Devotional – Genesis 25.29-31

Devotional:

Genesis 25:29-31

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”

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Communicating the stories of scripture to young children is a challenge. Ask any young person even remotely familiar with the bible about their favorite story and you’re likely to hear something about Noah’s ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, or David and Goliath. But the bible is so much more than those stories and they need to be shared with all people.

During Chapel Time with the preschool students at my last church I would often try to come up with different and imaginative ways to tell the story. Long ago flannel-graph representations of characters and objects would be enough to impart the story in a young person’s mind, but today, with the advent of social media and youtube, different means are necessary.

Every year I would guide the children through the bible and whenever we came to the story of Jacob and Esau I asked the children to join me in the church kitchen. All of the ingredients were prepared ahead of time and each student was able to add a portion of the ingredients to make some “red stuff” (chili). They would stand there mystified as the ground beef mixed with the tomatoes and the black beans and the spices and they all struggled to stir the giant pot with a large wooden spoon. When it was ready to cook I would put it on the stove and let the kids return to their classes for a few hours.

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At the end of the day, right before they were dismissed, I would bring the chili downstairs and each child was offered their own bowl. While we ate together I would tell them the story of Jacob and Esau and how Esau was willing to get rid of something so wonderful and so precious for a bowl of red stuff. The kids would stare into their empty bowls and contemplate the greater blessing of a full stomach or the blessing of almighty God and then we would pray together.

I loved teaching the lesson every year, but what I didn’t anticipate was how well the younger children would remember it with each passing year. Because by the time the 2 year olds became 4 year olds they refused to even taste the chili for fear that God would remove the blessing from them!

The stories of scripture offer us a window into the divine. The bible is a strange new world that we enter whenever we open the book, and stays with us whenever we put it down. In the world today we are offered all kinds of things to quench our thirst and satisfy our hunger whether its literal liquid and food or relationships or experiences. But all of them are fleeting when compared to the immense blessing of God in Jesus Christ.

Devotional – Psalm 31.5

Devotional:

Psalm 31.5

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

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It is such a blessing to work for a church with a preschool because I get to interact with children who are beginning to learn about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This takes place weekly during chapel time in the sanctuary as I help to share stories from the bible with the kids, and it also takes place on special occasions like when we celebrate communion together and when we talk about the waters of baptism. Our preschool represents a great diversity of families and religious convictions (including a few kids whose mother or father is the pastor of a different church) so I have to make sure that whenever we talk about scripture I’m not doing it in such a way that it will undermine what a child has been taught at his/her home church.

Over the last few years we’ve had two brothers attend the preschool whose mother is the pastor of another United Methodist Church in town. Pastor Sarah and I are very close and I’ve greatly enjoyed talking with her boys about the bible because they know it so well (though it has made chapel time sessions a challenge since they are forever answering the questions before the other kids get a chance). Her boys, Charlie and Jed, are what I hope my son, Elijah, will be like as he grows up.

Months ago I was having a conversation with Sarah at a clergy event when she shared with me that her boys were not baptized as infants and that they had recently decided to commit their lives to Jesus AND that they wanted me to participate in their baptisms. To be asked by another clergy person to take part in her children’s baptism is quite unlike anything I’ve ever been blessed to do in my life.

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And so yesterday afternoon, Sarah’s family and friends gathered together with her boys by a river just outside of Staunton for their baptism. I offered a little homily to reflect on how God has already moved in and through their lives and then it was time to go to the water. The river was moving at a good pace and was so cold that I was worried if the boys slowly walked out into the water they would have high-tailed it in the other direction, so one-by-one I carried Sarah’s sons over the water and together she and I baptized them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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For what it’s worth: the Spirit got a hold of them real quick and they were both screaming as they came out of the water!

 

Being there are the water’s edge, and then in the middle of the river for the baptism, was one of the holiest experiences I’ve had in a long time. And when I looked at Jed and Charlie, when I saw their utter dedication to what they were about to do (even with the water as cold as it was), and I was reminded of Psalm 31.5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Jed and Charlie made a choice yesterday afternoon to offer their lives to Christ, something that most of us have done whether we made the choice or someone made it for us. And today I am grateful that I was there to participate because their faithfulness has challenged me to be more faithful like them.

The Tyranny of Titles – A Christmas Pageant Homily

Matthew 18.1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

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Kids get it. They make the connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2016 has been a rough year with the political rhetoric and partisanship at its worst, and all the culturally significant individuals we lost (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Gene Wilder, John Glenn, etc.), and with the migration of refugees from the Middle East to Europe at the highest levels since the Second World War… our preschoolers have had a tremendous year.

Today, we adults live under the tyranny of titles. We want to label individuals based on a crazy assortment of criterion. He’s a Republican, she’s a Democrat, that family is poor, that family is rich, that woman is black, that man is Hispanic, that couple is gay, that couple is straight.

But the Preschoolers who gather in our basement don’t see the world and one another the way we see the world and one another.

Instead they see each other as Cruz, and Hadley, and Charlie, and Ellie Rose, and Owen, and Maddie, and Graham, and Henry. They, unlike us, do not view the world through the cynical lens that so many of us have adopted over the years. They, unlike us, see the world like Jesus.

Like that little girl with her father, they understand the cost of discipleship in a way that few us can.

