Ebenezer means "stone of help," and was the name of a monument raised by the prophet Samuel, saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) The hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing includes the line, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come." Through God's grace you and I have made it to today. Our job is to praise God for getting us here and trust him to bring us through tomorrow.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Companions for the Journey

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10   Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.  But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.

One of the quotes by Henry David Thoreau that is etched in my mind [and there are a lot of them; I did my senior thesis on him] is, "My friend shall forever be my friend and reflect a ray of God toward me."  Poor HDT was always looking for the "perfect" in this world, and always being frustrated by the lack of it.  Friendship was no different - he wrote many pages on the idea of friendship but had few close friends, and drifted apart from most of those he did have in the course of his life.  Unlike the True Friend envisioned in his quote above, there was no one to always be his friend, or to direct a ray of God toward him.

The life lived in Christ, however, should embody that ideal.  If we are to be brothers and sisters to each other, we are certainly called to be friends to each other, and in our friendship we will shine the love of God upon each other.

The writer of Ecclesiastes can be dark and pessimistic in tone, but when he turns to friendship, he shares true and heartening insights:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.  But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.   Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.  But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.  A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Jesus puts this wisdom into direct action when he sends out the Apostles (Mark 6:7) and then the Seventy-Two (Luke 10:1) to minister, "two by two."   These early Christians could support, protect, and advise each other, just as we can today.

I have been superbly blessed over the years by a large number of friends.  I have drifted apart from some over time, as happens with anyone, though in other cases miles and years have not dampened our ties.  And as the years go by new friends emerge, unexpectedly.  Over time I am impressed more and more by how crucial we are to each other, and how God has literally designed friendship as a tool for surviving in a world frought with snares and pitfalls.  He gives us to each other, for a season or for a lifetime, but in all cases we are gifts of God, one to each other.

John, the friend of Christ, the wise sage who writes in old age to the church, declares, "This is the message you heard from the beginning: we should love one another." (1 John 3:11)  In so many cases it is as simple as that: love one another - "reflect a ray of God to me," to you.  But to underscore the point, John goes one step further: "Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth." (1 John 3:18)

Jesus is our friend; the old camp songs proclaim this.  But he also sends us friends, to lift us up, to keep us warm, to fight our battles.  Be grateful he does, and always be ready and waiting for the next friend sent to you - and to whom you are sent - and thank God for them.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rule #1: Be Nice

Galatians 6:9-10  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

I was speaking with a good friend recently about the basics of Christian teaching, when I recalled a great statement from a great sermon: "You don't have to be a trained soul-winner to be nice to people."

That memorable sentence came from Nazarene General Superintendent J.K. Warrick and when I heard it, in 2013, I immediately wrote it down. That statement is so special because, oftentimes, it really is that simple! 

Few believers are capable, or called, for that matter, to stand on street corners or go door to door, confronting complete strangers with the Gospel. I have seen this sort of public evangelism done in a powerful way by people specially anointed for this work, able to be true witnesses and cause people to stop and think. I have also seen it done quite ineffectively. Exiting a Boston Red Sox game one day, I headed back toward the subway (the "T") along with a friend of mine, an Orthodox Jew. We were moving along in a throng of people and in our midst was a street preacher, yelling at everyone passing by. As we came beside him, his eyes caught my friends' eyes for a mere second and the man yelled out, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?!" A step or two later, out of any earshot, my friend calmly answered, "Well, actually, no."

We are not instructed to wade into crowds and rant and rave, but we are instructed to care about people, to love people, and to do good. Paul's point to the Galatians was that doing good for others sows the seeds of faith. If we do not give up,someday there will be a harvest.

The United Methodist Church ran a television commercial several years ago depicting a true story. In the ad, a young boy and his friends break into the basement of a church in order to play pool on the pool table stored there. The minister of the church apparently figures out the boys are breaking in to do this and surprises them one day. He approached the young ring-leader, who is obviously certain he is about to end up in a load of trouble. But then the minister hands the boy a key to the building. The commercial ends with a shot of the surprised (and relieved) boy and the caption, "Now a pastor." It was a great vignette about how acting in love - and acting counter to this world's expectations - can transform a life for Christ.

