Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 39 – From Pastor Joyce

Friday May 8, 2020

2 So get rid of all evil behavior. Be done with all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all unkind speech.  2  Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment,  3  now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.
4  You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor.
5  And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.  6  As the Scriptures say,
“I am placing a cornerstone in Jerusalem,
    chosen for great honor,
and anyone who trusts in him
    will never be disgraced.” (Isaiah 28:16)
7  Yes, you who trust him recognize the honor God has given him. But for those who reject him, “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” (Psalm 118:22)
8  And,
“He is the stone that makes people stumble,
    the rock that makes them fall.” (Isaiah 8:14)
They stumble because they do not obey God’s word, and so they meet the fate that was planned for them.
9  But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.
10  “Once you had no identity as a people;
    now you are God’s people.
Once you received no mercy;
    now you have received God’s mercy.” (Hosea 1:6, 9;2:23)

1 Peter 2:1-10 (NLT)

This is a passage that is very meaningful to me.  It has so many things to say to us. The first thing to notice is that although this letter was written by Peter, there are several references to Old Testament prophecies from Psalms, Isaiah, and Hosea.  God had been planning this for a long time.  God whispered these ideas to the prophets, and they announced what was to happen.  These prophesies likely didn’t make much sense to the hearers, but from our perspective, we can see clearly what was meant.  And it is a prophecy for all of us.

First, we are given the directions that we are to get rid of all evil behavior, things like deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and unkind speech.  Instead, we are to crave, yearn for, spiritual nourishment.  Why?  Because we have had a taste of God’s kindness. This certainly is sound advice.

We are next told that Jesus is the living cornerstone of God’s temple.  This is truly foundational to our faith.  The definition of cornerstone is “an important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends or is based.”  As this living cornerstone, Jesus ensures the permanency of our salvation. A cornerstone can determine the construction of an entire building.  If it is laid well, the walls of the building will be straight and true.  If the cornerstone is not placed exactly, the walls may not be square, and the resulting building will be less stable. 

Although the idea of the Messiah, Jesus, being the cornerstone of our faith was first voiced by the prophets, there are several references in the New Testament – in Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians along with this verse in 1 Peter.  The concept of Jesus being the foundation of our faith, just as the cornerstone is the foundation of a well-built structure, was appealing to these early writers.  Just like it is to me.

Jesus then is the steady and unchanging cornerstone of our faith, a cornerstone of something that will be built, God’s church.  But this church will not be built of brick and mortar or wood; instead, it will be built out of believers. We are to be the living stones of God’s holy places, chosen by God, for this purpose.  Do you feel the privilege and honor that goes with this choosing?  God has chosen each one of us to be a part of God’s sanctuary.  That is both a great honor and a great responsibility – to be chosen to do what pleases God.

I see this as an analogy for how we, as believers, are to build our church.  Consider each of us as a stone as part of the walls. Some stones are bigger than others, showing that some folks in the church do more to support the church than others.  But all the stones are important, both big and small.  They fit together to make a strong wall.  If some are missing, not doing their part, the wall is noticeably weaker.  Each stone, whether large or small, has a job to do. With Jesus as the cornerstone and God as the master builder, the holy place built with us as living stones should be strong and lasting.

First Church has lasted for many years, over 150.  The church has prevailed through many ups and downs in our country: wars, innovations, pandemics, revolutions both social and cultural among them.  We are not the community Quakertown was 150 years ago.  We are not the same First Church of 150 years ago. We have changed.  We have adapted.  We have remained strong. As those who have gotten older have given up church responsibilities, others have stepped in to take over.  This is like a stone wall being rebuilt as some stones chip or weather. New strong stones take their place.

But if there are no new stones to take their places, there may be cracks and gaps in the wall.  Activities may be forced to stop because there are not enough willing hands to do the work.  New activities may take their place, but it is essential, in order for this to happen, that the stones are available and willing to take their places in the wall.

In times like ours today, many people see little or no value in “church work.” Their schedules are overfilled with work, childcare, sports, lessons, shopping, housework, yard work, with little time left over even to sleep or relax.  At one time worship at church was the only thing to do on Sunday mornings, and almost everyone went to church.  Stores were closed, sports activities happened later in the day.  It was often a day filled with family visits and relaxation. But even with this day of Sabbath rest, there was still time for church activities – clubs, sports teams, Bible studies, committees, choirs. Churches were the centers of social activities.