I’ve been here long enough to have spent a lot of time thinking about what the Preschool should be teaching the children. I’ve had consultations with the teachers about curricula and paradigms. I’ve even met with some of you to discuss the growth and transformation of your children in response to the nurture and education they receive in the basement.

I’m guilty of the same cynicism that treats young people like objects to be molded in a factory to come out prepared for the world. When Jesus is the one who calls us not to make children into adults, but to change adults into children.

This Christmas, I have a challenge for you. Instead of being consumed by the desire to transform your little ones to fit into one of the labels of society, try to let them transform you. Try to look at the world the way they do. Try to love one another the way they do.

For it is on Christmas that we celebrate the birth of God in the flesh, born as a baby in a manger to a young couple all alone in the world. God did not come to change the world through political power or through economic wealth or through militaristic might. God changed the world through a baby, not unlike the ones we are celebrating with tonight. Amen.

Devotional – James 5.8

Devotional:

James 5.8

You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

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Christmas pageants require patience. Christmas pageants for preschoolers require particularly profound patience. Every year the students of St. John’s Preschool spend time each day during the season of Advent practicing and rehearsing their lines for their annual Christmas pageant. We always have a Mary and a Joseph who carefully hold a baby doll in their hands as they sit patiently toward the front. We always have a couple Wisemen who are forever beating each other with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And we have an assorted collection of barnyard animals including mice, sheep, cows, and at least one donkey.

Today I gathered with the children in the sanctuary and, as the defacto narrator, I led them through the pageant from beginning to end. When our shyer students walked up to the microphone I was ready to feed them their line and when our gregarious students walked up to the microphone I covered my ears in anticipation of them belting out their one line proclamation.

Meanwhile, a father of one of our students was in the preschool preparing Christmas trees for each of the classrooms. The hope was that after practicing, the children would return to their rooms with the surprise of cheer waiting for them in the form of a tree and then they could decorate each tree as they saw fit.

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When we finished the pageant, I walked with the children to their rooms and as soon as they saw the Christmas trees they went berserk. Our pretend shepherds were jumping up and down while our animals were spinning around in circles and even Mary and Joseph were screaming with joy. I did my best to calm them and then we sat on the floor to talk about the trees and how the relate to the Christmas story. I began with what I thought was a rather innocuous question: “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” To which one of our three year olds shouted out, “TO GET PRESENTS!!!”

Advent is a season of patience. While others want to jump straight to Christmas morning, while our preschoolers salivate over wrapped boxes under the tree, we strive to patiently wait for the coming of the Lord. This is the season of strengthening our hearts so that we might be prepared to receive the gift of the Christ-child with unadulterated joy (like the preschoolers) while also remembering the real present is God’s presence with us.

Devotional – Genesis 32.28

Devotional:

Genesis 32.28

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

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I gather in the choir loft of the sanctuary with the entirety of St. John’s Preschool every Wednesday morning at about 9:30am. By that time the children have all had an opportunity to get out most of their “wiggles” before sitting down in the stiff church pews and learning a story about God from the Bible. I generally try to start the academic year off with stories from Genesis and make my way through up to the stories of Jesus leading toward Easter Sunday.

When we learn about God making light from Creation, we turn the sanctuary lights off and on and talk about what a great gift it is to have light. When we talk about Adam and Eve hiding from God after eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, we play hide and seek in the sanctuary and talk about how God never stops looking for us even when we’re lost. And this year, when I was foolish enough to teach them about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we played red light green lights in attempts to reflect on how God offers us the wisdom of when to go and when to stop.

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Last week we met in the sanctuary to talk about one of my favorite stories from Genesis: Jacob wrestling by the banks of the Jabbok river. Jacob has run away from his family after stealing and tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing and is about to reencounter his brother. But before he can meet his fate in Esau, a strange man arrives in the middle of the night and wrestles Jacob until he, in a sense, learns his lesson. And from this struggle he receives a new name: Israel.

In order to bring the story to life, I had the preschoolers line up one by one and each of them were tasked with knocking me over in a wresting match. They all came forward and gave it their best shot (some were oddly more prepared for this than others) and I would pick them up and spin them around in circles. When one of our last two year olds came forward, I let him knock me to the ground, but instead of pounding on me like some of the older kids, he wrapped his arms around my neck and hugged me.

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I was then able to stand up with the boy in my arms and tell the kids the most important part of the lesson: God loves us so much that even when we’re angry, God will never let us go.

To be a Christian today almost implies a degree of struggling with God. We want to know why a hurricane, like Matthew, can wage destruction in places like Haiti, the Bahamas, and the East Coast of the US. We want to know why our presidential political system is filled with such vitriolic and hateful language. We want to know why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad people. Yet, even amidst all the struggle and questions, what a blessing it is to know that God’s love is so strong that God will never let us go.

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

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  1. The Holy Spirit Moves in Mysterious Ways

At the end of last summer our youth leaders resigned from their position and we were in need of new leadership. After putting out the job description in a number of places, and receiving zero responses, I decided to take over the position for a limited basis. We restarted the youth group as a discipleship adventure whereby we would meet every Wednesday night from 7-8pm for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Each week I planned out activities for the bible study, and prayed over bread and grape juice, but the youth taught me more about God than I ever taught them. Throughout the year they wrestled with topics like being Christian and political, violence, bigotry, and identify; and not because I brought the subjects up, but because they initiated the dialogue. I often make the false assumption that I am bringing God to other people as a pastor, but the youth reminded me that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I never anticipated leading the youth at St. John’s UMC, but now I can see that it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my ministry.

