, the various churches which use the Common Lectionary will read St. Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus being tempted by the Evil One in the wilderness.  Let me tell you something about “temptation!”    It is real and seductive and powerful and every creature under heaven must deal with it.

Think of our sweet, loveable, adorable “innocent” border collie who, last Sunday, while watching me set up for a coffee break with JoAnne, silently, stealthily, and with the speed and precision of Syndergard fastball, plucked a biscotti right off the table (because I didn’t put it far enough away from her vision) and devoured it – all in about .0007 of a second!   (“Bad Dog!!”)  Temptation was just too much, and left to her own devices, when it comes to food, the score will always be Abby 1 – Daddy 0.

The insidious thing about “temptation” is that I am always tempted to what I perceive as desirable.  Be honest: when were you last tempted to break your diet by eating too much liver and cauliflower with stale bread!  Usually temptation falls into this scenario: I desire something good or at least neutral in itself, but it may be bad for me.   I may want something in itself good, but in the process I should strive for something better.  What I want NOW may be something that I either should not do or have NOW.

The season of Holy Lent is really a time to take stock of the “stuff” in our lives that we do or have that we make into priorities in the place of God.  How often we may do the right thing but for the wrong reason.   How often we simply expect/demand that God accept me as I am instead of responding to God’s calling us to something greater or better.

Jesus faced seductive callings away from being “beloved Son” that He was sent to be.  We all face such enticements drawing us away from what the Lord is calling us to be.  And that is why we need this Season.  And that is why I hope you will take this holy season seriously.

A Thursday Reflection 2.23.17

For those of us who were mandated to take a course in Logic, we were taught the fallacy known as “post hoc ergo propter hoc!”  In other words:  just because something (B) occurs after an event (A) does not prove that B was caused by A – e.g., I get up at 5 am and decide to wear jeans and a N.Y. Mets sweatshirt instead of black suit and clergy collar.   At 7 am a tree falls down over the Saw Mill River Parkway and backs up traffic for hours.  Unless one were a deluded NY Yankee fan, you cannot argue that what I chose to wear earlier that morning had any impact on whether a tree would fall sometime later!

This week’s readings from Scripture brought to the surface some of the more demanding teachings of Jesus:  about loving even those who cannot abide you, and not seeking revenge, and most importantly going beyond the demands of “the law.”

In the past weeks I have been watching with a mixture of grave concern, fascination and perhaps loathsome disdain how political discourse has not only degenerated into excuses for posting hateful communications, but it seems that it is becoming “fashionable” again to spew venom at any occasion.  Even at clergy gatherings, debate regarding different ideas can devolve into name calling and shouting sessions intended to vilify anyone who does not agree with your position.  I’ve watched behaviors on the subway show more flashes of anger and impatience than in years past.  (I remember “bad old days” and I do not want them back!)  There are now forbidden topics to discuss even in a family setting because of who will take offense at the very thought of thinking about a given issue.

Have we let the anger of political life seep into our daily lives, or even our lives as Christians?  Has the political climate infected how we choose to treat “our neighbor” whom Jesus commands we are to love as much as ourselves.    I don’t know what the cause of this change of attitudes that seems to be sweeping public and private life is, but I believe that if we stop listening to the voice of Jesus and making Him our priority and His life as our life, then I truly fear that we may be looking ahead to a culture dominated by anger and victimhood.  Christ’s command to love the “other” may be seen as a hopeless ideal or even a joke.  But I choose to walk His path!  And you?

A Thursday Reflection 2.16.17

It is Sunday morning, and I have made it to the Church to fend off anyone who might wish to challenge the evil wet winter elements like I did.  The ice/sleet is changing to snow even as I am writing, and it is getting harder to see out the window.  Also, it is now very, very quiet.  No sound of pinging off the windows, no sound of traffic … utter beautiful silence.
Sometimes it takes a morning like this to put on the brakes and be still.  All the running about we do!  All the programs, committees, assignments, projections, plans, papers, promises that fill our days come to a silent sliding halt on a day like today.
The psalmist wrote:  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  For all the “seeking” that our peers do (or claim to do), the simple unpleasant and unpopular truth is that unless one takes the time to be quiet, one is  not capable of finding God.  We do-do-do and forget to “be” – as in be silent, be open, be attentive, be watchful, be in the presence of the Divine One (in Three) who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us if only we would be still long enough to listen for the invitation.
Even if no one makes it this morning, I may stay awhile, and be still, and enjoy the silence, and be in the presence of God.

A Thursday Reflection 2.9.17

Last Sunday I used a few props to try to make the point that Jesus taught us, as his followers, to be like “salt” – a contrast to the norms and expectations of society or culture at large.  Watching our evolving (devolving?) political life being played out in various news as well as social media, I can’t help thinking back to my early years as a priest in the 70’s when I was taught that, as a church, the message of the gospel had to be more “relevant.”   This was a term which in effect meant that antiquated ways and traditional messages needed to be updated so that the message of Jesus would be heard by and be more at ease with contemporary culture.

