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)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020


Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

     William Wilberforce was born on August 24, 1759, the only son of a wealthy merchant in Yorkshire, England.  He didn't have an easy childhood.  He was small, and prone to sickness.  He lost his father when he was nine, and was sent off to live with an aunt and uncle in London.  He came to adore his aunt and uncle, but his mother and grandfather brought him back three years later when he began to show interest in evangelical (or "nonconformist") Christianity as a result of his aunt's influence.

     By the time he entered Cambridge, Wilberforce was already independently wealthy -- the result of the loss of both his grandfather and uncle.  With no need to make a living Wilberforce proved an indifferent student, but he had a very active social life and made quite a few friends.  One of them, a future Prime Minister, was William Pitt, and it was Pitt who convinced him to enter into politics.  In what we would call his senior year, Wilberforce ran for and was elected to the House.

     Wilberforce proved to be a gifted speaker.  James Boswell, the famous biographer, would later say of his eloquence, "I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale."  Those gifts would prove crucial in the great task that lay before him.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

     The turning point in Wilberforce’s life came over the course of some fourteen or fifteen months between 1884 and 1885.  It began when he invited a brilliant Cambridge professor, Isaac Milner, to join him and some members of his family on a tour of Europe.  To his surprise, Milner proved to be a devout Christian.  Their conversations, along with Wilberforce's exploration of the New Testament and works by Philip Doddridge and Blaise Pascal, finally resulted in (as Wilberforce put it)  “a settled conviction in my mind… of the truth of Christianity.”  This was no sudden conversion.  This was a deep, exhaustive study that resulted in what Wilberforce would come to call the “Great Change”.  Years later he wrote to a friend:

It is scarce too strong to say, that I seem to myself to have awakened about nine or ten years ago from a dream, to have recovered, as it were, the use of my reason after a delirium.  In fact till then I wanted first principles; those principles at least which alone deserve the character of wisdom, or bear the impress of truth.

Emulation, and a desire of distinction, were my governing motives; and ardent after the applause of my fellow-creatures, I quite forgot that I was an accountable being; that I was hereafter to appear at the bar of God; that if Christianity were not a fable, it was infinitely important to study its precepts, and when known to obey them; that there was at least such a probably of its not being a fable, as to render it in the highest degree incumbent on me to examine into its authenticity diligently, anxiously, and without prejudice…

I am not now what I ought to be; yet I trust… through the help of that gracious Being who has promised to assist our weak endeavors, to become more worthy of the name of Christian.

     Two years after the “Great Change,” Wilberforce became the driving force in Parliament for the abolition of slavery.  This wasn’t about popularity.  This was about being faithful, and using his position to serve God.  Over the next two decades, undaunted by repeated setbacks, Wilberforce fought the good fight.  In 1807, with tears streaming down his face, he saw Parliament take its first major step by abolishing the slave trade.  Twenty six years later, and some forty-six years after Wilberforce had first agreed to lead the charge, Parliament finally abolished slavery altogether.

     Christianity, as Wilberforce discovered, has a way of being "self-authenticating" -- that is, if you take it seriously and put its precepts into practice, experience bears out its truth.  The issue isn't that people try it and then find it wanting.  The issue, rather, is that what they try isn't really Christianity at all, but rather some sociably acceptable, watered-down version that has been drained of all its power.

"I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."   (John 6:35)

Monday, May 25, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

One of the great heroes of the Second World War was a young man who never fired a shot.  Born February 7, 1919, Desmond Doss grew up in Lynchburg, VA.  He left school in the eighth grade to help support his family during the Great Depression, and then went on become a joiner at the Naval Shipyard in Newport News, VA.  When the United States entered the war, he could have requested a military deferment because his work was deemed essential, but he didn’t.  Instead, he enlisted, only he enlisted as a conscientious objector.

     Doss’ whole life was shaped by his faith.  Yes, he felt called to serve his country, but his commitment to God came first.  What that meant in practice was that while he wanted to support our country, he wasn’t willing to carry a weapon in order to do so.  He took to heart God’s command, “Thou shalt not kill.”  He thought he could serve both God and country by being a medic.  Not surprisingly, his refusal to carry a weapon did not sit well with his fellow soldiers. 

     The men in his company saw him as a liability.  They treated him with contempt, and one even threatened, "Doss, as soon as we get into combat, I'll make sure you won't come back alive." The officers weren’t any different.  They tried to intimidate and break him, at one point declaring him mentally unfit for military service.  They even tried to court martial him.  But Doss persevered.