 

  1. Time = Trust

After 3 years in ministry, I am starting to feel the trust that has formed because of the amount of time we’ve had together. Of course I felt trusted from the beginning, but we are now at a place in our relationship as church and pastor whereby we can move in new and exciting ways because of our history. At first it was a hard sell for the church to participate in something like a free community cookout, but because we have seen the fruit that comes from providing food and fellowship for the community, the church is now pushing for the event to grow. Similarly, the church has a preschool that went underappreciated for too many years. Because I have taken the time to work with the preschool, and share stories about it in worship, the church now believes in the importance of connecting with the preschoolers and their families. The trust within the church has grown because of the good time we have spent growing together in faithfulness.

 

  1. The Job Is Big

The list of things I’ve had to do under the auspices of being a pastor gets longer every week. In seminary they prepare pastors for the work of preaching, teaching, praying, and visiting, but they are a fraction of what I actually do. On any given day I am: an office manager answering phones and responding to emails; a property manager changing light bulbs, working on the plumbing, tinkering with the boiler, and climbing up into the attic for the HVAC system; a sound technician addressing the speakers and microphones in the sanctuary; a babysitter watching over children from the preschool and the greater community; a spiritual guru answering questions about faith from strangers and friends alike; a social media ninja overseeing our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts; a webmaster maintaining the church website and internet presence; an animal control specialist removing birds that got into the social hall through the chimney; and an assortment of other jobs. To be a pastor is to wear many hats with many responsibilities.

 

  1. It’s Hard to Let Go

My wife gave birth to our first child at the end of April and I was able to take 4 weeks of paternity leave to be at home with them. Those 4 weeks were an absolute blessing to be there to comfort both of them during those difficult first weeks, and it also allowed me to bond with my son in a way that I will always cherish. However, taking that time off from the pulpit was really hard. After preaching nearly every Sunday for three years I grew accustomed to knowing the people of the church and how to faithfully proclaim God’s Word to them. In taking a month off, I had to trust that the Lord would provide even in my absence. I am thankful for the time away not only because of what it meant for my family, but also because it reminded me of the truth about the church; it belongs to God and not to me.

 

  1. If You Build It They Might Come

Just because you create a new program, or offer a new class, it does not necessarily mean that people will come. We’ve had a number of new things develop and become successful at St. John’s including a weekly lectionary bible study, weekly youth meeting, and occasional fellowship events. But for every successful venture we’ve developed, there have been an equal number of opportunities for discipleship that failed. I attempted to lead a weekly evening bible study on the book of James, and by the third week no one came. I tried to start a monthly gathering for fellowship on the first Sundays of the month and by the third month I was the only one in the fellowship hall. There is a temptation to take these kinds of failures too personally, so it is good to reflect on the times that even Jesus’ or Paul’s or Peter’s ministries were not successful. When we put our effort into something that doesn’t bear fruit, we do well to cut it off and let the vine remain strong instead of draining away its resources.

 

  1. A Phone Call Can Make All The Difference

I once heard a professor say that 90% of the church will show up for church on Sunday, so working on worship and sermon preparation should demand 90% of a pastor’s time. Though this is true on one level, it also neglects to account for those who either can no long come to church, or haven’t for some time. On a whim last fall I decided to go through the entire church directory and call every person that was not in church the previous Sunday. A number of people were simply out of town, or had not been to the church in a number of years, but every single person was grateful for the phone call nonetheless. I did not call in order to guilt the people into coming back to church, or with some other ulterior motive, but simply to say “hello” and the response has been incredible. For those who have fallen captive to loneliness they were reminded that the church still cares about them, and for those on the edge of regular church attendance they were reminded that the church knows them and wants to stay connected. All it takes is lifting up a phone and dialing a number and it can make all the difference.

 

  1. People Remember

It amazes me how people can remember a phrase from a sermon or a prayer from a year ago and demonstrate how it has developed into fruit in their daily lives. I’ll be sitting in a lectionary bible study and one of the people in the room will quote a sermon I offered on the text from three years ago. Or I will be sitting with a family in my office planning for a funeral and one of the family members will ask me to preach on a text they once heard me mention from the pulpit. Or I will be in the midst of concluding a chapel time lesson with the preschoolers when one of them will connect the message to a different lesson from earlier in the year (we were talking about the power of communion and I was holding the loaf of bread when one of our four-year-olds shouted out, “so Jesus was born in the house of bread (Bethlehem) and then he gives us the bread of life? Cool!”). Seeing and experiencing how people remember what I have said in the past is remarkably affirming, but it is also indicative of the power of our words.

