Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Rachel Neufeld (b. Zhwartz) was born on February 3, 1925 in Sevlus, a town of fourteen thousand in southwest Czechoslovakia.  Her family owned a wine business and did very well.  They lived in a large house on the main street; and her father held a prestigious position within the Jewish community there.  The Nazis arrived March 19, 1944.

     Looking back on that moment, Rachel’s sister Anna said, “There was no time to hide.  They came in with their tanks.  There was no time.  They had guns and we were taken away.  They took all the Jews in town and put us into a ghetto in the poorest part of town.  We had nothing but the clothes on our backs… Then they took us to Auschwitz.”  Rachel and Anna were separated at that point from the other members of their family.  They never saw them again.

     After three months of forced labor, each day wondering if it would be their last, the two sisters were sent to an enormous underground plant in northern Germany to work on bombs.  At that point their greatest fear was the allied bombers roaring overhead.  The earth shook with the explosions.  The bombing continued right into the spring of 1945.  Nearly half the prisoners died, but somehow the two sisters held on.

     Two days before the end of the war, the surviving prisoners were pulled from the camp and then abandoned in some woods.  There they ate leaves and grass until the British finally arrived.  Rachel and Anna ended up in a transit camp in Budapest where they spent the next four years.  They met and married their husbands in the camp, and in 1949 moved to Israel.  Ten years later they finally made it to the United States.

     Rachel and her husband had two children, and once they arrived here she worked numerous jobs – sweatshops, day care centers, kitchens and offices – with the sole goal of sending her children to college.  She succeeded.  Both her children graduated from Brooklyn College, and one of them went on to Hofstra where she earned two master’s degrees.  One became a banker, and the other an elementary school principal.

     The last time Rachel and her sister were together, they went out for a walk.  Anna says, “It was cloudy.  I like this kind of day.  But she said, ‘Oh, what a lot of lovely flowers.’ I am very cynical about flowers.  None of them are related to me.  She was angry with me. “You don’t have a sense of beauty,’ she said.  She enjoyed every leaf, every blade of grass.’”  After surviving the Holocaust, living as a displaced person and moving half way around the world, Rachel Neufeld was killed some twenty five years ago when she fell beneath the wheel of a city bus in Brooklyn.  She was seventy years old.

     Who has ever heard of Rachel Neufeld?  But what a life she lived.  And what amazes me is that in spite of all the suffering and loss she had endured, she could still be moved by the beauty of some flowers, still enjoy this extraordinary creation that God has given us.  We all know people who are prisoners of their past; their lives marred by bitterness and anger.  Rachel reminds us that it doesn’t have to be that way.  No matter who we are, no matter what our past, we can, in fact, choose life.

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Monday, June 1, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

The pandemic was bad enough; we passed 100,000 deaths in this country last week.  The impact on our economy has been devastating; over 40,000,000 people have lost their jobs in the last ten weeks.  And now on top of it all, issues of race have resurfaced and protests have erupted across the country.  Driving those protests has been a confluence of events that break the heart.

     On February 23, twenty-five year old Ahmaud Arbery was jogging when he was chased down, confronted and then killed by Gregory and Travis McMichael.  A video of the shooting went viral, but in the two months that followed nothing happened.  Two district attorneys recused themselves and the case appeared to stall.  It was the growing outrage and resulting referral to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that finally led to the McMichaels arrest.  What would have happened had there been no video?

     On March 13, twenty-six year old Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her bed.  Taylor was an emergency medical technician working for the University of Louisville Health.  She and her boyfriend were asleep when plainclothes narcotics officers broke in.  911 recordings of her boyfriend’s call reveal that he thought criminals had broken in.  He fired his weapon.  Breonna was shot eight times.

     On May 25, Christian Cooper was bird-watching in Central Park when he observed a dog loose in an area where leashes are required.  He asked the owner to put a leash on the dog.  She responded by calling 911.  She was white, and she took as a given the advantage that would give her over this black man who had dared disrupt her day.  As Forbes magazine put it, “There is something eerily dark about the level of ease with which Amy Cooper threw a tantrum and threatened havoc on the life of another. And there is something demonstratively devilish about the way she changed the pitch, tone and inflection of her voice while on the call with the 911 operator so as to send the message that she was literally being physically assaulted at that very moment.”

     On that same day, in distant Minneapolis, forty-six-year-old George Floyd died.  His hands were cuffed behind his back.  His head was pinned to the pavement for eight minutes and forty-six seconds by an officer whose knee was driven into Floyd’s neck.  Three other officers stood by and watched.  Tapes of the entire incident have saddened and enraged us all.

