Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 50 – From Pastor Joyce

Tuesday May 26, 2020

2 Samuel 7:18-29 New Living Translation (NLT)

18 Then King David went in and sat before the Lord and prayed,

“Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? 19 And now, Sovereign Lord, in addition to everything else, you speak of giving your servant a lasting dynasty! Do you deal with everyone this way, O Sovereign Lord? 

20 “What more can I say to you? You know what your servant is really like, Sovereign Lord. 21 Because of your promise and according to your will, you have done all these great things and have made them known to your servant.

22 “How great you are, O Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you. We have never even heard of another God like you! 23 What other nation on earth is like your people Israel? What other nation, O God, have you redeemed from slavery to be your own people? You made a great name for yourself when you redeemed your people from Egypt. You performed awesome miracles and drove out the nations and gods that stood in their way.  24 You made Israel your very own people forever, and you, O Lord, became their God.

25 “And now, O Lord God, I am your servant; do as you have promised concerning me and my family. Confirm it as a promise that will last forever. 26 And may your name be honored forever so that everyone will say, ‘The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is God over Israel!’ And may the house of your servant David continue before you forever.

27 “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, God of Israel, I have been bold enough to pray this prayer to you because you have revealed all this to your servant, saying, ‘I will build a house for you—a dynasty of kings!’ 28 For you are God, O Sovereign Lord. Your words are truth, and you have promised these good things to your servant. 29 And now, may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you. For you have spoken, and when you grant a blessing to your servant, O Sovereign Lord, it is an eternal blessing!”

There is no doubt that David had a special relationship with God – God called him “a man after my own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).  No other human being has ever been so particularly called out to be  in God’s care.  David cherished that unique relationship.  Just read a few of the psalms that he wrote, and you can see how he communicated with God.  He could pour out his heart to God; he could complain to God; he could grumble at God; he could thank God; he could compliment God; he could praise God.

Even though David had this unique relationship with God, he never forgot that he was dependent on God. He saw God as sovereign, and he saw himself as God’s servant. He could have a conversation, prayer, with God that had many different facets – complaint, thanks, and praise.  David also accepted as fact what God said to him.  One of those facts was that God would bless him and his descendants with a dynasty – to rule over Israel for many years (verse 27).  David accepted this statement from God as truth and never questioned why God would grant such power to him and his descendants.  It was enough to know that he had a special place in God’s heart.

We know that the reign of the house of David did not last long at all.  While David was king, the northern and southern parts of this part of Palestine were united, and they remained so for David’s son Solomon.  Two kings and two kings only and the kingdoms broke apart, never to be reunited again.  Still, the Israelites continued to see themselves as God’s special people, chosen early in their relationship with God.  In the book of Deuteronomy 7:6 we read “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the people who are on the face of the earth.”  

God’s later declaration that David was a man after God’s own heart only strengthened the conviction that the Jews were, are, and continue to be chosen by God.  Many have seen this statement as a blessing for an entire nation.  This was true in biblical times when the Jewish nation was led by kings, but the religious leaders were also quite powerful.  The belief developed that God’s blessing was not just on individual people; instead, that blessing covered a whole nation.

This idea has carried over to our nation as well.  Our country has been richly blessed in so many ways, and we have become the most powerful nation in the world.  We have indeed been blessed.  We also feel that we have been chosen, and implicitly, chosen by God.  This is biblical. In Luke 12:48 we read: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”  So, this suggests that biblically we are being held responsible for what we have.  Since we have been blessed with talents, wealth, knowledge, time, and the like, it is expected that we benefit others.

This gets at the heart of what it means to be chosen.  One way to see being chosen is to expect good things to come to.  Chosen as the winner means receiving a reward.  Chosen as best means receiving praise.  In this sense, chosen means getting something, receiving good things, feeling like a winner.

But this is not the sense of chosen that God used when choosing the Israelites. Here God’s use of chosen carries with it the responsibility of giving back, sharing resources, thinking about others rather than themselves.  When a country or a nation or a state or a community or a church or an individual has been blessed with much, each is chosen by God to give back, in whatever way they can.

David’s words suggest that he is talking about a political entity – “a dynasty of kings.”  Another way for us to interpret this passage is to see the “house” (verse 27) God will build as the church instead of being political or governmental.  To see the church as the house blessed and chosen by God gives us a greater responsibility to share what we have with others.  

One of the only things the church has that other groups do not is our faith in God through Jesus Christ.  We can certainly share our time, talent, and treasure with those in need – that is part of the obligation of being both blessed and chosen.  Many groups and organizations, local, national, and international, are carrying out many, many humanitarian operations, and we do the same.  But the one thing that God’s church can do best is to share the Good News with others.