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  1. Thankfulness Breeds Generosity

For a long time the church I serve was in a difficult financial situation. They had not paid their apportionments in full for the better part of two decades and they regularly struggled making sure they had enough to keep the church open from month to month. As a congregation they became accustomed to hearing about the financial disparities and the need for them to sacrifice for the greater church. When I arrived we attempted to look at our financial situation from a completely different perspective and instead of talking about sacrifice, we talked about generosity. Little by little, as the church saw the tangible fruit from our ministries developing throughout the year, our offering started to increase which in turn allowed us to focus on more opportunities for ministry and not just keeping the church open from month to month. It took some time, but we were able to move from a maintenance model of the church to a missional model for the church. Last fall, after it was clear that we would be able to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row, I hand wrote a letter to everyone who gave to the church during the previous year. It took a long time, but I wanted everyone to know how thankful the church was for each person’s continued generosity and commitment to building God’s kingdom. What I never anticipated was the fact that our weekly offering grew almost immediately after the letters went out. I believe that knowing how our gifts have been used for God’s kingdom, and that the church is grateful for those gifts, has reshaped our church’s identity from scarcity to generosity.

 

  1. Though We May Not Think Alike…

John Wesley once famously said, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? Without all doubt we may.” At the heart of Methodism is a commitment to think and let think. Which is to say, we are a church of differing opinions and somehow we can continue to do the work of the church because we are united in our love. This kind of commitment to radical love amidst disagreements has been evident in the way people have responded to my preaching. Over the last year I have been able to speak toward a variety of subjects that we are clearly divided over. I have addressed homosexuality, the pervasiveness of violence, divorce, and other subjects. I have made jokes about Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. I have tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And people keep showing up to church. Even though they let me know that might not agree with anything I said on a particular Sunday, they will be sitting in one of the pews the following week. Though we may not think alike, we are still loving alike in this strange and beautiful thing we call the church.

 

  1. I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Ordained ministry is an odd and wondrous calling. There are days that feel like I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and I become frighteningly anxious over the future of the church. I will pull out my phone and learn about another person’s death, or I will receive an email about a divorce that is about to be finalized, or someone will show up at my office looking for any sense of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. But most of the time, it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word reflecting on how the Lord continues to speak to us today? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

From Diapers to Diplomas

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

graduation-sunday

 

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said that true terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country. It’s a great quote, and one often used this time of year during graduation speeches. In fact, ten years ago, it was used by one of my friends at the beginning of her address during my graduation from High School: True terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country.

Time can be terrifying. We, as human beings, are deeply rooted in time and when it feels like its going too fast, it leaves us shaking. It shakes us because we can wake up and wonder where it all went. I feel like I just graduated from High School; I can still remember the uncomfortable polyester graduation gown that created a frightening amount of static electricity. I can still picture the girls wearing too high high heels and attempting to walk across the stage without toppling over, and I can still remember the beginning of the speech and how true those words are.

We change all the time. It’s at the heart of what it means to be human. We’re born, we grow in size and knowledge, we move, we develop, we transform, we graduate from preschool to kindergarten, and then all the sudden we graduate from high school, and then with the blink of an eye our generation is running the country.

Things change, our lives change, our situations change, and when they do, it feels like the earth shakes under our feet.

Upon graduating from preschool we move on to Kindergarten. After a number of years with the same classmates and the familiarity of one school and one program, we have to move on to a new location, with longer hours, with a whole new set of expectations. I can still faintly remember my first day in kindergarten and wondering where to sit, and if anyone was going to sit with me. And the change that takes place for the parents is even more severe!

During the final months of Preschool here at St. John’s, we ask the parents to wait in the parking lot so that the children can get used to walking to their own classroom by themselves. This is one way of preparing them for Kindergarten. And honestly, on that first day, the children bound up and down the hallway without a care in the world, and it is the parents in the parking lot who are undergoing an existential crisis.

I’ve seen tears well up in the eyes of fathers, and mothers nervously pacing back and forth while their children enter into a new realm of being. I imagine they felt like the world was shaking under their feet and they needed something solid to hold on to.

After graduating from high school we go off to college and enter a whole new strange world. We often pack our belongings and start living with a stranger and won’t be home until the first break at Thanksgiving. For the student it is a time of great excitement and opportunity, whereas for the parents it can be downright terrifying. Will they be okay? Will they get enough food to eat? Are they going to be able to make new friends? Who is going to wake them up for class in the morning? Who is going to do their laundry? It shakes the parents to their core to watch their beloved child go from diapers to diploma in a blink of an eye.

Every graduation leads to a time of change and fear; Preschool to Elementary School, High School to College, Singleness to Marriage, Health to Death. We enter these periods of unknown, and that’s what makes us really afraid.

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When these changes occurs, when we graduate from one thing to another, we often respond in one of two ways; they either push us closer to God, or farther away.

A young couple has a baby and once the new domestic rhythm is established they realize they have no idea what it means to raise a child to be a decent human being so they start going to church it hopes of answers and direction. Or a recent graduate enters a university and is invited to a worship service filled with people who genuinely care about her well-being and she discovers who she is and whose she is. Or a recent widower listens while the church proclaims his deceased wife’s promised resurrection during the funeral and it gives him the strength to discover God’s love in church.

But change can also push us away. We convince ourselves that we can raise a child without the help of a larger community, we believe there is no place for the church in our lives while we are in college, or we grow cynical toward the words proclaimed when someone we love dies.