But “being heard” does not equal “agreeing with,” and that is the point of being “salt of the earth” or “light of the world.”  You have a couple of well used “church talk” metaphors which we often forget were part of the substance of the ongoing teachings of our incarnate God.  Salt gives flavor.  Salt changes the taste.  Salt brings healing and purity.  Salt is antiseptic as well as spice.

I don’t believe we as Christians are ever supposed to be totally comfortable with our culture, society, political systems – or any of the powers of this world (to use another church phrase).  We are supposed to be different, better, almost a subversive force within “real life.”  When church and state are too much in sync, maybe that is not always a good sign.  Maybe we are supposed to be at odds with society’s usual expectations because the way of Jesus is not always the way of our political or business or social leaders – no matter which “side of the aisle” they reign from.  If you are not comfortable, as a Christian, with your place in society, maybe that is exactly where the Lord needs and wants you to be!

A Thursday Reflection 2.2.17

It was Sunday afternoon. The Annual Meeting was now “history,” and you had all gone home. It would be hours before JoAnne returned from the Annual Meeting at her Church (thus it hath been ordained from all eternity that all Episcopal churches must haveth their annual meetings on the same day at the same time). So I took Abby back to St. John’s to run around and get some exercise as she had been stuck in her crate from the wee hours of the morning.
Funny, as she didn’t do a lot of running. I was tired and lost in my thoughts and she seemed to sense this as she more or less abandoned the chase of the squirrel or the pursuit of any contraband food that the little ones may have left on the grounds. She just hung out with me – perhaps pensive in her own way.
The meeting is over, but now the real work must begin. Words mean nothing if not translated into actions. This year, we as a parish must be about being a visible sign of God’s mission. People need to see us “doing justice, loving tenderly and walking humbly with our God” (cf. last Sunday’s reading from the Prophet Micah). We don’t do this just to increase our numbers although I do believe that public witness does attract the good in those who seek.
We must do this because we must do this. It’s why the Lord may have brought us together in this place. This town (with graffiti of hate – whether as a sign of a deeper stench within or the stupid pranks of thoughtless adolescents); this nation that will do all in its collective power to avoid the issues and residue of racial injustice but is ready to tear itself apart over who “belongs” and what it means to be “safe;” our world where the poor, the powerless, the victims of violence all increase and no one seems able to say “enough” – our local, national and international identities are brimming with chaos. A world without Jesus’ love: works so well doesn’t it?
We’re just a small group of Christians who have to say “enough.” God put us here for a reason. It is time for us to let that culture know we are here and what we stand for. I was pondering these things and I wonder if my little companion was doing the same?

A Thursday Reflection 1.26.17

It seems that just about this time each year, as we approach our Annual Meeting, I try to come up with some idea about why we need to use the time we’re given to do the work God has put us here to do.  Annual Meetings are like that for me.  I look back on the previous year.  What did we accomplish?  What did we try and actually succeed at?  What did we at least try but fail to achieve?  Where are we now?  Are we in a better place than a year ago?  And on and on.  But the underlying question for me still remains: how did I use my time and what did I let pass me by?

And then I got a phone call Tuesday evening.  A person called the church office looking for “the parish priest,” so he ended up calling my cell.  It seems he had an unusual request.  He was trying to track down an older priest whom he wasn’t sure if I ever heard of, but this priest had once been very kind to him and helped him out. (He kept it vague and I didn’t press.  I’m sure there is a story here but it’s not for me to know!)   The caller “wasn’t in a good place back then” so many decades ago, but now life had changed and he wanted to make things right.  He “needed” to find him and thank him. He wondered if there was some kind of Diocesan book or directory he could use to track the priest down.

Funny, (or not), as it turned out, I knew that priest.  But I had to inform the caller that he had passed away a long time ago.  He wasn’t going to have that chance to say “thanks” or whatever else he may have needed to say.  I thought I heard him get a bit weepy, and I told him to remember and pray for that priest.

All of this brings me back to Annual Meetings and reflecting on how we used our time last year, and what we did and did not do.  We always foolishly assume we’ll have time to do whatever it is we wish.  And yet, that telephone call was just another reminder that our time passes so quickly and if we put off the good we ought to do, we may never get the chance to do it.  This applies to people.  This applies to parishes.  I wish we would learn this!

A Thursday Reflection 1.19.17

More than a few of you have asked me when I will next feature Abby (our border collie) in this series.  Abby usually determines this by what she may have taught me in a given week.  Well, she has been at it again, so here goes.