     Then came combat, first in Guam and then on Leyte.  There his unit found the man they had labeled a coward risking his life again and again to save their own.  Doss was awarded two bronze stars for exceptional valor during those two battles, both of them with the “V” which meant “earned in combat”.

     In his book, Flags of Our Fathers, James Bradley gives us a glimpse of what medics routinely did as he describes a moment in his father’s life (also a medic) during the Battle of Iwo Jima:

His telltale “Unit 3” bag slapping at his side, my father sprinted through thirty yards of saturating cross fire – mortars and machine guns – to the wounded boy’s side. As bullets whined and pinged around him, Doc found the Marine losing blood at a life-threatening rate… He tied a plasma bag to the kid’s rifle and jammed it bayonet-first into the ground.  He moved his own body between the boy and the sheets of gunfire.  Then, his upper body still erect and fully exposed, he administered first aid… then [after signaling the rest of the unit to stay where they were] my father stood up into the merciless firestorm and pulled the wounded Marine back across the thirty yards to safety by himself.  His attention did not flicker until the Marine was safely evacuated.

     After Guam and Leyte, Doss' 77th Division was sent to Okinawa.  It was there that his actions would lead to the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest military award.  The citation is extraordinary.  At point during the battle, his unit pulled back under heavy fire.  Doss however, stayed behind and one by one saved 75 men who had been wounded.  He dragged each one to the edge of a cliff and then lowered them on a rope-supported litter.  Another day he exposed himself to rifle and mortar fire, rescuing a wounded man 200 yards in front of their lines.  Two days later he crept through a shower of grenades to within eight yard of enemy forces in order to treat four men who had been cut down.  The day after that he saved two more men, each time under constant fire.  Then Doss himself was finally hit.  He was hit first by a grenade, then later by a sniper’s bullet that shattered his arm.  He was evacuated, and the war, for him, was finally over.

     Desmond Doss lived his faith.  He served God, served our country and served those around him with faith, compassion, integrity and love.  He embodied the best of who we are, and what we strive to be.  On this Memorial Day, may we remember and give thanks for so many who have given so much over the course of our nation’s history.  We owe them more than we could ever hope to repay.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13)

Happy Memorial Day!

Happy Memorial from FCPC! David Billings has recorded a concert of patriotic organ music for the Memorial Day holiday! You can watch it on our YouTube channel:

Friday, May 22, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

I will always remember my first computer. It was 1984, and after months of research and visits to local stores, I bought a “Kaypro.” It was state of the art – a true portable weighing just 29 pounds.  It featured a 9” screen (a text-only, green-on-black display) set in an aluminum case with two 51/4-inch double density, single-sided floppy drives.  Best of all, it boasted an astounding 64 KB of RAM (today’s computers, by comparison, might offer a paltry 8 GB – about 8 million times greater).  The keyboard snapped onto the face of the computer creating a tidy box that could be easily carried as long as you had been keeping up with your workouts at the gym.

     The operating system was CPM (which ultimately lost out to MS-DOS for any computer not named Apple), and the computer came bundled with various software.  The software wasn’t in the computer.  It was on one or two of the floppies.  You would insert the floppy into the drive when you wanted to use it.  This was cutting-edge stuff.
     What I remember most was the first time I used my new computer to write a sermon.  Up until then I would hand-write my first draft, hand-write a second draft, and then type the third.  Occasionally I might end up typing a fourth, but most of the time any changes at that point would simply be penciled in.  Over-all, the process was pretty labor-intensive. 

     With my new computer I didn’t have to create new drafts.  I could start with one and make all my changes right there.  I could even shift whole paragraphs with just a few commands.  This was amazing!  I ended up with a better sermon, and saved hours in the process. 

     So what did I do with all that extra time?  Here’s the thing: I didn’t use those extra hours to spend more time with my family.  I used them to accomplish more work.  What this new computer ultimately ended up doing was to actually increase my anticipated work-load each week.  Hmmm.

     In his delightful book, A Geography of Time, social psychologist Robert Levine talks about this unexpected consequence:

It is one of the great ironies of modern times that, with all of our time-saving creations, people have less time to themselves than ever before… It has often been the very creations intended to save time that have been most responsible for increasing the workload.  Recent research indicates that farm wives in the 1920’s who were without electricity, spend significantly less time at housework than did suburban women, with all their modern machinery, in the latter half of the century.  One reason for this is that almost every technical advance seems to be accompanied by a rise in expectations.