The church is bold to proclaim the words of the psalmist, the enduring truth, that even though the earth should change, even though the mountains shake and the seas tremble, even though kindergarten can be overwhelming (for children and parents), though the unknown of college stands like an undefined horizon, even though people die and we grieve till the end of our days, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. This city cannot be moved, because God dwells in the city forever.

God is the solid rock upon which we can stand when the world shakes underneath our feet. When we are filled with sorrow and doubt, God is the source of joy and light. While people push us to and fro with differing opinions, God speaks the truth in love. As we receive our identities in the hurtful comments of friends and foes, God tells us that we are beloved.

There is a great comfort that comes in knowledge that even though our lives will change, God will stay the same. That is the great story of scripture; God remains steadfast even when we fall away. In the wilderness journey of Exodus, while the people chose to worship idols and other gods, the Lord remained with them. After David fell into the clutches of sin, God was with him. After the exile, God called the people back to their homes and back to lives of faithfulness. Even after delivering Jesus Christ to the cross to die, God’s arms remained open to all of God’s children.

God stays the same.

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A few months ago I asked one of our youth who just graduated from high school to share what kind of difference St. John’s has made in her life. Danielle was baptized in this sanctuary, was enrolled in our preschool, and has been in worship nearly every Sunday for 18 years. That kind of commitment to the church shaped her into the remarkably wonderful young woman she is today, and it gives me hope for the role of the church in all of our lives.

This is what she had to say:

“Since I was born, I have been coming to St. John’s UMC. It has always been there for me. Even when I was a small child, and unable to truly comprehend the grace of God, I still had a strong and living faith because of the church. As I grew up, I made many friendships at St. John’s that mean a great deal to me. And honestly, “friendship” doesn’t even do justice to what it has really been like. I grew up with these people, and they took the time to raise me in the faith. Without this church I never would have found God and the power of God’s word. I am blessed because I have a church that loved me the way God calls us to love. Moreover, this church has helped me not only find God, but find myself as well. No matter where I might end up in the future, I will always cherish the memories, family, spiritual growth, and prosperity that I experienced at St. John’s.”

I believe Danielle was able to craft those words because of God working through you. Danielle feels blessed because this church loves her the same way God calls all of us to love: without judgment or assumption, without malice or prejudice. From diapers to diploma, you and the other great saints of this church have nurtured her. You have shown her what it means for God to be our strength and refuge, a very present help in trouble.

When someone from the church died she could have fallen to the temptation of fear and trembling. But you showed up for the funerals, you rejoiced in the promise of salvation, you embodied the hope we have in the Lord who is with us.

When she moved from school to school, while life changed around her each and every day, this place was like the river whose streams mad glad the city of God. Here in this church she learned about the God of creation who brought forth order out of chaos, who called Abraham into a covenanted relationship, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok river, who delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt, who called prophets and priests to bring the people back, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ and dwelt among us, who died on a cross, who was raised three days later.

Throughout Danielle’s life this church has said every Sunday, “Come, behold the works of the Lord!” Her eyes have been opened to the way God moves in the world, she found her identity as a child of God; she experienced God’s magnificent power and might.

Change can be a terrifying thing. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, is our refuge and strength. Because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, therefore we will not fear even though our lives change. This church’s work propels a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Through our worship and our work, through our prayers and our presence, through our faith and our fellowship, we remember that God is in the midst of our lives. God will help when a new day dawns. The nation might be in an uproar, kingdoms will totter, but the Lord of hosts is with us.

So come, behold the works of the Lord. God makes wars cease, and peace reign. God makes the weak mighty, and brings down the principalities. God breaks the bonds of slavery, and opens up the doors to freedom. God brings hope to the poor and calls upon the wealthy to serve. God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

Be still and know that God is with us. From diapers to diplomas and even to death, God is with us. Amen.

Transfigured Moments

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they say two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” – not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

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On Monday morning, before I departed for my ordination interviews, I came by the church to print off my papers and spend some time in prayer. Full disclosure: I was very anxious. Months of effort and focus had led to up to this week. Many of you have been here throughout this whole ordination process: you have endured sermons that went into my papers and some of you were here when we had to record an entire worship service. A number of you participated in the bible study I wrote on the book of James and offered feedback about what went well and where it could’ve been better.

The sanctuary was nice and quiet when I first entered to pray for God’s will to be done over the following days, but the longer I prayed, the louder the preschoolers were down in the basement. I continued to lift up my concerns to God until I felt that I had fully expressed myself, and then I went downstairs to say “hello” to the kids.

Like most of you, they were also aware of the interviews I would have this week. Yet, even knowing this, I was not prepared for what happened when I entered the first classroom. The teacher quickly motioned to the kids and while I was trying to kneel to speak with one of them they promptly surrounded me in a circle, grasped hands, and started to sing: “Thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, right where are. Amen.

The Transfiguration is an important moment in the life of Christ, and it really bears witness to the identity of the Messiah. Up to this point in scripture, Jesus has performed lots of miracles; he has healed the unwell, embraced the outcasts, preached in the synagogues, and started a revolutionary movement. But all of these particular moments were a crescendo to the brilliance on the mountaintop.

Jesus took with the inner circle of disciples up to the peak to pray. And while Jesus was in the depth of his prayers his face began to change and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, the disciples saw two men standing on either side of Jesus, one of them was Elijah, and the other was Moses. The disciples listened intently as the three shining men talked about Jesus’ departure that would soon take place in Jerusalem.