Such is not the case in our time.  People are so busy. How we do church may need to change.  How we build our strong wall may need to change.  What we do know is that Jesus is our guiding cornerstone and God is the master builder.  If we listen and learn what God wants us to do, we as God’s chosen people, royal priests, a holy nation, can keep our wall strong, without cracks or gaps.  We have done this in the past; we are doing this now as we try to stay connected during this time of social distancing, and we can do this in the future with God’s help and guidance.  Thanks be to God!

-Pastor Joyce Donigian

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 38 – From Pastor Doug

Thursday May 7, 2020

Psalm 19:1-4   The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Matthew 5:8   8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

2 Corinthians 5:6-9   So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  

How do we see God?

Suzanne Montgomery, writing for the Upper Room, gives a helpful answer. Suzanne and her husband bought a starter beehive kit from a local beekeeper. She asked the beekeeper where the queen bee was. The beekeeper said that she did not have to actually “see” the queen; if eggs and bee larva appeared in the combs, the queen must be there. Sure enough, the hive flourished.

Her conclusion is that God is invisible. God is spirit. God is not seen directly with one’s eyes; rather, God’s work is very visible and proves God is there, nevertheless.

Psalm 19 (above) puts this insight into a song. It asks us to look at nature, at the blue sky, at the amazing diversity of life, at the dependability of day and night. Although we can’t see God directly, although we can’t hear the words by which God created and sustains the world around us, God is proven by creation. God is working. God is involved. God cares. How could all this be, except for God’s will?

How do we see God?

In the Sermon on the Mount (above), Jesus adds that a person with a pure heart will see what others do not see. They have a special blessing. They can “see” God.

What did Jesus mean?

Several things. First is his answer (John 14:8-9) to Philip as they were sharing his last supper, “Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” Jesus meant that, though God is spirit, he sent a part of himself, Jesus, who could be seen by human eyes. He cared for us that much. We have accounts of people who directly “saw” him and who heard his teachings and saw his example.

Second, he meant it was a blessing of the pure in heart to “recognize” him. He applied Isaiah’s prophesy to people saying (Matthew 13:13), “Therefore I speak to them in parables, because ‘seeing’ they do not ‘see’, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” He meant that people could directly see him and his handiwork, but not recognize what it meant. For example, some will say good things from God are just dumb luck or good fortune or random chance. What else can they say if they deny the existence of God? Others will fix on bad things and conclude they are being punished by God or by Satan or even space aliens. All false. Jesus said, “… nor do they understand.”

Third, he meant that the pure in heart are able to keep their eyes on God, even when there is chaos. Paul said (Philippians 3:13-14), “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” If we are controlled by fear or worry or anger, we may not even see what is good. We may see everything through the blinders of our negative emotions. Paul says that we must avoid such negative thinking even if it takes a lot of energy. Don’t let the past control us. Press on.

Jesus asks us to be pure in heart. This doesn’t mean we don’t mess up and need to confess, perhaps often. But it means we look to Jesus, we strive to recognize God’s handiwork among the chaos, and we “press on” past negative thinking and toward the promises of God.

How do we see God?

There can be times when there is so much chaos, so much disaster, so much confusion, so much threat, so much loss that it is hard to see God. We may feel like the psalmist (Psalm 10:11) that “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face …”. Early Christians experienced that when persecution fell upon them. Paul advised the Corinthians (above) that, when we cannot “see”, rely on faith. Sometimes events are so bad that God’s love and provision seem hidden from our eyes. In that case go forward by faith. Pray. Read scripture. Remember Jesus’ good news. Know that heaven awaits. Turn your attention to others, especially to those worse off. Find a way to help them.

In this time of pestilence, we see untimely death. In our isolation we are deprived of conversation and human touch. We encounter sadness, worry, and loneliness. Yet God is present. People are helping one another. We are learning to Zoom. May we continue to see God through our eyes and through our faith.

-Pastor Douglas Donigian

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

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 37 – From Pastor Joyce

Wednesday May 6, 2020

I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people.

Philemon 1:4-7 (NLT)

It is always good to see a passage of scripture in context.  Philemon is a short book, only one chapter of 24 verses.  It is most likely the contents of a letter carried back to Philemon from Paul. It does not give us any help in understanding the setting for this letter. 

Here is some of the back story:

Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote this letter to his friend and fellow believer, Philemon, who lived in Colossae in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. (Paul wrote another letter to all the believers in that city – Colossians.) Paul wrote to this friend to ask a favor, not for himself but for another. 

Philemon must have been fairly wealthy – he had a house large enough to host meetings of believers; he was known for his hospitality and care.  But he also owned slaves.  And one of those slaves, Onesimus, had run away from his master and had found his way to Rome.  Paul was in prison there at that time, but somehow he met Onesimus and led him to faith in Jesus.