In this difficult time, with so many dealing with the fallout from the current pandemic, there are fewer ways we can share God’s Good News, at least in ways that are most familiar to us.  Yet there are still many things we can do.  One of the most important is to stay in touch with our friends, neighbors, and fellow church members, especially those who live alone.  Each time we call, text, send an email or card, we can let others know that God is helping us through this difficult time.  Each time we make a connection, we can give thanks to God that those we are contacting are staying safe.  Each time we contact another we can let them know we are praying for them. 

 And certainly, for us individually, we can recognize how important those relationships are to us.  We may once have seen connections to family or neighbors or other church members as less important to maintain than job duties or other more immediate tugs on our time. One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic may very well be that now we cherish those relationships and see them as blessings from God.

Call someone today.  Email a greeting to someone today.  Write a card.  Text.  Pray for them.  Share your blessings because you are chosen, chosen by God, to do just that.  Thanks be to God!

-Pastor Joyce Donigian


Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 49 – From Pastor Doug

Friday May 22, 2020

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 9  Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. 10  If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.
11  Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? 12  A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and
conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.

1 Thessalonians 5:9-11 9  For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us. 10  Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. 11  So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.

On Wednesday , I spoke about Jesus’ amazing prediction that his followers would do works ‘even greater’ than those Jesus did.  This sounds impossible.  But if we understand that ‘even greater’ refers to even more humble, even less self-centered, and even more caring about others, we have a direction to pursue. 

About fifteen years ago, I attended a Saturday retreat during which we discussed the power of faith in God.  The retreat was at the Forks UCC church in Stockertown, up Route 30 from Bethlehem.  This church had a very large cemetery that was well tended and had a gazebo at its center.  On a break between sessions, we attendees fanned out among the gravestones to meditate silently on the scripture about faithful prayers.  It was a beautiful day and I made my way to the gazebo.  As I stood, looking at it, I thought about Jesus saying that faith in God could move a mountain and throw it into the sea. 

I then thought I would try a smaller task.  Rather than move a mountain, I would try to move the gazebo.  Just a little.  Just enough to expand my faith so I could serve God better.  I looked at the peaked roof of the gazebo, outlined by the blue sky, and asked God to move it.  And then it moved!  Not much.  Just a smidgeon relative to the trees in the background.  The foundation and grass around the gazebo appeared undisturbed.  Had even the ground moved?  Was I just seeing things?  I wanted to be sure it had moved, so I changed my position and asked God to move the gazebo again. After a few moments it began to move again!  The peak of the roof began to move slowly against the trees and clouds.  It continued to move until suddenly I almost fell down.

In my concentration on the gazebo roof, I had begun to lean to my left without realizing it.  Yes, the gazebo roof appeared to move relative to the trees and clouds because my vantage point moved as I leaned.  I was so engrossed in the moment, I didn’t realize I was losing my balance.

I straightened up, hoping no one had seen me stumble, and laughed at my mistake.  But then the Holy Spirit sent this insight.  You can ‘move’ a gazebo or a house or a mountain just by moving where you look at it.  Your eyes will make it seem to move as your position relative to it moves.  In fact, how big something seems depends on how close we are to it.

Isn’t this true of our problems?  Of our spiritual mountains?  Of our attitudes?

Here is an application.  At a recent 8X8 virtual bible study, a topic was how to love one’s enemies.  This led to a discussion of what makes someone an enemy.  At least some of making an enemy is inside our own heads.  I’m not saying that, if we are being chased by someone with a knife, we should stop running and turn around and open our arms to give them a hug.  But if someone is a competitor at work or just different from us, the jump to calling them an enemy is our own doing.  Things of our own doing are things that faith and prayer can change.  We may not be able to make them less competitive, but we can take the mountain of our ill will toward them and throw it into the sea.

Our first scripture from Ecclesiastes expands the truth about moving mountains.  If we can move past a mountain of ill will, imagine if two people move past that mountain.  They can encourage each other.  They can double the number of prayers repenting and asking for forgiveness.  Two people will see the same mountain move.  And they can join forces to make the world better.  Imagine three people joining together.   

The second scripture from 1 Thessalonians encourages us by saying that God has not come with anger that we certainly deserve.  Rather God has come to restore and save us.  This is where the idea of throwing a mountain of ill will comes from.  God throws ill will against us into the sea.  With His help, so can we.  In the space and time that sheltering in place gives us, let’s all move a mountain.

-Pastor Douglas Donigian

 Stay in touch.  Share your needs.  Let us help.  Amen.

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 48 – From Pastor Joyce

Thursday May 21, 2020

1 Corinthians 12:14-26 New Living Translation (NLT)
14 Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. 15 If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?

18 But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. 19 How strange a body would be if it had only one part! 20 Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. 21 The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”

22 In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. 23 And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, 24 while the more honorable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. 25 This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.

Many people in our country are obsessed with status – they have to live in the “right” neighborhood, drive the “right” car, have their kids go to the “right” school, belong to the “right” clubs and organizations. You get the picture. In many peoples’ minds, there is a hierarchy of more and less “right” things to do.