After they had discussed this for some time, and the two men started to depart from Jesus, Peter interrupted and begged Jesus to let them build three dwellings for this holy moment. He wanted to establish a degree of permanence in this brilliantly shining experience. But he, as scripture tells us, had no idea what he was talking about.

Then a cloud came and overshadowed all of them on the mountain and they were utterly terrified. But a voice cried out from the cloud saying, “This is my Son; my chosen. Listen to him!” When the voice finished, the disciples noticed that they were alone with Jesus, and they did not speak about this moment for a long time.

Shortly before this passage in scripture Peter was able to confess Jesus as the Christ; he understood that Jesus was the Messiah that the Hebrew people had heard about for centuries. Yet, this story of the Transfiguration is a reminder that even those disciples in the inner circle had gaps in their understanding. Professing deep and true faith requires something more than just knowing the stories from the past and connecting the dots. Professing deep and true faith requires transfigured moments that change everything.

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While the preschoolers sang their prayer around me, I felt like I was up on the mountaintop of Transfiguration. In their tiny voices and clasped hands I experienced the profound power of prayer in their willingness to lift me up in a holy moment. And like Peter, I didn’t want to the moment to end. Like Peter, I thought about setting up a dwelling place in that space to stay happy and comfortable.

When the kids finally shouted “Amen!” to conclude the prayer they immediately sprinted into the middle of the circle and started hugging me to the point that I fell over on the floor. It was a transfigured moment while I collapsed to the ground under the weight of laughing preschoolers, but I knew that I would have to eventually leave the mountaintop and make my way down to the valley of ordination interviews.

The next 24 hours were a blur. I made it to Blackstone, I spent the night, I woke up and interviewed all morning, and before I knew it I was back in my car heading west toward Staunton. The entire car ride was filled with more anxiety than before the interviews because now all I could do was wait. I spent far too much time rehashing questions in my mind and coming up with better answers than the ones I offered. But now the only thing I could do was pray patiently.

By the time our youth meeting rolled around on Wednesday evening, I had spent most of the day checking my phone every 5 minutes waiting for the call about whether I had been approved or not. I tried to be as present for the youth at the Circle but I know that my thoughts were elsewhere. With every minute that passed it felt like my heart rhythm was increasing one beat per minute. But still the call did not come.

I eventually brought the youth into the social hall and had them sit by the fireplace. I got a fire going and handed each of them a palm branch from our last Palm Sunday service and I explained our activity.

I said, “Every year churches take their used and dried-out palm branches and burn them. We do this in order to collect the ashes and use them for Ash Wednesday. Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, is a time to reflect on ways we could be better. It is a whole season for us to confront the mistakes we’ve made and start living like disciples of Jesus. I want each of you to take a couple minutes to think about one mistake you made in the past year, a moment you wish you could take back. I want you to imagine that failure as you throw your palm branch into the fire. And while you watch it burn, I want to you to remember that God can take our mistakes and make them into something holy. These palm branches will become the ashes that mark our foreheads next week. We will walk around with ashes signifying for everyone to see that we are broken people in need of grace. These ashes are a reminder that even though we mess up, God still loves us.

One by one we each took a turn throwing our palms into the fire and we watched them burn. We took our mistakes and watched them become ashes. We concluded by praying for God to make things new in our lives, to use the season of Lent to transfigure us into better disciples of his Son. When we said the final “Amen” I looked up and saw our District Superintendent standing in the room with a giant smile across his face and he told me that I passed my interviews.

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The Transfiguration is such a powerful moment because it is about transformation. Yes Jesus is changed into a glowing figure in dazzling white clothes, yes the appearance of Moses and Elijah reshaped the narrative of Jesus’ journey toward the cross, but when the disciples had to walk back down from the mountain their lives were forever changed.

Whereas they might’ve understood their friend to be a powerful speaker and leader, they were now confronted with the fact that he really was divine. Whereas they might’ve believed he was special, they were now confronted with the fact that he had real power. Whereas they might’ve believed he was capable of great things, they were now confronted with the fact that he was the Son of God. Jesus’ transfiguration transfigured their lives.

Standing by the fire on Wednesday night, as I let the knowledge that I will be ordained sink into my soul, and the youth started to jump around and yelp in celebration, I was reminded of how powerful those transfigured moments in life can be. I thought about how blessed we are to have a God who is so merciful and forgiving of our mistakes. I thought about how blessed we are to be surrounded by people in this church who pray for us and care about us. That moment by the fire reshaped my understanding of ministry and the church. In that transfigured moment I felt God’s love moving in this church through all of the connections we have made.

Transfigured moments always remind us how dependent we are on one another and the divine. When we encounter the true glory of the Lord it leaves us staggering in comparison. But God did not abandon the disciples on that mountaintop, and God has not abandoned us here and now. Instead God spoke through the cloud, and speaks to us today: “Jesus is the Son of God, listen to him!”

So what does it mean for us to listen to God’s Son here at St. John’s?

Do you feel loved? In your daily lives do you experience moments of joy that you can only equate with feeling loved? Do you have friends and family that care about who you are and what you’re experiencing? Are you connected with individuals you make you laugh and thankful for the gift of life?