It is unclear why Onesimus ran away from his master.  Philemon had the well-deserved reputation for being kind and fair, faithful to the teaching of Jesus.  He was a man whose faith was strong, and he showed that faith in how he dealt with his household and all those who knew him. He showed God’s love so well that when believers left his home, they felt rested and refreshed, like that had been at an oasis.  

Some of these accounts had reached Paul in Rome.  After meeting Paul Onesimus listened to his teachings and became a believer.  Not only a believer but one who wanted to work to spread God’s word.  That most likely meant that he would need to reconcile with his master Philemon and settle accounts with him.  Onesimus may have asked Paul to write the letter or Paul may have felt that it was his obligation to bring harmony back into the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.

So he wrote this letter in hopes that he could convince Philemon to take Onesimus back without punishment.  In fact, Paul later in the letter asks that Onesimus be allowed to return not as a slave but as a brother in the Lord, one who wanted to spread the faith.  

Paul asks this as a favor, asking Philemon to forgive and reconcile with his slave, and additionally to allow him to work spreading the gospel along with working in Philemon’s household. 

Philemon must have been in a difficult position. He was a believer, caring for fellow believers, encouraging others to become believers as well.  It can be said that, although it was not thought of as “Christian” at the time, Christian generosity was part of Philemon’s makeup.  Yet he was also a man who had standing within his household and within the community.  Allowing a slave to run away and then take him back, not only without punishment but with a freedom not previously known, was not the way to add to his reputation among non-believers.  Such a decision would not have been understood by those who had not been touched by the teachings of Jesus.

Paul was asking this generous man to be even more generous. Why would Philemon choose this path rather than the more traditional, safer path in dealing with his runaway slave? 

One of the lessons we see here is that we learn about Christ by giving to others.  By not thinking about ourselves and our reputations, by emptying ourselves and becoming filled with Christ is a way we learn more about Christ.  By giving of ourselves we can be filled with those things that are of God.  This is a case of a man knowing more about Christ than those who study to learn about Christ.  Instead, Philemon’s knowledge of Christ came from showing loving generosity toward Onesimus.

Belief and faith in Jesus and showing God’s love toward others should bring Christians closer to one another than any other outward relationships.  Doing God’s work among those around us, regardless of their behavior or belief would be showing love and forgiveness and care to all who need it. That doesn’t mean that we should not pray for our Christian friends often, remembering them with calls and cards as well, Paul certainly did this well. Yet we are to always be ready to share our faith with those who have no faith.  That does not mean preaching at them or giving them some tracts to read.  It means for us to step out of our comfort zone by putting the needs of others before our own fears of rejection or perhaps saying the wrong thing. It means befriending.  It means becoming involved.  It means feeling “out of our element” sometimes, times when we can only rely on God’s guidance and leadership.

Philemon was convinced by Paul’s good reasoning. What Philemon did showed that his love of God was more important to him than adding to his own reputation within his community.  We are not told this directly, but we can guess that Philemon was happy to welcome Onesimus back into his household.  Having this man return to him of his own accord must have brought joy and comfort to him – and to the others of his household.  Having this be the result of Paul’s interaction with Onesimus, his conversion, his desire to return to his master, and to repair their relationship, shows how God was acting in the lives of these three men from the very beginning.  The result was that all three were blessed by doing God’s will, and God was glorified. Let us follow their example.

-Pastor Joyce Donigian

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 36 – From Pastor Doug

Tuesday May 5, 2020

Matthew 18:19  19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”

John 15:5-8  5 “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. 6 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. 7 But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! 8 When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father. 

Philippians 4:6-9  6 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. 9 Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

One of the best and yet most confusing promises Jesus made to us was that he would answer earnest prayers from believers.  

This is one of the best because we keep encountering difficulties that have us stumped.  Prayer offers us a way out when we don’t see any other way. Examples … “Help us beat the coronavirus.”  “Please may the chemo work.” “Let them offer me the job.” “Help my relationship with (this difficult person) improve.”  These situations are often out of our control. But we know that God is in control of everything. So we pray to God for help.

It is also confusing because many prayers are not answered in the ways we ask.  The coronavirus keeps spreading. Chemo often works, but not always. Our job applications are turned down.  Our difficult person stays difficult. So, what are we to believe?

Here are some things to think about.  Please respond with your insights as well.

As a start, I believe that heart-felt praying is almost always good. (Don’t shut your eyes while driving or carving a turkey.)  Whether or not the prayer achieves what we ask for, God always says, “Thank you for asking. Thank you for turning to me and honoring me and trusting me.  I love that about you.”