     Isolated events in a country of 328 million people, but taken together they have touched a nerve.  They’ve touched that nerve because we've realized that these aren't isolated at all, but symptoms rather of a pervasive ill that continues to plague our country.  These events have brought out into the open what life is like for a significant segment of our population.  It’s not okay, and we need to pay attention.

     A couple of hours ago I was sitting at our table and noticed the cover of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, Leadership. Seeing Lincoln there, I found myself wondering what he would say if he was with us now.  I’m pretty sure he would say something.  More to the point for us, what would Jesus say?  I can’t imagine he would stand silently to the side.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Friday, May 29, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Peter Marshall was a much-loved preacher of the twentieth century who went on to become Chaplain of the U.S. Senate – quite an achievement for anyone, but particularly for a man who had immigrated here from Scotland.

     While still young Marshall spent a summer working in an English village called Bamburgh, about sixteen miles southeast of the Scottish border, and on the edge of the North Sea.  Around it were wheat and barley fields, pasture and moorland where black-faced sheep roamed.  To the west stood the desolate Chalton Moor.

     One dark night, Marshall was walking back from a nearby village.  He struck out across the moors, thinking he would take a shortcut.  He knew there was an abandoned quarry close by the road, but assumed that he could avoid it.  In her book, A Man Called Peter, Catherine Marshall describes what happened next:

The night was inky black, eerie.  There was only the sound of the wind through the heather-strained moorland, the noisy clamor of wild muir fowl as his footsteps disturbed them, the occasional far-off bleating of a sheep. Suddenly he heard someone call, “Peter!...” There was great urgency in the voice.  He stopped. “Yes, who is it?  What do you want?”

For a second he listened, but there was no response, only the sound of the wind.  The moor seemed completely deserted.  Thinking he must have been mistaken, he walked on a few paces.  Then he heard it again, even more urgently: “Peter!”

He stopped dead still, trying to peer into that impenetrable darkness, but suddenly stumbled and fell to his knees.  Putting out his hand to catch himself, he found nothing there.  As he cautiously investigated, feeling around in a semicircle, he found himself to be on the very brink of an abandoned quarry.  Just one step more would have sent him plummeting into space to certain death.

     This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, and the outpouring of God’s Spirit.  The Spirit is Christ’s promised presence; Christ’s power and guidance, comfort and strength at work in our lives and in this world.  An experience like Peter Marshall’s reminds us how near and real the Spirit is.  Most of us will never have that kind of encounter, but that doesn’t mean the Spirit isn’t at work in our lives, too.

     More often than not, the Spirit’s presence is felt in the little things: a sudden urge to give someone a call, a sense of God’s nearness during a moment of prayer, or that moment when all the pieces seem to come together just when we need it most.  The Spirit isn’t given just to some, but to all who profess Jesus.  In fact, faith itself (as Jesus made clear, Matthew 16:17) is a sign of the Spirit’s presence at work within. 

     I love Pentecost.  I love the assurance it offers that God’s Spirit is moving even now.  And I know, finally, how dependent I am upon that Spirit for everything that is best and good in my life and in my ministry.  This Pentecost, claim the promise of God’s Spirit at work in your life, too.

“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control... If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-25)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris


The Iveragh Peninsula on the southwest coast of Ireland, offers breathtaking scenery along with the highest peak in Ireland.  The “Ring of Kerry” is a winding, coastal road that takes you in a great circle around the peninsula.  When we drove the Ring several years ago, one of the highlights for us was standing on a high cliff looking out across the ocean towards the Skellig Islands.

     The Skellig Islands were made famous here in the United States when one of them, Skellig Michael, showed up in a couple of Star Wars movies.  It served as the hermitage of Luke Skywalker who found his way there to live in exile after his Jedi students were killed by Kylo Ren and his Knights.  In the movie the island was called Ahch-To, and it was not only the birthplace of the Jedi Order, but also held the ancient Jedi texts.

     Well, that might be more Star Wars history than you wanted.  But Skellig Michael was a striking choice for Ahch-To both for its geography and its history.  In fact, it was its geography – essentially a twin-pinnacled crag rising out of the sea – that led to its history.  “Skellig” is from the Irish “sceilig” which means a splinter of stone.  And that’s what Skellig Michael looks like from a distance; steep-sided and narrow.

Skellig_Michael By Jerzy Strzelecki  CC BY-SA 3.0
     The island consists of about 54 acres.  It is a mile around, and climbs to 714’ above sea level.  A monastery was founded there in the sixth century.  The monks’ beehive stone dwellings are still in remarkably good condition, and were featured prominently in the movie.  Situated high above the ocean, those dwellings can still be accessed by a steep flight of stone steps that rise up from three different landing points along the shore.