The Apostle Peter shares a similar lesson, saying, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." It seems like common sense - people will open their eyes to Jesus if Christians act like we are called to act. It may be over-quoted, but St. Francis of Assisi hit upon an eternal truth when he advised, "Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words." Why does this seem so hard for some Christians to understand and implement? Perhaps it is due to the brand of Christianity some of them have encountered themselves. But if we are to take Jesus seriously, we will realize that the prime key to sharing our faith with others is by treating people well. And Paul makes it clear - that starts within the church: "...let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." He does not add these words because believers deserve special treatment, but because how we treat each other is a basis for our witness. This is why Christ told his followers:

 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
No one will believe our Gospel if we don't treat them with love. Nor will they believe us if we are not treating each other with love. So remember, day after day, hour after hour, it's quite simple. Don't grow weary in doing good. Because, "You don't have to be a trained soul-winner to be nice to people."

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reflections from an Ordination

1 Samuel 3:8-9   And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’”

Last Wednesday night, July 16th, as I was being ordained, a letter was carefully tucked into my vest pocket.  It was the letter that changed my life.

It was mailed to me 20 years ago this very month, sent by my great-great aunt, Esther McCullough.  Few people know, let alone have a relationship with, a great-great aunt, but this was no usual tie.  Aunt Esther, who had no children of her own, lived alone in Florida.  One day in the mid-1980s my mother sent her a photo of a science project I had worked on, and Aunt Esther proceeded to write a note to me about it.  From that began a correspondence that continued right up to her death in 1996 at age 98.

This particular letter, dated July 26, 1994, reached me in Ohio just prior to my senior year at college, and just a couple months before my 22nd birthday.  I had given a guest sermon somewhere and sent a copy to her.  This is what Aunt Esther had to say:

I realize that I am living on borrowed time, otherwise I would not make a suggestion as to your plans after Harvard. I strongly support that each go into any work that they feel they are fitted for and not be influenced by their family especially.... So if I felt I had time I would make no suggestion.
I definitely approve of your plans to enter some type of government work.... But if nothing along this line opens up, I wonder if you would consider the Ministry.
After expounding on this for a couple of paragraphs she finished the theme with, "As I said before, I do not want to force you but you are so eminently fitted for this that I would not want you to overlook it in case your first choice eludes you."

I remember finding her suggestion to seem almost comical, as this appeared to be the last thing for which I felt "fitted."  In my response, I outlined all the flaws in my character that would preclude me from any such career.  I wonder now if she chuckled at my naive rejoinder.

In reality, Aunt Esther's suggestion could not be so easily forgotten.  The very thought of it gnawed at me as the months went by.  It did not awaken a call to ministry, per se, but certainly awakened a call to learn.  I found myself in the grip of an insatiable need to add to my meager knowledge of the Christian faith.  Before I graduated from college I had already asked for a booklet from the admissions office of Harvard Divinity School.  It was the first step on a road that led eventually to my Master of Divinity degree at Duke.

Pike family after the service
In the months to come, life happened.  In 1995 and 1996 I had four jobs, moved four times, and got married.  But the desire to learn -- which was accompanied more and more by a desire to serve -- stayed with me. By early 1997, settled in Pierre, South Dakota (where I worked for the state legislature), I had my first meeting with a minister about my plans.  I was soon assigned to a mentor (a pastor who was preparing for retirement) and began the "candidacy process" in the United Methodist Church.

My wife and I had no thoughts of pastoring a church, ever.  However, I could see myself in an administrative role within the church someday, and so I embarked upon the deacon track, a road to the helping ministries which support the church behind the scenes.  Maybe I would someday work for a denominational office, or a church-related university.  But I was not cut out for pulpit ministry, and had no illusions to the contrary.

Eventually, after procrastination, I enrolled at Duke in 2000, necessitating another move halfway across the country.  My three years in divinity school were extraordinarily fulfilling as I learned so much about the Bible, the history of our faith, the thinking behind it, and its presence around the world.  Made nervous by public speaking, I waited until my final year to take the required preaching class.  Besides, I was certain it was not necessary for my future work.  Eschewing pastoral field education placements, I worked administratively instead.  Graduating in 2003 I was blessed to receive a job doing exactly the sort of thing I felt I was supposed to be doing -- managing a project sponsored by the divinity school which set up health ministries in the Carolinas.  It all made sense.

Though I was still in the candidacy process officially, I had no real desire to finish it.  Ordination as a deacon seemed superfluous and just meant a lot of paperwork and committee meetings I could do without.  However, in 2006 when we moved to Indiana, I decided to look into what it would take to reactivate that process.  Alas, it was clear that the retreats and other meetings I would be required to attend just for that purpose would interfere with my job. I asked how others working bi-vocationally could do it all, and the answer was, "It is a problem, and we're in conversation about how to solve that."