But what about prayers that are not answered as we ask?

It may have to do with what are we asking for.  Some prayers, however earnest, are not in keeping with God’s will.  

Prayers that ask God to change laws of creation are very rarely answered as we ask.  The drunk driver is not often made miraculously sober just long enough to avoid an accident.  A worn-out body may not be miraculously cured. (Nevertheless, James encourages us to pray for the sick.)  Disasters sometimes happen even when many pray that they won’t. Don’t give up praying; just realize that it may not succeed in the way we ask.

Prayers that are basically selfish and would simply put us at an advantage over someone else are probably not in God’s will to answer.  Praying to beat someone else in a contest would be an example. Unselfish prayers for others (think enemies) are much more encouraged by Jesus than prayers for ourselves.  

Prayers for things that we humans are supposed to do, but aren’t doing, rarely succeed.  “Please make me stop smoking.” “Please keep me healthy, while I don’t socially distance or wash my hands.”  “Please help the poor in Quakertown.”

Sometimes it is said that what we pray is good but how we pray is bad.

This is a slippery slope.  Jesus warned that praying loudly in public to show we are holy does not get God’s approval.  He said that saying the same prayer fifty times in a row is not better than saying it once. But most complaints about how we pray are usually false and self-defeating.  

An example is to think, “I didn’t pray hard enough.”  Jesus’ specific instructions for how to pray tended to be very short and to the point.  The conclusion that I didn’t pray “hard enough” either says, “I failed and I’m guilty.” or says, “God withholds action unless I do enough the right way.”  This is false on both counts. Even when we don’t have words, God knows exactly what we need.  “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26).”

Finally, there may be an issue of time.  Paul advised, “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).” Do not quit praying when an answer does not appear immediately.  Jesus told a parable about a woman who wore down a judge by repeatedly asking for justice (Luke 18:1-8)  The beginning of this passage is, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  We have all heard testimonies of mothers who prayed for decades that their child would take a better path and then they did.  

Prayer is what we are asked to do as part of our relationship with God.  Many prayers succeed. If the prayer conversation is heartfelt and humble, we should do it whether or not we get the answer we are requesting.  Our goals are to rejoice in the conversation and to trust in God’s love, whatever the outcome. 

Pastor Doug Donigian

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

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 35 – From Jon

Monday May 4, 2020

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV)

The Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are four separate accounts of the life, teachings, ministry , and truth about our Lord Jesus Christ. Different Christian traditions tend to emphasize different parts of these Gospel writings as more informative of their own faith as far as how they are to live in the present moment.

For some, the dramatic calling of Christ to live a life of peace, forgiveness, and understanding that they see in the Sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7 is how they believe they ought to live.

For others, the calling of Christ on the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations and baptize them from Matthew 28 informs their mission of evangelism.

And for others, the calling of Christ to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the foreigner, and the outcasts from this passage from Matthew 25 informs their mission of working towards social justice, as well as their mission to directly help others in the form of soup kitchens.

These three examples of emphasis are all good ways in which Christians are called to live, but if we only emphasize one part of the Gospel’s calling on our lives, at the exclusion of the others, we miss the full picture.

Every person in our churches and in our Christian communities is unique. Some will be those who will remind us to live lives that strive for holiness, some will be those who remind us of the call to share our faith with others verbally and through intentional relationships, and some will be those who remind us of the need to care for those in need. A healthy church has people within it that see the value of all three of these callings and other callings from the Gospels, and it has those in leadership who support those in their church who are passionate about each of these callings, while reminding the congregation that Christians are called to believe in and see the value in all of the callings on the Christian life.

If we live lives that seek right living, but we don’t leave our own circles, we miss out on the mission to evangelize, baptize, and care for the sick, hungry, and oppressed.

If we live lives that are dedicated to evangelism, but we don’t strive for right living, and we ignore the needs of others, we miss out on those missions.

If we live lives that are dedicated to the care of others in need, but don’t strive for right living, or sharing out faith with others, we miss out on those missions.

Today’s scripture reading reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from a pastor I used to know about the importance of caring for and loving others:

“Nothing in the Bible permits me to be a jerk.”

– Pastor Gary

Jesus’ ministry, message, and the Gospel message of the cross and resurrection itself, all display that the goodness of God should be available to all people, and that all people should live according to the will of God, should share the goodness of God with others through evangelism and through caring for others. Jesus, in Matthew 25, is speaking of addressing religious people in the day of judgement who intentionally ignored the needs of those around them, likely because they saw the people in need as less of a human being. To me, this kind of behavior doesn’t seem to be permitted by Jesus.