     Consider the impact of the internet.  If you were a lawyer and received a letter from your client, the client understood that she or he might not hear back from you for a week or two.  Today that same client sends an e-mail and generally expects a response by the end of the day.  And speaking of the end of the day, whatever happened to going home and being done?  Today, we go home but we are still accessible by both e-mail and cell-phone.  For most of us, real “off-time” has become a thing of the past, and the pace of our lives has become more intense than ever.

     The Hebrew the word “shabath” means “cease, desist, rest.”  It is the root of the noun “Sabbath.”  The call to honor the Sabbath goes all the way back to the second chapter of Genesis.  It is one or the earliest and most important commands in all of Scripture.  We all need time to rest; a time when we cease from work.  With the pace of our lives growing ever more intense, finding a way to carve out that rest each day, each week, and each year has become more important than ever.  It is essential if we are going to thrive.  But here's the thing: it doesn’t just happen.  Today, more than ever, we need to be intentional if rest is going to be an integral part of the very rhythm of our lives.

 “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it…” (Genesis 2:2-3)
Image by info254 from Pixabay

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

I remember being handed a small box of crayons one day and being told by our art instructor to go out and make a drawing.  I felt a bit insulted.  Crayons were for kids.  But as I thought about it I realized that any real artist would, of course, be able to create something beautiful with those eight or nine colors we had been given.

     The word “crayon” is French.  It dates back to the 16th century and originally meant “chalk pencil.”  A crayon is a stick of colored wax, charcoal, chalk or other material and used for writing or drawing.  When it is made of pigment with a dry binder it is called a pastel.  Pastels, of course, are a favored medium of numerous artists going back to Leonardo da Vinci, and including the likes of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas.

     Combining wax with pigment is nothing new.  It is thousands of years old.  In the first century C.E., Pliny the Elder spoke of some of the earliest techniques of wax crayon drawing.  By the nineteenth century, cylinder-shaped crayons were being made with charcoal and oil, and in 1828 another innovation was added with the introduction of colored pigments.  The final step in the evolution came with the realization that using wax instead of oil produced a stronger crayon that was easier to hold.
Image by Mahesh Patel from Pixabay

     Here in the United States a man named Joseph Binney started the Peekskill Chemical Works in upstate New York in 1864.  The company made charcoal and lamp black, and in 1885 was taken over by Joseph’s son, Edwin, and Edwin’s cousin, C. Harold Smith.  The two cousins showed a willingness to try new things to expand their business, and they introduced new products like red pigment for barn paint, and a carbon black and that made rubber tires stronger. 

     In 1902, Edwin’s wife Alice, a school-teacher, made a suggestion. Why not begin manufacturing an inexpensive alternative to the crayons that were being imported from Europe?  She even came up with a name, “Crayola,” joining the French word "craie" (meaning stick of chalk) with "ola" from "oleaginous" (meaning oily).  Made of paraffin wax and color pigment, Crayola Crayons were introduced in 1903.  Today, the company produces some 3 billion crayons a year, and shows an annual revenue of $750 million.

     “Why not try…”  We aren’t always receptive to ideas from others.  Without meaning to (I should add the word “perhaps”), suggestions can feel like criticism.  Or they can feel like a push to move beyond what is comfortable and familiar into something risky and demanding.  We don’t always welcome them, but sometimes it is right there in those new ideas that the Spirit of God is moving -- not in every idea or every suggestion, but often enough that it would serve us well to pay attention.  Sometimes it is in our willingness to step up and try something new that we open our lives to that abundance which the Spirit offers. 

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Born in 1936, John McCain followed his father and grandfather (both four star admirals) to the United States Naval Academy, graduating in 1958.  He went on to become a naval aviator, and flew the A4 Skyhawk as part of a carrier squadron.  Many of my generation remember the terrible fire that almost took the USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.  It was McCain’s plane that was at the center of it. 

     As he was preparing to take off from the carrier, McCain's fuel tank was hit by a missile from a nearby jet.  The missile had been set off by a stray electrical current.  Two hundred gallons of jet fuel were ignited and proceeded to detonate first one and then another of the 1000 pound bombs that McCain’s jet had been carrying.  The fire and explosions set off a chain reaction that nearly took the ship.  One hundred and thirty four men were lost .  Another one hundred and sixty one were injured.  Somehow, McCain survived with nothing more than burns and shrapnel wounds.  Two months later he was transferred to the USS Oriskany.    