This week, for me, has been an experience of love. Love of God and neighbor through all of you in this church.

In this church we have listened to Jesus speak to us, and we have responded to his command: “Love one another.” We have covenanted through baptism to love and support all those around us in the pews. We have gathered together to mourn during funerals and reach out to remind individuals of their worth. We have met here at God’s table to partake in the bread and the cup as a reminder that God’s love knows no bounds. We have opened our eyes and ears to the great witness of scripture that points toward God’s unfailing love for people like us.

So hear this from Jesus, and embrace it in your lives: “You are loved.”

No matter what you are currently experiencing, no matter how far you feel divided from the people around you, no matter how afraid you might be, you are loved. God has gathered all of us here in this place to build a new community of love.

When we lift up our hymnals to sing our faith we do so as a complete community in harmony with our relationship and our voices.

When we pray from our pews we do so as a new family who can faithfully say God is OUR Father.

When we are invited to this table to receive the bread and the cup we are invited as a community to a feast. There is a spot for us at God’s table where we can grow closer to the people in church next to us while growing closer with the Lord.

This is the place of transfigured moments that cut through the monotony of life. This is the place where we encounter the revealed Lord. This is the place where we hear Jesus saying to us, “You are loved.” Amen.

Devotional – Isaiah 43.1

Devotional

Isaiah 43:1

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

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Names are important. Ever since my wife became pregnant we have discussed possible names for the baby arriving this spring. We have experimented with family names as well as biblical names. We have searched online for popular baby names (in order to avoid them). We’ve even gone so far as too imagine how possible names could be used to make fun of the child in the future.

Names are intimate and help to demonstrate how connected we are with one another. For instance, most of us can remember a time and the feeling of guilt that comes when we cannot remember the name of someone we supposed to know. When we call one another by name we are entering in a privileged moment of connectivity with another human being.

This morning, while the preschoolers were entering the school for the first time since breaking for the holidays, I stood by the door and welcomed each of them. I got down on my knees to look at most of them on a level plane and asked about their Christmas presents and celebrations. It was a joyful time as we all reconnected.

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One of the last children to arrive was a new student about to begin his first day. Unlike the other kids, this was a completely new and strange experience. All around him were the friendships that have started this year and he stood all by himself. Because I had the chance to meet his parents before this morning, I knew who he was and bent down to greet him by name. The shy young boy looked up at me and started to beam as he declared, “You know me?!”

Within minutes he was in his new classroom playing with new friends. All of the nerves were gone and were replaced with the joy of playing with blocks at 9 o’clock in the morning. Such is the power of being called by our names.

Many of us wrestle with our own identities. We wonder about who we are and what we are being called to do. Yet, God knows who we are and calls us by name. The kind of joy that our new preschool student felt this morning is available to us when we recognize how God has called us and knows us. Sometimes it happens in the words of a hymn we sing in church, sometimes it happens in a devotional we read to start our day, and sometimes it happens in the still small silence of our prayers. God knows us. God loves us. God calls us by name.

This week, let us look for the moments when God calls us, let us rejoice in the knowledge of whom we belong to, and let us give thanks for all of the blessings that God has given us.

The Gifts of God – Peace

Micah 5.2-5a

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are the one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

 

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The children looked perfect in their Christmas pageant costumes. One by one they entered the chancel area in preparation for proclaiming their individual lines. The shepherds came first, watching over their sheep. Then the animals of the manger came forth, including a cow, a bird, and a mouse. They all made it to their spots and sat perfectly still as a donkey, Mary, and Joseph walked up to the microphone and exclaimed that a baby would soon be born, but they would need to find a place to stay.

Then the angelic cherubs boldly walked down the center aisle in the dark each holding an electric candle. The lead angel walked up to the microphone and frightening declared: “Do not be afraid! I bring joy to everyone!” The wise men and a camel followed the star to the manger where they presented the baby Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

I had the best vantage point of the entire production from up here in the pulpit. I could see all of the children with their costumes and I could also look out at the faces of all the parents, families, and friends that had gathered for this spectacular performance. I was honestly beaming while I stood up here on Tuesday evening because the kids had all done such a great job, they all nailed their lines, and were standing perfectly still in their spots.

Except for one of our shepherds.

Throughout the weeks of practice we had purposely withheld the shepherd staffs from the children knowing full and well that they would play with them too much. And during the actual performance most of them were being wonderful, but one of the shepherds could not overcome the desire to do something.

At first he just twirled the staff around in his hands like trying to start a fire on the carpet. Later, he swung it from side to side like a microphone at a rock and roll concert. I tried my best to whisper powerfully for him to stop, and though he would for a moment or two, he would then start up with something new.

As we were nearing the end of the performance, nearly all of the characters and animals from the manger scene were in place; the little shepherd grabbed his staff and started lifting it into the air. I, of course, immediately thought of Moses lifting up his staff in the wilderness to strike the rock for water. I, of course, immediately thought of how theological our young shepherd was being as he lifted the staff into the air, but then I realized he was about to bash somebody on the top of the head!

Breaking character from the pulpit, I quickly reached down and stopped the staff in mid arch. My eyes went down the shaft of the staff to the little hand, to the arm, to the face of the young shepherd, and instead of seeing a repentant and apologetic look; he had the biggest and proudest grin on his face.