Some people feel that way about church work – that there are some positions within the church that are more honorable or more admirable than others. For example, if a new person comes to one of our worship services and one of our members strikes up a conversation with them, one of the things that could be offered is – “Let me introduce you to our pastors” or “Let me introduce you to one of our council members.” These are important positions within the church, no question about it, but there is other, vital work being done by those whose names do not immediately come to mind in such a situation.

Some positions are looked at as being more special, more important, more honorable than others. But there is something else going on also. People are mostly reluctant to pat themselves on the back, to take credit when they have done something good. We experienced an example of this several years ago.

First, a little background: Our church in Baltimore began a significant fund-raising campaign for a figure that ran to thousands of dollars to put in an elevator. In a couple of years that goal was reached, and then our pastor challenged us with a second campaign – to match each dollar raised with an hour of volunteer work done either at the church or in the community. The only way to keep track of those hours was for people to fill out forms listing the number of hours they were contributing and turn them in to the church. It was exciting to see how those hours added up. It felt good to see that church members could contribute more than money – they could contribute their time as well.

Fast forward to here at First Church. I thought a similar campaign might work here to keep track of just how many hours our members volunteered both at church and within the community. We keep track of the many areas in which our members have contributed their time; we just didn’t know how many hours in total. I thought this would be encouraging to those already volunteering and act as an incentive to those who might be considering this option for service.

The idea did not go far. The reason given was that our members would be reluctant to fill out those forms because it could be seen as bragging about what they were accomplishing. And no one wanted to brag. Just to be clear – there are many, many jobs done around the church, there are many, many kind acts done by our members that only a few know about, there are contributions of time, talent, and treasure that are known only to the person doing such actions or only one or two others. Many people like to remain anonymous.

That doesn’t mean that those actions, those jobs, those kindnesses are less important than council meetings or sermon preparation. That doesn’t mean that keeping the floors shining or the bathrooms spotless or the office well-run or the children being led in music, or the choir singing or the First Fellowship goodies or the community dinners, or Sunday school or … the list could go on and on – are less important. So many people do so many tasks. It’s just that most people don’t want recognition for all they do.

This desire to serve in confidential ways is understandable and commendable. The motivation for volunteering to do anything or to go above and beyond the minimum should not be praise and admiration. Doing for others, giving more than the minimum are ways that we can bring honor to God, especially if someone notices and we can tell them why we volunteer.

However, there is one way of thinking that might be less than positive here. And that is to think that what is done is unimportant. To diminish the contribution each person makes. Thoughts like: “I only teach small children.” Or “I only count the offering.” Or “I only empty the trash.” It is important to remember that all of the work of the church needs to be done by all of the parts of the church – its members and staff.

Here’s just one example, when we are able to be back in our building, someone needs to turn on all the lights, unlock all the doors, gather any mail that came the previous day, check that all mechanicals are working properly, and turn on the fountain just to get the church ready for us. In their way all these are small things, but they need to be done. None of the work of the church, whether front and center or behind the scenes is optional. If some of the work is not done, then the church, like our bodies, cannot work at its highest and most efficient level.

We do need to keep in mind that all jobs are important, whether they are high-profile or otherwise. It is sometimes easy to overlook the importance of some of the lower profile jobs. This carries over to our current situation. I am thinking specifically now of all the attention focused on our hospitals, especially on the doctors and nurses and other therapy professionals. They deserve every bit of recognition we can give them and more. But I am also thinking of another part of the team, the cleaning staff, those who wipe down doorknobs, mop floors, dispose of used PPE. When it comes right down to it, the cleaning staff is vitally important for keeping COVID-19 contained. Doctors and nurses can diagnose, but it is the cleanliness of the surroundings that allow them to best care for patients. Each job is necessary and important. Each person doing each job is important. It is the working together for a common goal that makes for good teamwork, for the best outcomes.

This is true in our churches as well. No job is less important than any other. All jobs are important. Each person, whether paid staff or volunteer is important. As a church we are working together to spread the Gospel, deepen our faith, and serve our God, even in times like these when we are serving apart from one another. Let us give thanks today for all of the jobs that are being done by people who too seldom get praise and thanks.

-Pastor Joyce Donigian

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 47 – From Pastor Doug

Wednesday May 20, 2020

John 5:19-24  19 So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing. In fact, the Father will show him how to do even greater works than healing this man. Then you will truly be astonished. 21 For just as the Father gives life to those he raises from the dead, so the Son gives life to anyone he wants. 22 In addition, the Father judges no one. Instead, he has given the Son absolute authority to judge, 23 so that everyone will honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son is certainly not honoring the Father who sent him.

24 “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life.

John 14:12 “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.

Our second Scripture today has one of the most amazing statements for us, after the revelation that God offers us eternal life. During his last supper with his disciples, he tells them they will do greater works than Jesus had done!

I think Jesus was referring to things we can do in this life, as Jesus had done. He was not saying his followers would do divine activities like creating the universe. But look at what Jesus did in this life. He fed crowds without stocking up on food ahead of time. He healed diseases, even congenital handicaps. He walked on water. He raised the dead. Are we able to do “even greater” acts than these?