     From 1965 to 1968 no carrier’s pilots saw more action or suffered more losses than those on the Oriskany.  McCain’s own squadron had the highest casualty rate of all.  In 1967 alone (the year McCain was transferred to it), one-third of the squadron’s pilots were killed or captured.  Just one month after arriving, McCain himself became one of those casualties.  He was shot down over Hanoi.

     Hit by a missile that took his right wing, McCain’s jet went into a violent spiral.  He radioed that he had been hit, and pulled the ejection handle.  As he ejected, however, he struck part of the plane: breaking his left arm; his right knee, and his right arm in three places.  He landed in the shallow waters of a lake in the middle of Hanoi, and was pulled out by an angry crowd.  Someone smashed a rifle butt into his shoulder, breaking it.  Someone else drove a bayonet into his groin and ankle.  Finally, a woman intervened and brought the abuse to an end.  McCain was now a prisoner of war.

     Towards the end of his book, Faith of My Fathers, McCain speaks of how important faith in God was to him in the six years that followed.  He was tortured repeatedly and held in solitary for long periods.  In the midst of it, his faith was, in his own words, an “imperative.”  It sustained him.  At one point, after a difficult interrogation, he was left in the interrogation room for the night, tied in ropes.  A short time after the interrogators left, a guard entered the room and without smiling or saying a word, loosened the ropes, and then left.  Just before his shift ended at 4:00 a.m., the guard returned and tightened the ropes once more.

     One Christmas, a few months later, the same guard approached McCain as he stood in the dirt courtyard.  He came up and stood beside him.  Again, he didn’t smile or say a word.  He just stared at the ground in front of them.  And then, using his foot, the guard drew a cross in the dirt.  The two stood looking at the cross for a minute of two, and then the guard rubbed it out and walked away.

     Faith in action.  Love in action.  So often that’s the way God’s Spirit moves – touching us through someone nearby, or touching our hearts in some inexplicable way.  Maybe not in the way that we would have hoped, but real and tangible nevertheless.  A sign of God’s presence.  A sign that we are not alone.  As McCain and countless others have discovered, we are never truly alone.

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

In the early 1920’s, Eric Liddell was Scotland’s greatest and best-loved athlete.  He had been born in China in 1902, the son of missionaries, and at six years old had been sent (along with his older brother) to Eltham College in South London for his education.  At Eltham he had excelled, becoming captain of both its cricket and rugby teams, and he went on to the University of Edinburgh.

     It was at Edinburgh that Liddell became known as the fastest runner in Scotland.  Newspapers carried stories of his feats.  At the same time he gained a starting spot on Scotland’s national rugby team.  He was beloved, and became known as “The Flying Scotsman.”

     Liddell was chosen to compete in the 1924 Olympics, but he shocked the world when he withdrew from the 100 meter event (his strongest) because it would require running on a Sunday.  He decided instead to train for the 400 meter.  In the finals of that event, he faced two men who had both broken world records, a Swiss and a Swede.  Just before the race a man came up to to Liddell and placed a piece of paper in his hand.  On it was written, “He that honours me will I honour” – a quote from 1 Samuel 2:30.  Liddell went on to win, setting a new world record and beating his previous best by an astonishing two full seconds.

     After graduating from Edinburgh with a Bachelor of Science degree, Liddell returned to China in 1925.  Seven years later he was ordained while on furlough, and two years after that married the daughter of Canadian missionaries.  Together, he and his wife had three daughters, the last of which he would never see.

     By 1941 life had become so dangerous because of the war, Liddell’s wife and children left to stay with her family in Canada.  Liddell stayed behind, and accepted a position at a mission in a poor, rural area.  There he relieved his brother who was ill and needed to go on furlough.  Two years later the Japanese took over, and Liddell was placed in an internment camp.  There, by all accounts, he took on a leading role: helping the elderly; teaching Bible classes; arranging games and teaching science to the children.

     One of the survivors of the camp, a man named Langdon Gilkey who went on to become a prominent theologian, later said of Liddell, "Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known."