General Superintendent Porter addresses the ordinands
After years of groaning at the institutional politics of my denomination this was a last straw.  Besides, we had visited a Nazarene church locally and found it to be a far better fit for us theologically and socially, so we officially switched denominations.  That meant giving up the candidacy process for ordination, but that didn't trouble me much at all.

I was soon teaching Sunday school at our new church and before long realized that I could not dismiss this calling, whatever it was about, and so I applied to work toward ordination (again, as a deacon) in the Church of the Nazarene.  Step one was a Local Minister's License, which I first obtained in March 2009.  In July 2010 I was selected to receive a District Minister's License, which would allow me to do ministry in a local church as an official pastor.

Ironically, it was to be at the ordination service at that year's District Assembly that my direction would change.  Listening to the sermon and watching the ordination, I was struck by a realization that God was saying, you can do this, and you will do this.  All of my own self-doubts, I realized, were irrelevant.  I finally understood that I would never be ready or able to do the work of ministry -- not on my own.  But God could fill in all the gaps.  No one is ever ready.  No one is ever old enough, or wise enough, or experienced enough.  But God can take care of our shortcomings.

I immediately changed to the elder track, toward pulpit ministry.  The next spring an unexpected thing happened.  No Nazarene churches had been available nearby for me to pastor, but out of nowhere I was asked to fill in at two small United Methodist churches.  This was soon made permanent and since 2011 we have pastored these same two congregations.
Moment of ordination

At long last, this spring, having fulfilled the educational and pastoral requirements, and having been examined by the district committee on ministry, I was recommended for ordination.  And last Wednesday night, I knelt before General Superintendent Jerry Porter -- the same man who gave the sermon that life-changing night in 2010 -- and was ordained an elder in God's church.  It's not something I deserve, or ever could deserve.  Instead, it is a gift and an honor which I had to learn to accept.

The spirits and prayers of many people, living and dead, were on my mind and in my heart that night.  And in my pocket was the letter that in many ways started it all.  Good call, Aunt Esther.  Good call.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Way

John 14:6  "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

I don't know Greek.  Yet I can say I am fascinated by the thought of Jesus' statement as it sounds in Greek:  γώ  εμι    δς (Eg-o'  i-mee'  ho  hod-os'):  "I am the way."   I realize that Jesus probably said these words first in Aramaic, but I am sure they were repeated around the Mediterranean during those first, burgeoning decades of the Church in Greek.  One of the fundamental lessons for early Christians would have been this statement of Jesus, explaining that he was, and is, the Way.

We can estimate the importance of this statement by the term the early church used to speak of itself -- The Way.  In fact, it seems from reading Acts that before there even existed a term for "Christianity," there existed this term, "the Way."  In Acts 9, for instance, Saul wasn't hunting down Christians -- he was seeking out those "who belonged to the Way," the hodos.

In The Didache, an ancient written teaching of the church dating anywhere from 50-90 A.D., we again encounter the concept of the Way.  The document, which would have acted as a sort of early handbook for Christians, begins with this intriguing statement: "There are two ways: one is the Way of Life, the other is the Way of Death; and there is a mighty difference between these two ways."  In The Didache the new Christian is not advised to follow his or her church, or even something called "Christianity," but instead, to follow the Way (or in this case, specifically, the Way of Life).

Imagine...what if we had remained, simply, the Way?  What if instead of adding layer upon layer onto our beliefs and splitting into various sects and following after side issues and ideas, we, the Church, had simply remained The Way, dedicated to one thing only, and that being to follow Jesus the Christ, the Way, the Truth, the Life.  What if we could reclaim that focus?  What a church we could be!

During Holy Week, these words of Jesus, spoken as they were at the Last Supper, should especially resonate for us.  "I am the way the truth and the life."  The great British poet George Herbert, pondering this sentence, wrote:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life :
Such a Way, as gives us breath :
Such a Truth, as ends all strife :
And such a Life, as killeth death.
(From "The Call," 1633)
Such a Way, indeed.  Let us remember Christ's words, echoing through the ages, and let us follow the hodos, the Way, together.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Epiphany for the Low Church

Matthew 2:1-2  “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”

As I write this, a foot of fresh snow sits outside and the temperature is dropping below zero.  Despite modern portrayals, such was not the weather encountered by the Magi when they came to visit the infant Christ child.  And, just as the birth of Jesus may not have occurred in winter, we also have no idea when the Magi actually arrived to seek him out.  It may have been months later; some say up to two years, in fact.