As best we can tell, no one has done acts that bend the laws of nature as much as Jesus did, let alone even greater acts. Some approach Jesus’ meaning this way. They say that Jesus used what linguists call ‘hyperbole’, exaggerations to make a point. By this argument, when he said (Mark 11:23), “If you had faith, you could toss a mountain into the sea,” he probably didn’t expect us to move mountains without equipment. He probable meant that we would be amazed at what faith would allow us to do, just as making a mountain move would amaze us.

I’m not sure if that interpretation is a cop out. However, if that was Jesus’ intention, when he used this kind of hyperbole it always taught something important and true. If we can’t move a physical mountain, we can move to a new direction in life that we would never have imagined was possible.

So what is a truth for us about doing great works? Or about doing ‘even greater’ works?

In our first Scripture, Jesus explains what worked for him. He begins saying he can’t do great works alone. He depends on God for direction. He depends on God for inspiration. He does what he sees God doing. This is true for us. We may think we can’t see God, but Jesus said this to Philip (John 14:9), “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” If we want to do great works, we look at what Jesus did and taught. Jesus goes on to say we will be amazed by what we accomplish through humility, faith, and obedience.

I think we have to beware of a cultural trap. We tend to associate ‘even greater’ with ‘even more spectacular’. Jesus walked on a lake. By this trap, we would say that, to do something even greater, we should walk on the ocean. Jesus was aware of this trap. He avoided what was culturally spectacular. He flatly refused Satan’s suggestion that he jump off the temple roof to become a superstar. Even further, he taught his disciples (Matthew 20:26-27), “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.” Things ‘even greater’ in Jesus’ teachings are things that are ‘even less selfish, less self-promoting, and more caring for others’.

How can we do anything ‘even greater’ than Jesus? The short answer for me is, in direct comparison, we can’t do anything anyway near what Jesus did, let alone anything ‘greater’. We can take heart, nevertheless. Possibly there is another way of understanding Jesus’ encouragement that we attempt things ‘even greater’ than he did. Jesus fed 5000 at one sitting. By working together, our red and blue teams have fed 9000 over 10 years. Jesus poured his teaching efforts into adults. Working together, our Christian Education and Mission teams have extended Christian teaching and service to children and youth. So far as we know, Jesus did not sing or play a musical instrument (he did like weddings which did include singing and musical instruments). We have applied many forms of music to add emotion and power to our worship.

What about sheltering in place? This in no way prevents us from going ‘beyond’. Over the last two months, I have seen more e-mails giving positive feedback than before, when we could talk face-to-face. The music and graphics in our video worship services have drawn encouraging feedback. Pastor Joyce, Jon, and I have been receiving such encouragement as we offer devotions, sermons, and liturgy during our video worship. Your photographs and signs, shown during special music, have lifted all our spirits. Positive feedback is encouraging, empowering, and reason for joy. And, as a congregation, you have been giving positive feedback to one another, to us, and to others.

As this pandemic continues, please continue giving one another positive feedback. You have incredible power to lift one another up. You will be doing something ‘even greater’ that we could imagine before this all began.

Thank you, wonderful people.

-Pastor Doug Donigian

Stay in touch. Share your needs. Let us help. Amen.

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 46 – From Jon Bauman

Photo by Min An from Pexels

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)

One of my favorite and least favorite things is to host a cookout or dinner at my house. I love them because I enjoy spending time with friends or family, and I also enjoy grilling up whatever delicious food we will be enjoying that day.

However, besides the usual tidying up, and grocery shopping that is needed ahead of time, I dislike hosting these events because I am constantly running around the house and to the firepit to make sure everything is cooked at the right time, and to make sure that all of the people there are having a good time.

When I’m running around, I tend to have short conversations with everyone, rather than more significant conversations with a few. The shorter conversations I do to address the needs of the people there, but they come at the expense of me not being able to relax and enjoy my time with those around me.

I found myself being absent-minded in a social gathering that is meant to make all feel satisfied in the present. I reminded myself of the stress that my family members would feel during big family holiday meals as they were preparing the meal and the table, and I had always felt bad for them that they couldn’t relax and enjoy the moment.

Have you ever felt that way?

Today’s scripture reading has to do with two sisters who welcomed Jesus, and likely some of his followers, into their home.

Martha welcomed Jesus inside and likely washed his feet right away (as was the custom), and then I can picture her making sure he had a clear place to sit, straightening up the room Jesus was in, and then moving on to the start preparing a meal for them all to eat.

Mary, on the other hand, was so excited that Jesus was visiting with them that she didn’t want a moment to pass by. She wasn’t thinking about tidying up the house, she wasn’t thinking of rushing to help Martha prepare a meal, she was only focused on spending time with Jesus and listening to all that He had to say.