One of the themes you are going to hear at our annual meeting (at least in my address to the parish) is our need (not just St. John’s but Christians in general) to follow through on our commitments with desire and passion.   I’ve read too many articles from “experts” who observe (and yeah, maybe even judge – oooh -) that it has become culturally acceptable to make a promise to do or not do something but later to change one’s mind any time after because one’s mood or interest has now changed.

And this brings me to this little creature that God has put into JoAnne’s and my life.  One thing about a Border collie: she is tenacious!  If she needs to “patrol” or “sniff” an area in the yard that her outdoor friends (bunnies or deer, among others) have wandered through during the night, she may tear off my arm but she will go to that area to make sure they are OK.  If she hears a sound that is out of place, she must investigate to protect her flock. (I hate being a sheep!)    When it is a certain time in the afternoon, she knows that her daddy/mommy needs to cook supper, and she will push you (physically if necessary) and talk at you until you move.  When the time gets closer for her own meal, she will stare you down as if her little eyes had the voltage of Darth Vader’s Death Star’s power beam!  Nothing deters her.  If you’re not part of the solution, she will move you out of the way!

This is what I have learned from her.  More than observing merely animal “instinct,” I truly believe I am watching a creature of God who discovers (or intuits) what needs to be done, and then will always follow through and accomplish the task whether convenient or not.  From years of pastoral experience, I know that in small parish communities, like our own, sometimes it is easier to just let someone else do the work or to not follow through with an idea.  One gets tired, and yes, it is really hard work being an active member of a small church.

When I am really dragging and just not wanting to write that next report (diocesan, parochial or for the Seminary), improve a probably acceptable but really not good enough sermon, come up with one more new idea at yet another meeting, or deal politely with one parishioner who secretly desires to complain about another (or me), I am reminded of a little dog who pursues everything she does with passion and commitment.  Yes, she is forgiving and loving (far more than some Christians, myself included have been – and so remarkable for this once-abused animal), but I am in awe of her never-say-die pursuit of any goal.  She does not know how to quit or “mail it in” (to use a sports image).  In being this way, she teaches me how to pursue my own ministry as a believer in Jesus and as a pastor of his people with passion, excitement and the desire to follow up any task or idea given to me.  So, are there any of you who want to rent out a dog who is more than willing to teach you so much????

A Thursday Reflection 1.12.17

This Sunday (January 15) marks what would have been the 88th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I am hoping that our youth have learned more about this man than merely the fact we get a day off from school or work and that the NBA usually has a number of afternoon games to capture that market.

In our parish, many of you have heard recordings of a few of his sermons (and we’re going to do this again in February – on a non-holiday weekend when fewer folks might be traveling).  Some of you have read his writings.  Many of you know how brilliant he was: possessing a doctorate in Systematic Theology from Boston University.

He was a pastor, first and foremost – a preacher who was the son and grandson of preachers.  By choice and by act of Divine Providence, he was “catapulted into national prominence” as a leader and activist.  I will not catalogue his life experiences as this is something you can certainly (and should) read up on your own.  You know for what he stood and for what he died.

I just hope that this Sunday will be more than just the mid-point of a holiday weekend.  Not to put down anyone’s profession, but I hope holiday sales events at local car dealerships do not become the identifying marker of an extraordinary life and martyr.  God gave him a dream and I pray that one day we might truly live into that dream.  If we have learned anything from the past few years, sadly, we have such a long trek ahead of us.

A Thursday Reflection 1.5.17

2016 is gone forever.  I for one am quite glad.  Still I have no idea what 2017 will bring.

I don’t know if the political chasm that tears away at any hope for unity in this nation can be healed.  I cannot tell you that the perpetrators of evil and death in some perverted notion of doing the will of God will be stopped or their hearts softened with truth in love.  What will be the future of our small Episcopal Church in New York – burdened by the structures and procedures of another era?  Will we reverse the downward trend of shrinking numbers and growing debt?  Hey!  Will I ever make a New Year’s resolution that I am able to keep?

I do know that I begin this year able to see with a clarity that I had lost over the years, and I am so grateful for the skills of surgeons and the procedures that restore sight.  I can sympathize more with those who deal with physical pain on a regular basis as (including my own brother and his reconstructed hips, knees etc.) now that I have learned that all the “hype” about Shingles being off-the-charts painful is no hype.  I know that my mom is no longer trapped in a failing body and a mind that was dying as she now resides with our loving Father in Heaven and has returned to the One who created, redeemed and sustains us.

What I know is that no matter what we expect or predict for the year that approaches, our eyes are shut to the truth of what will or must occur.  We can only trust – putting ourselves in God’s hands and truly believing that what lies ahead is what we have been sent here to do.  My path for this year, no matter where it may lead, as long as I keep faith, is where God is leading.   And this gives me reason to hope.