Yet the day we now commonly set aside for remembering that occasion - Epiphany - occurs just 12 days after Christmas itself.  I've always had an interest in Epiphany, and this was magnified in 2005 when my grandmother passed away on January 6th.  The day has held more meaning to me ever since.  However, I have rarely been involved in a church that celebrated, or even recognized the existence of, Epiphany.  To borrow a phrase from across the pond, I have always been most comfortable in "low church" settings, in which liturgy and lectionary take a back seat to the Spirit and the people in the pews.  In such churches, however, Epiphany is largely unknown, or at least seen as a bit of a mystery.  So what are we to do with it?

First of all, it is important to recognize that Epiphany may be somewhat mysterious for a good reason.  It has a lengthy and varying history and has meant many different things to many different people.  In fact, it seems believers have celebrated Epiphany longer than they have celebrated Christmas, and depending on what era and region is in question, Epiphany has taken on differing forms.

Modern icon of the baptism of Christ
The important thing to remember is that Epiphany started as a celebration of the manifestation of Christ's divinity to the human race.  In other words, it commemorates the awesome miracle of God becoming flesh, and moreover, of God breaking into human history in the person of Jesus.  When we examine the Gospels, however, we see that this reality was made clear to people in more than one instance.  There is the birth of Jesus, in which angels announced his identity.  There is the visit of the Magi, when gentiles were introduced to the Son of God.  There is the baptism of Jesus by John, when those present witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus.  And there is even the wedding at Cana, when Jesus performed his first miracle.  All of these happenings, and perhaps more, have been celebrated by Epiphany.

Today, Epiphany is widely celebrated by Eastern Christians, and the focus is upon the baptism of Jesus.  Among Western Christians, the focus is upon the visit of the Magi.  If you are part of a Western European tradition, that is probably the meaning of Epiphany with which you are most familiar.
"Adoration of the Magi" by Giotto, c. 1306

So what of us who are of the "low church" traditions?  What if Epiphany has never been a part of your church year?  What are we to do with it, if anything?  I suggest that even the low church should find ways to incorporate Epiphany into our life of worship.  It is not foreign or strange, but in fact celebrates the wonderful fact that God cared about us enough not only to dwell amongst us, but also to make his presence with us known.  For those of faith, that presence was a supreme blessing, as it still is today.  As I see it, Epiphany basically celebrates the Good News of Christ's incarnation itself, and therefore it is, in its broadest sense, a celebration of the Gospel.  Surely, we can set aside a day to recognize that, at least.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mopping the Floors for God

Matthew 23:11-12  "The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

I recall once noting that my job in college had not been "socially empowering."  That's because cleaning other people's toilets (and sinks, and showers) can seem a bit demeaning, especially when those other people include your own classmates on a wealthy and often privileged campus.  And yet I always found the job somehow rewarding, and even to a certain degree, enjoyable.  Not only was I doing something constructive, I was also performing a service for others.  Maybe not something they couldn't have done otherwise, but certainly something that they didn't have to bother doing, because I was employed to help.  After two years of bathroom duty I was assigned to a wider range of work -- sweeping, mopping, moving trash, shoveling snow, and a myriad of other things.  When other students were sleeping in I was getting things done.  I felt like a caretaker,and I took pride in that.  It was a paid job but it was also my role in the life of the school.  I wouldn't have had it any other way.

I also learned over time (and especially in retrospect) that my earlier assessment wasn't entirely accurate.  Sure, my job might not have been "socially empowering," but it wasn't "disempowering" either.  I was not looked down upon for what I did, by anyone. If anything, I was warmly welcomed and well-respected by most of my classmates for whom I cleaned.  They understood my reason for working and they understood that I was more than just a student custodian.  Most importantly, they came to deeply appreciate my reliability and thoroughness.  The entire experience taught me an important life lesson:

In terms of work, others do not judge us by what we do, but by how well we do it.