Martha grew frustrated at Mary not helping her, and I can picture her trying to get Mary’s attention subtly until finally she bursts out a plea for Jesus to tell her to come help Martha prepare the house and the meal for their guest(s).

Jesus responds by saying something along the lines of, “Martha, you are stressed about all these little things while Mary is paying attention to the main point of me coming here, to spend time with you”.

This reminds me of when a good friend would pull me aside at these gatherings that I would host and say, “hey, calm down and relax – you don’t have to go through all this trouble for me – I’m just glad to be here.”

It’s not that Martha was doing anything wrong – she was trying to be a good host in the way that she knew how. Its just that Mary recognized that spending time with Jesus was more important than trying to tidy the house or prepare a meal.

Being busy feels good sometimes. It feels productive to have a set schedule, to accomplish tasks that you need to do in an orderly fashion, but as we all know, when we focus on the busy stuff, it never stops.

There’s a song I grew up listening to by Harry Chapin called “Cat’s in the Cradle” about a relationship between a father and son where the Father was too busy to spend time with his son when he was younger, and how the son grew up to be too busy to spend time with his father when they were both adults.

It’s a sad song, but it points to a lesson to be learned: Building important relationships with others is of greater importance than the stress and busy schedules that we make for ourselves.

This way of thinking requires us to place building relationships with our loved ones and our friends within our important schedules, even if it means having people over while there are dishes in the sink, even if it means not checking our email after a certain time of the day, and even if it means saying no to some things so that your relationships with those you care about grow stronger.

As we have been sheltering-in-place as a society, some people are still working their normal hours, some are working more hours, some are working more at home then they did in the office, and a lot of us have been watching TV so much that we are becoming bored.

Yet even still, the majority of us are spending more time at home than we were before. If you are fortunate to live with other people, whether they are spouses, family members, or roommates, don’t become so caught up in the stress of the every day that you can’t invest in these relationships now.

If you are living alone right now, make time in your day and evenings to reach out to family and friends. A couple weeks ago, three of my friends and I met over zoom to talk about our lives in the ministry (we are all clergy), the books we have been reading, and to catch up on life in general. I was surprised by how much joy meeting with those friends gave me, even though it was not in person.

And while we are on the topic of building relationships, this is also a time for us to focus on Jesus wanting to meet us where we are.

It doesn’t matter if our lives are messy. It doesn’t matter what dishes we may have in the sink. It doesn’t matter if we haven’t talked with him in a day, a week, or a few years.

What matters is that Jesus wants to meet us where we are at.

He doesn’t want us to be so distracted by our busyness, or our efforts to make ourselves seem more presentable, that we miss the fact that:

Jesus wants to meet us where we are at

Jesus wants to spend time with us

Jesus wants to remind us of His love, the blessings He has given to us, and that He is there in our times when busyness, stress, and worry are consuming our lives.

So in this time, let’s be more like Mary and less like Martha.

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 45 – From Pastor Joyce

Monday May 18, 2020

15 “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.

“I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. 10 When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.

John 15:1-10 (NLT)

Spring feels like it has finally sprung, and I imagine many of you who are gardeners are taking advantage of the warmer weather.  You may be planting new things – flowers, vegetable and fruit plants or even starting things from scratch by putting new seeds in the ground.  You do this by preparing the soil, clearing away weeds and other debris and adding the appropriate amounts of water and fertilizer. You do all this to give your plants the best start possible. If you are not planting new things, you may be sprucing up what is already planted – pruning dead branches and trimming off unnecessary shoots.  You do these things to make the plants healthier and stronger.  You do these things so that in time you can enjoy the fruits of your labor – literally – beautiful flowers and delicious produce.

Have you ever thought that sometimes you have felt like a plant?  How about the times when you were presented with the opportunity to try something entirely new?  Like the day you graduated from high school or college with a new job or new schooling to look forward to?  What if that meant a move – out of the family home or to another city or state?  To me this has felt like God planting me very much like a good gardener plants new flowers or vegetables.  In such cases, there have been new friends waiting to be made, new co-workers or school mates – people who anticipated our arrival and welcomed us into their community.

There have been other times, however, where we have felt uprooted, without knowing exactly why, to be forced by circumstances to leave the familiar and face new experiences.  But those new experiences did not include waiting friends or expectant co-workers or neighbors.  Rather the experience felt more like being pruned, cut off from what was familiar, left without all those people, places, and things that we once relied on.

Pastor Doug and I felt much like this when we moved from Baltimore to Bethlehem.  We had lived in Baltimore for more than twenty years.  We raised our kids there.  Our church family was there.  We had friends in the neighborhood. Our church was meaningful to us, as were our jobs.  But in a short time two things happened that markedly affected our lives.  First, Pastor Doug’s company promoted a new person to manage his lab, someone who was brusque, caring only for the bottom line, not at all supportive of new ideas or concepts.  Then our church called a new minister, one who was difficult to work with, thin-skinned, demanding his own way, and seemingly jealous of the respect people had for Pastor Doug.  What were once comfortable places to live, work, and worship no longer felt that way.