Pastor Gary, his wife, and the elders and deacons of his church met with college students weekly to give them a meal, and to talk about our lives, our shared faith, and to encourage us to share our faith with others through the ministry of conversing with and praying for the homeless of Bristol, PA, and through opening their church services to anyone and everyone.

Through challenging times, through hurtful words said, and when ministry got tough, I was reminded of Pastor Gary’s words, that NOTHING permitted him to be unkind to anyone he was speaking with.

In this time as we are spending more time in our homes than we had before, it is a good time for some self-reflection.

We should ask ourselves what we are doing right now to seek out right living in our personal lives, to ask ourselves what we are doing to share our faith, and what we are doing to help those around us.

Then, we should ask ourselves what we CAN do to improve our Christian living in these and other areas, while committing to being kind and loving to all people that we come across.

Lastly, we should examine ourselves to discover where our natural passions are, and how they could align with the missions of our Church and Christian community, both now, and when we are able to reconvene.

-Jon Bauman

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 34 – From Jon

Friday May 1, 2020

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:12-17 (NRSV)

In Christianity, the phrase “Born Again” is often used by Christians to describe what it was like after they had accepted Jesus as the Lord and Savior of their life. Although the phrase may be new to some people, or it may make them think of the street preachers who harass people with signs saying that they must be born again, the phrase is actually a quote from Jesus as He was speaking to Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee who was a leader in the Temple. When Nicodemus came to Jesus in secret, for fear of being found out by his peers in the temple, Jesus told him, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again” – from John 3:3.

People don’t always like change. Change is an affront to a person’s current reality. When that change has to do with their thoughts on religion, or their way of life, the change that would be required to be “Born Again” is intimidating and it can be insulting.

One of my favorite and least favorite games to play is Monopoly. I like it because I love making contracts with my fellow players (that are written and signed) so that both of us could possibly avoid paying rent on each other’s property when we land on them. To me, this is a creative spin that I bring to the game to make it last longer, and to ensure that my money pile keeps growing. However, something that you can’t make a contract for is when you land on the space that sends you to jail. The only thing to save you from Jail is either paying a fine, rolling dice to try to get out, or by employing a “Get Out of Jail Free Card”.

When you have that card, either by chance, or by making it a condition of a contract between players, going to Jail is no big deal because the penalty of Jail is alleviated by the playing of that card.

But Monopoly is my least favorite when my contracts are up, when I have no Get out of Jail Free card, and when friends may turn against each other for the purpose of gaining property, money, and winning the game.

During Monopoly, players are tempted to fall into the trap of turning against each other (with genuine emotion) over a fictional game. I have certainly had my share of heated discussions over my fear of losing my properties and money that I worked so hard to earn.

But it’s just a game, right?

Although it is just a game, the emotions can become real, and while you may be a nice person outside of the game, the game can bring out qualities of yourself that are normally controlled.

But imagine if the anger and frustration that can take place during a game of monopoly began to become a part of your every day life. You might begin to seek out wealth and power whenever you could, even if it means stepping on other’s toes to get to where you want to be.

Thats what happens when we live according to what the Bible calls “flesh” and “sin”. It might not be wealth or power, it may be other things that you may seek out – like attention, addictions, etc., but whatever it is, we all have the capability to do wrong and even evil things when we only live according to our own desires and goals, without thinking about others, or what these desires may be doing to our character as we seek them out.

The passage today tells us that when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior – we don’t have to be enslaved and tied to our selfish desires. When we are born again, we are servants instead to the Spirit of God to do God’s will.

And more than that, we recognize that we are no longer alone, but that we have become adopted as God’s own child. The message is so extreme that when we feel defeated, not good enough, or marked by our past mistakes, that God sees us as being covered by the righteousness and Grace of Jesus Christ. Because the penalty of our wrongs has already been paid by Christ, and the chains of our desires and addictions no longer hold us down for eternity because Christ broke those chains in the Cross and the Resurrection.

Yet the passage today also conveys the truth that though we are covered by the grace and protection of God, that we will also likely suffer on this earth at the hands of others who may be letting their lust for power, money, and their own desires get the best of them.

But we must remember that when it comes to our own life in the eyes of God, we have been Born again, and when we are confronted by our worries of how God sees us, or when our own desires tempt us to come back to seeking them out selfishly, we are no longer bound, and we have been made free. Its not because we did anything to deserve it – its a free gift that saves us from the result of our sinful pursuits. Like a Get Out of Jail Free card.