     Eric Liddell died of an inoperable brain tumor on February 21, 1945, just five months before his camp was liberated.  According to a fellow missionary his last words were, "It's complete surrender." He died as he had lived, offering the whole of himself to the Lord.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1)

Monday, May 18, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

     I remember going with my mother to a store called “Bruce’s Variety.” It was in a little strip mall called the "Bradley Shopping Center," and somehow crammed an enormous amount of stuff into a very small footprint.  Moms came for the sewing patterns, needles, threads and materials.  For their children there was everything from plastic models to games and toys.  It was at Bruce’s Variety that I got my first Super-Ball (compressed rubber that bounced surprisingly high), and various tops and yo-yo’s.  There was genius in that combination of dress patterns and toys: moms would would bring their children in; and children would bring in their moms. 

     The dress patterns were the idea of a magazine ad salesman named Joseph Shapiro in 1927.  Up until then, they could only be found in women’s magazines like McCall’s.  Women would buy the magazine, and then send away for a pattern that might cost as much as 25 cents.  Shapiro’s idea was to bring those patterns into the stores where customers could sort through them, pick the one they liked, and then pay just 10 cents.  They not only got the pattern immediately and for significantly less, they could also likely buy the material for the pattern at the same store.  That was a win for the customer, a win for the store, and a win for the company that produced the patterns.  And so the Simplicity Pattern Company was born.
Image by Maatkare from Pixabay 

     Shapiro and his eighteen year old son, immigrants from Byelorussia, soon dominated the home-sewing market.  At its peak in the 1970's, the Simplicity Pattern Company employed four thousand people, had its own paper mill and printing operations, factories in several countries, twenty thousand outlets in the U.S. alone, and sold more than 150 million patterns a year.

     All this out of a simple idea: let’s put the patterns in the stores and cut the price.  The key, of course, was that this simple idea made a huge difference for the people that mattered most: the customers.  How come the magazines themselves didn't think of this?  The status quo was working very well for them.  Why would they want to change it?  It took someone on the periphery to be able to see what was going on and come up with a better way.

     Which raises the question: is there someone in our lives who can serve that same function?  Someone close enough to see what is going on, but outsider enough to have a clear perspective?  We need people who can be that Joseph Shapiro: able to see a better path to follow; and who care enough to let us know when we've gotten into a rut, or started heading down a dead-end road. 

     Great leaders make sure they have such voices around them.  So do great Christians.  We know that we are imperfect.  We know we are prone to sin.  We know we need sisters and brothers around us who can speak the truth into our lives.  Jesus can certainly do that.  Scripture can do it.  But more often than not, it is these others that God uses to help us along the way.  Have you found some people to make the journey with you?  It all goes with being part of Christ’s body in this world.    

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

First, I want to thank everyone for the outpouring of love, support and prayer for Brewster and my family.  You have been an incredible blessing, and I am so grateful for your presence and care.  Thank you!

     Back in 1995 I was a workshop leader at a prayer conference.  I was looking forward to hearing the plenary speaker but was surprised and disappointed when he said that the value of prayer is in the impact it has on us, the ones who pray.  He said he found it inconceivable that our prayers could have an impact on others – that what happens to an uncle, or a neighbor or a friend could be influenced by whether we pray for them or not.  If our prayers have an impact, that would place too great a responsibility on us.  It wouldn’t be fair to us or to those for whom we pray.

     I understand what he was getting at.  It is terrifying (his word) to think that what we do or don’t do could have that kind of impact on someone else.  But that is precisely the kind of world in which we live.  It is a world of interconnections, a world in which our choices impact the lives of others for better or worse.

     We take those interconnections as a given within the family.  A dad who drinks too much effects not just his own life but every member of the family.  A working mom who makes a point of being home for dinner every night, and spends part of her evening supporting the kids isn’t just impacting her own life.  She is helping shape the lives of those she loves, as well.  And as every parent can tell you, their own sense of well-being is very much tied to the well-being of each of their children.

     Those connections extend beyond the family.  Our taxes have an impact on the quality of education that is offered, and the infrastructure that supports the entire community.  Someone setting off fireworks at 1 a.m. disturbs the sleep of nearby neighbors.  Because a group of people are committed to making Second Harvest happen, people in Sharpsburg are going to have access to quality goods at affordable prices.  We are interconnected.

     We know there are people in the world who are going to starve unless others, in more prosperous regions, choose to do something about it.  We know there are people who will contract communicable diseases because they don’t have access to fresh water; and people who will die of easily treatable maladies because there is no medical care available.  All it takes to change that is other people who have the resources making the choice to do something about it.  Like it or not we are interconnected. 