     In his tour guide, Rick Steves calls Skellig Michael “the Holy Grail” of Irish monastic island settlements.  He quotes the great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw who called it “the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world.”  Monks lived on that impossible rock for more than 500 years.  Viking Olav Trygvasson, was baptized there, and would later go on to bring Christianity to Norway and become its king.

     But why would monks choose such a desolate place to begin with?  Their life would have been harsh and simple; collecting rainwater in cisterns and living off the fish and birds around the island.  Certainly, the isolation was at least part of the reason.  One strain within the monastic tradition has long been separation from the world in an effort to grow closer to God.  But another, more practical reason, may have been the natural defenses which the island offered.  Before Brian Boru finally defeated the Vikings in the Battle of Cloontarf in 1014, Viking raids wreaked havoc throughout Ireland for nearly two hundred years.  The steep sides and narrow steps of Skellig Michael forced those approaching the monastery to come in single file, and gave the monks above an enormous advantage.
     When we look at that island and consider what those monks endured year after year in their pursuit of God, it puts any sacrifices we might make in perspective.  God was everything to them.  He was that pearl of infinite value, more than worth whatever price they had to pay.  Not everyone, of course, is called to the monastic life, but their loving devotion does raise the question, “What is the Kingdom of God worth to me?  What price would I be willing to pay in the pursuit of God?”

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45)

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

     Seven years ago a movie called "42" was released.  It was about Jackie Robinson and his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  "42" was a reference to the number he wore for his entire career.  He made it famous not only by the quality of his play, but also for his integration of professional baseball.

     Part of the power of the movie lay in the glimpse it offered of what Robinson endured as baseball's first black player. It took extraordinary character for him to accomplish what he did.  In one scene future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese approaches owner Branch Rickey.  He is one of the most popular players in all of baseball, and he has just gotten a disturbing letter.  He doesn’t know what to make of it.  Rickey walks over to a filing cabinet and pulls out a massive file.  It contains all the hate mail and threats that Robinson has received.  It puts Reese's letter into perspective, and he is clearly moved.

     We move to Crossly Field in Cincinnati.  It is May 13, 1947, and this is the first game of just the second road series of Robinson’s inaugural season.  Robinson is being harassed and booed.  The camera moves in to focus on a father and son in the stands.  The son talks about his hero, Pee Wee Reese, and then watches as his father begins to boo and curse Jackie Robinson.  The boy hesitates for a moment, and then joins in.   He wants to be like Dad.

     The camera shifts to the field.  Pee Wee Reese is watching as the abuse is poured down on his team-mate.  From his position at shortstop he walks across the diamond to first base where Robinson is standing.  There, in front of the entire stadium, he places his arm around Robinson’s shoulder and begins to chat him up.  Through that single gesture, Reese has made a statement to all the world: “I’m with him.”  The crowd is silenced.  It is my favorite scene of the entire movie.

     Did it actually happen?  Two different credible sources said they saw it firsthand.  The first was Lester Rodney, a reporter for the Daily Worker.  The second was Rex Barney, a Dodgers’ pitcher who recalled the moment nearly forty years later in an oral history of the team. 

     There are a couple of issues with those eyewitness reports, however.  Rodney didn’t actually write about the incident until years later, and Barney said he saw it happen while he was warming up to pitch in the first inning.  The problem there is that Barney wasn’t a starting pitcher until the following year.  Records show that in 1947 he didn’t come into the Cincinnati game until the seventh inning.

     IN an interview in 1952, Robinson himself described the event as occurring in Boston in 1948. He said the same thing in his book which came out eight years later.  Robinson's account is actually more consistent with Barney’s own, because on Aug. 14, 1948, Barney started a game in Boston – the same year and same place that Robinson himself said it happened.
     Chances are that Reese’s famous gesture came a year later and in a different city, but it certainly happened and it still would have carried great meaning: racism didn’t magically disappear after Robinson’s first season.  Today there is a statue of the moment outside the Cyclones home field in Brooklyn.  At its dedication in 2005 Robinson’s widow said, “It's a historic symbol of a wonderful legacy of friendship, of teamwork, of courage -- of a lot of things we hope we will be able to pass on to young people. And we hope they will be motivated by it, be inspired by it and think about what it would be like to stand up, dare to challenge the status quo and find a friend there who will come over and support you."

In the incarnation, God comes over and puts his arm around us.  In baptism, God places his sign upon us and declares to all creation, “I’m with them.”

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16)