In times such as these when a calamity is striking our world, we can either follow our own selfish desires and buy all the toilet paper and supplies that we can find, or we can live according to the will of God by helping one another through this time by getting them supplies, praying for them, checking in on them, and by being kind and courteous to those we run across when we make our trips to the store.

And the best thing that we can do is to be a voice of the hope of our faith by following God’s will in our actions, and by telling those who are close to us that though we too are worried, that we have hope and peace through Jesus Christ.

-Jon Bauman

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 33 – From Pastor Joyce

Thursday April 30, 2020

What can we bring to the LORD?
Should we bring him burnt offerings?
Should we bow before God Most High
with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer him thousands of rams
and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
to pay for our sins?
No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:6-8 (NLT)

The prophet Micah gives us some very specific guidelines for pleasing our God. In Jewish history there were things that people did to honor God. These involved making sacrifices of various kinds. There were five main types of grain and animal sacrifice. These included burnt offerings in which the whole animal was burned. This was the most extravagant offering since the entire animal was given to God. There were grain offerings of fine flour or unleavened baked goods mixed with oil. Then there were the well-being/fellowship offerings in which an animal was sacrificed but only the internal organs were burned, and the rest of the animal was divided between the priests and the one making the offering. There was the sin or purification offering which also was an animal sacrifice. Finally, there was the guilt offering that was given when there was something wrong in the person’s relationship with God. In such offerings only the inner parts were burned with the rest of the animal given to the priests.

These offering were seen as “gifts” given to God. When sacrifices were made, the Israelites saw these offerings as a way to give back to God some of what God had given them. These acts of sacrifice showed their desire to deepen their relationship with God. To the Israelites sacrifice always involved transformation. One of the most common ways to transform something was to destroy it, and the easiest way to destroy, to transform, something was to burn it up. Using an animal as a sacrifice took the animal from the ordinary and changed it into the extraordinary, from merely an animal to a gift pleasing to God. For hundreds of years, the people of Israel believed these sacrifices were sufficient to atone for any sins of omission or commission that they had done.

But Micah tells them that the sacrifices that they thought were pleasing to God were just the opposite. Animal and grain sacrifices were not enough. No longer was the smoke rising from the altar a pleasing odor to God. No longer was this the desired way of improving their relationship with God. God wanted something different. Instead of sacrifices God wanted those who love God to do what is right, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

To do what is right, show mercy, and live with humility – none of these behaviors take the extraordinary effort to fulfill as making the long journey to Jerusalem to sacrifice animals or grain. Animals do not need to be bought, lives do not need to be disrupted in order to make such a journey, nor is it necessary to involve others to help with the sacrifice. These behaviors involve only the person and God. No animals, no journey, no Temple, no priests, just a one-on-one decision by the person setting goals to deepen their commitment with God.

We may not always be successful in accomplishing these goals, but they are attainable. But there are times when following this advice becomes more difficult. In times like these when we are encouraged to stay at home, avoid crowds, and wash our hands, it is harder to do what is right, show mercy, and do things the right way. These actions are focused on relationships with one another. They help define how we should think about and act toward others. When we are separated and so much of our interactions is restricted, it is harder to stay focused on these ways to please God.

And this is not the only difficulty in following these guidelines from Micah. Age plays a part. As we age, we slow down; we may not have the same enthusiasm we once did; we are not as strong; our bodies show signs of wear and tear. These facts of aging do influence how we can fulfill God’s mission. In this time of pandemic, age keeps many of us from volunteering to help. Instead of accepting our offers of help, those in charge may look at us as folks who need to be protected rather than helping hands. And they would be right. Senior citizens are more at risk than younger folks.

So what can we do? We can keep ourselves healthy by staying home. By doing this we will not be adding to the already burdened health care system. Not only will we stay well, but we will not possibly spread virus to others.

But there are things we can do – we can pray for those who are suffering from COVID and for their families. We can pray for all the front-line workers – health care workers, police, EMTs, grocery clerks, garbage collectors, mail carriers – the list could go on. There are many, many others who are trying to keep our lives somewhat normal during this time.

As Governor Wolf considers how to reopen our state, we can pray that this is done in ways that will not increase the loss of life. We can pray for careful reopening of schools, businesses, and churches. We can pray for finding drugs that will shorten the duration and lessen the severity of this virus. We can pray that such drugs will reduce the loss of life. We can pray for a vaccine that will finally allow us to live our lives more like we did just a few months ago.

We can call our friends, our church members, and neighbors to make sure they are staying well. We can send them cards. If we are talented, we can make cloth masks or other needed items. We can help but from a distance. In these ways and many others, we can do what is right, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Amen.