     Yes, there is a sense in which it is a terrible responsibility to realize our choices can have such an impact.  But there is also extraordinary opportunity there.  It is wonderful to think that what we do here can save a life half a world away.  What a privilege!  What a joy!  And here’s the thing: our prayers aren’t any different.  They are just another form of currency in God’s economy.  Our prayers make a difference not just in our own lives, but in the lives of those we lift before the Lord.  What a privilege!  What a joy!

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

My brother Brewster has sepsis now.  The doctor had said that if he got through the weekend then he was likely on the road to recovery.  That’s certainly the way it looked.  After a very tough week, he started feeling better this past weekend.  On Sunday he even talked about getting up and going downstairs for a while.  Monday, he actually made it and did some work in his study.  But then things changed.

     I’m not sure exactly when the pain started building in his chest, but by 11 p.m. Monday night it was bad enough that his wife drove him to the hospital.  This was huge because my brother, like our dad before him, really dislikes hospitals.  The staff there diagnosed a lung infection and began to treat him.  I'm told the doctor was reassuring, but it still threw me when I heard about his hospitalization Tuesday morning.  I had been hoping and praying that his battle with Covid 19 would never reach this point.

     Then today came the news that he has sepsis.  It shouldn't have come as a big surprise given his lung infection, but it did.  According to the Mayo Clinic, “Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by the body's response to an infection. The body normally releases chemicals into the bloodstream to fight an infection. Sepsis occurs when the body's response to these chemicals is out of balance, triggering changes that can damage multiple organ systems.”  The good news is that it is treatable, and was caught early on.  The scary part, of course, is that my brother’s whole system has already been challenged by his two week struggle with this virus.

     Bonnie reminded me that I had sepsis years ago when we were out in Colorado.  What Brewster is going through, however, is at a whole different level.  I’m not sure how this is going to turn out.  I want to be optimistic, but I'm not there.  I hope, but I'm not hopeful.  I'm fearful, but I haven't given up.  So I’ve been asking people to pray, and I’ve been praying a lot myself.

     Does prayer make a difference?  There have actually been some credible studies at places like Duke University Hospital and USC that have demonstrated its impact on patients’ recovery.  But that doesn’t mean it is some kind of guarantee.  It isn’t.  Remember Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
      I pray because I believe it makes a difference, even if it is not always the difference I had in mind.  I pray because 1) Jesus did, and 2) both Jesus and the rest of Scripture call us to pray.  No, it doesn’t always make sense.  But it doesn’t have to.  The call all by itself is enough for me.  I don’t think Jesus would teach us to pray if he thought it was a waste of time.  What Jesus offers, what Scripture offers, is an invitation to live into the mystery of God’s movement in this world, and so in some small way to become part of what God is doing.
     There are two things I know.  The first is that even though my brother is isolated and can’t have any visitors, he is not alone.  The Lord is by his side.  And second, that no matter what happens, my brother abides in the hands of our Creator, and that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate him from God’s love.  We belong to God in this life and for all eternity, and God will never let us go.  I don't want to sound like I'm all at peace here.  I'm not.  But I do find comfort in God's promises even in the midst of all my fear.

“The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:5-6)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Years ago Don Wilkins (our former organist) and his wife invited Bonnie and me to their weekend cottage near Ligonier.  We had a wonderful time.  Towards the end of the day they took us into the woods for a mushroom hunt.  I love mushrooms, but the only ones I had ever had are the ones you find in supermarkets and restaurant menus.  Don and Collette sent some of the mushrooms we found home with us.  They were incredible – so much better than anything we had ever tasted before – and I understood immediately why some people love to hunt them.

     It was the memory of that day that led me to read an article about some poisonous mushrooms that first appeared in The Atlantic just over a year ago.  The piece was about a particular species, Amanita phalloides popularly known as “death cap mushrooms,” which have spread throughout North America.  Once ingested, severe illness can start as soon as six hours later, but it usually takes longer and can hit as much as 36 hours or more after the mushroom was consumed.  Severe liver damage is usually apparent after 72 hours, and fatality can occur after a week or longer.  It is a brutal process.
     There is no antidote for death cap mushrooms.  There is only treatment; primarily lots of fluids, and when the liver begins to fail a liver transplant.  A typical year might see anywhere from five to twenty poisonings, but on average there is just one death per year in all of North America.    However, that is expected to increase as the species continues to spread.