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We lean toward violence. From Preschoolers picking up shepherd staffs, to fights in high school, to international and political disagreements, we lean toward violence. There is a power that comes with violence and demonstrates our importance and opinion. Violence has been at the forefront of some of the most important historical moments in the entirety of human existence and still captivates our attention. The movies that make the most money, the stories that garner the most attention, the moments we can’t tear our eyes away from usually contain violence.

As I have found myself saying too often from this pulpit: just turn on the TV or get online and you will be immediately bombarded with the violence in the world and the local community. Even this season of Advent and preparation for the holidays tends to bring out the worst in us. We have short tempers with the people ahead of us in line while we are buying gifts. We mutter inappropriate comments about drivers that are just driving too slowly. And we secretly expect to receive as many good gifts as we give.

Our lives and the world are filled with aggression, anger, and violence.

Yet, the prophet tells us about the one who will come with peace.

Micah spoke during a time of considerable unrest. The situation was grim with corrupt political leaders. There were fearful enemies on the horizon. Internal disputes were pinning people against one another. (Sound familiar?) And while the people saw no hope, Micah saw the promise of peace. Micah looked beyond the present circumstances, he looked beyond the news headlines and the talking heads, he looked beyond the broken and tarnished community to what God was promising to do.

From the little town of Bethlehem will come one who will rule the world. From a back road town of insignificance will come the one who will lead his flock in the way that leads to life and peace.

Many of us have a hard time imaging that an impressive hero can come from such a small town and such a fragile beginning. We, instead, look to politicians and presidents, magistrates and ministers, to fix all of our problems. But from the words of scripture this morning, Micah is jumping up and down and waving his arms to move us in an entirely different direction. He is pointing not at the towering leaders of the world on CNN. He is not drawing us to the political buildings in Washington DC. Instead he is pushing us to a small, out of the way, little place called Bethlehem.

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Jesus is the one of peace, the one who comes as a light in the darkness, the one who will stand and lead like a shepherd. Jesus came from humble beginnings and changed the world.

One of the things that the bible loves to show us is that true power and peace often comes from unexpected people in unexpected places. Many of us have heard the Christmas story so many times that we are desensitized to the insignificance of Bethlehem in the most significant story ever told.

Yet, important babies that change the world can be born just about anywhere. Bethlehem is proof of that. Every baby has the potential to help remind us of the way that leads to peace. Jesus is proof of that.

This week, our little neck of the woods made national news. A local geography teacher landed in the hot seat for an assignment where her students were required to copy a text in Arabic from the Quran. The purpose was to demonstrate the beauty and power of calligraphy and, in a sense, teach students to appreciate people who have differing beliefs and opinions. However, when a particular parent found out that the text in Arabic said, “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” everything came to a head.

In the days that followed, a community meeting was held at a local church for concerned parents who were outraged by the assignment. Augusta County rightly started to step up security measures in order to maintain the peace, but the longer the situation percolated the more frightening it became. On Thursday morning there were armed guards at Riverheads elementary school. And on Thursday afternoon, every student in Augusta County was ordered to leave their respective school and the buildings were to go on lockdown. Lastly, Friday’s classes were completely canceled.

Augusta County received so many threats by phone and mail that they believed they could not guarantee the safety of their students and decided to cancel an entire day of school.

There are so many facets to the story that we don’t have enough time to address all of them, but suffice it to say, it is sad. It is a sad that a teacher did not take the time to re-evaluate what text she was having the students copy. It is sad that an entire community responded immediately out of fear and hatred. It is sad that such a tremendous amount of people were filled with rage to the point that Augusta County had to cancel school. It is sad.

While Fox News picked up the story for the nation to learn about what was going on here, I felt God’s Word calling me to listen to the Bethlehem-like voices. Instead of reading news article after news article from talking heads, I went to the local youth of our community and listened.

This is what one of them said: “Religion is not the problem. Religion does not breed terrorism. Ignorance breeds terrorism. Lack of education breeds terrorism. Failure to see the world around you breeds terrorism. Incompetence breeds terrorism. The inability to accept one’s wrongs breeds terrorism. The inability to connect and empathize and understand your fellow human beings is what breeds terrorism.”

I don’t know how to fix or change what happened in Augusta County this week, but if we continue to treat everyone who is different from us with nothing but suspicion and fear, then we have lost our connection to the one who comes in peace. If we make the self-righteous assumption that everyone should look like us, think like us, and talk likes us, then we have stopped following Jesus.

For too long we have lived with a culture that teaches us to defeat our enemies so that only our friends will be left. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do! Jesus, the one born in a manger in Bethlehem, Jesus the one who shall be our peace, Jesus the one who we worship on Christmas Eve and every Sunday of our lives, tells us to love our enemies! Jesus calls us to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus tells us to live our lives in the way that leads to peace.

God’s peace in Christ is a gift; a gift with strings attached. God gives us peace, but we are to be instruments of God’s peace on earth. We know that peace is not easy. It requires a willingness to sacrifice and be vulnerable with people who differ from us. Peace is uncomfortable. Peace is strange. Peace is difficult because it is so contrary to the ways of the world.

Peace is hard, but so is following Jesus. Amen.