-Pastor Joyce Donigian

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 32 – From Jon

Wednesday April 29, 2020

29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

Matthew 20:29-34

Two blind men were sitting together on a road outside of a city, and called out to be healed by a traveling prophet and preacher, who we now know as our Lord, Jesus. The crowds that were with Jesus shouted at the two men to keep quiet – they viewed the men as a nuisance. Why?

  • Why were the blind men sitting outside of the city?
  • Why were they by themselves without anyone to help them?
  • Why were two blind men together at all?
  • Why was the response of the crowds to keep them quiet, rather than to listen to them?

The blind men were likely not family members, and yet they became like family to one another because of their shared affliction of being blind. As blind men, they were seen as being punished by God for a sin that they committed, or a sin their parents committed, and as such, they were not seen by the people as men they should help, but men who they should exclude and silence.

And so, these two men stick together because they may have no one else, and then they hear the commotion of a large crowd coming their way, and they heard the name “Jesus” being a person that is being addressed as being present. Remembering others who’ve passed by talking about this Jesus before, they decided to call out to this healer that they heard so much about. For yes, they were seen as cursed by the crowds, but surely Jesus would have mercy on them, and heal them, just as they had heard he healed others.

On that day, these two men who were considered cursed, and they had possibly even considered themselves cursed, but they were then healed by a man who the people believe was sent by God in some way. Their world changed that day in a dramatic way because they not only could see again, but they no longer just had each other – they had a whole other family.

I love how the Gospels continually point out these moments where Jesus goes against the cultural norms in order to help people in need of saving, hope, healing, acceptance, and love.

I also love that this story points out that people who are afflicted usually help one another.

In college, I volunteered with a church near the school to go out to a place called “Tent City” in Bristol, PA where a homeless community was formed because they had no where else to go, and they decided that it was good to at least live together. In this camp, there were many men and women, and they were divided into two main sides: one side was younger, and were more okay with drug use, and the other side tended to be older and they were just there to survive and be together without drugs. Nevertheless, though the eaders of these respective sides had disagreements, they still respected each other enough to work together to make sure that everyone had enough supplies.

Our group was not there to provide physical aid, as the community there had many other groups donating to them that they didn’t really have an idea for how we could help them physically. So what we did was go there just to speak with them, laugh with them, tell each other stories, and if they asked for it, we prayed with them and had a bible study. The leaders of the church did much for this community and others through helping them find work, get help, and providing community dinners, but our little group of volunteers were only there to provide them with something that they were missing on a another human level – connection, conversation, and inclusion from those outside of the camp.

A lot of us are missing connection, conversation, and inclusion from those outside of our homes right now. We find ourselves feeling understood and validated through groups for parents during quarantine, through funny memes/pictures that point out the little frustrations of this time, through shared opinions on how to move forward, and through many other ways.

And all of us are together, sitting on the road of our uncertain present, calling out to God to change the way we experience life, to bring back to us the senses of community, hand shakes, and hugs. To bring to us the reunion of family members that we are currently estranged from. And to bring us into our churches that we are currently not allowed to enter.

But at least in our longing, we are together through out shared prayer.

-Jon Bauman

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 31 – From Pastor Joyce

Tuesday April 28, 2020

In my distress I prayed to the Lord,
    and the Lord answered me and set me free.
The Lord is for me, so I will have no fear.
    What can mere people do to me?
Yes, the Lord is for me; he will help me.
    I will look in triumph at those who hate me.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in people.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in princes.

Psalm 118:5-9 (NLT)

One of the feelings many of us are facing now is distress. We feel distress when we hear the latest figures for new coronavirus cases, the number who have needed to be hospitalized and those who have needed to be put on ventilators, and the huge loss of life. We feel distress when we hear the stories that the front line people, the doctors, nurses, EMTs, police, and the many others who go to work each day wondering how many they will care for who will die and whether they will contract this virus themselves, suffer symptoms, or possibly take the virus home to their families. We feel distress when we hear of the problems that are a part of our food chain distribution. We feel distress when our government officials cannot tell us when things will get back to normal – with children in school, parents back at work, restaurants opening, movies showing again in theaters, and we gathering again in church. There is a lot to feel distressed about. In addition, each of us may be feeling distressed because we cannot know if or when we will contract COVID-19 and if we do, how our bodies will respond. All of these things can fill us with anxiety and distress.

The psalmist felt distress and responded by praying to the Lord. The psalmist then tells us that the Lord answered his prayers and “set me free.” That is a key statement to make. This man was in anguish and his natural response was to turn to God in prayer. I think many of us do the same, especially in times like these. How often we turn to God in prayer when things are bleak, and we see no way out.