     Poison cap mushrooms didn’t start here.  Their home was Europe where the mushrooms have grown for centuries in deciduous forests and where they remain the leading cause of mushroom poisonings there to this day.  It is believed that they first showed up on the East Coast in the early 1900s.  The first ones in California were found on the grounds of the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey in 1938.  They spread into the Bay Area where they have now become common.  Today they are more abundant in California than in their native European habitat.

     Here is the part that struck me: poison cap mushrooms taste really good.  That just doesn’t seem fair.  And because the symptoms can hit much later, it can be difficult to identify the cause of one’s illness.  Again, unfair.  But whoever said life was fair?  The lesson in all of this is that if you are going to eat wild mushrooms (which are, in fact, fantastic), you better know your species.  Otherwise, the rule of thumb should be the one I learned in Boy Scouts, “Don’t eat wild mushrooms.” 

     There are plenty of things in life that taste pretty good but can do us great harm.  Nurturing a grudge is one of them.  I was reminded of that the other day when I found myself dwelling on something that someone had done to me years ago.  I was tempted to stay there for a while – tempted to let my anger build at the memory.  Why does that feel so satisfying?  Holding on to that stuff, however, is like eating the mushroom: it can taste good in the moment but it will poison our souls.  Far better to follow the way that Jesus has laid out before us: the way of forgiveness; the way of love.  No, it is not fair.  An eye for an eye is fair.  But whoever said life was fair?

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

I came across a sobering line while reading one of my favorite magazines last week: “While Cospas-Sarsat [a global satellite system that can pick up distress signals from the sea] has been credited with saving more than 46,000 lives since 1982…”  I paused right there.  I was impressed that the system has saved so many lives, but I was a bit stunned to find out that so many people required saving in this modern era.  Let’s see: 46,000 divided by 38 years – that works out to over 1,200 a year, and that is just the number who actually had access to satellite signaling devices (epirbs) in the first place. 

     I did a little research.  It is estimated that of those who make their living on the sea, about 2000 are lost every year.  IHS Maritime reports that in 2013 there were 138 ships lost which is slightly more than two each week.  These aren't little motorboats or sailboats.  These are large commercial vessels.  As The Guardian put it, “The ocean is the most dangerous workplace on the planet. Commercial seafaring is considered to be the second-most dangerous occupation in the world; deep-sea fishing is the first.” 

     What about recreational sailors like me?  In 2015, the Coast Guard counted 4,158 accidents in U.S. waters resulting in 626 deaths, 2,613 injuries and approximately $42 million dollars of damage.  I wonder how much bigger those numbers would be if we could get the statistics worldwide?  Still, that's a lot of accidents and a lot of deaths.

     Looking for some reassurance, I turned to an article with the lead “Sailing is safer than driving”.  When I took a closer look, the author based that assertion on the following: “For every 100,000 people, 5 will die in a boat related accident (2015 Coast Guard); For every 100,000 people, 11 will die in a car related accident (2015 NHTSA).”  But wait a second: aren’t there exponentially more people driving cars than out sailing?”  This wasn't reassuring at all!  Turns out the website was for a sailing school. 

     Maybe it is age, but my sense of invincibility out on the water has diminished through the years.  Where I didn’t hesitate to take our kids out for a sail when they were little, today I find I’m anxious just at the thought of having a grandchild on board.  Part of me can’t wait to teach my grandchildren to sail.  Another part is very aware of the risks involved every time you board a boat.  I'm a bit worried that I’m going to be so over-protective of my grandchildren that I’ll end up suffocating the sense of joy and freedom that comes with raising the sail.

     The truth is, life is full of risks.  This pandemic has certainly raised our awareness of it, but the risks have always been there: there when we get behind the wheel of a car; there when we step into the shower; there when we go up or down the steps with a load of laundry or climb a ladder to fix something beyond our reach.  We don’t ignore the risks, but we don’t let them paralyze us either.  We take the appropriate precautions, and we move forward as best we can.

     The good news in all of this is that we don’t move forward alone.  The Good Shepherd walks beside us, to guide and protect us along the way.  The same One who was there for the Apostle Paul and his shipmates when their boat foundered off the coast of Malta, is here with us, as well.  He will not abandon us.  He will provide for us with every step we take.  And at the end of this great voyage, He will be there to greet us on the other side, and to welcome us into his loving arms.

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”  (1 Thessalonians 4:14)