This lesson came into play during my divinity school years as well.  During that period I worked in the copy room.  The job involved not just making copies for professors, but also sorting mail, moving furniture for events, making deliveries across campus, etc.  I loved it.  It allowed me to learn a great deal about the people and structures of the divinity school, and of Duke as a whole.  It gave me a sense of accomplishment, as I completed tangible jobs that helped make things run smoothly.  During my last year I tacked on another job, working in the University Secretary's office.  I spent my time on what may have seemed like menial tasks, from shredding paperwork to filing correspondence, but again, that maxim I learned in college held true.  I did my best, and was appreciated for it.  When I graduated, the staff took Brooke and me out for a swanky lunch, and presented me with a framed caricature of myself by a well-known area artist.  It was a gift, and a memory, to treasure.  And I had been nothing more than their work-study student.

There was a man in 17th century France who understood what I'm talking about here many times better than I do.  His name was Brother Lawrence, and for decades he worked as the humble cook at his monastery.  His singular pursuit was to find God in all that he did, and to grow closer to God through his work.  His greatness lay not in his title or his deeds, but in his devotion, his humility, and his sincerity.  These qualities led his fellow monks to be so deeply affected by him, that after his death a small collection of biographical remembrances, correspondence, and maxims was compiled to perpetuate his memory.  This slim book, The Practice of the Presence of God, is still an influential spiritual guide.
Brother Lawrence

In this work we find Brother Lawrence sharing:

It is not necessary to have great things to do....  I turn my little omelette in the pan for the love of God; when it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and adore my God, who gave me the grace to make it, after which I arise, more content than a king.  When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have lifted a straw from the earth for the love of God.

I struggle continually to follow Brother Lawrence's example.  The world defines success and happiness in so many ways which are counter to his lifestyle, and it is hard to embrace the servant attitude over that of our society.  And yet Brother Lawrence teaches us no more than what Jesus teaches us -- the importance of the servant-leader.  That term, "servant-leader," is far from rare in Christian circles, but it is talked about far, far more than it is lived.  Yet servant-leadership is exactly what we are called toward.  "The greatest among you will be your servant."  Now that is counter-cultural.  That is radical. And that is hard to live. But when we do live it out, when we live to serve and when we live to see God's glory in turning an omelette, mopping a floor, or clearing a paper jam, that is when we go from last to first, in the only eyes that matter.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Knocking on Heaven's Door

Matthew 7:7   "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you."

I'm not a big fan of knocking on doors.  No matter whose door it may be, a friend or a stranger, I always worry I am interrupting them if I have to knock. What if they don't want visitors right then?  What if they're asleep?  Or using the bathroom?  I always assume, anyhow, that I would be the last person someone would want to see, let alone to disturb their peace out of the blue.

So maybe my funny issue with door-knocking led me to think twice about Jesus' statement, "Knock and the door will be opened to you."

This is one of those verses so familiar to us that it is hard to look at it afresh.  In studying this verse recently, I found myself asking, how does it fit with Jesus's statement in Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me."  If Jesus is knocking on our door, and we are also invited to knock on a door, well, is the Bible describing the same door?  It may sound silly, but I had to reconcile the image in my mind.

First, let's think about Jesus standing at the door and knocking.  There are many artist representations of this scene, such as Holman Hunt's Light of the World or Warner Sallman's Christ at Heart's Door.  But in my mind Jesus is not tapping on some cute cottage door.  He is instead knocking on a door of our own making, a door composed of sin and ignorance, of fear and disobedience.  It is a door we have reinforced with several locks and bolts, all designed to keep Jesus out, and keep our sinfulness safe within.  We may not even know about the door (such as Jacob Marley's unseen chain, forged during a selfish life), but it is there, separating us from God's love.

Yet sometimes we hear the message and we hear the knocking and we find the strength to open that door to Jesus.  When that momentous moment occurs something special happens.  That ugly door is torn down and discarded.  It never has to separate us again.  And yet, the reality remains that we live in a broken world, and so there is still a threshold between where we dwell and where Jesus dwells (though he has dominion over all things).  In his mercy, Jesus gives us a new door, one without locks and bolts.  It is a door we are encouraged to knock upon.  In describing this door, John Wesley spoke of our knocking on "the Gate of Righteousness" (see paragraph 19 of this sermon), and we as believers can be assured that whenever we knock on it, Christ will be there to answer.  Every time.  And every time he answers, he will listen, and act upon our needs. 

Which door is next to you right now?  Have you let Jesus in yet?  If not, unlock the locks and unbar the bars.  Let him in to care for you.  If you already have, then remember the righteous door, made especially for you.  Jesus is right there on the other side.  Whenever you need him, just knock, and the door will be opened to you.