This was the reason Pastor Doug was willing to consider a new job with a different company.  That was the reason we found ourselves in Bethlehem where we knew no one, we had no church, our children did not move with us as they were making lives of their own, either still in college or working in other states.  We felt alone, without family or friends.  Although Pastor Doug’s new job was a better fit than the one he left, I was not able to find a similar position.  I did find work, part-time only, at a local high school.  During this time we discussed this scripture passage often and felt that we certainly had been pruned but also felt that God had something more in mind for us.

We waited for new fruit to become apparent.  And it did.  After attending several churches that did not make us feel welcomed, we happened upon a UCC church where we were welcomed in to become an integral part of their contemporary worship team, providing short dramatic lead-ins for the pastor’s sermons.  Some were serious, others were less so, but all were thought provoking. At that time drama was an important part of our church ministry.  And there were many people who attended this service who loved being a part of such a ministry.  There never was any problem finding actors.  We were accepted into the group who planned these services, the same group who began adult mission trips, the same group who just plain enjoyed one another’s company.  We felt that the pruning we had experienced led to more fruit than before.

God had pruned us so that we were embraced by this new group of Christians, given a mission we loved, and while there we were led to enroll in seminary to prepare for another career – that of co-pastors at a church.  And you, as a congregation, were willing to dream along with us and called us to be your pastors.  None of this would have happened without God’s pruning of us back in Baltimore.

There were certainly times during this process when we felt alone and without God’s leading.  However, this scripture passage convinced us that God was still present in our lives but was preparing us for something new.  

This time of being separated from one another does seem like we are again being pruned – in order that new life may grow.  During this time it is vital that we continue to reach out to one another by phone, email, card, or other greeting to let others know that they are not alone – that we are all being pruned in order to grow in our faith.  With God’s strength and support, with our faith and trust and belief, we can use this time to deepen our reliance on God and to put our faith into action by reaching out, like a vine, to others.  Blessings to all.

-Pastor Joyce Donigian

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 44 – From Pastor Doug

Friday May 15, 2020

Psalm 143:5-10  I remember the days of old.  I ponder all your great works and think about what you have done.  I lift my hands to you in prayer.  I thirst for you as parched land thirsts for rain.

Come quickly, Lord, and answer me, for my depression deepens.  Don’t turn away from me, or I will die.  Let me hear of your unfailing love each morning, for I am trusting you.  Show me where to walk, for I give myself to you. 

Rescue me from my enemies, Lord; I run to you to hide me.  10 Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.
May your gracious Spirit lead me forward on a firm footing.

Sleep has many benefits.  To begin, it makes us less tired.  It helps our immune systems throw off illness.  Scientists say it helps our memories.  While we sleep, our brains forget clutter and consolidate important facts to remember long term.

Another gift of sleep for me has been, on occasion, dreams that have guided me.  They are a route to hear the Holy Spirit that I have sometimes traveled.  In one such vivid dream, I was in a rowboat with several of my coworkers.   The boat was in a pond surrounded on three sides by familiar things.  One side was part of a factory I often visited, another was a laboratory where I worked, and another was the neighborhood where I lived.  The fourth side was undeveloped field grass.  The boat had a leak, so we had to get to shore before sinking.  We paddled rapidly to the familiar places but, as we got close, in each case we saw barriers to getting out of the boat.  For example, the factory floor was too high for us to climb out.  Finally, we paddled the boat to the undeveloped field and found the water shallow enough to disembark, just as the boat sank.  Then I woke up.  This guided me to decide I needed to do something else than remain at my then current company.  

Not everyone connects with the Holy Spirit that way but a number of others have shared with me how dreams have affected them powerfully.

I’m talking about sleep because the psalmist brings up a universal experience.  We all wake up.

When we wake up, we start a new piece of our lives.  In some cases we try to apply our dreams to the new piece.  In all cases we try to reconnect with all the old pieces.  We look for reassurances that everything is still as it should be.  Are we OK?  Do people still love us?  Are we ready to fill all our responsibilities?  Do we have a plan for the day?  How do we feel about what the day holds for us?

Sleep divides our lives into chunks.  Each day is a chunk.  Our chunks are highly connected but we ask each one to stand on its own.

This is what motivates the psalmist.  He is connected with his past, a past in which he has developed a relationship with God.  But he is facing a new morning, a new chunk of his life, and he wants to check in with God.  He is facing circumstances that threaten him with depression.  And so he begs God to guide and protect him.  He prays to God for the comfort of firm footing.

Sleep is a wonderful gift shared by all higher life forms.  But it breaks our lives into chunks.  Each day we need to reconnect with God.  When we encounter stress, like sheltering in place, we naturally seek that reconnection more deliberately.  