But then the psalmist makes an amazing statement – God answered his prayers. He knew that God answered his prayer because he felt set free. Set free from what? Distress? Pain? Fear? Anxiety? And likely undesirable feelings as well? That he was set free is plain – he knows that God is watching over him and, because of that knowledge, he has no fear. He knows that God is with him and will help him through the difficult times. But why is this man so sure that God is available to help him? The answer lies in trusting in God’s promises, relying on the faithfulness and unwavering love God shows to him and to us, and as a result experiencing the comfort and assurance that comes from knowing God in this intimate way.

The psalmist goes on to say that it is better to trust in God than to trust in people. Yet in this current situation, what we hear over and over again are recommendations and opinions of people, experts and those in authority. We also know that people are the ones who are saving lives in hospitals, stocking our shelves in grocery stores, driving our buses, planting our crops, and so many other things that make us feel that we as people can overcome even this pandemic. And that is good.

What we can trust in is that God is here among us, that God will not abandon us. God’s presence can be seen in the godly actions of people around us. God uses us all to show God’s love and care. But, and this is a big but, we as people cannot be relied upon to know all the answers. None of our leaders, political, medical, or social, know when and how this novel coronavirus will be completely overcome. Only God knows.

Only God can direct our people to find the answers that will allow us to go on with “normal” life once again. So, although we don’t know the answers, we can know that God does, and that God hears our prayers and sets us free from distress and sets us free from fear. We can trust that God knows what each day will bring. Day by day, day by day, we will make it through trusting in God. Our desire may be to know the future, but God gives us what we need for a day. Just as God gave the Israelites fleeing from Egypt manna to eat, the amount God gave was only for a day. Each new day brought sufficient food for that day. Each new day for us can bring respite from fear and distress. Day by day, until we finally can say the pandemic is over.

The focus scripture for today begins at verse 5 of Psalm 118. This psalm begins with a verse that is good for us to repeat: Give thanks to the Lord for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. Amen and amen.

-Pastor Joyce Donigian

Devotionals During the COVID-19 Crisis: Lesson 30 – From Pastor Doug

Monday April 27, 2020

I solemnly urge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he comes to set up his Kingdom: Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching.
For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths.
But you should keep a clear mind in every situation. Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing.

2 Timothy 4:1-8

This letter to Timothy was specific. Paul was looking back on a long life. He was writing to someone who would shepherd a church. It would be a great letter from me to Jon. 

It has value for more than an old pastor encouraging a young pastor-to-be. It has value for all of us.

It begins with encouragement to fulfill our purpose. “1I solemnly urge you… Preach the word of God.” 

Imagine parents addressing their newly wed children. They would say, “Raise your children with love. Teach them humility without breaking their spirit. Give them enough protection to flourish but not so much as to restrict. Teach them about faith but let their faith be their own. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your children …” In other words, fulfill your purpose as parents in the raising of your children.

Paul goes on to say to Timothy that it won’t be easy. “… people will no longer listen …”  Whatever you attempt to do, you will encounter opposition. How true that is. Imagine a letter to a young salesperson, from one about to retire. “Customers will shut their ears to your ‘pitch.’ You will be asked to sell items that you don’t believe are worth the price. Rival salespeople will take your customers. People will not pay their bills.”

The important thing, as you follow your purpose and run into roadblocks, according to Paul, is to keep doing what is right and not be frightened off. “ … keep a clear mind … Don’t be afraid …”  Survivors might say this to those beginning an ordeal. The ordeal could be an operation like a hip replacement or chemo to treat cancer or coughing and testing positive to covid-19. Or it could be something natural like going to school for the first time or having one’s first baby. Survivors might say, “Remember clearly that God loves you and don’t let fear take control.”

Verse 7 is so important. “ I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful”. Notice that Paul says he has finished the race. He has taken up his purpose in life. He has had troubles. He kept at it and did not give in to doubt and fear. But … Sarah Lunsford in the Upper Room reminds us that Paul does not say he “won” the race. He just says he did not quit. He finished. 

Parents do not say all their children became model citizens. Only that they did what they could and continue to do what they can for their children. Salespeople do not say they broke every sales record. Only that they were people of their word and cared about their customers. Survivors do not say they never dissolved into tears and wailing. They only say they got through the tunnel and they are there for those just entering. 

What we hope to say, at whatever stage we are in, is that we have tried to remain faithful and we trust in God for the rest. As we hunker down during shelter-in-place, let us all be encouraged. God loves us. We are remaining faithful. We trust God for the rest.

Blessings – Pastor Doug 

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