Let’s reconnect with God now, following the prayer of our psalmist.  Let us pray …

“I remember days when my faith was strong and I felt joy because of Your love and promises.  I am forever amazed at Your creation and Your gift of letting me be part of it.  I raise my hands in prayer to You.  Relationship with You gives me life, just as rain gives life to the forest.

I need You right now as I face this virus and its fallout.  I don’t want to feel helpless and hopeless and down.  I cannot continue if I am alone.  But I know I am not alone for I trust in Your love.  I will not be aimless; You have given me mission in life and I will pursue it.  Those who depend on me will not be abandoned.  

Rescue me from anxiety, discouragement, loneliness, and doubt.  I run to Your love and promises.  My soul is safe in Your hands.  I am Your person.  I am obedient to You.  You have said, “Do not be afraid.  Take on my light burden.  Love others as I have loved you.  Find joy always.”  Teach me and I will do all these things.

You are my God.  Your ways are right.  You will lead me through even the valley of the shadow of death with firm footsteps based of truth and faith.  Thank You God.  Amen”     

-Pastor Doug Donigian

 Stay in touch.  Share your needs.  Let us help.  Amen.

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 43 – From Pastor Doug

Thursday May 14, 2020

1 Peter 3: 13-17   13 Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. 15 Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way.  Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. 17 Remember, it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong!

How fast do we think on our feet?  Some people are naturally gifted this way; I am not.  

In a former life, I managed research for a paper company.  Paper is made on a machine that starts with dilute wood fibers in water and ends up with a 20 foot wide web of paper winding onto a reel at 3000 feet per minute.  If anything goes wrong and the paper web breaks, the paper web has to be rethreaded through the machine.  This is a manual process.  It takes about 15 minutes during which machine productivity is zero.  It is a hot, wet, and dangerous operation which carries a risk of losing a finger in a nip.  Many older papermakers have a missing finger.  A day with no breaks is a good day.

As a researcher, I was often trying new things that changed the process and ran the risk of causing a break (as well as off-spec, unsellable paper).  So, when I was running a papermaking trial, I always felt guilty when the web broke.  (The operators always agreed heartily that research was guilty and responsible.)  During a trial I was always trying to think fast on my feet to anticipate any problems that could cause a web break and then to recommend corrective action before it happened.  I always felt that I couldn’t think fast enough.  Can you relate to these feelings?  Thankfully, there were others on my research team who thought faster.

Peter, in our devotional scripture, advises us how to answer if someone asks about our hope as a believer.  There are pastors who can respond immediately to such a question.  They can think fast on their feet.  They can discern what the questioner needs to hear give a good answer.  I am not one of those pastors. 

Do you find it difficult to think quickly on your feet when the consequences are important?  If so, what can you do?  

The best method is to practice ahead of time.  This is why we take driving lessons before driving.  So our reactions to driving conditions become fast and automatic.  

Reading the Bible is challenging for many.  The Old Testament was written for a different culture and its history is not in order.  Zane Stauffer, who read the Bible through multiple times, loved “chronological” translations that place events in the order in which they happened and make it much easier to follow the history.  Bible vocabulary is difficult.  Finding a readable translation is very helpful.  But it is worth the effort.  Reading the Bible is a way to practice ahead of time.

Another way to practice ahead of time is to participate in a Bible study.  Most Bible studies take a short passage and ask all the participants to think about it.  It is a much less rushed process and it gives us a chance to hear one another’s thoughts.  As Pastor Joyce said recently, iron sharpens iron.

Last Sunday, Jon Bauman ended his sermon encouraging us to think about who we might choose as a mentor and who we might be a mentor to.  Both relationships allow us to practice our beliefs ahead of time.

This may be a hidden blessing from sheltering in place.  In one sense, this pestilence has moved very quickly.  It is just 3 months since the first cases began in our country.  But, if we are sheltering in place, three months may seem like a very long time.  Home time challenges us to think about our own mortality, about God’s promise of a next life, and about how we can help one another.  In a way, this is giving us time to examine our beliefs and practice our faith ahead of time.  

Let’s take a moment.  No pressure.  If we were asked about why we have hope as a believer, what might we say?  Would we speak about faith in God’s love?  In God’s promises?  During this time of sheltering in place, we might include something about how our faith is helping us through this crisis.  How our anxiety is lessened.  How we can see not only bad but also good things that are happening in the chaos.  

This way, we who don’t think quickly when surprised, can be ready when questions and challenges come our way.  

-Pastor Doug Donigian

Stay in touch.  Share your needs.  Let us help.  Amen.

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 42 – From Jon

Wednesday May 13, 2020

19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

Mark 11:19-24 (NRSV)

Have you ever bitten into an apple and found that it was rotten?

You expect the apple to be delicious, crisp, juicy, and you end up biting into something disgusting, mushy, or dry. You then spit the rotten fruit from your mouth, and throw the apple into the trash.

One day, Jesus was hungry and walked past a fig tree that did not yet produce fruit, and he cursed it (Mark 11:12-14).

They then entered into Jerusalem, and that is where the author of Mark records Jesus entering the temple, seeing its corruption, and its taking advantage of the poor, and declared that they had turned his Father’s house into a den of robbers.

As they left Jerusalem, Peter saw that the fig tree that Jesus had cursed before has withered; its bark likely looked unhealthy, its leaves were probably blowing away with the wind, and it would certainly not produce fruit again.

Jesus used this opportunity to tell them that just as he had the power to curse that fig tree, that prayer is just as powerful of a force to change the circumstances around them. That they do not have to doubt the ability of God to change the impossible to the possible.

I think that we can draw two things from Mark 11, in looking at the context of the chapter that precedes the passage for today’s devotional:

ONE: We are meant to bear fruit. Faith is not meant to be all about us, for that can lead to selfishness at the expense of others, like it did in the Temple of Jerusalem that Jesus cleansed. Instead, our faith is meant to grow within us so that we can bless others like a fig tree that bears fruit that gives others nourishment.

TWO: We are to meant to actively pray for our world, and those around us. To bear fruit is to bless those around us with our faith that inspires us to not only share the hope of Jesus to the world, but to also be people who help others through the actions that our faith calls us to take to help others. However, if we seek to bless our world, we are not expected to do so alone; we have direct communication with God through prayer, and God hears the requests and pleads from God’s people. Answer’s to prayer may be a yes, it may be a no, it may be a “not yet”, but we should still earnestly believe that we can pray to our God.

We are to be people that provide nourishment to our world through being a people that seeks the Lord in prayer.

If we are not voices of faith and hope, and we claim to be, we are like that apple we thought about earlier, or that fig tree that looks promising, but isn’t.

We won’t be perfect at this, but that is why we pray.

Our world needs faith and hope right now; it needs to know that there are still people in our world who care about them, and what they are going through, and it needs to know that there is God who listens to their prayer.

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 41 – From Jon

Tuesday May 12, 2020

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

2 Corinthians 9:10-15 (NRSV)

On Instagram, a social media service, there is an account called “PreachersNSneakers” that has pictures of the chosen footware and clothing of the nation’s most popular preachers, and pairs those pictures with a screenshot from the a company that sells them for people to see how much these Preachers spend on Sneakers.

It is a really funny page to follow, but its also causes some questions in your mind. Why does a preacher need seemingly regular shoes that cost over $1,000? I’m not saying that a person can’t do what they want with their money, but it’s just an odd thing to consider.

Some of these preachers would say that if you do the Lord’s work, then you will be blessed tremendously, and that these blessings are meant to be so big that they overflow. All you got to do is have a little faith.

But something about that doesn’t line up for me. If all we have to do is follow the Lord and we will be blessed, then doesn’t that imply that anyone who is homeless, in poverty, or even up to middle-class, are people who do not TRULY put their trust in the Lord? And wouldn’t such thinking further promote classism, greed, and the quest for power and control if the rich believe that God is on their side, and not others?

If I am wearing my $60 shoes, am I less of a faithful Christian than the person who is wearing $600 shoes? What about the person who is wearing $10 shoes – do they view me like I view those buying several hundred dollar shoes?

This is what happens when we compare ourselves with others: we think we are superior to some, lower than others, and there’s judgement all around.

I do not believe that God works in the ways that some would argue; that God would financially bless people in abundance according to their good works on earth.

Jesus was a traveler, and would often sleep in cramped rooms, or outside. His disciples were regular men who would go on to continue this hard life of missionary work, and who would suffer and die because of their faith in Jesus. The Apostle Paul may have supplemented his own ministry by being a tent-maker by trade, and he also suffered and died as a criminal because of his commitment to his faith in Jesus.

And so when the Apostle Paul writes that God will bless those who have given money and resources to him in support of his ministry, I do not think that he means that God would give them riches of material wealth that would “overflow”, but that God would show them the power of their faith, and their hope, through their sacrifice of giving. This supreme gift is not silver or gold, but the Grace of God that surpasses our own understanding, that comforts us when no one else is around, and that teaches us to be content, no matter the circumstance. The God who was the source of hope to Paul in his suffering is the same God who is with us at every moment.

Right now, we are suffering as a society.

We are afraid of a virus that could affect our health, and we are afraid of economic hardships that could affect our families, and our nation.

There are those of us who know people who have been affected by the virus, and there are those of us who have no direct experience with the virus yet.

There are those of us who continue to have a source for income, and there are those of us who have lost our jobs, or who are forced to work lesser hours.

We will be tempted to compare ourselves with others during this time of societal uncertainty. We will be tempted to ask God why this happened to us, and not to others.

But the passage today reminds us all that we are called to both give of ourselves to support others, financially, or just by making a phone call, AND we are assured that no matter where life may take us, that God is always with us, and that we can rest in knowing that that God’s grace is comforting to all of us – we are ALL blessed.

-Jon Bauman